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SETI: Consuming Our Way to Silence?

UK science minister Malcolm Wicks met yesterday with leading British astronomers in a London gathering whose subject was life in the universe. The researchers, drawn from UK universities and research institutes, proved quite optimistic about the chances of intelligent life elsewhere. An article in this morning’s Guardian quotes Glenn White, head of astrophysics at the Open University: “You can be pretty sure that if there’s life out there, we’ve a good chance of being able to say so.”

White’s optimism doubtless stems from his work on the Darwin project. The mission, scheduled for a 2015 launch, will deploy a set of telescopes to look for terrestrial worlds around other stars. And although the technology is still in the development stage, the hope is that Darwin’s capabilities will extend to conducting spectral analyses on the most interesting planets it finds. That makes detecting biomarkers like large amounts of oxygen along with methane or nitrous oxide a real possibility.

Of the seven scientists who met with Wicks, six believe life exists elsewhere, with one holding out for humans as the only intelligent beings in the universe. The latter vote was cast by astrophysicist Michael Perryman (European Space Agency), who also noted that “If there’s intelligent life out there, they sure as hell know we’re here,” a reference to stray radio signals from our planet that have penetrated perhaps as far as 80 light years into space. My thought on that is that the signal strength of old Jack Benny shows may be too low to justify the claim.

Meanwhile, Reuters reports on the SETI Institute’s plan to put 42 radio telescope dishes (the Allen Telescope Array) online 24 hours a day by the end of this year. Here again the notion is that stray radio signals may be detectable even at these extreme ranges. Says the Institute’s Scott Hubbard: “You don’t have to have somebody who is planning to broadcast a signal. You hope to pick up somebody’s old radio broadcast that left a different planet hundreds or thousands of years ago.”

Maybe, but a re-thinking of SETI’s core principles has been ongoing for some time now, one focusing less on radio and more on the various other ways an advanced civilization might communicate. As George Dvorsky notes in this interesting post on his Sentient Developments blog, the radio ‘window’ may already be closing here on Earth as we move away from the old broadcast model. What other forms of communication might an alien civilization use, and are there ways we might detect their signals?

For that matter, are there megascale engineering projects we might detect long before the reception of a radio signal? Dvorsky discusses all this in the context of the Singularity hypothesis and what civilizations on the other side of it may do that would make their presence known. My guess is that we’ll have hard data from Darwin or other planet-finder missions before we have a SETI detection of any kind. That data will tell us we’re looking at a living world, but whether its biomarkers flag high technology or single-cell organisms may take a long time to deduce.

And if we do find a megascale engineering project one day, let’s hope it doesn’t house a civilization that has, in the words of evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, disappeared up its own brainstem. Miller talks about the pleasure principle trumping the reality principle (what exactly goes on inside those matrioshka brains anyway)? It’s an alluring, perhaps deadly prospect:

This is the Great Temptation for any technological species — to shape their subjective reality to provide the cues of survival and reproductive success without the substance. Most bright alien species probably go extinct gradually, allocating more time and resources to their pleasures, and less to their children.

And again:

Technology is fairly good at controlling external reality to promote our real biological fitness, but it’s even better at delivering fake fitness — subjective cues of survival and reproduction, without the real-world effects. Fresh organic fruit juice costs so much more than nutrition-free soda. Having real friends is so much more effort than watching Friends on TV. Actually colonizing the galaxy would be so much harder than pretending to have done it when filming Star Wars or Serenity.

Thus Miller’s answer to the Fermi Paradox — SETI won’t work because alien civilizations are all addicted to computer games and runaway consumerism. Why even attempt communication with actual beings (who are in any case quite difficult to reach and perhaps impossible to understand), when you can create a virtual reality that’s so much more malleable and responsive to your needs? That’s a dark view indeed, but we’ve a long way to go before drawing any serious conclusions about Fermi’s ‘Where are they?’ question. And in the meantime, we have near-term planet finder missions to fly and biomarkers to detect.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Icelander June 6, 2007, 12:41

    Actually having friends my be easier than watching Friends, but it’s in no way as fulfilling. I absolutely love Serenity, but I’d give it up (and more) to actually walk on another world.

    I’d say that science fiction is an expression of longing, not a supplement for it.

