Monday, January 23, 2012

Extraterrestrial Contact: The Most Likely Scenario

For the last few weeks I have been discussing ideas I have for a dramatic and direct extraterrestrial First Contact event. While I enjoy considering such things I don’t think it’s the most likely form of First Contact, if it ever occurs at all.

SETI is the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. It is a scientific effort that involves listening to radio frequencies for signals from outer space and then processing and evaluating the data through computer programs. The goal is to find an engineered signal. Along the way many false signals must be examined and then weeded out. Thus far the effort has not yielded evidence of an engineered signal. However, only a small portion of space has been examined. Efforts today tend to concentrate on star systems where it is more likely that life-sustaining planets may exist. SETI is primarily based in radio astronomy; however it was also moved into a discussion of visual and particle transmissions that might be used by alien civilizations.

I’m a big supporter of the SETI scientific community. It is the only science based method that we have for approaching this huge question. It is conducted by astrophysicists and other scientists who have made the decision to stake their careers in a fringe outpost of the scientific world. Through their dedication and credentials, they have slowly moved the SETI effort closer to the mainstream of science and promoted a larger conversation about issues of extraterrestrial intelligence. They do this at professional risk and with a great deal of personal sacrifice. I applaud them for their efforts.

The primary group leading this effort is the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. Jill Tarter, Seth Shostack, Douglas Vakoch and the other SETI Institute scientists lead the movement to a better understanding of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and perhaps just as important, they have been active, vocal advocates for exploring the human response to extraterrestrial intelligence contact issues. They continually base their discussions in the scientific method. This has provided a measure of respectability to the field that didn’t exist a few decades ago.

The International Astronomical Union has also been on the forefront of SETI consideration. The journal Acta Astronautica regularly publishes research papers related to extraterrestrial intelligence. The Royal Society of Great Britain has contributed much with entire journal issues dedicated to the issue and numerous conferences about ETI.

There have been many pioneers who have made this current conversation regarding extraterrestrial contact possible. Frank Drake and those creative astrophysicists, who met in Green Bank, West Virginia in 1961 to discuss the first search effort, set the path forward. Carl Sagan brought the ideas to the general public. Scientists like Paul Davies continue to explore the possibilities with the world.

My blog explores a relatively narrow slice of this conversation, one that the scientists don’t normally have time to consider. They don’t consider it much because it is based almost purely in speculation and science is founded in process and the discovery of fact. I accept that and understand the concern that my blog might raise with them. Still, I encourage you to support the SETI scientific effort and the amazing work being done by scientists worldwide in a number of space exploration fields. The NASA Kepler Mission is literally changing our understanding of the universe on a weekly basis with the discovery of new planets. We must support this scientific effort by letting our lawmakers know that this is important work and an effort that needs to be well funded. The SETI Institute was forced to seek private funding some time ago and you can help them directly. Please do as I have done and donate to the cause. Individual contributions recently brought the Allen Telescope Array back online and that re-started the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

There are unlikely to be clear and decisive answers to the question of whether we are alone in the universe. The discovery of an engineered signal from far-off in space will likely generate great debate and years of scientific investigation, all of which will occur in the usual human fashion of conflict and debate. Hopefully, this will eventually lead to some degree of understanding. In any event, there is much hard work to be done and any support we can give the scientists involved in such efforts would probably be appreciated.


John Carl Penn said...

"For the last few weeks [...]"

I would call that a massive understatement ;-)

Eric said...

Yeah, you're right John, I have been at this for quite a while! Perhaps too long...

Roger Camp said...

Hi Eric! I've just discovered your blog. It's very good. I've been interested in extra-terrestrial subject all my life. I believe our planet has been visited by aliens for ages. So the question is really "when are they going to allow us to contact them?". Even though SETI is searching the universe for a signal, perhaps we are not using the kind of signal they use. We are way too far behind them, in technology and everything. Someday (not far now) we are all going to see the irrefutable proof of their existence. Unfortunately, the situation is not going to be the best. I believe it's going to be more like a rescue mission.

Carson said...

I donate to SETI every year. You're right about Kepler and letting our lawmakers here our voice. So many in congress have no long term thinking or a speck of intellectualism.

All interested need to support SETI and these Space missions related to astrobiology, exoplanets, signals, telescopes, et cetera.


Eric said...

Thanks for reading Roger. I don't know if we are that far gone. There is no doubt that we have to take serious consideration of our environmental actions and make efforts to align our civilization with the needs of our planet. Carson, the discoveries this year alone have been amazing. The Kepler Missions just announced another set of planets. It's truly an incredible time to be alive.