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SETI Is 50 Years Old; No Sign of ET 454

EagleHasLanded writes "The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence is 50 years old next month, and still no sign of intelligent alien life. Paul Davies of the Beyond Center (also Chairman of the SETI Post-Detection Taskgroup) says it's time to re-think and expand the search for ET."
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SETI Is 50 Years Old; No Sign of ET

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  • We are the only ones (Score:1, Interesting)

    by zaax ( 637433 ) on Sunday March 14, 2010 @08:23PM (#31476284)
    Look how difficult it was to get here in the first place. We are the First Ones.
  • by VinylRecords ( 1292374 ) on Sunday March 14, 2010 @08:24PM (#31476290)

    The Fermi Paradox is woefully shortsighted. How long did it take modern human to actually explore other continents and find out that other intelligent human life was inhabiting a large patch of land on the same planet? Decades? Centuries? Whatever the plural of millennium is? It took ages for humans to even begin to explore our own planet. Every single day we find new species, new small islands, new pockets of underwater ocean life.

    If we can't even complete a species list on our own planet how can you expect us to even begin to understand how to contact (theoretical) alien life that exists far outside of our immediate grasp? For all we know a planet just like our earth, or earth in its infancy, or like our earth but at its end cycle, may exist somewhere out there. We have no way of being able to immediately confirm that though. And we might not ever.

    Carl Sagan even wrote that we should be open to the idea that an intelligent life form could have visited earth in the past.


  • by vadim_t ( 324782 ) on Sunday March 14, 2010 @08:32PM (#31476350) Homepage

    SETI is a detector, not an emitter.

    If you're worried about any possible aliens' intentions, then SETI is precisely the right approach. You'd want to know if something is coming our way, and get at least some idea of what it might be like.

    It also seems unlikely we can affect our visibility much. On one hand, we're absolutely tiny compared to other things happening in the universe. Any amount of energy we could send into space for instance is a drop in the bucket compared to what the Sun outputs. Anything we emit is unlikely to be received unless somebody is already looking in our direction for some other, more visible reason. But, on the other hand, if somebody is really looking, and capable of getting here, they almost certainly can figure out there's something here, and there's no way we can become quiet enough to pretend there isn't.

    At this point we can barely get off this rock. If anything shows up, they almost certainly vastly surpass us just from the fact that they can travel all the way here. So if there's anything to do about that the best plan would seem to be to try to figure out if anybody is coming, and if they are use that information to come up with a plan.

  • earth like planets (Score:3, Interesting)

    by agwis ( 690872 ) on Sunday March 14, 2010 @08:35PM (#31476378)

    I'm too lazy to look up the links, or the names of the projects, but I understand within the next few years focus is being placed on locating earth like planets (close to our same size, orbiting a similar star at roughly the same distance we are ours, etc.). I just assumed when I read about this the first time that SETI would be very interested and excited to be given locations of planets that actually have a decent chance of supporting life (as we know it) rather than just randomly focusing on a particular area. This should be exciting times for SETI and their followers but I'm surprised there isn't any mention of it in the interview.

    I hope SETI is going to be all over this as locations of earth like planets are announced and that that is what Paul Davies means by "time to re-think and expand the search for ET"!

  • Re:Patience! (Score:4, Interesting)

    by gmuslera ( 3436 ) on Sunday March 14, 2010 @08:36PM (#31476386) Homepage Journal
    Why don't start trying to find signs of intelligent life on Earth? Intelligence don't have to mean technology, and some species right here (dolphins? whales?) could be as intelligent or more than us, but while we see intelligence as use of tools we will keep ignoring them.
  • by msevior ( 145103 ) on Sunday March 14, 2010 @08:49PM (#31476512)

    You miss the point of the Fermi Paradox entirely. Given that humans have only been in existence on earth for 200K Years, why is it that no aliens have colonised Earth *before* we got here? It would take only one expansionist alien culture to exist in the billions of years the galaxy has existed before us and the Earth and the entire galaxy would have been well and truely colonized already.

    I mean some relatively straight-forward extrapolations of humans shows *us* colonizing the galaxy in a few million years.

    Basically the Fermi paradox says, they are *no* other intelligent civilizations in the galaxy otherwise we would have had dramatic evidence on Earth.

    Still I see no particular harm in continuing to look. If something were found it would be a monumental breakthrough.