  • Edg Duveyoung June 6, 2007, 13:19

    A mere hundred years from now, we’ll have the space-based scopes, advanced optics, advanced software that will enable us to tell if any of the 250 already-discovered planets are showing signs of life. (and, a 100 years from now we’ll have discovered thousands more of them.) Already we can tell a little about atmospheric composition on the known exo-planets — a little knowledge only at this point, but only a little more would be needed to confirm life or no life. Won’t be long before we’ll be able to sniff methane way far out.

    Thus, any civilization within, (say, 1000 light years of us AND a mere hundred years more technologically advanced than us,) will know that there’s life on earth.

    Take it another step, and EVEN BILLIONS OF YEARS AGO, any slightly more advanced civilization within 1000 light years would know that life has been started on earth.

    WHO CARES that our television shows are — HORRORS! — spreading out into the near space and that they might, GADZOOKS, put the outer worlds onto us! Chills!

    How much more advanced does tech have to be for a civilization to know about life on earth from across our galaxy? Probably not much more than we have right now.

    At some point, one sniff might tell us not only that there’s life but from the signatures, we’ll know if, for instance, if they’re using monosodium glutamate, etc.!!!!

    Now, how many of those that know about us right now — but still, despite their technology, have not figured a way to travel faster than light? MAYBE NONE!!!

    How many civilizations out there have been watching us, like we watch TV now, for a billion years? Unable to visit us. Licking their lips like they’re watching a daytime soap opera. Patiently watching the indicators — perhaps knowing that humans won’t arrive for another 100,000,000 million years or whatever other sophistications advanced tech will garner.

    Wouldn’t take much more methane in Mars’ atmosphere for us to be pretty sure that we should expect to find life there. What signatures would indicate advanced life? Intelligent life? What would indicate that a planet had, say, at least chimpanzee level intelligence on it — rather than microbe level? Might be some chemical that’s a tell. Some pituitary hormone that evaporates and lodges in the upper atmosphere — something like that?


  • ed June 6, 2007, 14:11

    “Most bright alien species probably go extinct gradually, allocating more time and resources to their pleasures, and less to their children.”

    If not for immigration, the birth rate everywhere in the developed world would be less than the replacement rate. This would suggest that Miller may be right.

  • Zen Blade June 6, 2007, 15:34

    Just wanted to plug a couple new posts from an older topic:


    -Zen Blade

  • Christopher L. Bennett June 6, 2007, 17:58

    I can’t cite a source, but I remember reading somewhere that, aside from the strongest military radars, the radio signals that we give off wouldn’t really be detectable by instruments comparable to ours at any distance greater than our own system’s Oort Cloud. Although it could be done with a sufficiently large radio telescope, i.e. an interferometric array comparable in width to a star system. By the same token, this means we’d be unlikely to detect any radio leakage (including alien sitcoms) from another technical civilization, not until we built such a telescope of our own.

    On the subject of civilizations retreating into artificiality, it’s always unwise to assume that the current trend of one’s own society represents a universal norm. If anything, whenever a culture seems headed toward one extreme, it’s more likely that the next generation will rebel and swing it back in the opposite direction. Indeed, I’d think that the discovery of confirmed alien life out there would inspire people to look outside themselves more and counteract the trend toward introversion.

  • ljk June 6, 2007, 21:21

    Go to this article for data on detection distances by various methods:


  • Chris Wren June 7, 2007, 11:14

    On the one side, critics of SETI say that it’s anthropomorphizing to assume that intelligent species will develop radio technology just like ours; that they’ll be motivated by curiosity and a desire to communicate, just like we are. On the other side, we have critics of SETI who insist that we’ll never communicate with ET’s because they’ll lapse into hedonistic solipsism – just like US, or that every civilization will wipe itself out, JUST LIKE US, or confront their own technological singularities or whatnot.

    Since our own ultimate destiny is somewhat open to question, it’s risky business to conflate momentary contemporary trends in a single culture of a single planet with universal laws governing the fate of all advanced civlizations. There are countless reasons why SETI might never work. Intelligent life may be rare enough, but Intelligent life with technological capability may be breathakingly rare – one per galaxy at any given time, on average. There are so many possible solutions to the so-called Fermi Paradox that it isn’t really a paradox at all. But “They’re just like US” is not likely to be one of the reasons we haven’t heard anything yet.

