Tuesday, January 24, 2006

number please

on a whim, I signed up to the SETI@home project the other day, so our downstairs computer (the boys computer, actually, but they say they don't mind) is now one of half a million or so which is lending its spare processing capacity to help crunch the numbers collected in Puerto Rico at the Arecibo telescope and analysed in Berkeley at the University of California.

SETI has been actively listening for twenty years or so, on and off, and there's still no peep from the deepest darkest reaches of outer space, but you never know - one day that computer downstairs might be the one to flag a spike in the 1.5 gigaherz band that signals the start of a download that ends with, erm, Jodie Foster dropping into a wormhole and meeting an alien in the form of her dead dad ... or something ...

there seem to be only two ET stereotypes: the aggressive invader and the hands-off benign super-intelligence. the one comes with a black exoskeletal carapace and/or big slanty eyes in a noseless ovoid head and abducts us in our sleep to conduct excruciatingly invasive experiments on us up there in orbit on the mothership before wiping our memories somewhat inefficiently and returning us to wander around naked in West Hartlepool or Paris Texas at three o'clock in the morning, and the other wafts around humming in a vaguely melodic language comprehensible only to maths nerds and deaf French movie directors and wearing shimmering things in Steiner colours whilst androgynously assisting us with our homework, helping us get over the deaths of our pets and/or parents, and reconciling warring nations. both are transparent mutations of the figments of the same mindset that saw incubi and succubi and angels around every sexually repressed corner in the Middle Ages and fairies and hobgoblins more recently, so I'll have no truck with either of them. and, to be perfectly frank, although I think that a universe as big as this one we find ourselves in is quite likely to have spawned a few more examples of intelligence other than our own (there has to be something more intelligent than this, please god, there just has to be) I skirt just this side of deep scepticism about the likelihood of our ever encountering it.

the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence proceeds in the shadow of two predominant theories, the one as optimistic (about there being something Out There) as the other is pessimistic:

the Drake Equation sets out the industry-standard variables for calculating just how many intelligent civilisations are likely to populate our galaxy (the consensus is about fifty).

the Fermi Paradox, however, can be summarised as follows: the belief that the universe contains many technologically advanced civilizations, combined with our lack of observational evidence to support that view, is inconsistent. either this assumption is incorrect (and technologically advanced intelligent life is much rarer than we believe), our current observations are incomplete (and we simply have not detected them yet), or our search methodologies are flawed (we are not searching for the correct indicators). in other words, if they were really out there, the skies should be teaming with the buggers, so where da fuck am they?

in order to register the existence of an extra-terrestrial intelligence, we have to aim our Arecibos at a likely wedge of the cosmos and then sift through a wide spectrum of EM signals, analysing these for anomalies - spikes which might originate in a source other than a known astrophysical phenomenon or the doppler-shifted red noise of background radiation. we can 'listen' in this way to the limits of our telescope's range - almost as far back as the big bang. obviously, however, (unless we suppose the physically impossible - that there was intelligent life around before the big bang) there is actually no point in 'listening' this far: our chances of discovering an intelligent source signal are much better if we concentrate on much closer distances - in astronomical terms - distances more congruent both with the time-period involved in the development of our own form of intelligence, and more amenable to the eventual possibility of physical contact.

the closest possibilities - in astronomical terms - namely, the theoretical planetary orbits of Alpha Centauri and Barnard's Star - 'only' five light years distant - have already been examined and found to be unintelligent. if intelligence is to be discovered, it will not be found any closer than ten light years or more distant - and most probably much, much more. our galaxy alone is ninety thousand light years across and three thousand light years thick. if, then, a signal were to be received from somewhere in our own galaxy, the possibilities of subsequent communication between us make terrestrial snail-mail seem like high-speed broadband: at best, a twenty-year wait between our reply and 'their' next packet, then another twenty-year wait for the next reply to our reply, and so on. then, assuming that this went well for a few transactions, someone would have to decide whether or not to send out an exploratory team, and this is where it all begins to get a bit sci-fi.

the actual sci-fi solution is perennially the same - the hyperdrive (allowing faster-than-light speeds) and the wormhole gate (allowing instant transmission from one part of the universe to another). neither is available yet, nor even remotely possible (the one disregards one of the fundamental laws of physics, the other is still theoretically possible, but requires a power source akin to the energy released by the fission processes at the heart of a star to achieve). so crawling across inter-stellar space at a best possible speed of a tenth the speed of light is the only realistic option. therefore, the most optimistic estimate of the journey time (one way) for this first contact exploratory team is a hundred years - probably much more. given that this isn't going to happen - even if a first signal were to be received tomorrow - for at least a hundred years, that gives us plenty of time to consider the logistics - not to mention the economics - of such a mission. however, given that the universal lack of government interest in things cosmological is reflected in the ever-decreasing funding of astronomy - NASA is somehow hanging on in there by the skin of its teeth, but SETI is exclusively financed by private donations - it's overwhelmingly likely that the only possible source of funding for such a project would be a consortium of the kind of billionaires who, traditionally, have spent their billions on developing cutting-edge technology in order to develop their personal power base and win prestigious international acclaim by winning prizes for racing around the world in one way or another - people like Howard Hughes, Rupert Murdoch, or our own Richard Branson - a consortium, in other words, of unscrupulous assholes whose company any sensible person would travel far indeed to avoid, and whose claim to being representative of the human race verges on the tenuous, if not wildly presumptuous, if not hysterically funny, if not tragic.

the SETI project has been criticised for being more religion than science, but actually it's an art work - something profoundly senseless and yet essentially meaningful - an artful attempt to reconcile the human need to find meaning in a convincingly meaningless cosmos with the awful suspicion that there is none.

it would be tremendously exciting to get confirmation - even if only in the form of a few anomalous EM signals repeating in a sequence unequivocally associated with intelligence rather than accident - of the existence of the galactic neighbours. it would radically alter our relationship with our world to know - as a matter of science rather than belief - that we were not alone in the universe, although, party-pooper that I am, I have huge misgivings about how we might react to that knowledge.

consider, for instance, the global hysteria that the discovery of a signal would instigate if, at the same time, it were discovered that the alien signallers were actually approaching us, that they were en route rather than planet-bound. the world would, I'm afraid, instantly be divided into two camps, roughly corresponding to the adherents to the two ET stereotypes mentioned earlier, and, fairly obviously, the doomsayers would dominate (in a straight fight between the fundamentalist militias and the hippies I'd bet on the guys with the big guns and the crewcuts, wouldn't you?). so even if ET's ETA were set at two or three hundred years in the future, that event would become the High Noon of global civilisation, and, in the name of planetary security, provide a fine excuse for multinational fascist shenanigans on a scale undreamt of by all the tinpot dictators since Genghis Khan.

by far the likeliest scenario, however, is that there's going to be no result - no contact - and that, sooner or later, we'll come to accept the fact that, whereas we're probably not alone in the universe, the chance of our ever meeting our neighbours is virtually non-existent.

not a sexy result, but as necessary, probably, to the next stage of maturation of our species as separating from our parents is necessary to our maturation as individuals. so long as there's a lingering belief that someone or something out there - a god or a fairy godmother or an ET - will be coming along sooner or later to bail us out of this mess we've made down here, then we'll continue indulging in the sort of prevarication that makes cleaning the oven instead of filling in our tax returns seem trivial - excusing ourselves, basically, from rolling up our sleeves and getting down and dirty on the most urgent of the tasks in hand, namely, taking full individual responsibility for our collective historic bad behaviour and taking the appropriate steps to improve it.

now there's an alien thought

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