What to Expect from ET?

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Profile Richard M Lawn
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Message 2009519 - Posted: 27 Aug 2019, 21:42:45 UTC

Is it a quest for one of the most significant discoveries in the history of humans, or a fool’s errand? What are the odds that we will ever contact ET? What would be its impact: awesome advances in science or marginal gains in knowledge; a recipe for saving our planet or a precursor of our destruction? The questions that orbit the world of SETI are grand in scope. While the investment in the search is tiny compared to the overall extent of the academic sciences, let alone national budgets, it is serious and warrants the continuing effort. The probability of success may be quite small, but if we never search, or buy that LOTTO ticket, the odds are even closer to zero. Though perhaps ET might show itself without our searching (or already has, according to some whose veracity you may evaluate for yourself).

We discussed these odds in a previous essay in this series (The Drake Equation Revisited). No one knows the number of civilizations in our galaxy that can send us information. Rational scientists and non-professionals can justify the answer ranging from one (we are alone) to millions amidst the 300 billion stars and a comparable number of planets in our Milky Way galaxy. Of the variables involved in the estimate, the largest range of uncertainty seems to be the chance that technological civilizations will arise on a planet with a hospitable temperature, and the lifetime such civilizations. (SETI choses a standard definition of “technological” to refer to entities that send out radio or optical signals we can detect, or who just show up here in person or via their artifacts or machines. Sorry, smart dolphins don’t count.). In addition, there are billions of more galaxies in the visible universe, and the unseen universe might be infinite in scope. But what do we expect if and when the contact occurs? The only safe assumption is that the response will not be blasé.

Speculations on the consequences of contact ranges from utopian to disastrous. As Michael Michaud so colorfully put it, “contact could lead to a Woodstock of the Skies or to Armageddon.” Perhaps the minimum state of SETI success would be a radio or optical signal that unequivocally comes from ET. A series of prime numbers as in the book and movie Contact would suffice. Many of us would be delighted just to know that we are not alone in the cosmos. As for me, I would also like to know if biology could have originated elsewhere, and how it found alternate solutions to create life from non-living chemistry. What other ways did assembled molecules use energy to create structures, to grow, to find the means to produce offspring and evolve into myriad species? For that, finding microbial life on Mars or under the ice of some moons of Jupiter or Saturn would do the trick. But if we expect more from the “I” of SETI, a “here-we-are” call would be followed by a message that we could decode. Some of the pioneers of SETI even hope those messages would not only advance our science, but solve the problems of humanity as well. In this regard, astronomer Gerrit Verschuur called SETI “a technological search for god”.

First things first. A candidate contact would require verification, which might entail observations by multiple detection devices and the necessity of awaiting subsequent signals. We don’t want to be fooled by a natural phenomenon, a mistaken Earth-derived signal or a hoax (think Piltdown Man). Participants in SETI@home are well aware of the challenges in sifting through the haystack of noise to uncover the possible needle. Then there is the daunting task of decoding a message from a civilization that might be millions of years more advanced than us. Let’s hope they are cleaver enough to figure out how to talk down to simpler life forms and allow Earthings to comprehend the Encyclopedia Galactica. When SETI pioneer Frank Drake was asked how we could go about decoding a message if it is not obvious, he replied “I’d watch their television.” I expect that was meant in the broader sense of eavesdropping on as much of their internal communication as possible. An alternative strategy is to seek mystical help to decipher the writing on the “tablets”. That has been tried before in human history. Next, there is also the issue of believing the decoder(s) of the message. The expectation that one irrefutable source will translate the SETI message for all to believe flies in the face of human history. No prophet has yet to convince everyone of their religion or system of government. (There is not even world-wide acceptance that the Earth is round, that the position of the planets can’t influence your daily life, or that the U.S. Air Force has not hidden aliens in a secret site in the desert.) Beyond just bickering, the profundity of a message from ET would likely spur a raft of new religions, while challenging the doctrines of existing ones. Probably the least likely outcome is that the contact could be kept secret. (Especially if the initial detectors are astronomers rather than the National Security Agency).

