Can you build a transmitter?

The Postdoc Perspective was a blog for the Physics and Astronomy Department at McMaster University in Canada that I kept while I was a postdoctoral researcher. Many of the topics were talks presented at the McMaster Origins Institute seminar series.  

"You claim that there are many Earth-like planets while finding none!"

"But we have found many Jupiter-sized planets and they should be rarer than Earth-sized so the trend is pointing towards a large number!"

I was sitting in the audience of "The Great Extraterrestrial Debate", an event hosted by the Centre for Inquiry in Toronto. It was part of the organisation's "Extraordinary Claims" campaign which is designed to put some of today's most controversial allegations through a critical examination. This evening's topic surrounded the likelihood of alien life interacting with us on Earth.

The debate comprised of a panel of three individuals whose profession gave them a stake in this field. The first was Astrophysics Professor, Ray Jayawardhana, from the University of Toronto, whose research focusses on planetary formation outside our Solar System. The second was science fiction author, Robert J. Sawyer, and the third was Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at S.E.T.I. (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute.

Despite being labelled a 'debate', it was stated upfront that all three panellists were in agreement; to this date, there has been no strong evidence for life outside of Earth. That said, the three unique view points being brought to the table did lead to passionate discussion. The above snippet was between Ray Jayawardhana and Robert J. Sawyer and was wrapped-up by Seth Shostak who pointed out:

"Ray and Rob arguing shows how hard it is to find stupid life. If they can built a basic radio transmitter (and you should all ask yourself now if you can do that) then their biology doesn't matter!"

Apart from the thinly veiled implication that S.E.T.I. would not count most of the audience as 'intelligent life', Dr Shostak's point highlighted a fundamental difference between his work and that of many astrobiologists; S.E.T.I. is only interested in life-forms that can talk to us. This bypasses all the problems with defining what life is and how we should go about detecting it when it is likely to be nothing like our own (a problem previously touched on in this post).

But is it really likely that we will make contact with aliens who can communicate with us?

Seth Shostak and Ray Jayawardhana both discussed the recently launched Kepler mission which is uncovering a flood of planets, with 1235 possible candidates identified in the first year of operation alone. This is in comparison to the 500 planets that have previously been discovered in the last 15 years. This huge influx of data in such a short time indicates the vast number of planets there must be in our galaxy which suggests that it would be a miracle if we were the only life to have been created on any of them. Dr Shostak also added that S.E.T.I.'s current failure to find life should not be interpreted as an absence of extraterrestrial intelligence. Currently, S.E.T.I. has only searched a tiny patch of the sky and declaring the Universe baron of life based on such a survey would be the equivalent of searching a square kilometre of Africa and concluding there were no elephants on the continent.

On the other hand, even if life did evolve on another world, we might have a problem with timing. Robert J. Sawyer made the argument that while the human race has existed for a few thousand years, there is a much narrower window between the invention of radio (needed for communication with S.E.T.I.) and the creation of the atomic bomb. It could be that almost as soon as a life-form can communicate, it self-destructs. Dr Shostak counted this by stating that the invention of rockets would take place in the same time-frame to launch the bombs, which gave the possibility of members of the species leaving the destroyed planet behind them to colonise somewhere else. He suggested that, like cockroaches, a life-form such as humans would be impossible to fully wipe out.

So ... if you're not able to build a transmitter, S.E.T.I. consider you too stupid to be interesting. If you ARE able to build a transmitter, you are analogous to a cockroach. Everyone feeling good? Then I'll continue...

Then there is the problem that if aliens were to appear, how would we react? Contrary to popular movies, it was deemed unlikely that such a discovery would cause rioting in the streets. For one, the signal would be coming from so far away that it isn't going to affect your ability to buy your morning coffee from Tim Hortons any time soon. Secondly, 1/3 - 1/5 of the population believe aliens are here already doing (and I quote Seth Shostak) "experiments your mother would not approve of", so a significant fraction of the world would not even be surprised.

Robert J. Sawyer suggested that it might be unhealthy for our own future to discover a more advanced life-form. If it could be shown that most life did survive their 'technological adolescence', then the human race might not strive as hard to solve its own problems, being content to let time take its course. Dr Shostak took this idea to a more personal level by saying that tenured professors might find it depressing to know all their scientific research had been solved a million years ago by this advanced alien race. Professor Jayawardhana, however, seemed to think this would save on having to publish more papers!

Finally, Robert J. Sawyer pointed out that S.E.T.I. did make one very big assumption:

That life, if it's out there, would be remotely interested in us.