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Further Reading

Feature

Radio Silence

Still Searching for Wisdom in the Sky

by Regis Nicoll

“If we are alone, it sure would be a lot of wasted space.” —Ellie Arroway, heroine of the movie Contact (1997)

The organized Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) turned fifty this year. In 1960, astronomer Frank Drake aimed a radio telescope at a nearby star in the hope of detecting an intelligent signal. A half-century and thousands of stars later, the only sign of intelligence has come from the near end of the telescope.

SETI hopefuls are quick to point out that absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence. For instance, Jill Tarter, director of the Center for SETI Research, an arm of the SETI Institute, says that all the research conducted to date amounts to having sampled “a single glass of water from the oceans. And no one would decide that the ocean was without fish on the basis of one glass of water.” Tarter adds teasingly, “The 21st century now allows us to build bigger glasses, much bigger glasses.”

Dr. Tarter and the SETI folks also want you to know that if you’d like to help them construct some of these “glasses,” your donations will be fully tax deductible. Yes, the SETI Institute is a 501(c)(3) organization.

The problem is, they don’t need bigger glasses; they need a pitcher the size of Texas. It is estimated that there are over 100 billion galaxies in the universe, each containing over 100 billion stars. That means that the number of stars in the universe is roughly equal to the number of grains of sand on all the beaches of the earth. But even with a state-sized jug, the physics is against it.

Given the size of our own Milky Way galaxy, a message sent from another solar system within it, even if traveling at the speed of light, would take tens of thousands of years to reach us. A message sent from our nearest neighboring galaxy (Andromeda) would take more than two million years to arrive! And that’s for a civilization that is highly advanced, that desires to be found, and that has pinpointed its beacon at our tiny “blue dot.”

Nevertheless, unbothered by the infinitesimal probability of success over, hmm, say, the next few million years, the SETI Institute is soliciting a $100 million endowment from private interests (its federal funding was terminated in 1993). Oh, and don’t forget, all contributions are tax deductible.

Gaining Respect

Early on, SETI was viewed by mainstream scientists in much the same light as they saw UFOlogy. But that attitude has been changing in recent decades, as researchers have increasingly wrestled with one of science’s most maddening mysteries: the origin of life.

When Charles Darwin published his account of life’s diversity in 1859, he did not account for its origin; that is, he didn’t explain how matter “went live” in the chemical stew of early earth. His theory of evolution started with a simple, pre-existent life form, from which all the others descended. One hundred and fifty years hence, the origin of life remains one of nature’s most tightly held secrets.

Over the last few decades, discoveries about the complexity of life and about the host of delicately balanced conditions required to make it possible have led researchers to conclude that there are just two possibilities: Either (1) planet earth is a fluke of nature in a universe that is otherwise hostile to life; or (2) earth is only one of many life-friendly habitats in a universe brimming with life.

The problem for proponents of option 1 is that, in order to keep a Director off the set, the “fluke of nature” explanation needs a device to render it less fluky. Currently, the most popular of these is the “multiverse” theory, which posits an infinite number of cosmoses, which results in an infinite number of worlds, thus ensuring that every possible permutation of physical constants is actualized somewhere. But since such contrivances are frowned upon in respectable scientific circles, a growing number of researchers are plumping for the “life-friendly” cosmos. Astro-biologist Paul Davies is one.

Davies is a curious fellow. According to an April 2010 article in www.sciencemag.org, he believes there is a “deep life principle” embedded in the cosmos, making it intrinsically habitable. He believes this, not because there is any supporting evidence for it, but because he is “more comfortable” with this idea than with the alternative. At the same time, he acknowledges that SETI is nothing less than a search for “wisdom in the sky.”

Consider this stirring appeal, which the chairman emeritus of the SETI Institute, Frank Drake, put on the institute’s website:

Ponder these questions for a moment: Would the discovery of an older cultural civilization out there inspire us to find new ways to survive our increasingly uncertain technological adolescence? Might it be the discovery of a distant civilization and our common cosmic origins that finally drives home the message of the bond among all humans? Might the revelation that we are not alone, but one species in a universe of possibilities, alter the course of human history forever?

The messianic hope is clear: If we could but find ET and tap into his vast warehouse of knowledge, we would escape our current trajectory of certain doom and join the brotherhood of being propagating throughout the universe from cosmic shore to cosmic shore. ET will save us from ourselves . . . if only we can find him. The good news is that you can help, with that tax-deductible donation.

An Old Yearning

One of man’s oldest yearnings is to find “his place” in the universe. This is the quest of Ellie Arroway, a SETI researcher in the 1997 film Contact. Near the end of the film, Ellie is transported to an alien world and reports on what she has found there to a governmental panel:

I was given something wonderful. Something that changed me. A vision of the universe that made it overwhelmingly clear just how tiny and insignificant—and at the same time how rare and precious—we all are. A vision . . . that tells us we belong to something greater than ourselves . . . that we’re not—that none of us is—alone.”

If you want to “belong to something greater” but not too great, have a cosmic companion but not a cosmic Authority, find something that will give you the sense of transcendence without the burden of moral duty, SETI is right for you. And you can join the team today, simply by making a tax-deductible donation.

A Warning

Added to the technical problems of contacting aliens, however, there are some practical concerns. For example, there is no reason to expect that aliens would have any interest in us or that, if they did, their interest would be benign, much less benevolent. In fact, if the materialistic narrative is true, it is possible—perhaps even likely—that an advanced civilization that has survived long enough to out-pace our technology has done so, not by helping its neighbors, but by dominating and exploiting them, or by serial extermination and colonization.

Physicist Stephen Hawking certainly thinks so. In an April 2010 article in www.timesonline.co.uk, he expresses his more jaundiced view of SETI thus: “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.”

His warning is well taken. For if all biology, behaviors, and beliefs are Darwinian, as materialists contend, the greatest universal harmony will be achieved when the universe is populated by replications of “me”—people who look like me, act like me, and think like me. And that can only happen if the “me” is the smartest and strongest specimen around, as well as the one most willing to assert his superiority over the underlings.

New Strategies

Fifty years of silence, despite all our stellar eavesdropping, has convinced Paul Davies that new strategies are needed in our search for cosmic neighbors.

Given the age of our solar system, Davies believes there is a good chance that an advanced civilization visited earth in the distant past; most likely, well before the appearance of Homo sapiens. If so, it could have left clues behind: long-lived nuclear waste, geological scars from mining operations, space probes adrift in the solar system, or a message in a “bottle”—specifically, in the biological cell.

Davies is certainly onto something. The living cell houses a vast library of highly specialized instructions that govern cellular production, quality control, transportation and delivery, molecular machine assembly, maintenance and repair, and even communication and networking between cells.

The question is, where in the cellular software could a sociable alien have inserted a message without crashing the system? Davies suggests the non-functional bits of DNA, commonly referred to as “junk DNA,” as a likely place. But that is a shrinking possibility, for with each passing year, essential functions are being discovered for bits of DNA formerly dismissed as “junk.”

Nevertheless, whether snippets of DNA contain instructions for cellular processes, or whether they exist as chemical spaces, stops, and punctuation marks that make the instructions executable, they are scientific evidence of an intelligent Visitation, one that occurred early in the earth’s history—very, very early.

In that Visitation, a message was encoded into each living organism, with the instruction to replicate in accordance with “its kind.” Later, the message was recorded in written format, with an added note: “And it was very good.” •

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