July 26, 2015 by kittynh
My friend Claus Larsen asked me to post his reply to PZ Myers post on six reasons why he dislikes SETI. Claus has a bit more upbeat personality than Myers, and like myself is full of optimism about science. This includes science that perhaps stands little chance of a result. Seeing Bigfoot Trail Camera projects funded in full and Dr.Greer’s conspiracy UFO hunt weekends well attended and paid for, I’m happy to see SETI funded. What people do with their personal disposable income is their own business.
Did anyone complain when David Cameron performed the deepest solo submarine dive instead of donating the money to rebuilding the Alvin for science? Alvin was rebuilt because there wasn’t money to build a new one. James Cameron could have just donated the money for the new Alvin. But he earned his money, and it’s up to him to determine how it is spent. Historically rich people have funded projects they believed in and this has often been to the good of science. Even Charles Darwin owed his gift of time, to think, travel, study and write to the popularity of Wedgewood china. SETI is young, a project which also needs the gift of time to perhaps come to fruition. SETI has been given the gift of a bit more time, and I’d rather it go to SETI any day over yet another Bigfoot or UFO drone project. Thank you Claus for once again sharing your opinion with my readers. It should be noted at TAM13 when the audience was asked by a speaker if they believed in extraterrestrial life, the show of hands was almost 100%. -KM
SIX REASONS WHY I REALLY LIKE SETI
By Claus Flodin Larsen
Russian business man Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking, arguably the most famous living scientist on the planet, announced recently the Breakthrough Listen project, which will search for intelligent life (SETI) in the universe. The whole thing will be funded entirely by Milner, who will be spending $100 million of his own money, over the next decade.But is SETI a good idea? Is it worth spending money on, even if it is privately funded? Is it even good science?
Reason #1: Life in the universe is a proven concept. We know that life exists. We know of one civilization in the universe. We know of one civilization in the universe that is able to communicate with other civilizations. We know of one civilization that is willing to communicate with other civilizations.So, why haven’t we found any? There are many reasons, one being that we have only been able to transmit electromagnetic signals for a mere 120 years of our history. Nobody outside that 120-light year “bubble” in space could know of our existence, and the number of life-supporting planets inside would probably be relatively low anyway.
A second reason is that we have only been listening ourselves since SETI started in the early 1960s, and then, searching only a fraction of the sky above us, for very simple forms of communication.A third is that some civilizations may not get past the stage where they don’t self-destruct, as our own has been close to, at times.A fourth is the sheer size of the universe: Most of the it is devoid of stars, and planets make up an even smaller part. Distances between stars are, well, astronomical, and could well mean that each civilization are doomed to never physically cross to another.
Although there are a number of other reasons, the lack of findings is not a sound scientific argument against finding life elsewhere. It took almost four hundred years, from Galileo’s first telescopic discovery of Jupiter’s four biggest moons, in 1610, to the 1992 discovery of the first exoplanets. And, yes, that’s plural: We didn’t find just oneplanet, we found a double-planet system. Furthermore, less than a quarter of a century later, we are now close to having discovered 2,000 exoplanets. On July 26th, 2015, NASA announced that they have found a exoplanet that looks like it is the closest to an Earth-like planet we have seen so far, revolving a Sun-like star, at an Earth-like distance, with an orbital time of close to an Earth-year, in the habitable zone. And it won’t be the last of its kind.
We have gone, in a few years, from a purely theoretical Drake’s Equation, to actually finding exoplanets, at an impressive rate. We expected planets to be a rather rare occurrence, yet we now know that they are more the rule than the exception. SETI can now focus on those planets that are the most Earth-like. The scope becomes narrower,increasing the chance of finding Earth-like life.
There is, of course, also the possibility of life that is not Earth-like. Although it makes sense to look for life on Earth-like planets, there is no reason to think that life on other planets necessarily must be what we have here. But that only increases the possibility of life, making SETI even more relevant.
Just as we explore our own planet, we should also explore what lies beyond. If we are not looking for life elsewherein the universe, why should we look for any kind of life outside our own lawns? It is precisely that inquisitive trait of humans, to explore, to discover, that has resulted in our scientific world-view. Thus, it is inherently anti-scientific to stop exploring the natural world, at any horizon.
