Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Is SETI a Dead End Search?

Is the SETI program doomed to fail because no sentient being claiming to be intelligent chooses radio – waves as a means of communicating over vast interstellar distances?

By: Vanessa Uy

Ever since humanity mastered the efficient propagation of radio - waves early in the 20th Century and formalized the science of radio astronomy. We became intrigued by the prospect that somewhere out there in space there might be extraterrestrial - beings. Beings that are as smart or smarter - than - us just waiting for our hails. Given the vast distance separating the stars, and on what we’ve learned on how fast radio – waves can travel, it seems like calling out to our interstellar brethren might be a fools errand. Yet it haven’t discouraged a group of astronomers from establishing SETI, which stands for the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence.

Radio – waves are a part of the electromagnetic spectrum which includes the visible light part of the spectrum - which allows us to see the world around us plus the other parts that we use everyday. Like the ultra violet rays from the sun that allows our skin to produce Vitamin D and an “aesthetically pleasing” tan. Like the X – Rays for non-invasive medical analysis, the near – infrared which operates our TVs remote, the longer infrared which we use to cook and heat our food, to microwaves used in microwave ovens and navigation purposes. Then the radio – waves of various frequencies used for navigation, telecommunication, or just produced as a by product of grid electricity production (the 60 Hz AC current produces radio – waves whose wavelengths measures about 3,000 Km from crest to crest).

Radio – waves travel in space at about 186,000 miles per second or 300,000 kilometers per second. Given the vastness of space radio – waves sent to the Moon will reach there in just 1.25 seconds, Mars in about 20 minutes while further on into the Gas Giants, it could be more than an hour. Radio – waves will take almost ten hours to reach Pluto and will take the whole part of the day to completely leave our Solar System past the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud regions. Four and a quarter years to reach Alpha Centauri, 150,000 years to go across the Milky Way galaxy and will probably take 18 billion years to go across the known universe. You probably now starting to get the idea of the problem faced in interstellar communication using just radio – waves. Imagine sending an e – mail to your ET friend who lives 45 light years away from you and chances are you won’t get a response within your lifetime.

Despite the problems there are solutions even though they may take a “few years” depending on how much of our government funds slated for scientific research will be diverted to a “War on Terror” rife with malfeasance. There’s that experiment done by Albert Einstein, Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen about quantum entanglement. The results of which have not yet been utilized for practical applications after all these years. Then there’s the phenomenon of particles that travel faster – than – light like tachyons, or what about the concept of “wormholes” or an “Einstein – Rosen Bridge”. The list goes on and who knows you might be the lucky one to develop such technology like the one used in the Star Trek TV series called subspace communication technology.

Despite “sticking their guns” on radio – wave technology that’s limited by the 186,000 miles–per-second speed limit, the current SETI is by no means astronomy’s white elephant. Back in the 1970’s, SETI received an anomalous signal in which they dubbed as the “WOW Signal” because it’s the definitive “smoking gun” if you will of an extraterrestrial civilization possessing technology to modulate a radio – wave for the purposes of telecommunication. Despite the ensuing excitement, the “WOW Signal” was never found again even after all these years. But anyone of us who still believes still live in hope that someday ET will call back.

To me, using radio – waves to search for extraterrestrial intelligence across the vastness of the cosmos is somewhat an inelegant solution. This will be like our ancient ancestors choosing to attach flotation devices on their feet to walk across vast stretches of water as opposed to inventing / building boats and ships. And also – to me – the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is somewhat of a misnomer. Using “radio telescopes” for SETI purposes will only detect “extraterrestrial technology”, don’t forget that extraterrestrial sentient beings that are technological equals to our ancient Babylonian astronomers are intelligent too.

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