Is there anybody out there? Do we care?

My column for the print mag this week takes a break from Tory-baiting and looks at the biological  assumptions that underly the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence.  I take issue with Stephen Hawking’s specific worry that aliens we encounter will be too much like us (greedy, rapacious, violent), because I think the real worry is that they’ll be nothing like us at all.

As it turns out, my column has a news peg I didn’t know about: the first annual convention of the SETI institute, in Santa Clara. Via Boing Boing I found this interview with Seth Shostack, an astronomer in the SETI field, but it’s pretty useless to be honest.

It is pretty interesting though to see how much of the SETI focus is on radio transmissions. This is a staple of sci-fi — aliens come here and everything they know about Earth is from f I Love Lucy reruns — and is one that Shostack seems to endorse:

Look, if we’re doing this only 100 years after Marconi, only 100 years after the invention of radio, it’s hard to imagine that a society that was thousands or millions of years more advanced than ours wouldn’t have this technology.

But why is radio seen as the mark of an advanced civilization? It seems that, more than likely, it’s a sign of backwardness, an early and higly transitory technology whose lifespan will be an eyeblink of an eyeblink in the history of the galaxy.

At any rate, as much as would love it if we managed to get off this planet and do some serious exploring, I don’t see it happening any time this century. As for any aliens who might want to visit, it that something we really want? I’m conflicted. On the one hand, I’d love to see what sort of gear they might have. But at the same time, it really is worth asking, what’s in it for us? The Prime Directive dictates that there can be no interference with the development of civilizations with a pre-warp level of technology. But isn’t the flip side of the Prime Directive something we could call the Garbo Directive? Dear Aliens: Please Leave us alone.




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Is there anybody out there? Do we care?

  1. Isn't "radio" just shorthand here for "electromagnetic emissions, at some wavelength, containing information"? You got a better way to talk to the other side of the galaxy?

    • I dunno. Couldn't we text them?

      • same, cell phones use EM radiation

    • What's really tough to fathom is some advanced civilization actually understanding wtf our ANALOG radio signals mean. And considering most of our digital signals are encrypted, it's tough to say weather they'd be able to decipher any of it from random noise.

      • Of course, they don't need to know what it "means", they just need to know that it's not, as you say, random noise. Someone could send me a long message in morris code, and I'd have no idea what they were saying. It'd only take me a few seconds though to realize that someone was saying SOMETHING.

        I'm also reasonably certain that an encrypted signal would still stand out from background radiation. It may be scrambled data that's being transmitted, but it's still data. The pattern may be impossible to decipher, but it's still a pattern.

        • It's like the Maple Leafs: you know they have been trying to win the Cup for over 40 years, it just isn't obvious what their plan was.

        • Pretty sure you mean "Morse code". I'm only being nit-picky and pointing it out since "morris" is clearly not a typo.

          • Yes, of course.

            In my defence, it was, like, 3:30 in the morning though.

        • What's this morris code, Kitch? Last time I heard they gave the credit it one Morse.

    • "But why is radio seen as the mark of an advanced civilization? It seems that, more than likely, it's a sign of backwardness, an early and higly transitory technology whose lifespan will be an eyeblink of an eyeblink in the history of the galaxy."

      As others have explained, it's because it's the natural method the universe relays us distant data at a wavelength that isn't hazardous to our bodies. We could also use visual light spectra to detect aliens.

    • Exactly right. This comes from a misunderstanding of the term "radio" in as much as Potter seems to be equating it only with the old AM/FM thing you used to have in cars (OK, cars still have it, but seriously, where else do you see a "radio" in that sense, in 2010). Of course, over-the-air T.V. (both analog AND digital) – that's "radio". Cell phones? Radio. Your Wif-Fi newtwork? Radio. GPS? Radio. RADAR? (Obviously) Radio. Microwaves? Radio.

      "Radio" is simply "the transmission of signals by modulation of electromagnetic waves with frequencies below those of visible light". If it doesn't involve physical wires, it's probably "radio". As Cosh implies, I'm sure there's some other means of transmitting a signal across the void of space, but I'm not sure what it would be.

      • Currently EM is the only option (other than physically firing projectiles like the Voyageur probes), so that means either infrared, radio/microwave, optical, X-ray, or gamma rays. In terms of the information we're transmitting (as opposed to sheer transmitted noise power) radio dominates, since our optical transmissions are generally point-point rather than broadcast.

    • uhm, isn't that the point? that while it is hard "to imagine that a society that was thousands or millions of years more advanced than ours wouldnt have this technology", it is harder still to believe that they don't have something better, no? something we haven't yet figured out?

    • Mr. Cosh has this exactly right…….the SETI scientists are NOT looking for a CBC radio 2 broadcast!
      They spend a great deal of time figuring out which EM frequencies are miost likely to actually carry the 'I am here' messages (e.g. frequencies based on numerics of comment elements like hydrogen, carbon, or based on primes)…..as well as which frequencies are most likely to actually be used for interstellar communication.

      Unless we find some other form of radiation (like radiation based on unobtanium pulses)…..there are no other choices for communication.

  2. To be honest, I gave up when I got to this sentence:

    ' If we were clones, like poplar trees or certain species of ants, there would be no need for morality.'

