Cosmic infection
September 14, 2013 8:26 AM   Subscribe

SETI chief astronomer Seth Shostak on how soon we might find evidence for extraterrestrial life (SLYT)
posted by fearfulsymmetry (25 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
Nonsense. We'll find evidence on August 14, 2015, around three o'clock in the afternoon in Des Moines, Iowa.

How do I know this? Never mind. Just saying, if you have a disused filing cabinet in your basement in Des Moines that you haven't opened in a while, _leave it alone_.
posted by delfin at 9:12 AM on September 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's really cool that we can now identify exoplanets and do a targeted search.

I'm a little more bearish on the inevitability of the technological singularity and bullish on intelligent civilizations quickly destroying themselves (or at least their radio-signal-generating capability) than this guy.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:29 AM on September 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


watched this last night, seems too glib and optimistic. don't forget he had to go private with his funding so he's probably not going to give a talk where he says "oh hell, we're never going to find them..."
posted by joeblough at 9:30 AM on September 14, 2013


Yeah, I forgot about the funding drying up. It's a lottery ticket, for sure, but what a jackpot it would be.

Improving exoplanet search seems like the best hope for SETI though -- if we could characterize exoplanets well enough to say "uh, guys, that planet over there is likely terraformed, let's build a giant radio telescope and see if they're watching I Love Lucy next door"
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:55 AM on September 14, 2013


>> he's probably not going to give a talk where he says "oh hell, we're never going to find them..."

He's optimistic, to be sure, but I didn't really hear glibness. He seemed to me to be sincerely enthusiastic and hopeful for SETI, and to have a good sense of humor about it. Why bother putting so much time and energy into something that you are pretty certain won't pan out?
posted by JohnFredra at 10:23 AM on September 14, 2013


The big problem is the time part of Drake's equation. Even accepting 100,000s of thousands of Earths in the Milky Way that at one time or another have had or will have life, do they exist at the same time as we are looking at them. The galaxy is 10 or so billions years old, the chances of time sync seem very remote. Which makes me think our mission should be to create a device that will broadcast for billions of years so future explorers from other planets can find our gravestone.
posted by stbalbach at 10:53 AM on September 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


The first evidence we'll have for aliens will be the relativistic projectile that pops the Earth like a grape.
posted by The Tensor at 11:00 AM on September 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


Let's be precise here; when most people talk about "extraterrestrial intelligence" they really mean "intelligence like us, that we can talk to". The thing is, I think the wide diversity of planetary systems and planet types is actually an argument that life would be rarer, not more common. If life can only arise in a limited range of environments, and there's a wide diversity of planetary environments, then the odds are against a given system being life bearing. It's even more of a problem now that we know that planetary orbits aren't necessarily stable from formation.

Likewise, even if life arises, there's a long evolutionary process between microbes and intelligent tool users, none of which is inevitable. Tool using intelligence may even be maladaptive in the long run.

Add the odds up, and the chances for intelligent tool users to arrive and thrive for any length of time may be something in the one in hundred billion range.
posted by happyroach at 11:00 AM on September 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


why? well because it's something to do and it's interesting, and it also puts food on his table. even if you never detect anything the journey is the reward, so to speak. lots of interesting problems to solve.
posted by joeblough at 11:05 AM on September 14, 2013


>> well because it's something to do and it's interesting, and it also puts food on his table.

Yes, but that seems true of any reasonably fulfilling career. I think it might have been more accurate to say that I interpreted your comment as suggesting suspicion of his motives. Did I interpret that right?
posted by JohnFredra at 11:23 AM on September 14, 2013


some of the comments on the boing BBS are interesting to read. i think i agree that any advanced civilization probably spends 50-100 years broadcasting high-power stuff willy-nilly out into the universe and then starts moving on to digital communications, which when optimized completely are difficult to discern from random noise. also, we start looking for more bandwidth, so our communications are increasingly going low-power and/or being carried by optics or wires. given the distances involved and the timescales, it seems like a longshot that we'd come across anything that was sent out inadvertently.

the red dwarves he mentions seem to be a bit of a problem. the sun is i think a 3rd-generation star, and the stuff we are made out of can only be made by supernovae, or massive 2nd generation stars. if there are planets orbiting red dwarves, what are they made out of? are there a sufficient number of shorter-lived stars near by these red dwarves in order to populate those planets with heavy elements? as far as we know the sun and everything in the solar system coalesced out of the same stuff. that stuff was not around when the red dwarves started up, since they are 1st generation stars.

or, maybe life does not actually require all the trace elements we need to function and so this is not a concern.

