Wednesday, August 30, 2006

SETI In The Crosshairs

My previous writings about SETI can be found here, here, and here.

In a recent article on The Committe for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal's (CSICOP) website discusses that SETI, an icon of geeky intelliectual expression for decades, needs a solid dose of skepticism. This is a difficult point for me because while I agree wholeheartedly with his conclusion, I don't agree with most of his premises.

The full article can be read here. It was written by Peter Schenkel.

There are two major points to his argument. First, the fact that SETI has never successfully detected a signal of indisputably intelligent origin. Second, that life is likely to be much more rare than we assumed. It's impossible to argue with the first point because that's just a fact. He admits that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, though.

Obviously, explanations for a lack of contact run the gamut from scientific (we lack the technology), to philosophical and humanistic (we're evil, hence they avoid us). He says "...they may use communication methods unknown to us." May use?? I see this is the real problem with our detection methods. Any civilization that has advanced to multi-planetary status would require a faster form of communication. Light travels slowly enough where just communication within our solar system is problematic. The fact that we have not discovered alien signals, I think, proves nothing. Since it's highly likely that any civilizations are either incredibly far away or are at a greatly different stage in advancement. I consider the proposition that SETI will never detect a signal to be likely for the reason that the signals, not the civilizations, are just not there.

Schenkel goes on to discuss the "Fermi Paradox." It asks why, if the universe is just teeming with intelligent life, have we not made contact. First, aliens of sufficient technological advancement have no interest in us. He considers this highly implausible. I sort of ride the fence on this subject. If we assume the universe is teeming with life, then we will most likely be of little interest. Think of how nascent our civilization actually is. We've barely made it into space. Our civilization runs rampant with violence, stupidity, corruption, and disorder. We are mortal creatures of a remarkably short lifespan with tiny perceptions to go with it. The horizons of immortality are visible even now, 10,000 years in the future our world would be beyond imagination. On a cosmological scale, we would be barbarians.

In what I consider the greatest oversight of the article, he explains why the great distances of space as an impediment is not so.

"...this explanation also stands on shaky ground. Even our scientifically and technically adolescent civilization is exploring space and sending probes-the Voyager crafts-which someday may reach other stellar systems. We are still far from achieving velocities, near the velocity of light, necessary for interstellar travel. But some scientists predict that in 200 or 300 years, maybe even earlier, we are likely to master low "c" velocities, and once we reach them our civilization will send manned exploratory expeditions to the nearest stars."

I consider faster speeds to be the greatest impediment to interstellar travel. The faster we go, the more our time slows down. At near the speed of light this time dilation becomes enough to nearly freeze the travelers in relation to the rest of the universe. This makes merely faster speeds an untenable option for interstellar travel. By the time we actually reached another planet, hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, will have passed on Earth. In that time, the world to which the explorers would report would change entirely. They would perhaps even discover a faster-than-light form of travel that doesn't involve that pesky time dilation. We could set out for a planet, only to discover it already colonized when we arrive. Exploration by merely going faster is impossible. Since exploration by other means, say, worm holes, would require a not only advanced but massive civilization. The amount of work required would neccessitate millions, perhaps billions of skilled people. I consider the construction of a Dyson Sphere to be more likely within any kind of measureable time frame. A civilization advanced enough to explore to our planet would be so mind-blowingly more advanced than us, I would consider us possibly worthy of monitoring, but not contact.

Schenkel then goes on to discuss why civilizations more advanced than us would bother to make contact.

"Advanced ETI civilizations would engage in such explorations not only out of scientific curiosity, but in their own interest, for instance for spreading out and finding new habitats for their growing population, or because of the need to abandon their planet due to hazards from their star, and also because with the help of other civilizations it may confront dangers, lurking in the universe, more successfully than alone. The Fermi Paradox should therefore put us on guard, and foster a sound skepticism. Lack of interest in meeting a civilization such as ours is the least plausible reason why we have not heard from ETI."

Curiosity is something I can't deny, but the others are absurd. A burdgeoning civilization could easily be contained on planets within the species' own system and on artificial planets. Yes, I consider even the construction of whole planets to be plausible before faster-than-light travel. A civilization would have no practical need to make contact with a backwater species such as us. We could provide nothing. Curiosity is the only undeniable reason for exploration, but it seems that curiosity would not neccessarily foster direct contact. I could easily imagine a species interested in monitoring us but doing so from a distance. Once again, the lack of contact supports no argument.

Schenkel's final argument is that life is not as ubiquitous as we would like to believe. "The evolution of life forms and eventually of intelligent life on Earth was due to a large number of very special conditions and developments, many of a coincidental nature." He then lists a variety of Earth characteristics to explain the complex system of variables that was in effect to bring about our own evolution. He makes it sound as though only with these circumstances could intelligent life evolve. I think intelligent life could evolve in almost any, suitably complex system. It doesn't matter which variables are there, just that there are enough of them. We don't need the Moon, or mountains, or great extinctions. These events led to us. Other events would have led to others. Experiments showing the building blocks of life emerging from electrically charged clouds shows that it's easy for it to start. Thrown into a complex system, I think increasingly intelligent species is then inevitable. Even if it takes a good, long time.

This assumption flies in the face of a man who is much more highly regarded than myself and was most likely a whole shit-load smarter, as well; Ernst Mayr.

In this regard we should note also the caveat of the distinguished biologist Ernst Mayr, who underscored the enormous complexity of human DNA and RNA and their functions for the production of proteins, the basic building blocks of life. He estimated that the likelihood that similar biological developments may have occurred elsewhere in the universe was nil.

He finishes with the conclusion that "The conditions in our universe are not as favorable for the evolution of life as optimists like to think." I do not take what I consider an optimistic view. Life seems able to eke out a living in almost any environment. Articles such as this and this express how extreme an environment life can evolve. I'm not saying that intelligent life will neccessarily evolve here, if anything, it will be very primitive because of limited resources. As Schenkel says "...the evolutionary path from such primitive forms to complex life as human beings is-as we have seen-a long one, studded with a unique sequence of chance and catastrophes." But where he concentrates on chance, I concentrate on just whether the environment can support it. If life exists, and it can, it will advance. It may take billions of years, but it will eventually advance to the point of intelligence.

Finally, Schenkel explains that he's not actually bashing SETI and does not suggest it to be a waste. I, on the other hand, am. I do not suggest this for his reasons, though. I suggest it because no matter how one looks at the variables, the outcome is an infinitesimal chance at detecing a signal. For all intents and purposes, statistically, we will never detect anything. So yes, his conclusion of "Whoa! Hold on a minute" is correct, but I think his premises are wrong.

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