  • by rotide ( 1015173 ) on Sunday March 14, 2010 @08:55PM (#31476560)

    I'm sorry you feel everyone is out to get you/us, but are we searching just to conquer an ET? Or are we doing so just for the sake of doing it and for whatever benefits/truths can be made from such a discovery?

    Maybe they want our resources, maybe we make good eats or maybe we make good batteries, I don't know. Could they want to find us just to kill us for one reason or another? Of course it is possible, but there is no reason to not look.

  • Re:Patience! (Score:2, Interesting)

    by rickkw ( 920898 ) on Sunday March 14, 2010 @09:01PM (#31476632)
    If by means of intelligence, we are talking about lifeforms that invent religion, and would dedicate their lives killing each other because it's god's will, then no, dolphins and whales don't fit the bill. If this is how intelligent lifeforms should be, then any extraterritorial beings that are like us but are (more) intelligent probably don't exist anymore.
  • by MichaelCrawford ( 610140 ) on Sunday March 14, 2010 @09:19PM (#31476808) Homepage Journal
    A while back I asked on an astronomy newsgroup where SETI was being discussed, how far away a civilization with the same level of technology as us, could detect our own signals. A SETI researcher said that it was about three light years. He said the most powerful signal that humanity radiates is the Distant Early Warning Radar, used to detect incoming Soviet nuclear missiles.

    The closest star, Alpha Centauri is about four light years. It is likely that the nearest technological civilization is quite a lot farther than that.

    He said that we were counting on detectable civilizations being lot more advanced than us, and so radiating a lot more power than we do. But I'm not so sure that that would help - possibly when a society gets more advanced, they develop more efficient communications technology and so radiate even less. An example is our own technology in which we now use undersea optical fiber rather than beaming so much power out at satellites.,P>

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 14, 2010 @09:22PM (#31476834)

    We've been switching to satellite and low power transmission systems as well as cable TV. In a 100 years Earth itself may seem dead quiet from interstellar space. That's not even a 200 year window to detect Earth and that's if you are using far more powerful collectors than we are. Unless Aliens have an active program to contact other planets, something we have yet to do, the odds of detecting them within a 50 year window are nearly zero. We need to try but the whole point is "no result" is meaningless. We could have a detector aimed right at a planet a 1,000 years ahead of us and odds are we would detect nothing. We aren't talking about what are the odds of an alien species being alive we are talking about what are the odds of the same species being alive in that same 200 year window, and actively trying to communicate with another world and we happen to have equipment aimed at them. In practical terms it may be impossible but the sad thing is most people can't wrap their heads around the scope of the problem enough to not simple draw the conclusion that we are alone. In truth our only hope of contacting another world is if they not us want to make contact. We aren't looking for random radio signals from alien TV we are looking for attempts to contact other worlds. That's what people need to understand.

  • by oakwine ( 1709682 ) on Sunday March 14, 2010 @09:33PM (#31476936)
    Might have been Charles Pellegrino who said that intelligent life would not long stay on a planet if they had a better option such as living on space constructs. Space constructs might most likely be found near proto star systems where a true star never formed and never blew away all the clouds of organics and heavy elements. Nanotech harvesters, fusion power, communication by point to point laser. Or communication by something we have not even the power to conceive of yet. Only real signature would be heat and we do not have the space borne technology to do a significant survey for something as subtle as that. Fred Hoyle and Arthur C. Clarke also provided alternatives that would make intelligent alien life almost impossible to detect, even if they were actually here! The odds we are facing with our present technology resemble finding a needle in a haystack, where it could be hid in any one of all the haystacks on earth during harvest season but no way to tell which it might be.
  • Re:Patience! (Score:2, Interesting)

    by novae_res ( 1651425 ) on Sunday March 14, 2010 @10:03PM (#31477192)
    Well, there are different kinds of intelligence, not just the iq test/problem solving kind. Emotional intelligence is widely seen among elephants, whales, and dolphins. Besides if you're just looking for that kind, then look no further than the corvidae genus of birds which display some remarkable problem solving feats.
  • by MousePotato ( 124958 ) on Sunday March 14, 2010 @10:21PM (#31477332) Homepage Journal

    or perhaps; they are intelligent, out there, have sufficient grasp of the huge distances/difficulties involved and decided not to waste their energies on 'travel' to focus on their own planets and civilizations...