  • Athena June 7, 2007, 12:39

    I agree with Icelander that science fiction is an expression of longing, and also worry about the increased navel-watching that Miller describes in his essay

    A while ago, I wrote an article about the exact same topics. To my surprise, it got a national educational award (a while ago, before things turned brutal). You can find it here, under the title “The Double Helix”:


  • tallyho43 June 7, 2007, 15:13

    The scariest thought of all – that WE are the most intelligent beings in the galaxy – or universe!

    No wonder the world is such a mess.

  • ljk June 7, 2007, 15:24
  • Cross June 7, 2007, 22:17

    Hedonistic solipsism (I love that term!) isn’t necessarily as big a problem as one might think. Who’s to say that an uploaded mind must take pleasure in the same things that its organic progenitor did? Could it not decide to restructure itself to take great pleasure in achieving constructive goals, instead of just mashing their simulated endorphin buttons? It seems unlikely somehow that an entire civilization would upload itself simply to vanish into a VR orgasm-on-continuous-loop.

  • Adam June 8, 2007, 4:39

    Hi All

    “New Scientist” also covers possibilities for alien biochemistry in this week’s edition – though the article is on the other side of their firewall. It’s entitled “What Aliens are Made Of”… and has some interesting alternatives to biochemistry as we know it. Alien life based on bubbles (i.e. gas phase chemistry), on silicone chemistry in super-cold, oxygen-poor conditions, and dry organic chemistry. Weird stuff, but there’s no way of knowing if there’s life based on it.

    As for vanishing up our VR backsides… it’d be a temptation for any species, but to be “the Great Filter” that explains the Great Silence it has to work 100% of the time. A tough call.

  • Ronald June 8, 2007, 6:50

    Following this discussion for a while.
    I agree with Icelander when it comes to curiosity and fascination with regard to other (living) worlds; and with Zen Blade’s ref. to greater (natural) risks for humankind than hedonistic navel-staring.
    It would actually be great if we could ever afford that comfortable stage, which would then also allow us to direct our energy, time and resources to more hobbyistic things, purely out of curiosity and scientific interest, such as exploring the universe.

    To be honest, to me the presence or absence of ETI is not the crucial thing, not the main incentive for investigation and exploration, but rather the presence of habitable planets (i.e. either already inhabited by biological life, or at least suitable for habitation or terraforming).
    I thin the moment mankind detects a spectral signature of life on a planet, or even a potentially habitable planet, this would be a tremendous incentive to ‘zoom in’ on it and in a (much) later stage even go there. It would open up an entirely new era of technological development and exploration, dwarfing the Apollo years.
    An intelligent signal from far away would be fascinating of course, but would hardly add to this positive ‘exploration mentality’. It might even shun us away from it (oops, place is already taken).
    So, in other words, if we ever find a (potentially) habitable planet, either there is (any biological) life on it, or we are going to bring it there.

  • george scaglione June 8, 2007, 9:19

    tallyhho – yes your thought above about us being the brightest thing in space!! scary indeed lol ! all the best my friend,george

  • george scaglione June 8, 2007, 9:27

    athena,yes sf is an expression of longing.so lol what does it say about me that i am currently re reading the 4 books in arthur c clarkes space odyssey series!? physics of star trek is in the on deck circle by the way.hope i’ll be able to use all of that to formulate good ideas to post and discuss here! thank you very much george

  • Athena June 8, 2007, 10:10


    I didn’t realize there were four! I liked 2010, his pegging of Europa was eery. If you want to read an even more intriguing version of a civilization leaving mysterious artifacts behind, read Jack McDevitt’s Engines of God.

    P. S. You mean The Biology of Star Trek? (*laughs*)

  • Administrator June 8, 2007, 10:24

    I second Athena’s enthusiasm for McDevitt’s Engines of God. Terrific book.

  • ljk June 8, 2007, 10:45

    You might also want to check out Roadside Picnic, written by
    Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.

    The story is online here:


  • Edg Duveyoung June 8, 2007, 11:22

    FTL travel is for the future — not so much for us. We’ll all be dead by then if it ever gets figured out.

    That said, we could get a first contact transmission that gives us all we need to grow an alien in a petri dish, make a FTL ship, or open a portal into an Encyclopedia Galactica wherein all the natural laws are fully explicated.

    I’m guessing that actually being able to visit other worlds beyond our solar system will be long after we’ve been changed to the max by our encountering alien transmissions. Almost any alien contact could rapidly change, well, how about everything-as-we-presently-know-it?