  3. ~ Updating Earth Facebook status to Listening ~

  4. Re: "It is pretty interesting though to see how much of the SETI focus is on radio transmissions."

    Cosh is on the right track, for once (I thought I would never write that sentence). The reason SETI is "focussed" on radio so much is that it is the type of electromagnetic radiation (longest wavelengths) that is most optimal for interstellar communication. It penetrates dust and gas with ease compared to optical or IR radiation. That being said, the science community typically looks at SETI as a long-shot enterprise with limited chance of success. That's why there aren't many scientists working on it.

    More articles on interesting science research being done in Canada (and being paid for by Canadian taxpayers) certainly would be welcome in Maclean's (I might even consider buying it then). But I guess that doesn't have the same appeal to your target audience as "Sex in Space".

    • Gawd yes, Canadian science would be an interesting read….but no 'sex in space' stuff, something serious instead.

      • Good luck. Even Scientific American has to pander, and they have an audience pool more than 10x the size.

        • Read it for years, and there's very little fluff in it.

    • It should be noted as well that the relatively tiny chance of success for SETI isn't because they're searching primarily for radio waves either. The biggest issue is that 26 years on, SETI has scanned a segment of the sky about the width of your thumb held out at arms length.

      • Well, that and the fact that broadcast radio emissions decrease in intensity as the SQUARE of the distance, so one runs up against the signal-to-noise ratio of our detectors pretty quickly unless someone is sending out a huge signal.

      • Yep, that's essentially the main issue. The universe is a very very big place and EM radiation (light, radio, etc.) has a finite velocity.

    • You realize this was written by Andrew Potter, and not Colby Cosh?

    • Why would you say 'for once?'
      I hope you're not referring to Cosh's sci writing….cause I would argue that his critical analysis of sci topics, which is pretty much engulfed with caveats that both his opinion, and the 'expert' opinions are highly uncertain….is exactly(!) what we need more of in daily/weekly coverage of the news.
      Re: Sci American….they're a little lost on critiquing the sociological impacts of science.

      Hell….if you really want science news…..subscribe to Nature or Science…..even if you only understand half of what is written, you'll be more informed than 99.9%!

      • Re: "I hope you're not referring to Cosh's sci writing…."

        Two words regarding Cosh's supposed credibility and aptitude for science writing: climate change. What the Canadian media (including Maclean's) needs is more journalists writing about science who actually have some training in science, and thus know what they're talking about (see above Potter article for a counter-example).

    • Ah yes, the WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE theory.

      If I had a nickel for everytime I've heard that….

  5. Radio isn't "the mark of an advanced civilization", it's just the only sign of intelligence likely to be detected by someone a long way away. EM is the only means we have of transmitting information through space.

  6. On a side note – other than radio the other possible transmission that another culture might pick up is the burst of radiation from our nuclear blasts. Such a burst coming from a planet (as opposed to a star) might allow one to infer the presence of nuclear technology, and hence intelligence.

    • More correctly, it allows one to infer the use of nuclear weapons, and hence a certain lack of intelligence.

      • So why haven't they zapped us. Or is that going to be the latest fear thing. I have had enough of real fedar, thank oyu.

  7. Andrew potter quoted:
    "it's hard to imagine that a society that was thousands or millions of years more advanced than ours wouldn't have this technology."

    Sadly, if there is an alien society and it was similar to ours….do you really think it would still be around after thousands or millions of years?

    Face it…..we are far to adept at finding ways to destroy each other.

    • Actually, its the opposite. We are really adept at finding ways to survive. Despite all of our own attempts, plus natural causes, we continue to survive, adapt and grow.

      If we are actually trying to destroy ourselves (which I don't think is really the case), we're doing a pretty bad job of it.

  8. Maybe you can get them to fill out a census form…that way we'd know how many bathrooms they had in the ol' flying saucer.

  9. Look, it's just as likely we'll be visited by a group of aliens that are entirely behind is in every fashion, except for some monomanical focus on space travel technology, or a fast ship they jacked from a spaceport. An amoral bunch of gaseous, slobbering beasts who'll crash the planet and abuse our hospitality…they'll be like us, but unlike: a race of galactic couch surfers….why this persistent assumption that we'll be the poor cousin in this encounter?

    • You mean, pause, "The Reds"?

  10. I don't understand how the "greatest" scientific minds – who readily admit that, if you consider the big bang, the probability that our own planet being the optimal distance from the sun to sustain life is astronomical – can entertain questions about life on other planets, alien life forms and their sex lives – and still the notion of God as creator remains unfeasible.

  11. A lot of science fiction rot. I'm surprised that any credible scientists are lending their wildest dreams to this crap. The distances are such that even travellibg at the speed of light it's unrealistic. Even if you could bullet me out at 10 times the speed of sound there wouldn''t be enough mileage left in me to enjoy the first cup of interspace brew. Even going back to the moon or on to Mars with a MANNED flight is NASA nonsense in that THIS world has better things to do with its money. It would seem quite feasible that anything that really needs to be known and is rational can be done by unmanned vehicles. Space Cadets, it's over. We can't afford those kind of reseources any more with Global warming up to our ankles in the Arctic.

    As to Space Wars, throw away the funny papers.

    Please, let's get real.

  12. aliens? lots of them walking, working, using up public monies…they shape shift at a twinkle of an eye….. become invisible in an instant…create chaos and heyday to get using ones grey matter betwixt the ears….live an existence in a dimension just on the other side of our reality….
    now that i have your undivided attention….would you be interested in investing in a production company? email me

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