  • Encryption (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Fished ( 574624 ) <`moc.liamg' `ta' `yrogihpma'> on Sunday March 14, 2010 @10:25PM (#31477374)
    Did anyone think that, maybe, most hypothetical alien signals might encrypted? I'm referring here not to signals deliberately sent, but to leakage, that sort of thing. There may be a relatively short window in which any civilization uses unencrypted radio. Then they move on to digital radio, encryption, etc., at much lower power, and the chance of finding them (in the speed of light window) is lost. The thing is that an encrypted data stream will look pretty close to random. So, your odds of picking it out of the noise are low.
  • by tftp ( 111690 ) on Sunday March 14, 2010 @10:35PM (#31477442) Homepage

    Life produces things that other things don't produce. Oxygen in an atmosphere for instance.

    Animals don't produce oxygen. Atmospheric composition is also not a good indicator; we can have 100 million people living on the Moon, under the surface, but it has no atmosphere. This is particularly relevant to intelligent life, which can create its own biosphere where necessary.

    If you want to start talking about the life we don't know about and thus can't detect, go ahead. It's going to be either a very short conversation, or a very useless and made up one though.

    It is most reasonable to expect an alien life to be alien to us. We will probably have machine intelligence (and life) within a century or two. Searching for lost keys only under the streetlight may be convenient but not very productive.

  • by therealgabacho ( 1767382 ) on Sunday March 14, 2010 @10:50PM (#31477506)
    Is it possible that we're one of the first planets to evolve advanced technology? Maybe someone can better explain the math to me. Universe is apx 14 billion years old. The sun, approximately at mid-life is 4 billion years old. Creation of heavy (including organic) elements requires supernova of massive stars at the end of their life. It seems like there can't have been that many generations of suns before the formation of our planet. Is my math crazy?
  • Re:Patience! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Theswager ( 1455957 ) on Sunday March 14, 2010 @11:08PM (#31477624)
    Language allows humans to communicate effectively, the Neanderthals had larger brains and more advanced tools than the Homo Sapiens at the time, but the Homo Sapiens had a more advanced ability to vocalize made possible by a more complex Larynx. Humans out-competed these smarter hominid species in no small part due to communication, so I do accept your premise that intelligence is more than technology. Intelligence is a purely human concept, because of this the human notion of intelligence ought to be what humans value (ya know, because where all human and such). Just having a large capacity for cognitive processing is not enough to constitute the intelligence that humans value. Our intelligence is all about intellectual evolution made possible by infrastructure. Writing allows people to solidify their ideas for the next generation so that knowledge is not lost when the brain dies. Farming allows for humans to have a small minority provide food for an entire society to survive and have surplus, thus allowing other members of society to focus on improving other parts of society for themselves and the next generation. You can sit in the comfort of your home with plentiful food and a controlled temperature at your computer tying out asinine comments on the good ol' global communications network because of the infrastructure of knowledge and technology built by countless human lives before you. All while the dolphins that people are so irrationally fond for (don't get me wrong dolphins are cute and there is no reason that we need to be killing them) spend every day of their lives searching for their next meal in a harsh environment . Do you think that dolphins ponder their existence? Or even have cognitive processes which extend beyond survival and mating? They don't have time to because they need to search for their next meal or die. This is because no matter how intelligent dolphins get their body lacks the ability to build anything significant. Even if Dolphins had more advanced brains than we do (which they do not) it would not matter because humans can write and build. In the realm of humans biological evolution is irrelevant because our intellectual evolution moves at a much quicker pace and has enabled fantastic progress in a short time life expectancy [] has more than tripled from 20 in the Neolithic to about 67 today. Dolphins on the other hand have been doing pretty much the same things for a very long time and they will most likely keep doing that for a while.
  • SETI publications (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 14, 2010 @11:18PM (#31477688)

    Why is it that when I go to the SETI scientific publications page (, the only person with recent publications (in the last four years) hasn't produced scientific publications recently (

    Most of the people on this page ( have scientific publications from years ago.

    What has SETI contributed to the scientific community for the last five years? 50 years?

    And what has it contributed to interstellar diplomacy?

    While I think it's great that people like Paul Allen who are passionate about SETI support it, I would be dismayed if SETI is supported by the public through taxes, much like I am horrified that moneysinks like wars and bridges-to-nowhere are constantly funded by the public.

    A side question: the NIH grant award rate is something like 10% (of submissions get funding). Do 10% of all contractors who submit applications for contracts receive awards from the government? more, less? Is the review process as rigorous for these applications?

