Miscellaneous musings from the perspective of a lefty (both senses) atheist with a warped sense of humor.

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Location: Madison, WI, United States

I am a geek, but I do have some redeeming social skills. I love other people's dogs, cats, and kids. Snow sucks, but I'm willing to put up with it just to live in Madison.

Thursday, April 12, 2007


2007 April 7

Skeptical Inquirer
944 Deer Dr. NE
Albuquerque NM 87122

Skeptical Inquirer and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (and CSICOP before it) have long contended that scientists are just too darned honest and earnest to detect attempts at fraud, and that they should bring magicians and similar tricksters along with them on their investigations.

I suggest that having a couple of science-fiction writers on hand would also be a good idea.

The four scientists who offered their views on SETI [Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence] and Astrobiology in your May/June issue differed in their assessments, but they all had two things in common:
  • They referred to those who expected SETI to be successful as “optimists” and those who did not as “pessimists”.
  • They were woefully limited in imagining what extra-terrestrial life might be like.

It may be optimistic to want contact with alien civilizations if they’re benign, like Steven Spielberg’s ET. But what if they’re like John Carpenter’s The Thing? In science fiction, for every Childhood’s End (Arthur C. Clarke), there’s a “To Serve Man” (Damon Knight).

Peter Schenkel pooh-poohs this possibility, contending that any race capable of interstellar travel must necessarily have fundamental traits that include “unquenchable intellectual curiosity” and “scrutinizing spirit”, else “they could not have achieved their advanced standards”.

Oh, really? I suggest he spend some time with Larry Niven’s “Man-Kzin War” series. Here the Jotok are just such an advanced race. They arrive on the Kzin homeworld with their message of sweetness and light. The Kzin, descended from large predatory cats, overwhelm the Jotok, capture their starships, and set out across the galaxy in search of prey, glory, and honor. They needn’t bother with all the details of a technological civilization: that’s the sort of thing their miserable, cowardly Jotok slaves are good for. The Kzins’ job, as noble warriors and hunters, is to rule, dominate, kill, and eat.

Is it optimistic to hope that somebody like the Kzin notices us? Maybe the reason we haven’t heard any signals from other civilizations is because they’ve all got the good sense not to advertise their presence.

As your writers acknowledge, SETI is looking for Earth-like life on Earth-like planets. How unimaginative. Life, in the most general sense, is self-reproducing organized complexity. What’s going on in the hugely voluminous clouds of gas-giant planets like Jupiter? How about the rarified nebulae of outer space, where life spans of billions of years may be possible (if slow)? What about magnetic vortices within stars? And we don’t even know what dark matter (25% of the Universe) and dark energy (70%) are, let alone how they might be organized.

SETI is searching in the radio spectrum. But for what? In barely a century of radio on Earth, we’ve used 3 different transmission techniques (AM, FM, and digital), each of which sounds like noise to the other 2. Indeed, information theory tells us that the most efficient form of communication involves tight encryption (like MPEG, JPEG, and MP3 files), with all redundancies stripped out, a signal which truly is indistinguishable from noise, even if you’re listening using the proper techniques. David Darling acknowledges this when he writes “The galaxy may be swarming with advanced intelligence that is as invisible to us as satellite communications is to a native in the rainforest.”, but even he is looking for quasi-humans. Who’s listening for modulated gravity waves or digital-pulse neutrino emissions?

I could go on, but there’s no need to. A couple of excellent authors have already done so at book length: What Does a Martian Look Like? The Science of Extraterrestrial Life (Wiley, 2002, 369 pages, ISBN 0-471-26889-5), in which Jack Cohen (professor of biology) and Ian Stewart (professor of mathematics, also at University of Warwick in Coventry) contend that life is inordinately opportunistic and can take on many more forms than the limited imaginations of Ward and Brownlee (Rare Earth) have allowed for.

Oh, yeah. They also write science fiction.


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