Leading expert on search for intelligent extra-terrestrial life optimistic

Sep 01, 2014 by Seth Shostak, The Conversation
We come in peace. redgum, Credit: CC BY-NC-SA

The Conversation organised a public question-and-answer session on Reddit in which Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, explained why searching for intelligent life is so important and why we may soon find it.

Why are we continuing the search? For instance, isn't it true that radio waves become almost indistinguishable from background noise just a few light years from their origin?

We can detect from billions of light-years away, and without a whole lot of trouble, either. The idea that they become indistinguishable from noise at some small distance is incorrect. With a big enough antenna, you can always find the signal.

But the broader point is that we now know two things that we didn't know 20 years ago. First that planets, including ones that might be like Earth, are incredibly plentiful in the visible universe. There could be a billion trillion cousins of our world. Second, life got started on Earth very early.

If is not out there, then we have done far better than merely win the lottery. And if you think we are that special … well, consider that you might just be wrong. And that possibility makes it worthwhile to try to answer the question with experiment, rather than saying "I know the answer already".

When you do eventually find intelligent life beyond the Earth, who would govern the announcement? Is there a protocol you need to follow before it becomes public?

There is a document. Briefly, it says, check the signal to make sure it is truly extraterrestrial. Then announce it to the world, and consult internationally before transmitting a reply.

But, in reality, it will be a mad media scramble, and the scientists will be trying their best to learn as much as they could about the signal.

How would such contact proceed? As Stephen Hawking believes that based on how we as humans treat many forms of less intelligent life on earth, do you believe that it is likely that higher forms of life would not have our best intentions in mind at the point of contact?

We will probably develop strong artificial intelligence (AI) in this century. That suggests that any signal we might pick up will be coming from AI on their end. To impute the kinds of motives described in many of the postings here to such "intelligence" seems largely ungrounded. We have no idea what would interest them, but destroying us seems a bit too self-centred.

Can you tell us about the WOW signal and its importance?

It was nothing more than a drift plot on a computer's line printer that showed up once. Not a second time, even though it was looked for only a minute later. There were lots of such "one-offs" in the old days of SETI, and there is no good evidence that any of them were extraterrestrial signals.

How often does something happen that makes you say to yourself 'This could be it?'

Thanks to filtering out of interference by our computer programs, a "this could be it" moment only occurs very infrequently. The last good one was in 1997.

What do you think about the Fermi Paradox which states that perhaps life is not so abundant, because if it were it would have contacted us already?

The Fermi Paradox is a big extrapolation from a very local observation. We don't see any obvious evidence of galactic colonisation around here. So they couldn't be out there. Really? I don't see any evidence of mega fauna in my back yard, so maybe there aren't any …

You can find many ideas about why galactic colonisation isn't much of a desideratum for advanced intelligence, and the fact that people can cook up plausible reasons should cause you to consider the Paradox as an interesting idea, but not a very meaningful observation.

What are your thoughts on panspermia – the idea that life exists throughout the universe in microbial form distributed by celestial bodies like asteroids?

Panspermia might be occurring, although most of the astrobiologists I have talked to about this opine that, while bacterial spores could survive a trip within a solar system, they wouldn't make it between solar systems.

Why do scientists keep looking for water and oxygen when looking for intelligent life?

Chemistry suggests that carbon-based molecules are probably the best bet for biology. But SETI doesn't make any assumptions about this.

How many in your field worry about Bill Watterson's quote that "The surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that it has never tried to contact us"?

To begin with, the assumption (it has never tried to contact us) is a statement without any proof at all. The self-effacing part of this quote … that we are not worthy of being contacted … is more about Watterson then about humanity.

Explore further: Researcher says 'We are going to find life in space this century'

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User comments : 23

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orti
2.3 / 5 (3) Sep 01, 2014
Hears voices in the night too.
Uncle Ira
4.1 / 5 (13) Sep 01, 2014
Well ol Ira don't really know a lot about it but one thing I really would like to know is how does a person get to be a "leading expert" on looking for smart space aliens?

Seems like to me that since nobody has found one yet that calling him the "leading expert" does not mean much. It would be like calling ol Ira the "leading expert" on Zephir-Skippy's aether stuffs.

Until the Skippy can show me where he actually found the smart space aliens, I'm not going to award him the Leading-Expert-Cap, but if he crows to loud about being the leading expert he will probably get a silly looking pointy cap to wear while he gives us the expert advisement here on the physorg.
btb101
1.6 / 5 (7) Sep 01, 2014
they have already been found and the info hidden.. according to other experts...
35 light yrs away (isH)
fixitup
1 / 5 (6) Sep 01, 2014
Why would anyone worry about the ramblings of the creator of "Calvin & Hobbs?" Smarter people than Bill Watterson would be welcome comments.................
fixitup
1.3 / 5 (9) Sep 01, 2014
The current knowledge held by today's scientists would most probably equal the knowledge of the first fire starters compared to the technologies which probably exist beyond our place on the outer rim of our galaxy, by magnitudes..............
So, in other words, "If I can't observe it somehow, or detect it some way, scientifically, then it doesn't exist." Never mind what has been seen, photographed; Radar evidence both ground based and aircraft radar tapes and sworn to by military officers, Military and Commercial Pilots, Police Officers and High Ranking Government Officials worldwide.....................