  • Re:Patience! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by fm6 ( 162816 ) on Sunday March 14, 2010 @11:25PM (#31477740) Homepage Journal

    I recently heard an interesting theory about pachyderm intelligence. They're the largest survivors of the early phase of the Holocene extinction event []. Before this event, there were impressive megafauna on every major land mass outside Antarctica. There are various theories as to what happened to this megacritters, the most popular being that they their long reproduction cycles made it impossible for them to keep up with hunting by humans..

    So why did elephants survive when their cousins the woolly mammoths and various superbirds (I particularly like giant grazing ducks []) did not? The theory is that elephants co-evolved with humans. As our ancestors got smarter and better at hunting, elephants got smarter and better and not being hunted. It wasn't until humans left Africa and started hunting megafauna that had no experience with them that the extinctions began. All these other animals simply didn't have time to evolve the way elephants did.

    Which is too bad, really. Think of all the friends we could have had. Once they forgave us for eating them, of course.

  • by loom_weaver ( 527816 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @12:21AM (#31478122)

    Another possibility is that any life-form capable of colonizing other planets annihilated itself before it could do so. Chilling but quite plausible.

  • The Atomic beacon (Score:3, Interesting)

    by DigiShaman ( 671371 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @12:44AM (#31478230) Homepage

    Our weapon of war is undoubtedly a beacon of intelligence. Sounds ironic, I know. But when you think about it, detonating vast amounts of plutonium releases a tremendous amount of energy all over the EM spectrum. It also gives off a unique signature of the kind that doesn't, or could *never* happen naturally. It really takes a civilization to make and concentrate plutonium into a bomb.

    Forget TV or radio transmissions. The true universe of intelligent language is THE BOMB! It all started with Trinity on July 16, 1945.

  • by avilliers ( 1158273 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @03:25AM (#31478848)

    Look how difficult it was to get here in the first place. We are the First Ones.

    I realize Slashdot loves the ET thing, but who modding the parent as a troll? Really? For suggesting we're alone and tosssing in a sci-fi cliche?

    Beyond that, I don't even think it's a ridiculous suggestion on the merits. Life itself seems to have risen quickly, but it did take life a long time for any intelligence to appear on Earth--billions of years with life, but no technology and no intelligence. That certainly suggests it's not inevitable. It might really be a one in a billion fluke--we don't know.

  • by VShael ( 62735 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @05:11AM (#31479394) Journal

    No, your math is fine.

    If it hadn't been for asteroidal impacts wiping out the dinosaurs, some avian/lizard like creatures from Earth could have colonised this galaxy by now.
    The fact that the galaxy hasn't been colonised by some earlier evolved species from another star, has only three (that I know of) explanations.

    1) The good neighbour hypothesis. The galaxy is colonised, but they are advanced enough to be beyond our perception threshold, and they leave young species like ours alone.

    2) The hostile neighbourhood hypothesis. The galaxy is not conducive to long term sentient life. Either because of natural disasters (periodic galactic core eruptions) or some fundamental flaw with intelligent species. (Like the catch-22 of "A survival instinct is necessary, yet it's what ultimately drives species to war over diminishing resources, and die off." Thus, the survival instinct has a built in limitation which kicks in as technology and our destructive ability, increase.)

    3) The "Here-it-comes" hypothesis. The galaxy is being colonised, by a species that is anywhere from 100 to 500,000 years ahead of us in development. But their colonisation wave hasn't reached our part of the galaxy yet. When it does, we'll sink beneath the wave.

    If anyone can posit a 4th, which isn't some sub-set of those 3, I'd like to hear it.

    In any case, if any of those options were true, I'm not sure SETI would be useful unless it gave us some advance notice of the oncoming colonisation wave. Not that we could do anything to prevent our extinction.

  • by wisebabo ( 638845 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @05:26AM (#31479470) Journal

    A friend of mine who is much smarter than me (I know, I know, that doesn't mean much) INSISTS that they are here now. However since he works at a very high level in a field which requires him to tell the state department 3 months in advance before he is allowed to leave the country, I pay attention to what he says in technical matters at least.

    Like the dog in "Men In Black" said: "Silly Humans, why do you always think something powerful has to be big?" (or something like that, no thanks to you Mr. Google!); perhaps Aliens or rather their NANO sized machine emissaries reached Earth a long long time ago (in keeping with the Fermi Paradox) and have basically infested the entire solar system, waiting...

