Me in USA Today on SETI

But researchers such as Robin Hanson of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., wonder whether the big picture really looks so promising when it comes to advanced life. Hanson supports SETI but finds it telling that humans haven’t come across anything yet.  “It has been remarkable and somewhat discouraging,” Hanson says, “that the universe is so damn big and so damn dead.”

More here, but little you don’t already know.  The reporter and I discussed lots of interesting issues, such as burning the cosmic commons, but this is what made the cut.  Other folks were cut entirely; I guess it pays to swear to reporters.

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  • fenn

    the “burning” link is broken

  • During normal conversation (as opposed to arguments, extreme events etc.), different people use widely varying degrees of profanity.

    Are some people swearing too much and others too little?
    Or is there a well defined optimum amount of swearing for someone depending on their age, occupation, etc?

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  • jonathan

    I’ve never understood obsession with SETI. I contributed computer time to it, etc. but people don’t seem to understand how beyond words the universe is in size. There could be large numbers of advanced civilizations, all spread out beyond rational contact range. What if the distribution works out to about 1 per galaxy? There are hundreds of billions of galaxies so there could easily be hundreds of billions of civilizations but only 1, 2 or none in any given galaxy.

  • Ryan

    I think the interesting part is that we are the only ones in this galaxy. Given the distances (Andromeda some 2mil light years away) any civs there or beyond are probably irrelevant to us.

  • I thought Robin was lamenting not using cuss words – thereby getting more coverage. Then I noticed that he did actually use the “d” word! Naughty! 😉

  • I think I remember reading there are no signs of technologically altered galaxies elswhere in the visible universe, ratcheting down the likely distribution of intelligent civilizations that much lower.

  • I’m fairly ignorant on this subject – but aren’t most of the signals we’re looking at slow-moving. i.e. by the time they reach us they are so old that it’s likely that we’re still “hearing” a younger universe, even if extraterrestrial life currently is advanced enough to be emitting?

  • It depends on who you speak to – e.g.:

    “Dyson Shell Supercomputers as the Dominant “Life Form” in Galaxies”

    “Current astronomical observations which include the missing mass of the galaxies, gravitational microlensing reports and galactic infrared observations (e.g. NGC 5907), suggest that many galaxies, including the Milky Way, may be Kardashev Type III civilizations composed of Matrioshka Brains.”

    • Exactly!

    • One has to assume that such ubiquitous invisible brains have an extremely low probability of wanting to use or modify the sort of matter than we can see.

      • The Milky Way doesn’t seem to be a Kardashev Type III civilization composed of Matrioshka Brains – or we would know about it!

        Other galaxies are still fair game, though. Most of them are very distant. We have very little idea about what the atoms over there are being used for. Again, I think circular polarization will probably be the most obvious signature.

        “High Circular Polarization in the Star Forming Region NGC 6334: Implications”

  • It is unlikely that another civilization in our galaxy would meet our level of intelligence, it is more likely that they would far surpass or fall short of our technological achievement. In case of the former – what if they don’t want to be found? We probably won’t find them. In case of the latter – there isn’t much of a technological signature to find.

  • ISTM that the most obvious thing to look for is circularly-polarised light – e.g.:

  • Just a little comment about this: “that the universe is so damn big and so damn dead.”

    I think I would rather say: “that the Universe is so damn big and so damn quiet”. There might be life everywhere but it’s just very quiet… You know all about Drake’s equation so I don’t need to mention the differences between life and intelligent life that can communicate but I think it’s important to keep in mind that alien might be using another part of the spectrum than this narrow radio frequency band that we are listening to…

    Like a lot of other discoveries, I think the time will come. The first detection is always difficult, after that, it’s just duplicating. Remember extrasolar planets and how inexistent we thought they were! Now you only need to blink an eye to find a new one.

    • Possums that are alive but pretending to be dead act quiet. If the universe looks quiet it looks dead.

    • Aliens with a very wide range of utility functions would be expected to find better uses to put the irreplaceable energy (negentropy) being wasted by stars. We should see them eating galaxies.

    • tim

      I think if aliens were interested in communicating they would probably use the hydrogen band for the same reasons we are listening to it. Those reasons are independent of any particular human sympathies.

  • The galactic civilisation that doesn’t want to be found mostly seems like a rather silly conspiracy theory to me. If they were here, surely they would be all around – they would be us. The Star Trek prime directive is science fiction.

    Quiet?!? There seem to be an awful lot of huge explosions going on. Check the Orion nebula, for example. Lots of circularly-polarised light is coming from that direction. It seems quite likely that someone is banging the stars together over there.

  • jonathan

    I’m curious why so many creative ideas about quiet, hiding, etc. when basic probability theory suggests that even though there may be billions of advanced civilizations the odds are low any would be anywhere near enough to us to be ‘visible’? We’re out on an arm of a spiral galaxy, literally one of perhaps trillions of galaxies. Let’s assume that SETI operates for 100 years without finding anything. That says we can then define some form of possible density function for intelligent civilization (based on failure to find). The function would be a better guess than we can do now. Again, it’s probability not anything else.

  • We’ll probably be able to figure out which galaxies have already become infected – once we have a clearer idea about what we are looking for.

    Then the question will be whether they have a message to broadcast, or not.

  • There are a lot of possibilities to explain this state of affairs other than the absence of life out there. Another possibility: Some civilizations are very hostile and other civilizations have learned to hide from the hostile civilizations.

    The hostile civilizations could be quiet because they assume other intelligent species are just like them: dangerous and aggressive.

    Could be we are being watched by some less hostile civilizations that are waiting to decide which category to put us in. Until we develop AI and genetically engineer offspring our future direction is unclear.