Friday, 18 December 2009

Extraterrestrial Intelligence Research

These hearings before the U.S. Subcommittee on Space Science and Applications were held in 1978. The subject of the discussion was a program called SETI- Search of Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, and whether it was worth it funding this again. Such a program has many philosophical implications and opens up to an infinite range of scientific questions. Both aspects are explored in these utterly fascinating hearings.
The discussion begins with a very simple, although exciting and potentially scary, calculation: how many “good” planets are out there? how many planets sufficiently close to a star providing the heat and light necessary for the development of intelligent life? Well, the answer may be beyond our capacity to produce a mental image: there are 10 billion “good” planets in our galaxy, and billions of galaxies in the space. The longevity of those civilizations must also be taken in account: some of them will have gone through their histories and have perished. This “reduces” the estimated number of civilized planets to one billion. Although this doesn’t mean that each potentially good planet is actually hosting intelligent life, the chances are still so wide that the existence of extraterrestrial intelligent life is almost certain, according to this discussion.
In spite of this, a visit to another civilized planet still remains unreal: advanced culture would be so far from one another on the average, that none of them could afford, in terms of energy expenditure, to visit their nearest neighbours, even if they knew where those neighbours were. So the ultimate challenge would be to communicate with Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life through radio transmissions.
The discussion goes further on what the SETI program should investigate, all the main issues seem to be related to Biocosmology:
- Extrasolar Planetary Search: “If we discovered that only certain classes of stars had suitable planetary systems it would reduce the number of target stars to be searched.”
- “A second aspect of biocosmology would be to continue to study the origin of life.” The discoveries would confirm our present beliefs on how life began but could also explain how chemicals became DNA and how DNA evolved into the living cell. “Then we could say with confidence: (…) it will happen in other places”.
- “A third aspect of biocosmology should be studies of the evolution of intelligence. We think intelligence has survival value and would be favored in natural selection. The sentient organism withdraws from danger; the insensate organism does not; the intelligent animal uses better strategies to seek food, avoid danger and protect its young.”
Other aspects were investigated during these hearings: which type of radio waves are more likely to succeed? In which directions should they be sent? Every question has many answers, very different from one another. A more practical reason to look for extraterrestrial life is also openly explained: “The discovery of other life is not only a legitimate mission for NASA but it is also an essential one without which popular interest and support will fade. It is probably fair to say the NASA exists because it was felt that a space program might discover other life in the solar system.”
The interest in reading these hearings resides in the combination of exploration and research, in a fascinating but still, 30 years later, obscure matter. Scientific issues might have changed and developed further, but not the philosophical curiosity that makes us look up into the dark sky and ask the question: “Are we alone?…”

Find out more at NLS
…or visit the NASA website, and the Astronomy Picture of the day Archive.