    We saw just the slightest glimpse of a nuance of a whiff of a potential when the headlines speculated that Gliese 581 might be in a life zone. EXCITEMENT!!! The common person suddenly was involved.

    Imagination pales when even beginning to consider what actual contact might do to us. If the above is any indication, we’d be facing widespread panic, riots, and carnage of every sort on the very next day after contact. Religions collapsing, cultures suddenly having their precious self-portraits revealed to be backwaters Dorian Grays, wildass new leaders emerging to try to gather a following with nutzoid concepts.

    Oh what a lovely mess.


  • ljk June 8, 2007, 12:15

    Edg – A book you should read on the subject of the desire by
    many to have ETI transmit information to uplift humanity is
    Stanislaw Lem’s His Master’s Voice:


  • unitx June 8, 2007, 13:43

    Edg Duveyoung – I wouldn’t be so sure about not seeing FTL in our lifetimes. Just look how far we have come in a hundred years. Our technology may not be improving at an exponential rate, but I would go as far as to say a geometric rate. The discovery of FTL is really dependent on our understanding of new physics. Once a unified theory or a theory of everything is constructed, it should give us a clear picture on FTL possibilities. When this will happen, if ever, is anyone’s guess. 1 year, 10 years, or a 100 years. I just don’t understand why everyone always thinks things like FTL can’t or will not happen in our lifetimes. Is it that unbelievable?

  • Ron S June 8, 2007, 13:49

    One thing we will never discover by turning inward is other peoples and worlds. We may change/improve culturally, biologically and technologically but in the end we will only have ourselves for company. I seriously doubt that our innate curiosity would permit a solely inward looking future for humanity. Certainly however there will be individuals and groups then, as today, who choose to look inward, for a variety of hedonistic or idealistic reasons.

    If we do find another habitable planet it’ll be because it’s … inhabited. At least for our purposes. An oxygen atmosphere, for example, most likely requires life. It may just be microbes but it’ll be something. Will we want to simply study it, or converse/trade with intelligent inhabitants, or occupy it? By that future time I suspect the latter choice could become less attractive.

  • george scaglione June 8, 2007, 14:25

    athena,yes there are 4 and all good books 2001 followed by 2010 and 2061 followed by 3001. all good have a look when time permits.and respectfully no it is the PHYSICS OF STAR TREK. there is also a biology of star trek and i do intend to have a look soon there too.as you can readily surmise i have been a life long fan of science and sf ! began in aprox 1957 when i first saw the movie forbidden planet! thank you very much for your time and i hope that i have said something useful ,george scaglione

  • george scaglione June 8, 2007, 14:35

    edg,thank you i enjoyed reading your posting above.most of it i would tend to think would be quite true,but you never know what might materialize in the future! maybe success in any given aspect of the above might be closer than we think! let me quote a friend of mine who recently said, “the future is never as far off as we think!” thanks again your friend george scaglione

  • Athena June 8, 2007, 14:54

    @Ron S:

    I agree with you completely about human curiosity. Here is the last paragraph of an essay I wrote on this issue:

    “… despite all the caveats I listed, I think we will venture to the stars — for knowledge, for glory, but above all, because we thirst to know what is behind the next bend in the path. Compared to the oceans that we and our inheritors will navigate, our efforts until now are like the launching of paper boats in a bird fountain.”

    You can find the entire essay in six installments here, titled Making Aliens 1-6: [url]www.starshipnivan.com/blog/[/url]

    @George Scaglione:

    I apologize, I thought you knew! I was making a joke because I wrote To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek. Like you, I love SF. Reading 20,000 Leagues under the Sea probably was a major factor in my decision to become a scientist.

  • george scaglione June 9, 2007, 10:48

    athena, thank you very much and lol at myself !! no i did not know but your book is on order and i will read it pretty soon! so good to know you! and thanks your friend george ps i also loved 20,000 leagues! i recall the walt disney movie with kirk douglas which i very much enjoyed as a boy! would not bet against having read it either at some point way back when! thanks again g

  • Alex June 10, 2007, 18:24

    How is Miller distinguishable from common or garden right-wing golden age fantasy? After all, the societies he thinks produce “super parents” ain’t building space ships – they’re building Somalias.