Explanations as to why we haven’t found life yet are not necessarily excuses, monetary or otherwise. Many factors are at play here, and we do not know all of them. Did it stop Darwin from forming his theory of evolution, that he didn’t know the mechanism for changes in species, namely genetics? Did it stop Einstein from forming his theory ofrelativity, that he hadn’t experimental data to back it up with at the time of publication? Does any scientist stop, because he doesn’t have all the answers yet? In fact, the opposite is true for scientists: It spurs them on, to find theanswers to the questions. It can take years, even decades, before any experiment can show results – if it does at all.And what bigger question is there, than “Are we alone?”
Reason #2: The search for intelligent life is a scientific endeavor. We are not looking for living beings based on an un-scientific foundation, it is in fact quite the opposite. Fundamentally different from, say, fairies, by definition supernatural, life does not need a force that goes beyond the natural laws. Arguing that the existence of life on other planets is equivalent to the existence of fairies, is to argue that both necessitate a supernatural creator, a thoroughly anti-scientific stance.
Reason #3: Forewarned is forearmed. There is very much a danger of civilizations being a threat to us. We certainlywouldn’t come across as having created a historically peaceful planet ourselves, so the positive attitude that some scientists consider a staple of a higher civilization may not be warranted. There will be many alien civilizations, and some may not be entirely peaceful in nature. But the search for intelligent life also promises communication: If we actively search for other civilizations, we are not only in a position where we can expand our knowledge on a truly cosmic scale, we also say that we trust the receiving civilizations not to kill us, and that we will not be a threat to them.The result of not searching for intelligent life is also risking that they come to us first, and catch us completely off guard. Is that what we want? If we take steps to know about incoming meteors, we should also take steps to know about incoming invaders.
Reason #4: We are rapidly improving as a civilization.While the history of mankind has been violent, unfair and brutal, things are getting better. We have become a muchless violent planet, a much safer and better one.Infant mortality is lower than ever before. Medicine can cure many diseases, some diseases have even been eradicated. Vaccinations have saved millions – if not billions – of lives. The number of people living in extreme poverty is dropping. Even murder rates are falling worldwide. The death penalty is on the wane, with only 36 countries practicing this primitive form of punishment. Deaths from wars have dwindled to almost nothing, compared to just decades ago. The threat of complete nuclear annihilation, so predominant in the 1950s and 1960s, does not play a major factor in world politics anymore, due to a vastly reduced number of nuclear weapons.
Equal rights for women, ethnic groups, disabled, and other minority groups, are now high on our list of humanistic achievements. Since 1957 – to pick the year we reached the first cosmic goal of sending a satellite in orbit around our planet – the United States has secured civil rights for blacks, women have the right to abortion, and marriage is now also a constitutional right for homosexuals.Are we now ready to contact alien life forms? Or is the goal first to reach a stage, where no further progress is seen necessary, where we have reached the perfect civilization? If that is seen as an impossible goal to reach, it is nothing but an excuse for not trying to make contact. If seen as a an attainable goal, it reeks of a totalitarian state, where someone has decreed that perfection has been met, and thus no criticism is allowed, because it is not necessary. Such societies have historically a short life span, for very good reasons: Humans evolve, not only physically, but also mentally and socially. What we in 2015 think are admirable social goals, could in the future well be considered at best naïve at best, at worst destructive. So while we have come very far in a short time, let us not think we are now society’s übermenschen, merely because we think we have the morally right views. There is always room for improvement.
Reason #5: Regardless of outcome, we learn a tremendous lesson. If we find life – and the thought of us being alone does, in the words of Carl Sagan, seem an awful waste of space – we have made the biggest scientific discovery of all time, hands down. We can then begin to expand our knowledge, and, possibly, pass some of our own on, beyond our wildest dreams.If, on the other hand, we don’t find life, we would be even more inclined to preserve life on our planet, and look forinhabitable planets elsewhere, so that not only humans, but life itself, as versatile as it is, can continue.
Reason #6: Nobody loses any scientific funding over this. One hundred million U.S. dollars is indeed a lot of money. However, New Horizons, the recently very successful mission to Pluto, cost seven times that much, and gave us no knowledge of anything we can use here on Earth – it certainly didn’t find any life on either Pluto or Charon, and it did not improve life conditions on Earth one little bit. Should we then argue, that the mission, paid for by taxes, is just a waste of money? At any rate, the recent contribution for SETI comes from a rich person with ahigh goal. It won’t come from public funds for scientific research programs. As is the case with Bill Gates, Milner’s contribution will probably encourage other rich persons to fund other scientific projects.
Who knows, maybe someone will fund a project on getting zebrafish drunk?