March 11, 2007


Trying to Meet the Neighbors (DAVE ITZKOFF, 3/11/07, NY Times)

Surprisingly, the science-fiction community (which knows a thing or two about being misunderstood and dismissed) is not unequivocally supportive of SETI's work. In a 2003 lecture entitled "Aliens Cause Global Warming," Michael Crichton declared, "SETI is unquestionably a religion." And authors free of Crichton's political baggage do not cast SETI's mission in particularly upbeat terms, either: in his short story "The Puzzle," the Serbian author Zoran Zivkovic writes of a scientist pursuing a SETI-like experiment, whose "gloomy exultation" can end only with irrefutable evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence -- only "with contact made would he be able to say that his life's work had meaning." [...]

Yet some of the wilder ideas about alien life that Shostak's fellow scientists have contemplated in their own fiction could be within the realm of possibility. From his own reading, he describes as fanciful but impossible to dismiss completely the physicist Robert L. Forward's novel "Dragon's Egg" -- which imagines tiny creatures on the surface of a neutron star, whose lives elapse a million times faster than our own -- and the title character of the astrophysicist Fred Hoyle's novel "The Black Cloud," a diffuse organism as wide as the orbit of Venus.

Underlying all these conjectures is a single, basic assumption (proponents of intelligent design should stop reading here): no matter where life is found, it will obey Darwinian tenets of evolution. "It's hard to avoid evolution," Shostak said, "because all it says is that if you survive, then you must be good, so whatever traits you have tend to propagate."

To the extent that SETI is modest about its expectations, it has found philosophical support in unexpected quarters. When Richard Dawkins sniffs around the underlying science of SETI in "The God Delusion," he writes that he doesn't "immediately scent extreme improbability." And Dawkins concedes that "there are very probably alien civilizations that are superhuman, to the point of being godlike in ways that exceed anything a theologian could possibly imagine" -- an idea he acknowledges cribbing from Arthur C. Clarke, whose so-called Third Law of prediction states, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

In other words, exactly those quarters you'd expect have faith in it. As how could they not, since the Fermi Paradox is such a blow to Darwinism.

The other side of the Fermi paradox (Michael Huang, February 19, 2007, Space Review)

The Fermi paradox--the estimation that extraterrestrial civilizations are common and would naturally expand into space, contradicting the lack of evidence that they exist anywhere--is the subject of fascinating speculation and guesswork. Every possible fate of extraterrestrial intelligence is proposed and explored. These thought experiments are not only interesting in their own right, but may help evaluate the state of a more terrestrial civilization. What will happen to humankind in the future? By examining the possible futures of extraterrestrial civilizations, we are simultaneously examining the possible futures of our own civilization. Put in another way, if an alien civilization somewhere had their own version of the Fermi paradox, they would be speculating on our future in the same way that we speculate on theirs.

That would be the same side.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 11, 2007 3:43 PM

I like how Dawkins 'sniff's' improbability. What a great scientist.

I had no idea about Crichton's views until I read a post by OJ a while back. He writes pop novels but is a better intellectual than the intellectuals.

Posted by: JAB at March 11, 2007 4:14 PM

The "Fermi paradox" goes away when you stop letting the SETI true believers pick the values, which are always biased (sometimes absurdly) in their favor, but instead use the median of the range of possible values. (In other words, follow standard scientific practice.) Then the value come out to about 1.0, which, in words even a Modern Lit Ph.D. should understand, means the odds are, we ARE alone. (Another factor is that when dealing with uncertain values, you should include your "error bars" in those calculation, another thing the SETI true believers ignore.)

And should they exist (or have existed), we will be separated by both space and time. I still the the best candidate for our finding a non-human civilization is our own solarsystem, in that one species of dinosaur, over a few thousand years, developed intellegence. Ten thousand years can easily be lost in the geologial record, especially if you don't know what to look for. If we do look hard enough, we'll eventually find some of their artifacts orbiting the sun, just as 100 million years from now, someone will find our junk "out there", after all other traces of us have disappeared.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at March 11, 2007 5:06 PM

Von Neumann predicted that some civilzation would eventually build a self-replicating automatic spacecraft. In a few billion years they should have infested every galaxy by now. Even if the civilization that created them is long dead.

Posted by: Gideon at March 11, 2007 5:29 PM

Yes, it's only paradoxical to Darwinists.

Posted by: oj at March 11, 2007 7:33 PM

If anti-Darwinists don't see any paradoxes in the universe, they're not looking hard enough.

Posted by: PapayaSF at March 11, 2007 11:44 PM

The paradoxes lie within Man, not the Universe.

Posted by: oj at March 12, 2007 2:18 AM

SETI is actually pretty easy to explain. We have SETI and UFOs for the same reason we have Sasquatch and the Loch Ness Monster. A universe with aliens, and big hairy forest creatures, and plesiosaurs in Scottish lakes, is just cooler than one without, and so we choose to live in what we think is the coolest of all possible universes.

Posted by: Mike Morley at March 12, 2007 5:17 AM

Dawkins concedes that "there are very probably alien civilizations that are superhuman, to the point of being godlike in ways that exceed anything a theologian could possibly imagine

Dawkins has never read Hyperion.

Posted by: BrianOfAtlanta at March 12, 2007 2:01 PM