Governments know if Science doesn't (refuses to even study or accept the possibilities OF). I'm sure of it. And news organizations continue to make a joke of.....
mrgoodmap
3.3 / 5 (3) Sep 01, 2014
I wonder about these earth-like planets and how slight variations in gravity could affect the evolution of species thereon. Look how many millions of years that dinosaurs lived on the earth and then how under 50,000 years modern man has lived. There are a lot of terrestrial events that helped evolve us and it would be very presumptious for us to think that those millions of variables would calculate out to anything like humans. We could very well be the only humans in the universe and I would rather they spend the time and money trying to contact us, instead.

Mimath224
3 / 5 (3) Sep 02, 2014
@Uncle Ira I think you have a point but there is another way to look at it. Any investigator, a 'private eye' for example, maybe called an 'expert' simply because they have been doing it long enough to aquire certain experiences and knowledge that the rest of us don't have. But then that might lead on to saying that we are all expert at something (even in your modesty I expect you are too). But to say we are ALL experts is perhaps going too far.
@fixitup, I have been a 'ufologist' in my time and often came up against a 'wall' as far as info is concerned. But don't equate this article with 'unconventional' or 'unidentified' FO's.
There are those who suggest that aliens are already here but if that were the case these aliens wouldn't be sending signals to us, I mean, why bother?
One needs to differentiate between this and the search for life that might be on a par with us and asking the same questions.

kcy2014
5 / 5 (2) Sep 02, 2014
They were optimistic for the last 50 years but still no results. We may be more special than we though.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (9) Sep 02, 2014
We may be more special than we though.

I just think chances are good we're looking with the wrong tools.

Radio transmissions make no sense to me (much less omnidirectional ones). They take so long to get anywhere other than your immediate galactic neighborhood, that by the time they'd reach any destination so much time has passed that you can reasonably expect to have developed modes of transport that are nearly as fast by then.

And sending a material pod full of information at just sub light speed is infinitely preferrable to sending the same amount of information at light speed via radio for all kinds of reasons (from evesdropping to data integrity to "average transmission rate")

The univese could be full of information pods or directed radio beams and we'd never know as long as one of them doesn't smack into us.
richardwenzel987
5 / 5 (2) Sep 02, 2014
It might be the case that only in planetary systems containing more than one habitable world, with life forms flourishing on multiple worlds, does intelligent life stand a chance of achieving substantial longevity, and a long-lived technical civilization. For instance, a number of intellectual traps could be avoided and the question of uniqueness would be answered quickly. And just because those questions could be answered easily, within the same system, there might not be much interest in communicating outside the system. But the common case is probably more like ours-- isolation and probably a short technical life-span. Just an idea...
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (2) Sep 02, 2014
"We will probably develop strong artificial intelligence (AI) in this century. That suggests that any signal we might pick up will be coming from AI on their end"

- Well of course. Machine life. Machines with absolutely nothing whatsoever to say to us or to learn from us. At most we might expect them to want to hasten our transition but why bother?
If they wanted distant friends to talk to they would send out colony probes that could live just about anywhere.

This is why the universe is silent.

Perhaps it is teeming with directed tight beam transmissions among these machine singularities. Perhaps the 'wow' signal was a chance transit through one of these signals. Big deal. Translating it would be like picking words out of a fax signal over the phone.
Aligo
Sep 02, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
rockwolf1000
5 / 5 (5) Sep 03, 2014
Why would anyone worry about the ramblings of the creator of "Calvin & Hobbs?" Smarter people than Bill Watterson would be welcome comments.................


I would say if you read Calvin and Hobbes you would recognize Mr. Watterson's true genius.
Osiris1
1 / 5 (4) Sep 04, 2014
Dr Steven Hawking wrote on this, and authored a DVD on it as well. Given our '3D spatial continuum, the question of if becomes trivial as the statistical prediction of life in our neighbor's houses approaches unity the more 'samples' that we find. We must know that those three dimensions are a subset among a selection of 11 predicted (so far) dimensions not including dark matter dimensions if they exist. Our one 'time' dimension is also probably a skew line in a volume set by three time dimensions that may themselves be a subset choice among other possibles. Even given this, the idea that lifespans being 4-D shapes that do not overlap our own do not preclude the existance of other 'lifespans' on other worlds. As for communication, perhaps other more practical ..or advanced.. people will have found a better way to talk to each other. Face it, radio is deadly slow if you want to trade. There has got to be a better way. We WILL find it. Hopefully before it finds US.
Osiris1
1 / 5 (4) Sep 04, 2014
If in fact our neighbors know about us. They may have another reason not to talk to us....or to make little 'arrangements' with our leading governments to keep their respective peoples in the dark, feeding us as we were 'mushrooms'. That is, they know that civilizations feed on their host world until the well runs dry, inexorably as a slow motion train wreck. So our neighbors also know that their are lots of resources in our planetary disk that they would like to mine. They do not have to be really obvious about it. Why mine our moon and get seen by some back yard grandpaw with a telescope from some Los Angeles camera shop..when they could mine the moons of Pluto or Sedna and never get seen or heard of. Point is, our neighbors can loot us blind! This our solar system is OURS. It is the system of OUR birth. And the sooner we get out there to claim it, the better. It is then, eventually, that we WILL find just how well...and when...we have been robbed...and who know here now!!
antigoracle
1 / 5 (2) Sep 04, 2014
E.T. phone earth.
Returners
1.8 / 5 (4) Sep 06, 2014
Well ol Ira don't really know a lot about it but one thing I really would like to know is how does a person get to be a "leading expert" on looking for smart space aliens?