geoff marcy is a little more circumspect about this. in one of his talks he points out that we've had boatloads of non-intelligent life on this planet, and of course the majority of life on the planet today is not necessarily sentient (shows picture of his cat at piano keyboard.) there's no evidence that the reptiles that once ruled this planet were sentient and the emergence of mammals and finally apes seems to be a cosmic accident... if alvarez & co are right - a random meteor strike.
posted by joeblough at 11:25 AM on September 14, 2013


JohnFredra, i'm not necessarily suspicious of his motives but i think what he is saying has to be taken with a grain of salt, given his dual role as scientist and pitchman for his project.
posted by joeblough at 11:27 AM on September 14, 2013


If life can only arise in a limited range of environments

This is something we really have no clue about. We're already finding life here on our own planet which seems to be existing in environments where nothing should be able to live. What is to say that life can't exist in even more unimaginable places, too?
posted by hippybear at 11:29 AM on September 14, 2013


Fair enough, joeblough.
posted by JohnFredra at 11:31 AM on September 14, 2013


To be honest I'm kinda with Stephen Hawking on this. We're all thinking Star Trek/Federation/Kumbayaa and it's more likely to be Mars Attacks! (provided we don't do it to ourselves in the meantime). Still, it would be nice to know one way or another.
posted by tommasz at 11:41 AM on September 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Some sort of centric thinking, that they will be recognizable as sentient: intelligent life might be more likely to not invent a goddam radio in the first place, on account of how it leads to the destruction of family values and encourages rock and roll. You might need to look for a critter that plays with stars the way we play with marbles: you know, the critter that made the Cosmic Egg we call The Universe. (We already are stardust. Maybe we should leave well enough alone.)

And anyhow, you can't have a civilization without first having the coffee bean. That's already been proven here on Earth. Don't look for radio signals, look for Starbucks.
posted by mule98J at 12:16 PM on September 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Hey! I produced a film about the SETI project once, I spent a day with Seth back in the day, filmed him in CA, and filmed Dr. Jill Tarter at Green Bank, WV. She was the inspiration for Jodie Foster's character in Contact.

This is cool.
posted by C.A.S. at 1:24 PM on September 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Setting a date for finding something is pretty silly, but hey, hope it's worth a look?

If there is intelligent life out there, and if we find it, Lem's law implies that it will be unintelligible to us.

I really liked the Jodie Foster/Sagan movie because it told an interesting story, although It always bugs me when she's being grilled about her atheism, that she should have quoted what Einstein said: "I believe in Spinoza's God"...
posted by ovvl at 3:58 PM on September 14, 2013


I thought all you would need is a telescope with high-enough resolution to see the nightlights on the darkside of a planet whose denizens harnessed electricity and invented lightbulbs, like those satellite photos of Earth at nighttime.
posted by Renoroc at 4:40 PM on September 14, 2013


well you know, light and radio signals are the same thing after all... photons.
posted by joeblough at 7:57 PM on September 14, 2013


The big problem is the time part of Drake's equation. Even accepting 100,000s of thousands of Earths in the Milky Way that at one time or another have had or will have life, do they exist at the same time as we are looking at them. The galaxy is 10 or so billions years old, the chances of time sync seem very remote. Which makes me think our mission should be to create a device that will broadcast for billions of years so future explorers from other planets can find our gravestone.

What about the idea that each one of these can technically last for a few tens of billions of years? Ok, so the first gets tired and dies out, the second gets philosophical and dies out, the third gets too right wing conservative and dies out, but all 100k of them?

My money is on the possibility of an either scientific or a philosophical time-bomb that inevitably ruins civilizations. Perhaps every civ 500 years older than industrial revolution begins to produce so many self-help books that the planet crust caves in under the weight of tomes and magma consumes everything that's left.
posted by rainy at 7:55 AM on September 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


each one of these can technically last for a few tens of billions of years?

Probably too generous amount of time. There are so many existential risks, one of them will cash in. However since we can assume that some of these advanced civilizations will reach a technological point where they can leave machines behind to broadcast their existence. Which was the same point Seth Shostak ended his talk with. It's actually the next logical step, after we search for and don't find life, to ensure that life finds us after we are gone. I think Seth is planting the idea in case they fail to find anything, they'll have another project to work on.
posted by stbalbach at 9:28 AM on September 15, 2013




What about the part about how those photons (and the other wavy thingies) we look at left home a billion years ago? Or seven billion years ago? Or only a few million years ago? Some sort of topological temporal geekyness is at work here, but it seems to me that they could be on their way, and we still won't be able to see them coming until the light cone overlaps.

If we are only slightly ahead of the curve, then we have to wait a while. If we can't see them, they can't see us. Not yet.
posted by mule98J at 9:36 PM on September 15, 2013


Distant ruins

Heh good timing. And good article.
posted by stbalbach at 10:26 PM on September 15, 2013


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