There will surely be a debate about responding to their signal. Given interstellar distances and the limitation of light speed, a two-way conversation would take lifetimes, unless ET resides near our closest star (4.3 light years away) or is lurking nearby just waiting for us to grow up and speak. Should we intentionally take part in a dialog, and who will write the script? And why should we even expect that there won’t be numerous people beaming responses, which would span the gamut from a discourse on our scientific understanding, to a call for conversion to the one true religion, or even a declaration of war. Of course, Earth is already quite leaky of radio and visible signals, but they are far weaker than what could be beamed from radio telescopes or powerful lasers. Some think we should try to remain silent and hidden lest we incur a wrathful response. A few attempts to beam signals from Earth towards stars have already occurred, but this “active SETI” strategy is controversial. It evokes consideration of the Dark Forest analogy. Alone and possibly lost in the frightening woods, would you call out for help, or quietly refrain from advertising your presence? The intent of aliens is as much a matter of speculation as is their appearance. (Alien appearance is a subject deserving another article. We have seen learned predictions which range from humanoid, to intelligent clouds, to HAL the computer and its relatives.) These scenarios and more have been explored in many a thoughtful work of science fiction.

What is your hope and your motivation for an interest in SETI? Personally, I wish for a “you are not alone” signal, as well as the chance to see how an independent origin of life worked. It would be quite a bonus to also receive the new New Testament, along with a few millions more years of scientific knowledge. I count on the vastness of space to minimize the risk that fleets of alien invaders will travel trillions of miles to destroy us. But that’s only my opinion, and it’s founded on more speculation than data.

Note 1: for an inclusive and scholarly treatise on these issues, I recommend the book Contact with Alien Civilizations by Michael Michaud. I apologize if I have paraphrased some of that author’s excellent text.

Note 2: Fast Radio Bursts Update: As of the original entry on this subject in these Perspectives (https://setiathome.berkeley.edu/forum_thread.php?id=84024#2006049), only one of the dozens of fast radio bursts detected by radio telescopes was mapped precisely enough to identify its source in a visible galaxy. Localization was aided by the repeated nature of its bursts. Most FRBs do not repeat, but reports this month bring the tally of repeaters to 11. Now two groups report that sensitive interferometry by arrays of radio telescopes determined precise locations of singleton bursters, which were co-localized to galaxies seen in optical telescopes. The precise localizations and subsequent distance determinations to the emitting galaxies by red shift are shedding light on the origins of FRBs and their potential to probe the intergalactic medium. Dedicated searches could add thousands of detections in the next few years. So far, all of these extremely powerful events originate in distant galaxies. Should one occur in our home
galaxy, you might be able to hear it on your cell phone.
--
Richard M. Lawn
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Message 2009586 - Posted: 28 Aug 2019, 13:09:54 UTC - in response to Message 2009519.  

Nicely written and well reasoned! Thank you.
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Message 2009632 - Posted: 28 Aug 2019, 18:05:56 UTC - in response to Message 2009519.  

one reader from china .let us try ouR best to find ET.
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Message 2009680 - Posted: 28 Aug 2019, 22:30:08 UTC

Can this guy party or what?
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Message 2009689 - Posted: 29 Aug 2019, 0:08:31 UTC - in response to Message 2009519.  

You mentioned that reports this month bring the tally of repeaters (FRBs) to eleven. As a new member on SETI, learning daily, I would like to read more about who reports them in light of how it relates to us individual or group members. Thank you for your article because it has helped me to feel more in tune with SETI.
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Message 2009696 - Posted: 29 Aug 2019, 0:37:00 UTC

Can I throw some bizarre thoughts out there?

1. What if we are the only intelligent existence out there (however extremely remote the possibility)? Wouldn't that be so much more mind boggling?
2. We assume that contact would disturb current religious beliefs. Just imagine for a second that an extremely advanced intelligence (knowing everything about us) would actually acknowledge a certain religious belief?
3. Maybe intelligent life is "purposefully" "set up" so that there is no possibility of interference between different "worlds"?

Back to reality, I agree with Mr. Lawn's post (although admittedly I do not understand all of it). Keep on searching! Maybe the bizarre will happen and we will have contact!!!
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Message 2009732 - Posted: 29 Aug 2019, 3:57:46 UTC

Ruling out a hoax will be hard, especially if our conspiracy culture continues to dominate the news. I suspect many won't believe it, just as they reject things like vaccines and climate change. As for advancements, anything juicy and useful will get classified immediately. I kind of think things would stay pretty much the same! Maybe we'd get some good inspiration for scifi, though...
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Message 2009760 - Posted: 29 Aug 2019, 7:33:14 UTC - in response to Message 2009519.  

Thank You for that enlightening piece ......the greatest mystery for me personally at the moment is how I understood this article and yet I cannot for the life of me understand Brexit :)
There is anybody out there!
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Message 2009764 - Posted: 29 Aug 2019, 8:12:52 UTC - in response to Message 2009519.  

A very informative post – many thanks.

