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The Eerie Silence

Entry 1175, on 2010-03-17 at 21:52:52 (Rating 2, Science)

Where is everyone? It's a big universe sure, but we've been looking for 50 years now and still there's no real sign that intelligent life might exist in other parts of the universe.

It's not as if we are continually finding reasons that life shouldn't exist - it's quite the opposite: new discoveries on other planets and moons inside our solar system, observations of planets orbiting other stars, and discoveries of weird extremophile life forms on Earth all make it look like life should be fairly common. And if life is fairly common then you might expect that intelligent life would arise fairly frequently too.

Of course, there's a lot of doubt and speculation in what I said above but I have never really heard anyone make a good argument for life being rare and the same applies (to a lesser extent) for arguments against the appearance of intelligence.

I read an article featuring Paul Davies, a physicist, cosmologist and astrobiologist who has just completed a book titled “The Eerie Silence”. He's the director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science, the co-Director of the Cosmology Initiative, and the chairman of the SETI Post-Detection Task Group, so he's one of the best qualified SETI experts. He's suggesting a broader approach to the search.

There have been two interesting radio signals in the 50 years SETI researchers have been looking. One, known as the “Wow” signal, was 72-second pulse detected in 1977; and another, known as Lorimer’s pulse, lasted just a half-millisecond. That's not very impressive for all the effort put in and all the processing power available with the latest computer analysis.

I should mention at this point that I have been involved with the SETI@Home project for 10 years now and my computers have performed a million trillion calculations in that time. All for nothing. Note: In case you don't know, the SETI@Home project involves people using their computers to analyse data provided by the University of Berkeley who collect it from a radio telescope. The computers look for unusual signals which might indicate technology created by an alien intelligence.

There are other areas of controversial science where experiments have provided no credible positive results over even longer periods of time. For example, ESP, homeopathy, and UFOs. So does that mean that the search for intelligence is just another crazy fringe pseudoscience? I don't think so because those other experiments should have found an effect if it existed but SETI is really like looking for a needle in a haystack, except the haystack is the whole universe and we don't know what the needle looks like!

And SETI researchers admit they have no positive results. Compare that with many paranormal investigators who cherry pick the facts, change the standards of evidence, and redefine the scientific method to get the results they want.

After so long you might think that SETI researchers might be just about ready to give up but that doesn't seem to be the case. Collecting and analysing the data provides scientific results beyond the original purpose of SETI, and negative results are important in themselves anyway.

Then there's just the thought that life might exist elsewhere in the universe. Many people have claimed this would be the greatest discovery ever. I think they could be right although I suspect the average person might be underwhelmed by the discovery of anomalous radio signals. It's not quite the same as a visit from a mighty alien space ship as is often portrayed in science fiction stories!

So the eerie silence continues but I think it will be broken in the next 50 years. There are so many new ways to look for life - better radio signal analysis; investigation of Mars, Europa, and Titan; observation of extra-solar planets - that I'm fairly sure something will be found.

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Comment 1 (2625) by Anonymous on 2010-03-27 at 23:08:59:

Sheer speculation on the eerie silence being broken in the next 50 years. As I glance across at my copy of Carl Sagan's Cosmos from 1981 I could just as easily speculate that we are the only intelligent life in the universe. Perusing the Drake equation on page 300 I could conclude that there are zero intelligent lifeforms in the universe.

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Comment 2 (2628) by OJB on 2010-03-28 at 21:12:22:

I agree there is an element of speculation in that prediction but I think there are genuine reasons for thinking it really could happen this time!

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Comment 3 (2633) by Anonymous on 2010-04-02 at 23:06:41:

What genuine reasons? You have shifted your position from your podcast of 23/5/05 where you state "we might have to wait Billions of years before we find anyone else." (Based on production of elements from Carbon upwards in Supernovae)

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Comment 4 (2634) by OJB on 2010-04-03 at 16:25:41:

To tell you the truth I had forgotten about that particular finding. I'm not sure how significant that is and haven't heard much more about it since then. The reason I am now more optimistic is the new telescopes and techniques which can detect extra-solar planets and potentially even analyse their atmospheres. There's also the discovery of methane on Mars and the unusual conditions on Europa, Titan and Enceladus.

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