E.T. Phone Home

The SETI Institute was created by astronomers such as the late Carl Sagan, and other notable individuals such as William Hewlett and David Packard of Hewlett-Packard fame, Nathan Myhrvold and Paul Allen of Microsoft, and several others. Using data from the sources such as Arecibo, Hubble, and Spitzer, SETI has spearheaded the search for life in the universe, and well as the search for extrasolar planets. In the late 1990’s, the SETI@home project was established to utilize the computing power of millions PCs distributed throughout the world as an ad hoc supercomputer of sorts to help sift through the mounds of data received from optical and radio telescopes and from data gathered by the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes. The method used by SETI and others to search for extraterrestrial life makes the broad assumption that other life forms would use the electromagnetic spectrum for communications. We assume that the laws of physics are constant in the observable universe, so other intelligent civilizations would have also invented or stumbled across the idea of using the electromagnetic spectrum for communications.

One hole in this strategy is that E.T. may not be using a phone or a radio to call home. Although we pat ourselves on the back for all of our scientific inventions, it could be that there’s an entirely different medium of communications staring us right in the face. In fact, it may be doing just that. It could be that photons can be designed to carry information at the speed of light, and may employ some unknown type of encoding or modulation to carry messages. E.T. might even use dark energy to communicate, or perhaps employ neutrinos. We have enough trouble just detecting neutrinos, but to a more advanced civilization, perhaps these elusive little particles are as common as table salt.

Another possible flaw in this strategy is that there may in fact be life out there, but perhaps it is microbial in nature and is unable to answer. We’ve certainly discovered many examples of extremophiles here on Earth, so it could be that space is teaming with these forms of life. We just don’t know what to look for. Fermi suggested that given the size and age of the universe that it is unlikely we’re alone, but more likely, we’re just not looking in the right place or using the correct methods. Of course, there are other theories. Some feel that life is just a transitory stage and that we will ultimately dry up and blow away like doggy doo-doo. Still others feel that we’re being kept in a zoo, perhaps contained so we don’t screw up the rest of the universe.

Perhaps the biggest joke of all is using the human race as a yardstick for defining ‘intelligent life’. It’s pretty arrogant to use ourselves as the gold standard for intelligence. We’re a race that over centuries has butchered our brothers and sisters to possess their wealth, gain power, or force our views of religion on each other. A list of the genocide, wars or major conflicts throughout the relatively short time we’ve inhabited our planted could fill volumes. In the last two hundred years alone we’ve managed to strip the Earth of most of its natural resources, polluted our oceans, rivers, and streams, and partially destroyed the critical elements of our atmosphere that shield us from harmful radiation and help maintain a climate conducive to life. We’ve already left enough nuclear waste to keep our descendants on their guard for the next 25,000 years.

In our search for E.T., we often state that we’re looking for ‘other intelligent life in the universe’. This presupposes that we’re in the same category as extraterrestrials because after all, they couldn’t be more intelligent than we are, right?

Steve Mastrianni