Seems like to me that since nobody has found one yet that calling him the "leading expert" does not mean much.


Oh my....

Oh my...

I um...

I um...

um...

Agree...
.. with...
you....

Oh, my...oh my...oh my....

There, I said it....
Returners
1 / 5 (3) Sep 06, 2014
Here's how little we know about alien life.

Maybe they don't have technology.
But maybe they don't need it.

Maybe their technology and biology are one and the same, but not robots?

Maybe their DNA (or other genetic material) can synthesize metallic structures and polymers much better than ours, and radio transmitters and receivers are their natural sensory organs, much as eyes and ears are ours. Their brains could be electronic neural nets, and biological at the same time.

Maybe self-aware electronic machines on a lifeless world have recently discovered DNA and biology, and are hard at work making self-aware biological machines to serve them, much as we make electronic machines to serve ourselves.

"We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Resistance is futile." - The Borg.

"Designer Babies" probably will happen one day, much to my displeasure.

Some functional reason for re-engineering us, like Diabetes and other chronic diseases...

...imagine...
Returners
1 / 5 (3) Sep 06, 2014
Imagine though, if scientists can engineer Goats to make spider silk proteins in their milk, and they can engineer sugar cane to make human proteins for medicines (currently experimental/hypothetical phase), then what else will "they" do, and who will "they" be?

All will take is a rich diabetic saying, "I don't want my child to have diabetes. Let's engineer my sperm/eggs so the baby will have a healthy gene that prevents diabetes, or rather won't have any unhealthy genes that promote diabetes."

Enter "homo-superior".

As if racism weren't a big enough problem for humanity as it is.

We can all have (or our descendents) designer spouses grown in test tubes from the genetic remains of our favorite past movie star, or from a strand of our favorite actress's hair.

You CAN have the "one that got away". You can even do the "Orphan Black" thing and patent her DNA.

Well, not really, but someone will probably try, much like all other technologies, they eventually get abused by someone.
Returners
1 / 5 (3) Sep 06, 2014
Q: Dr. S. Shoe Stack, Can elephants fly?

A: That depends. Fictional ones have mastered the art, and I suspect real ones can too.

Q: Are Thetans Real?

A: I've never seen one, and I'm the leading expert on alien communication.

Q: Returning to those flying elephants...how many of them do you think there are?

A: Look, the concept of a flying elephant has been around for decades. We're close to making a breakthrough. We've done a lot of work on our computers, and we've added some new radio antennas and some new software. We're confident we'll find those flying elephants.

Q: But what if you don't?

A: Then we'll start looking for flying Rhinoceroses. Gotta get paid...

Q: Are you a vegetarian?

A: I see what you did there....Well, trust me, mankind is intelligent and we'd obviously never hurt one another, so intelligent aliens, or intelligent robots, surely wouldn't be violent, nor eat us...

Similarities between Dr. S. Shoe Stack and Dr. Sebastian Shostak are purely coincidental.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.7 / 5 (3) Sep 07, 2014
Looks like Lrrkrrr is back from tralfamador once again.
designer spouses grown in test tubes from the genetic remains of our favorite past movie star
Come on QC. If it had been possible wouldn't you have preferred not to have been born with all your many congenital defects? You know, your ADHD, compulsive neuroticism, delusions if grandeur, dwarfism, webbed toes, etcetc? I know you think god gave you these things because he loves you but that's just not true.

More evidence of our inevitable machine successors;

"the Higgs boson could become unstable, causing a "catastrophic vacuum decay" that would cause space and time to collapse... Hawking adds that this is unlikely to happen in the near future... "A particle accelerator that reaches 100bn GeV would be larger than Earth... the potential of the Higgs boson particle to destruct at high energy levels could offer important insights, as it "places important constraints on the evolution of the universe".

-But we're still here.
mrgoodmap
1 / 5 (1) Sep 08, 2014
We really need to classify intelligent life as a lifeform that we can communicate back and forth with. I know this eliminates the female species but I don't see that as a major problem.
flying_finn
not rated yet Sep 10, 2014
In 1899 it was Martians. Today it's ET. It's only been 115 years. Exciting then, and now! The FUN is in the search.
bluehigh
1 / 5 (1) Sep 10, 2014
We are already here. Hidden in plain sight. Helping you to move forward at a measured pace. There is knowledge you need to learn before you can learn the knowledge you need.
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