Have any of the Fast Radio Bursts been detected in SETI@Home analyses, or are they all from other independent projects? Could they be detected in SETI@Home analyses?
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Message 2009768 - Posted: 29 Aug 2019, 8:31:08 UTC - in response to Message 2009764.  

I found an article in "Nature Briefing" about a new telescope in Owens Valley, CA, to detect FRB. It is called Synoptic Array-10 since it has 10 4.5 meters antennas and is planned to go to 110 antennas. If you go to Owens Valley Radio Observatory you'll find many more informations.
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Message 2009773 - Posted: 29 Aug 2019, 10:38:03 UTC

our imagination can open the answer whether we are alone in the universe (flat) that there is truth to be there
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Message 2009776 - Posted: 29 Aug 2019, 10:59:37 UTC

Thank you Mr. Lawn.
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Message 2009779 - Posted: 29 Aug 2019, 12:08:26 UTC - in response to Message 2009776.  
Last modified: 29 Aug 2019, 12:09:14 UTC

You forgot we have been visited by Frankie and Benjy mouse who are pan-dimensional beings!
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Message 2009808 - Posted: 29 Aug 2019, 14:32:57 UTC - in response to Message 2009519.  
Last modified: 29 Aug 2019, 14:33:52 UTC

We have yet to figure out how exactly a single-celled organism arose from the primordial soup. In a drop of pond water, I have seen a ball of protoplasm whip its flagellum flying around like a helicopter, an amoeba envelope a bit f food and pop it inside its cell wall. We have no clue how a living cell arises from nothing, capable of replicating itself, hunting for or creating nourishment (out of sunlight!). If we find ET elsewhere, we can circumvent all those questions of life origin. If intelligent life arose on a different planet, we will know that the process of a first cell wall surrounding a single living organism is not unique to this planet. We will no longer have to concern ourselves with the uniqueness of a first single celled living being arising from nothing, it will become suddenly a common occurrence that can happen anywhere the same environment exists. Dr. Drake's Equation will then become relevant, once ET demonstrates the underlying assumption that living beings arise anywhere there are favorable conditions is proven correct. ET where are you?
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Message 2009819 - Posted: 29 Aug 2019, 15:21:13 UTC - in response to Message 2009519.  

As nearly all discoveries in space (and science) are unexpected, it's likely that any alien life we come into contact with will also be nothing like expected!
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Message 2009822 - Posted: 29 Aug 2019, 15:43:56 UTC - in response to Message 2009519.  

I believe due to man's violent nature, will an ET even want to contact us. What is the first thing governments do when encountering an unknown object in our atmosphere....yes, shoot at it. I believe one day they may choose to contact us, but not until man matures as a species and discards our violent and narcissistic tendencies. I wish I could be alive when that day comes. Or even be alive when we discover a way to travel faster than light. Until then, like thousands of others contributing to the search for a true extraterrestrial signal I'm keeping my fingers crossed. I want to believe.
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Message 2009823 - Posted: 29 Aug 2019, 15:48:36 UTC - in response to Message 2009764.  

I have often wondered about that myself.
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Message 2009849 - Posted: 29 Aug 2019, 17:02:17 UTC - in response to Message 2009519.  

Excellent post!! Thanks for taking the time to put this up for us.
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Message 2009974 - Posted: 30 Aug 2019, 13:19:58 UTC - in response to Message 2009519.  

Nice piece, despite the odds we will find ET, the likely hood we are alone, is beyond belief, the likely hood there are numerous other forms of life out there is far more believable give the number of planets found in the Goldilocks zone of other systems. But given the vast distances we would have to travel to reach another inhabitable planet is beyond our reach and makes finding ET that much harder.
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Message 2010007 - Posted: 30 Aug 2019, 16:53:47 UTC

I loved the reading and the fact that you try to keep in balance, without going to far in one direction, since this is still a very new area and almost nothing of what humankind has done so far could help deciding which is the best way to search and communicate to something so alien. That, except the case where we are the very same aliens we try to find.. oh well, infinite diverity in infinite combinations.

Just a random thought: looking around at what humanity has been able to accomplish in these millenia, I sometimes wonder about how aliens could see us. I mean, would you ever open a rabid dogs's cage and try to pet him? Are you sure we, the humans, the killers of everything around, even ourselves and our own planet, are you sure we look pretty at the eyes of an alien species? I surely would pray that those insane creatures will never reach out.

On the other hand, maybe, even just knowing we are not alone could help humanity scale down a bit and stop behaving so badly.
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Message boards : SETI Perspectives : What to Expect from ET?


 
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