Chris McKay, an astrobiologist with NASA and therefore keenly interested in the search for extraterrestrial life (ET), reviewed Paul Davies recent livre de l’annee, The Eerie Silence. Why is it in this 50th anniversary of the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), we haven’t heard a thing? Chris thinks that Davies’ answer might be that ET has come and gone, leaving us a farewell note in the genome of some otherwise undistinguished critter.
My problem with SETI, and apparently Davies as well, is its completely parochial view of communication. As an example, I suggest that we should imagine SETI beginning in 1900. What would it look like?
Well, the state-of-the-art in communication technology at the time was telegraph. So it would look like a telescope search for telegraph wires on planets or between planets.
When SETI began in 1960, what was SOTA in communication? Radio. FM. So we build big radio dishes. But what is SOTA today? Lasers. Back to those optical telescopes you trashed in 1960 for those radio dishes.
What will be SOTA of the future? I’d venture a guess that it is quantum cryptography, and exploitation of the collapse of the wave function. What would that look like? Maybe encoded cosmic rays, or brain-waves, or heaven-forbid, paranormal apparatus that look for marginally stable circuits.
So why haven’t we heard from ET? Maybe because we are in the Stone Age of communication, or perhaps even more likely, because we already have. Perhaps “The Eerie Silence” is not for lack of interest on the part of scientists, but for lack of imagination.
Maybe what we should ask is “By what marks would a communication by an ET be identified in human history?” Here’s what Davies says on his self-promo:
It is therefore crucial that we expand our thinking about alien technology from mere extrapolations of human technology and begin looking for any system or process that displays the hallmark of intelligent manipulation. After 50 years of traditional SETI, the time has come to widen the search from radio signals. Using the full array of scientific methods, from genomics to neutrino astrophysics, we should begin to scrutinize the solar system and our region of the galaxy for any hint of past or present cosmic company.
Why do I get the sense that he’s struggling for a synonym?