SETI funded, but still a waste of time
    By Hank Campbell | August 12th 2011 03:14 PM | 8 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    As I said in our earlier piece outlining how perhaps SETI had outlived its usefulness given modern knowledge, the success metric was that a civilization more than 400 years away - because we know there are none closer - would have to have sent low-tech radio signals to a planet that lacked the technology to receive radio signals when they sent them. The aliens basically would have needed to know the future, which means they didn't need radio waves.

    They cited inadequate government funding as the reason for the shutdown but, really, this thing shouldn't be government funded at all.  If Paul Allen and Jodie Foster and other rich people want to fund it, and they do, that is cool, it just isn't science.

    Writing at TG Daily, Starr Keshet has a different take on why SETI is a waste of time - namely that we're too goofy as a species to have alien civilizations want to contact us.

    Though the idea that alien civilizations will be less goofy is an awfully anthropic principle concept, Keshet may have a point, as the popularity of Lady Gaga can attest.

    Comments

    Hello Hank,

    I'd have to disagree with you on the, "waste of time," and, "isn't science," comments.

    I had the pleasure of being a co-author on a few presentations/publications arising from projects related to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). So, I've been able to see some of the peer-reviewed scientific research being presented as part of SETI. While the science being presented is perhaps at this moment nascent, it is still science. Interestingly, and as a science should be, it is self correcting: many presentations/publications discuss the relative limits of the current effort. Though, of course, they offer solutions to those limitations as well.

    Those interested in the science may want to look at the journal, "Acta Astronautica," the proceedings from the International Astronautical Conference, and the several other recent scholarly books (among other sources). One of interest, "Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence," edited by Douglas Vakoch of the SETI Institute (an entity distinct within the science of SETI in general), provides a particularly nice example of the multiple scientific disciplines involved in SETI. I think by examining such documents, you and your readership will see the self-correcting progression of the science.

    You misunderstand the nature of the signals that they are trying to detect. Aliens would not have to direct the signals to us, they would merely need to use the signals to communicate amongst themselves. As television, radio, satellites, etc. are used here on Earth. It is possible to detect even these faint emissions at incredible distances.

    Given the age of the universe, and comparing it in scale to our civilization's technical accomplishments in the last mere 100 years, I really don't think it is that far fetched at all to assume that even if 1,000+ years away that their technology would be far behind ours, if not far superior.

    Hank...

    You only know that you don't know much. I personally don't agree with your opinions and think that maybe you need to listen to some Art Bell reruns :) Now maybe that is too far out there for some but there are so many things we don't know, and too not look out into the universe , too not listen, too not watch, to not see what might be outside our little home, seems a little short sighted.

    Hank
    By all means, donate your money to listening for radio waves - I said it's a waste of time but as long as taxpayers are not funding it, okay.   Why not set up a telegraph station?  Or a site that does nothing but waits for stone tablets to be delivered?   As I said, as long as it is Jodie Foster's money and not poor peoples' taxes, go for it.
    Hank,
    You are stuck on the notion that any detectable transmissions from an alien wold would have to be SENT to us. Your comparison "Why not set up a telegraph station? Or a site that does nothing but waits for stone tablets to be delivered?" is completely off base and not analogous to the efforts of SETI. If ANY planet out there supports life that has the technology we did 50 years ago, it will be detectable. Calling this a waste of time means one has to be convinced that there is no life such as ours out there. You (and everyone else against SETI) use the same tired argument that aliens would have to "predict the future" as to when we would be able to receive it. Fact is that the aliens would NEVER even know that they had been detected.

    I don't care how it is funded. Hell it would be nice to see tax money spent on something worth while for a change. What matters to me is the negative attitude toward it. You seem incredibly closed minded for someone writing for a site dedicated to science. Seriously. Science people don't appreciate negativity, as it achieves nothing.

    Good day!

    Hank
     If ANY planet out there supports life that has the technology we did 50 years ago, it will be detectable. 
    It's even more anthropic to assume an alien civilization will invent our version of radio 350 years from now and also get our signal - bordering on scientific narcissism.   I get that you are an advocate, you seem like you at least are interested in science, and I agree with you it's fine to fund it - but it's a waste of money. 

    It's not my money and it shouldn't be any taxpayers' money.
    I agree that any technology used by aliens would very likely not be "compatible" with ours. Given that we live by the same physical laws as aliens would (same universe, shares the same rules). The conditions, available elements, and the creatures themselves would no doubt be different than here. I fail to see however what could possibly be so different that it would elude detection. The only way we could miss it is if we are looking into the wrong part of the EM spectrum (which is VERY possible), or we accidentally filter a genuine signal out as noise because of our lack of understanding how they modulate their signal. The EM spectrum, as far as light and "radio" waves would no doubt behave the same there as they do here. This is all of course based on the assumption of the use of radio waves. What other ways are there to communicate wirelessly? What medium could they possibly use as a means to communicate?
    I guess you must make a lot of assumptions to do the kind of work SETI does. It is very possible they will never find anything. History has taught us though, that some of the greatest advances in mankind's scientific history have been accomplished by people who were told that they were "out there" or "crazy", or yes - even that their work was a "waste of time".

    Take care!

    Hank
    It's only crazy if you continue to do it after you know it doesn't work.  I can pray for rain, for example, but I am better off watering my lawn using a sprinkler once it exists.   It wasn't a bad idea decades ago - aliens might have sent a signal 400 years earlier via radio using inference on our technological state in the 1600s.   Unlikely, but possible.  But not it is just not possible.  Fans of this work are better off donating money in a different range, continuing to fund something because it is sitting there makes no sense.   I can also go get an old Cray 1 to do computing, for example, but there is no need when my laptop crushes it.