  • brob June 12, 2007, 16:13

    all this discussion about our future as advanced space travelers makes me laugh. it’s been almost 40 years since we set foot on the moon and we still can’t get back. what will this world look like in 100 years? no flying cars, sorry, no traveling faster than light. no total recall-style vacation getaways for the masses. the simple reason we’ve been able to go so far so fast is not that suddenly the human race is super intelligent, it’s that we found a cheap and plentiful fuel source. when that cheap and plentiful fuel source disappears (and this will likely happen in our lifetimes) all but the elite of the elite will find ourselves tilling our own soil, raising our own cattle, and living a life that is nasty, brutish, and short.

    the sad truth is that humanity is not intelligent enough to reach the point of technology we’re talking about, not with the limited resources on planet earth anyway. by this i mean not our analytical abilities, but our selfishness and lack of self control that will doom us to agrarian living until we make another leap forward in evolution.

    it’s nice to hypothesize about this stuff, but it’s all fantasy if we don’t look at what is today preventing us from reaching that ultimate goal, if that is our goal in the first place.

  • ljk June 25, 2007, 14:34

    Meet the neighbours: Is the search for aliens such a good idea?

    We’ve been trying to make contact with aliens for years. Now the day is fast approaching when we might finally succeed. But will our extraterrestrial friends come in peace? Or will they want to eat us? Astronomer David Whitehouse explores the perils of a close encounter

    Published: 25 June 2007

    We are making dangerous discoveries in space. In April, astronomers found, on our cosmic doorstep, a planet dubbed Gliese 581c. Nestling close to a dim red star, it’s a rocky world only a little larger than Earth. Like Earth, it could support liquid water. And to scientists, liquid water means the possibility of life.

    Gliese 581c must be an ancient world, for it circles a star that is far older than our Sun. The question is, has any advanced life evolved on that planet, or on the many other places that must be suitable sites, not so very far away?

    Recently, British astronomers told the government that we might find life in space. It is only a matter of time, this year perhaps, before astronomers detect a planet even more similar in size and mass to our Earth, circling another star. And when we find that planet, we may discover a lot more than new oceans and land masses.

    Full article here:


  • ljk July 9, 2007, 12:16

    Calculating the probability of detecting radio signals from alien civilizations

    Authors: Marko Horvat

    (Submitted on 29 Jun 2007)

    Abstract: Although it might not be self-evident, it is in fact entirely possible to calculate the probability of detecting alien radio signals by understanding what types of extraterrestrial radio emissions can be expected and what properties these emissions can have. Using the Drake equation as the obvious starting point, and logically identifying and enumerating constraints of interstellar radio communications can yield the probability of detecting a genuine alien radio signal.

    Comments: 10 pages, 1 figure, 2 tables

    Subjects: Popular Physics (physics.pop-ph); Astrophysics (astro-ph)

    Journal reference: M. Horvat, International Journal of Astrobiology, 5, 143-149 (2006)

    DOI: 10.1017/S1473550406003004

    Cite as: arXiv:0707.0011v1 [physics.pop-ph]

    Submission history

    From: Marko Horvat B.Sc.CS-Dipl.Ing. [view email]

    [v1] Fri, 29 Jun 2007 20:25:44 GMT (316kb)


  • ljk July 10, 2007, 15:22

    Pamela Gay’s take on Horvat’s SETI paper here:


    To quote:

    At a certain level, I think people would endlessly search the heavens with a radio dish in search of a signal no matter how few planets were ever found, and how little liquid was ever discovered. We would keep searching even if we thought the search was futile. We want to know – Are we alone? That single question is one we have asked, at least once, every one of us. As children frightened of the dark we asked, “Are we alone?” as we watched distant planes and more distant satellites criss-cross their way through the pitch black sky. As adults, watching wars on TV, watching celebrity gossip, and watching 1000 small indignities and injustices being played out big on the little screen, we have asked “Are we alone?” We want someone else to be out there among the stars. And we are afraid there is someone else out there among the stars.

    And so we search.

  • ljk August 6, 2007, 10:16

    Slim chance of tuning in to alien TV

    NewScientist.com news service August 3, 2007


    Marko Horvat, a computer scientist
    at the University of Zagreb,
    calculated the odds of detecting
    alien civilizations of different
    lifespans from their radio signals.

    If, for example, 10 civilizations,
    each with a lifespan of 250,000
    years, live within radio reach of
    Earth, the probability that one of
    them will be detected is about 9 per