We’ll Find Aliens Any Day Now?

There’s no creationism news out there, but that’s not a problem for us. We’ll talk about SETI — the search for extraterrestrial intelligence .

The creationists are all opposed to SETI, and you can probably guess why. They’re bound by their belief that life on Earth is unique, and the whole universe was created (or designed) just for us. They tremble at the thought that one day, perhaps soon, SETI will discover life elsewhere.

We’ve posted about their attitudes before. See ICR Opposes Godless Evolutionary SETI Funding, and ICR Flat-Out Predicts: “No Alien Life Exists”. As for ol’ Hambo, see Ken Ham: Geocentric Universe, No Aliens.

The Discoveroids — who claim to be a science outfit — are also opposed. See Casey: There’s No Alien Life Out There, and most recently Discovery Institute Opines on Alien Intelligence (Earth is unique, so probably there’s nobody out there).

Our own views are of limited interest, but we post about them from time to time. See What Are We Learning from SETI?, in which we bored you with our own speculations about the Fermi paradox (“Where is everybody?”), and what we ought to do about it.

Anyway, we found a new article on the subject at PhysOrg: We could find aliens any day now — SETI scientists discuss extraterrestrial life hunting. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us:

We could be on the verge of answering one of the essential questions of humanity that has captivated our minds for centuries. As we advance in technology the search for extraterrestrial life becomes more sophisticated and promising. But the real frosting on the cake would be finding any signs of an intelligent alien civilization. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project is looking carefully for these signs, listening to the Universe that may be full of potential ET signals. In an interview with astrowatch.net [here they are: Astro Watch], key figures of alien life hunting discuss the ongoing search for extraterrestrial life. SETI’s Seth Shostak, Paul Shuch, Douglas Vakoch and Gerry Harp talk the odds of finding ETs, explain the famous “Wow!” signal received in 1977 and unveil the future of the search for aliens.

It’s good to get an update from the people who are actually involved. The rest of the article is a bunch of questions from Astro Watch and answers from the SETI people. We’ll give you only a few excerpts:

Question: When will we find extraterrestrial life? Will it take less than 20 years as some NASA scientists believe?

Seth Shostak: No one knows, obviously. But based on the speed of our SETI searches, I predicted five years ago, in a talk and a paper, that we could find a signal proving the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence within two dozen years. More recently, NASA says the same thing, but “life” not “intelligent life.” I suspect they’re betting more heavily on finding evidence of microbial life in the solar system.

Paul Shuch: I am less optimistic, short-term, though very hopeful, long-term. I believe SETI is a multigenerational enterprise. We have only had telecommunications technology and radio astronomy for less than an eye-blink, on the cosmic calendar.

Douglas Vakoch: There are three ways we could find life beyond Earth in the next twenty years. As we explore the planets and moons of our own solar system, we could find evidence of microbial life close to home. As our capabilities for detecting atmospheres of planets circling other stars improve, we might find support for life on those distant worlds. And as we use radio telescopes to look for signals from advanced civilizations through SETI, we could find the telltale signs of alien technologies. Of these three search strategies, only SETI has the potential for a discovery as early as tonight. With enough commitment and funding, any of the three approaches could succeed by 2035.

Gerry Harp: It might happen in less than 20 years. If I were to guess, I’d say there is a 50% chance that we will discover life elsewhere within 30 years from now. The first generation of planet-characterization telescopes in space may be coming on line in less than 20 years, but my guess is that life won’t be discovered until the second generation.

The other way life may be discovered is via SETI. Carl Sagan once famously estimated that there are one million transmitting civilizations in the galaxy. Taking this as a working hypothesis, we will be able to test this hypothesis within the next 10 years. I have little doubt that there are so many active civilizations in the galaxy, but again, we may need more sensitive telescopes than the ones we currently have or will have soon to find ET. So once again, I estimate that there is a 50% chance that life will be discovered via SETI in the next 30 years. There is a substantial chance that within 30 years, we will find life by both methods.

Then they talk about the Wow! signal. We’ll let you read that for yourself, but they don’t think it was any big deal.

After that they say they need better equipment, better computers, and more money. We think it would be money well spent, but you know what the creationists will say about that. Ol’ Hambo, for example, thinks the best use for your money would be to help him build his Ark — because unlike SETI, which is secular nonsense, the Ark is really important!

After you’ve read the PhysOrg article, we’d like to know what you think. Is SETI a worthwhile project? And if we find them (or they find us), then what?

Copyright © 2015. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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10 responses to “We’ll Find Aliens Any Day Now?

  1. If we do find aliens, creationists will probably say either that (1) those evil secular scientists are faking it, or (2) the aliens are really demons.

  2. SETI is worthwhile if only to hear Luskin say he never wrote such a thing while the DI’s IT department works frantically to scrub the interwebs.

  3. Obviously the predictions of the SETI guys are a bit optimistic, at least in terms of detecting distant alien civilizations: we could indeed find evidence tomorrow, but the galaxy’s a big territory with a lot of places to look. As for finding life elsewhere in the Solar System, the prediction seems a lot more likely.