    Now as we start dabbling with nano-technologies and begin to have the capability of actually seeing them with our new atomic-force microscopes, they have to make a decision. Do they allow themselves to be discovered? I assume they could either do this passively like letting us see some of their machinery scuttle about amongst the atoms or they might as well come out and say "We're Here!". (Kinda like "Horton hears a Who")

    Or, will they 1) leave the planet and keep withdrawing just beyond the range of our increasingly sophisticated probes? 2) maybe they will actively try to remain hidden, should be easy (for awhile) to cause subtle "problems" in our equipment from finding them. Experiments will mysteriously (or not depending on how clever they are) not work and our own attempts to create nano-machines will forever be thwarted.

    Or maybe they'll decide, time's up, this species is not worth keeping; let's clean the planet and start over with another (bears?).

    One way or another maybe we'll find out soon!

  • by dkf ( 304284 ) <> on Monday March 15, 2010 @06:30AM (#31479862) Homepage

    If it has taken us this long to develop to the stage we are currently at, it is reasonable to assume that under similar conditions, life (similar to ours) on other plants would occur in roughly the same timeframe.

    But 1% less time, not an unreasonable amount of error, would put them 100 million years before now (using a guess for the current age of the galaxy). Even if we go with just the age of the earth as the major factor, that error is 45 million years. That's a long time in which stuff can happen (for comparison, modern humanity has only really been going for half a percent of that). Given all that, and the immense size of the galaxy, where is everyone? That's the core of the Fermi Paradox.

    There's huge unknowns as yet. We don't actually know how many earth-like planets there are out there (because we can't yet search for them in a useful way). We don't know what proportion of them host life (no data except Earth, which doesn't help). We don't what proportion of those host intelligence. We don't know what proportion of intelligent life is actually able and interested in communication with us (we do know that for most of the time that humanity's been about, we couldn't build radios and a lot of cultures just haven't been interested in the outside world). It's even possible that there are lots of civilizations out there that don't use normal radio to communicate (lasers would be harder to detect) and which have agreed to leave us alone until we reach out to them far enough. We just don't know.

    Right now, SETI is like a drunk looking for his house keys under a lamp post. Except more so. I hold more hope for the scientists who are trying to figure out things by attacking the whole problem from the other end; for example, we now that there are lots of planets out there (even if we can't yet find the kinds that we're interested in).

  • by imakemusic ( 1164993 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @06:31AM (#31479866)

    So on one hand you have a civilisation with scientists trying to find out about their world by smashing things and watching closely. They use their discoveries to invent lots of things: electricity, medicine, computers, space ships etc, and eventually colonise the galaxy and become the intelligent life that we're looking for.

    On the other hand you have a civilisation that didn't experiment because they might break something. They never invented space-faring rockets because they were scared they would crash into the dome of the sky and break it. They did invent electricity but it was never widely popular because people knew it would only be a matter of time before everyone got electrocuted. And they never invented computers because they weren't bloody stupid and they had better things to do with their time. And they never tried building an LHC which was a shame because it meant they never discovered how to make the faster-than-light anti-gravity propulsatron drive they needed to to escape the planet when the asteroid hit.

  • by Rogerborg ( 306625 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @06:31AM (#31479868) Homepage

    And I think that anything that does show up here would do so for a purpose, and most likely one that we really wouldn't like [].

  • by lawpoop ( 604919 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @09:44AM (#31481242) Homepage Journal

    I'm sure that's what the Spanish thought in 1492 too.

    Are you kidding me? They were looking for a better trade route to India, to avoid sailing all around Africa.

  • by GargamelSpaceman ( 992546 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @10:22AM (#31481616) Homepage Journal

    Suppose you could make a human the size of a mouse, and that that human was just as human as the humans around now, and comparably able in every way except size. Then instead of billions of them, you might be able to have trillions or even quadrillions of them infesting the earth for the same resources. For a short time ( because of exponential growth in population, if everyone were shrunk to the size of mice, then the world would again be an open and plentiful land short only of people, and hence the value of human life would increase even further for a time )

    It seems to me such a mini human would be utterly superior to existing humans since you'd get all the bang for a thousanth the bucks. Big people would be like UNIVAC models.

    Other benefits are that you could fall from great heights and survive, though you'd get cold easier, and also dehydrate faster. You'd probably need a faster metabolism and maybe a different shape to deal with those issues. And why should people only be shrunk in size? Why not time as well? With quicker thoughts and a more active lifestyle, maybe a couple of years would be enough time to live a whole human life.


"The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts." -- Bertrand Russell