Have you ever given any thought to intergalactic SETI? On the face of it, the idea seems absurd — we have been doing SETI in one form or another since the days of Project Ozma and without result. If we can’t pick up radio signals from nearby stars that tell us of extraterrestrial civilizations, how could we expect to do so at distances like M31’s 2.573 million light years, not to mention even the closest galaxies beyond? Herein lies a tale, for what intergalactic SETI exposes us to is the baldness of our assumptions about the overall SETI attempt, that it is most likely to succeed using radio wavelengths, and that it may open up two-way communications with extraterrestrials. It’s the nature of these assumptions that we need to explore today.

The Visibility of a Galactic Culture

Let’s suppose, for example, that Nikolai Kardashev’s thoughts about types of civilizations are compelling enough to put to the test. A Kardashev Type III civilization is one that is able to exploit the energy resources not just of its home star but of its entire galaxy. So unimaginably beyond our present capabilities is a Kardashev Type III that we scarcely know how to describe it, but it is within the realm of reason that signs of astro-engineering on this scale might be detectable in at least nearby galaxies if such a civilization had gone to work on them. And indeed, James Annis has made such a study, concluding that neither our Milky Way nor M31 or M33, our two large, neighboring galaxies, has been transformed by the work of a Type III civilization.

Image: M33, the Triangulum Galaxy. We’ve only begun to investigate whether nearby galaxies like this one might show signs of astro-engineering on a gigantic scale. Civilizations a billion years or more older than our own might be capable of feats detectable from great distance. Credit: Adam Block/NOAO/AURA/NSF.

It should hardly be necessary to point out how preliminary such results are, and how rare such studies have been. What’s striking about Annis (and related work by Richard Carrigan and P.S. Wesson) is that these scientists are pursuing ideas that are well outside the SETI mainstream. There is a new paradigm here, one that operates without any notion of ‘contact’ and subsequent exchange of ideas between civilizations. It is a search for artifacts, for artificial structure and signs of engineering. It is all about discovery. And just as we can have no two-way conversation with Mycenaean Greece as we dig for information about the era of Agammemnon, we may with this stellar archaeology discover something just as unreachable but likewise well worth the study.

Toward a Dysonian SETI

In a recent paper, Robert Bradbury, Milan ?irkovi? (Astronomical Observatory, Belgrade) and George Dvorsky (Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies) consider whether intergalactic SETI may be an example of what they call a ‘Dysonian’ approach to SETI, one that is a ‘middle ground’ between the traditional radio-centric view (with contact implications) and the hostile reaction of SETI detractors who see no value in the enterprise whatsoever and think the money better spent elsewhere. The nod to Freeman Dyson is based on the latter’s conjecture that a truly developed society would surmount the limits of planetary living space and energy by building a Dyson shell, capturing most or all of the energy from the star near which it lived.

A Dyson sphere immediately changes the terms of SETI because it is in principle detectable, but unlike nearby radio signals (either from a beacon or as unintentional ‘leakage’ from a civilization’s activities), a Dyson shell might be spotted at great astronomical distances through its infrared signature. Carl Sagan was one of the first to pick up on the idea and ponder its implications. Dyson was much in favor of attacking the question in a disciplined way, using our astronomical tools, as he once wrote, “…to transpose the dreams of a frustrated engineer into a framework of respectable astronomy.” And here again, we have seen attempts, especially by the aforementioned Richard Carrigan, to study infrared data for signs of such Dyson constructs.

The new direction in SETI that the three authors of the new paper champion is one that employs a broader set of tools. Rather than limiting itself to radio dishes or dedicated optical facilities, it broadens our workspace for extraterrestrial civilizations to include astronomical data that can be gathered in tandem with other research projects, scanning a far wider and deeper field. In the authors’ view, Dysonian SETI also takes into account new developments in astrobiology and even extends into computer science and the possibility of post-biological intelligence. They advocate a Dysonian SETI drawing on four basic strategies to supplement older methods:

  • The search for technological products, artifacts, and signatures of advanced technological civilizations.
  • The study of postbiological and artificially super-intelligent evolutionary trajectories, as well as other relevant fields of future studies.
  • The expansion of admissible SETI target spectrum.
  • The achievement of tighter interdisciplinary contact with related astrobiological subfields (studies of Galactic habitability, biogenesis, etc.) as well as related magisteria (computer science, artificial life, evolutionary biology, philosophy of mind, etc.)

The expansion of SETI into these areas would not replace ongoing SETI methods but would significantly expand the overall process in line with the great goal of learning whether other intelligent beings share the galaxy and the nearby universe with us. The paper offers more fruitful speculation than I can fit into a single entry, so we’ll be looking at these ideas over the course of the next few days. If there really is a Great Silence, to use David Brin’s phrase, these authors argue it’s one that we can only ponder usefully if we broaden our search toward the potentially observable achievements of cultures far more advanced than our own. That study has only recently begun.

The paper is Bradbury, ?irkovi? and Dvorsky, “Dysonian Approach to SETI: A Fruitful Middle Ground?” JBIS Vol. 64 (2011), pp. 156-165.