Why are our space neighbors so quiet?

August 10, 2008|By Robert Gary

The nonexistence of the galactic radio dialogue is a deep paradox and a true mystery. One would think that galactic chatter would be commonplace and ongoing given the principles of science, namely the uniformity of the universe and the Urey experiment that shows that simple amino acids can be made out of inorganic matter.

The dialogue should be inevitable, thus, widespread. Yet, in 40 years, not a scintilla of credible evidence has emerged to verify it. How can a "sure thing" be no thing? Radio requires the functional equivalent of the opposable thumb. Is that so unlikely as a morphological feature?

Science has been with us for about 1 percent of our existence as a species. Whatever science we now have is probably not "advanced" in any absolute sense. It's more advanced than animist magic in a paleo-cultural sense, but it's not "advanced science" compared to what we reasonably project to be possible.


There must be millions of planets capable of supporting life in our galaxy, and some of them have been around as long, or longer, than has Earth. An intelligent radio signal from some long-dead and extinct species would fit the bill, but not a peep.

Is this enough to throw into question the Principle of the Uniformity of Nature and hence and the Unity of the Universe. If these ideas are false, then the Urey experiment only proves that on Earth intelligent life can replicate the conditions under which intelligent life emerged on Earth.

Another line of thought might be that the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) experiment has been incompetently or inadequately executed. After all, in 40 years of listening, SETI, based mostly at the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, has only focused in on about 1,000 star systems. The amazingly slow progress is mainly due to the fact that Congress cut funding for SETI in 1993.

Another possibility is that we are not capable of catching the signals. Our apparent aloneness might be attributable to our technological deafness, and not to galactic muteness.

SETI may or may not be looking for intelligent signals among incoming particles, particularly very high energy particles. I do not know the exact equipment now in use, what it can find, or what it can decipher. Particles may not be recordable, or we may not know how to make them give up their signal without disturbing them so they no longer contain any signal. At the other end of the spectrum, the wavelengths may be so long that SETI might not be able to put together the elements of a decipherable signal.

A lot of these problems will be solved when the Allen Telescopic Array (ATA) is completed in California. It will eventually be comprised of 350 six-meter dishes that will function as the radio equivalent of one really huge dish with a field of view 2.45 degrees wide.

Of course, the array needs to be connected to a superfast computer to sort through all the gathered data. They have supercomputers today, but what's needed for SETI is the next generation of supercomputers - beyond the teraflop era. That's what lets you find the whisper of smart talk in the trillions of cubic miles of mute Milky Way. Finding the word is like finding gold, you gotta do a lot of panning. Finding it fast means panning fast.

What would we look for? The decimal fraction part of pi (14159 etc) in binary, to 512 places, repeated as a form of punctuation, i.e. at the beginning and end of each word.

We may not be able to read the signal right away, but, with that punctuation mark between words, we could tell it was from an intelligent sender that can see and measure the universe as we can. It would be plainly distinguishable from a quasar, pulsar, or neutron star series of regular pulses. The information content of the punctuation mark would be about the cosmos taken as a common object between the sender and the recipient. It would be like saying "Fellow citizen of the galaxy ." Between every word of text.

Why do I care? It would make the cosmos and my life in it more consistent. The whole thing would hang together as one piece. Right now, it's more like the Twilight Zone - where everything is right except one thing that's distinctly cockeyed.

I'm not looking for The Word. I would be happy with somebody's grocery list, report card, parking citation, or haiku poem. And I don't require a conversation. I just want to hear a little note, about anything, but clearly a word, not a naturally made set of frequencies. I'm looking for a word - not The Word.

Why look around the universe for intelligent life? Maybe there's an instinct for seeking a port in the storm. The prospects for continued intelligent life here don't look that great. The world is getting more primitive, and, on average, younger, poorer, and more violent than it was 50 years ago. Nuclear proliferation proceeds unchecked, as does population growth, pressure on the environment, food shortages, forced migrations, and inter-ethnic rivalries.

We need to come to our senses fairly soon because like a ship at sea, Earth is the only home we've got. The species as a whole either makes progress, or makes way for the next candidate. We could get recycled to make way for the dolphins. Dominion is either exercised in a spirit of stewardship, or it is forfeited. How's that for cosmic irony? It's something that God the Teacher would create - a sort of lesson.

Robert Gary is a Hagerstown resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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