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SETI Upgrade and, Why are we doing this?

SETI was in the news recently as they announced major upgrades to their searching capability. In the search for extraterrestrial intelligence speed is king – they need to be able to listen and analyze data coming from small parts of the sky as quickly as possible.

However this gives me a chance to soapbox on what I feel about SETI. Read on if you dare!


When I was but a lad I read a lot of science fiction and I suspect that resulted in me believing that there absolutely was life beyond our Earth. It certainly was fun to look up at the stars and know that there was life, intelligent life, out there but that we just hadn’t found it yet. And of course, I dreamed of a Star Trek-like first contact situation where the benevolent aliens arrive and share with us their advanced technology, leapfrogging us into areas we can barely speculate on today. All this was predicated on sci-fi concepts such as faster than light travel, teleportation, energy to matter converters, instant communications over vast distances, and the fervent hope that I personally would get the chance go to into space.

However, as I grew up, went to college and become more of a realist, I grew to realize that all those thoughts were just fantasy – that faster than light travel wasn’t possible and many other sci-fi staples just wouldn’t happen. We would not be teleporting around the city or globe, let alone into space – any more than I can convert energy to matter in a replicator turning ordinary household current into an orange.

At the time I also decided that my thoughts on life outside Earth were similarly fantastic.

However, I guess I’ve never quite given up on it because after reading a few books on cosmology and looking at the current thinking on the web (which by the way is an unparalleled tool for getting up to date on the latest thinking by the greatest minds on our planet) I’ve changed back. I do believe there is life on other planets, and intelligent life at that.

What has changed my mind? Well, largely it’s the number of stars (and thus planets) in the universe. To think that out of the billions of stars out there (on the order of 1021 is the latest estimate) that only our Sun would have a planet that grew intelligent life just seems too implausible. In fact, it smacks of hubris on the part of humans to think that they could possibly be the only intelligent life given the vastness of our universe. It seems exactly like Ptolemy’s geocentric model of the universe. Humans are bent toward prideful beliefs especially when it comes to things like this (i.e. cosmology and the only slightly more contentious topic, religion) so I’m not surprised.

Of course I’m wrong on many of those other fantasy fronts too – the high-energy physics folks have created matter from energy (that it also spawns antimatter which rapidly annihilates it back into energy is but a minor inconvenience) and are discussing teleportation. There are also continued advancements in personal space technology that just might, before I shuffle off this mortal coil, allow me to travel into space (and cost only a little more than a trip for my family to Disney World, but I digress.)

I’m curious to see what others think on this topic. Given that many of us (well likely all of us) here at SFSignal read Sci-Fi I’d expect that most are want to believe in extraterrestrial life too – but is there anybody who feels strongly that we must be the only intelligent beings in the universe? If so, please share you arguments!

4 Comments on SETI Upgrade and, Why are we doing this?

  1. I, for one, do believe that there exists intelligent life out there somewhere. The universe is an amazing thing and to believe that we are the only sentient species out there is pretty concieted. The issue comes with trying to convince others that this search is worthwhile – given there are real problems on this little rock we live on – its difficult to expend resources searching for some other lifeforms. Although the sci-fi fan in me wishes some other lifeform would show up and give us a collective slap up side the head – something that would get us focused on something besides my version of a supreme being is better than yours. But I digress…

    Oh and if there were intelligent life out there – it should comprehend the idea of time-travelling undead nazis πŸ™‚

  2. It turns out that scientists break this problem down into 7 terms called the Drake Equation. The 6 terms are:

    The number of stars (expressed as a rate of stellar evolution)

    The fraction of those stars with planets

    The fraction of those planets that can support life

    The fraction of those planets with life

    The fraction of those planets where life becomes intelligent species

    The fraction of those species can communicate

    The average lifetime of those species starting when they can communicate

    We know some, can guess at some of these, but have no clue as to others. The avg lifetime is very hard to guess – we have no data at all except 1 species in progress.

    If you get one of these wrong by an order of magnitude it isn’t that bad – but get all of them wrong by an order of magnitude and now you’re way off.

    We can only reasonably hope to find people in our galaxy due to the distances involved between galaxies so if we hope to communicate with other species they’d have to be here, and be hear recently (or now.) If the lifetime of a species is short (say only 10,000 or 20,000 years from the onset of the ability to communicate) we might be alone in the galaxy – a spark that burns out before another one pops up in another part of the galaxy.

  3. If there are intelligent species out there, I wonder what they’d charge for book storage?

    BTW, the Drake Equation was also mentioned in an earlier post.

  4. You know what ticks me off? UT has decided to revamp their web sites and you its very difficult to find any information on any of the current courses offered, unless, I’m assuming, you’re a student. Anyway, has the link in the post John links to shows, UT does (they still do, I looked) have a course in SETI (and more involved than just using radio telescopes) AS309L, which was incredibly interesting. In it, we covered things like alternate biology for lifeforms, including using alcohol as a base instead of water, the Drake Equation, the Viking Mars landers and the data they gathered as well as the nuclear equations under-pinning the operation of stars. As I said, very interesting.

    Can anyone explain to me again why I’m not an astronomer? Oh right, too much physics involved. Drat.

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