Feb 17 2020

Mainstreaming SETI

Published by under Astronomy
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This weekend I was at the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) meeting in Seattle talking about science communication. The meeting often creates a pulse of science-news reporting, base on all the presentations and lectures there. One talk I didn’t get to see was by Dr. Anthony Beasley, director of the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Virginia. He argued that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) should “come in from the cold” and be incorporated into every aspect of astronomy. Let me go over the reasons why I completely agree.

First, doing so would be a great boost to SETI itself. For example, private funding has recently allowed a SETI project using the VLA (Very Large Array) which the project managers argue will increase the power of SETI by 10-100 fold. Taking SETI from an isolated project here and there to the mainstream of astronomy would certainly greatly magnify the power of SETI searches, and therefore increase the probability of achieving a positive result.

Further, as Seth Shostak has pointed out to us during interviews on the SGU, SETI research does a lot of non-SETI astronomy. Of you are scanning the skies with radio telescopes looking for signals that may be intelligent in origin, you are also gathering a lot of information that can be used for other purposes. So even if SETI never detects such a signal, the effort will not have been wasted. A lot of non-SETI astronomy will still have been done. The broader point is that, by combining SETI with other projects, astronomers are efficiently using equipment and data. What this means is that the question of SETI vs other projects is a false dichotomy. We can do both.

But the biggest question in all of this is – is SETI itself valuable? There are two criteria that are usually brought to bear in answering this question. Mostly people focus on the probability of detecting an ET signal, with critics of SETI arguing that it is probably too small to be worth the effort of searching. Defenders of SETI often focus on the other criterion – the value to humanity if we did detect a signal. In essence SETI is like playing the lottery – the probability of winning is low but the potential benefits are high. How do we balance these two things out?

I would argue that even framed in this somewhat oversimplified way, SETI is totally worth the effort. In general scientific research should balance high-probability incremental research at one end with low probability or more speculative research at the other. We need to fuel scientific progress with some of the latter, but of course the balance of research should be reasonably plausible and probable. I think incorporating SETI into astronomy in general would achieve this proper balance, as well as optimizing efficiency.

In terms of the benefit, we can’t really predict this. We don’t know what information the signal will contain (other than the simple fact of its existence, which itself is profound), and we don’t know how human civilization will react to the presence of the signal. But there is good reason to anticipate that detecting an ET signal will have a deep effect on humanity. Just knowing that other intelligent and technological civilizations out there will answer one of the greatest scientific questions that we have.

The content of the signal will also be of enormous scientific value. Even if it does not contain technological or scientific information itself (let’s say it is just a friendly message) it will be an artifact of non-human intelligence. It will give us, for the first time, insight into one possible form such an intelligence can take, and will give us a peak at a non-human perspective. We will learn more about ourselves by encountering, for the first time, intelligence that is not ourselves.

Of course there is also the possibility that we will encounter the mother load – the “Encyclopedia Galactica” of scientific and technological information.

Is it the job of astronomers to search for intelligent life? I would also argue, yes. In its broadest sense, astronomy is the study of pretty much everything in the universe that is not the Earth (and even, to some degree, the Earth itself as it is one example for planetary astronomy). Astronomers ask – what is out there? Much of astronomy surveys and examines the universe in various EM spectra. If signals of intelligent origin are part of the EM radiation that fills the universe, it is absolutely the job of astronomers to find and understand them. Who else?

What this means is that SETI projects are not really the search for ET intelligence. That is just one of the hoped-for outcomes. SETI projects are just thorough surveys of some part of the EM spectra in some part of the sky. SETI is basic astronomy. That is precisely why so much non-SETI results come out of projects that are thought to be capable of detecting SETI signals. In fact, what SETI astronomers are really asking for is not to be systematically excluded from mainstream astronomy. While astronomers are looking at the universe, trying to detect new phenomena and then figure out the nature of those phenomena, ET signals should not be excluded from that analysis.

As an example, when astronomers discovered the significant dimming of Tabby’s star this represented a new phenomenon they did not understand. They needed to generate hypotheses as to what might be causing this dimming, and then figure out ways of testing them. Some astronomers speculated that the dimming might be caused by technological structures around the star. If so, that would likely create a specific signature, the radiation of waste heat in the form of infrared radiation. This was not detected, however. The best current hypothesis is that Tabby’s star is surrounded by a cloud of very fine dust. What caused this cloud is itself a mystery.

So in the end, the ET hypothesis was just one of many in the investigation of Tabby’s star, incorporated into astronomical observations and thinking, that eventually lead to a non-ET hypothesis being the most likely explanation. Of course the ET hypothesis garnered the most media attention, but also a share of stigma. This is unfortunate, and unnecessary. I agree with Dr. Beasley – SETI should just be one more hypothesis considered in trying to understand what we are seeing out there in the universe. It should be part of the astronomy mainstream. Further, surveys that would be capable of detecting the type of signals we think ETs might produce would also be capable of detecting other new phenomena.

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