Friday, February 11, 2011

SETI's search for "dopplegangers"

Last week, Dr. Seth Shostak wrote a piece for The Huffington Post.  Shostak is an astronomer and a head honcho for SETI, the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence.  While I've never been a big fan of SETI  and have lately been seriously unimpressed with The Huffington Post (see the whole "2nd. Sun" debacle), this article was not without interest.
The heartening news is that NASA's Kepler space telescope has discovered over 1,200 extrosolar planets.  Of that number, about forty-eight show promise of being Earth "dopplegangers" or worlds like ours that have oceans and dense atmospheres.  Shostak is quick to caution, and rightfully so, that this does not necessarily mean there is life on those planets.  And if there is life, it need not necessarily be intelligent.  It could be bacterial, botanical, or the alien equivalent of a sea bass.  Still, the promise is in the numbers.  The probability for finding intelligent life increases as the number of planets discovered rises...and that trusty Kepler is finding new planets all the time.
Now here's the downside.  Shostak writes, "This is big news, and the search for radio transmissions from these latter worlds [the doppelgangers] is already underway."  Read that one more time.  Radio transmissions.  What are the odds that a truly advanced civilization is using any kind of radio?  I suppose it is possible that there are aliens who are either at or beneath our technological level, but the ages of both humanity and Earth would seem to place those ETs in the minority.  Therefore, scanning space for radio signals seems a bit of an exercise in futility.  I know, I know, what should we look for instead?  Radio is where we're at right now.  How can we search for something we currently have no conception of?  Well, there's been suggestions surrounding "optical SETI," searching for laser bursts from other civilizations, whether the bursts be as beacons to us or ambient zaps we're catching from the sidelines.  Would they infiltrate our computer systems as a few have suggested?  Worm through our databases to learn all about us and perhaps leave messages behind?  Would we even know what to look for.  Don't know.
So no, I don't have any other ideas for SETI at this point.  I'll therefore keep my criticisms quite subdued.  After all, they probably aren't interested in hearing anything from someone like me, anyway...someone who thinks there's a decent chance that alien life is already visiting us.

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