    The solution to the Fermi Paradox? In the (in)famous Drake/Green Bank equation, one of the indeterminables was the average lifetime of a civilization technologically/intellectually capable of (a) communicating across the vast reaches of space and (b) being interested in making that effort. (Of course, there might be other reasons, incomprehensible in terms of human psychology, why ETs don’t want to communicate.) My guess is that this, the average-lifetime issue, is the clincher in explaining why we haven’t seen the aliens.

    I was reading yesterday that a growing number of climate scientists think it’s unlikely that, a century from now, the planet will be habitable by most of the “higher” species, humans included. The prospect would be grim even if all the nations of the world were striving like hell to get carbon emissions down, but of course they’re not. (Thanks, Free Enterprise.) That means our status as a communicating civilization will have lasted, at the most optimistic, about a century and a half. (We can assume a period much shorter, because the final few decades are likely to be a rapid descent into barbarous nightmare.) Obviously we can’t make a generalization based on a statistical sample of one; at the same time it’s worth grimly remembering that Drake and the other CETI folks of his day thought that a figure of a few thousand years for the lifespan of a communicating civilization might be unduly pessimistic. Hey-ho, how things change.

    Of course, this sort of stuff is as frightening for the Creationists as the possibility of the discovery of extraterrestrial life. The latter suggests that the god of the Creationist’s choice didn’t create the entire universe just for us, all special-like; the former, that our remaining time may be brief, flies in the face of their cherished beliefs that their sky-fairy instructed us to go out and piss all over the environment and that He’ll protect us from the consequences (perhaps by snatching the most ignorant of us up to heaven in the nick of time).

    They’re in a cleft stick. Unfortunately, so are all the rest of us.

  4. My uninformed wild guess is that there will be discovered something which is so different from life as we know it, that we don’t know whether to call it life. And it will be found on Earth – perhaps after we discover it elsewhere, we will know what to look for, and where, on Earth.

  5. I always thought the very presence of the Dishonesty Institute and its illustrious members, also CRI and AIG of course, were sufficient proof of non-humanoid alien life.

  6. Exactly what my namesake Mark G wrote. I’d love to see the faces of Ol’ Hambo and his cronies as well.

  7. To keep things interesting I will admit that I’m not a big fan of SETI. I wouldn’t call it a waste necessarily but will just say that it is not in my list of priorities. Frankly, in my opinion, climate change is such a grave problem that I’m very concerned that it’s getting relatively little funding commensurate to its extreme gravity. Intergalactic QSLing makes for an interesting pastime but while one’s house is burning down, there are other urgent priorities.

    For example, I’d like to see greater investments in crops better suited for the extreme conditions of heat and drought. Other crops may have to thrive at higher altitudes.

    Bill Nye recently changed his mind on GMOs and we need more public education to counter the activists who sabotage such projects. We don’t need people sinking the lifeboats while we are trying to save the ship.

    {That should encourage a few comments.}

  8. @Prof Tertius
    I agree with you that climate change is a far more urgent priority. The thing to bear in mind about SETI, though, is that it’s pretty cheap.

  9. Another thing about climate change — doing something about it is no longer a matter of science. The science is settled. It’s now a political issue. The sad thing is, we can’t get the politicians of the world (well, China & USA, mainly) to realize that small sacrifices now can avert much more draconian measures that will be needed later.

    Another existential matter besides climate change is the threat of a cosmic collision, and fortunately, it’s an issue we can do something about that just requires research. Four things need to be done:
    1) discover all potentially earth-crossing asteroids large enough to pose a threat;
    2) set up a means of early detection of any earth-bound comet;
    3) develop the means of intercepting and diverting anything coming towards us; and
    4) build said interceptors and have them at the ready. In 1996, Comet Hyakutake was discovered on the last day of January, and passed very close to earth in March. If its orbital path had been just a fraction of a degree different, we probably would not be here today.

  10. As realthog points out

    The thing to bear in mind about SETI, though, is that it’s pretty cheap.

    From the SETI Institute FAQ page

    Didn’t NASA have a SETI program?

    Yes. The NASA effort was called the High Resolution Microwave Survey (HRMS). In 1993, Nevada Senator Richard Bryan introduced an amendment that eliminated all funding for the NASA SETI program. The cost of the program was less than 0.1% of NASA’s annual budget, amounting to about a nickel per taxpayer per year. The Senator cited budget pressures as his reason for ending NASA’s involvement with SETI.

    So who funds the SETI search now?

    Current SETI searches are funded by donations, mostly from individuals among the public and a few foundations and corporations. Major donors have included William Hewlett, David Packard, Gordon Moore, Paul Allen, Nathan Myhrvold, Arthur C. Clarke, Barney Oliver, and Franklin Antonio.

    It would not be difficult to point out benefits already gained from the programme, particularly some innovations in computing parallel processing techniques–but even those aside, I think that the quest for knowledge (as in SETI, or the Large Hadron Collider) is a very deep human need scarcely less elemental than our need for food, shelter, and love.