Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The silence is deafening (Part I)

Or, if you prefer, where IS everyone?

I refer to the so-called Great Silence. If, as much conventional wisdom has it, a very large universe must have other intelligences in it somewhere, why haven't we heard from them? Their disinterest? Our colossal boringness? The impossibility of interstellar travel? Because high-tech civilizations inevitably destroy themselves? Because high-tech civilizations always evolve into a singularity?

In my last post I bemoaned humanity's fading interest in going into space. All the resources in the universe apparently fall short as an inducement. Finding someone else out there might kindle some interest. One can hope.

Let's start with the Drake Equation, a conceptual framework for estimating the number of communicating species out there. It's one guess multiplied by another multiplied by another ... not AN answer but a way to consider the probabilities. Putting aside how people guess at the various parameters (like the fraction of stars with life-friendly planets, and the fraction of those that develop technological civilizations), many estimates conclude with the prediction of SOME other beings out there.

It would surely shake up our routines if we were to connect with ETs. Only so far we haven't. Why?

Government doesn't think the search worthwhile. SETI -- the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence -- lost federal funding years ago. Looking for microbes on Mars is something, and I enthusiastically support it, but I don't understand why government won't make a fraction of the same investment to listen for intelligence in nearby solar systems.

SETI presumes hypothetical other species are signaling us, either with intentionally beamed messages or the radio/television/radar leakage presumed of any advanced society. By the latter standard, humans began signaling more than a century ago with our earliest radio experiments. How far away such leakage can be detected is a function of instrument sensitivity and the data-processing smarts of the beings at the other end. (Earth's signals must be extracted from the loud background noise of the sun's natural radio emissions.)

With private funding the search continues, as with the Allen Telescope Array now under construction, backed by significant investment from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. (At last something useful comes of those Microsoft monopoly profits.)

In decades of listening, however sporadically, we've heard nothing. So some propose METI, Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence, also known as active SETI. Rather than hope the murmur of Earth's unavoidable radio emissions is overheard and answered, METI envisions beaming powerful signals at specific target stars.

Who is entitled to speak for humanity? Anyone who has time scheduled on a radio telescope? What can or should they say about us?

If there are extra-solar ETs and they're not talking, do they know something humans don't? Maybe shouting is a breach of decorum. Maybe those who shout bring hostile xenophobic aliens, or kinetic kill weapons, down on their heads. Scientist and SF author David Brin has thought about this far more than I (see SETI Search).

Or maybe they (whoever they are) are already here, merely not announcing themselves. If so, surely they'd tap into our Internet. The IETI (Invitation to Extraterrestrial Intelligence) folks ask any such visitors to speak up.

Are We Alone? is among the biggest of all questions Whatever the answer, that's major information.

Who might be out there fascinates me. How humanity would react to proof of aliens' existence fascinates me -- and it shows up in much of my fiction. To give examples, my novel Moonstruck deals with a near-future first contact -- of the they-show-up-one-day variety, not signals-based. My novelette "By the Rules" (which first appeared in Analog), on the other hand, is closer to the IETI mold. My InterstellarNet series (stories in multiple venues) opened with a SETI-contact story and continues to evolve (as the series name suggests) into an interstellar Internet. If you're curious, check out my website.

So is anyone out there? Lots of SF fans, if no one else, are eager to hear from you.


Edward M. Lerner said...

Oops! I see I got carried away. Still getting the hang of this ...

Anonymous said...

it's looking good so far EML.

(We've chatted on the Niven Saturday IRC a few times).

Wish I had been there this past weekend, probably would have heard you announce the blog.

I'm adding you to my blogroll, will spread the word and look forward to much more from you.

And on the Fermi Paradox thing?

One pet theory of mine is (late at night and words escape me - is the one I'm looking for 'anthropocentric'?) if we take our own case as THE model, it's taken this long for sentient, technological beings to arise. Some a teeny bit ahead of us, some a little behind, but the rule of thumb will turn out to be - species capable of interstellar communication take approx 12 billion years to arise in a galaxy.

There are others out there, and some of them are doing what we're doing - looking, kind, of.

Edward M. Lerner said...


You're not alone in reasoning that the opportunities for intelligent life, at least in this galaxy, may be fairly recent. First-generation stars are comparatively metal poor. If Earth is representative of where intelligence does arise, now is about the time we can expect neighbors to be talking.

But perhaps *about* is the operative term. We've used radio for scarcely a century -- a couple million years after something like humans first appeared. Another species needn't be noticeably faster -- if there are other intelligences, and humans are average, some neighbors would be a little faster.

For a thoughtful (but, I'll argue, too Earth-centric) look at the question, I like RARE EARTH, by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee.

P.S. Thanks for the warm welcome to the blogosphere and the kind words at

Anonymous said...

You are more than welcome.

From the research and checking I've done (which was a little bit more than cursory), suns capable of supporting our kind of life have been around for about 8 billion years - which is about twice as long as it took our solar system to evolve to its present circumstances.

I don't think that my supposition is outside the realm of probability; it may be at one end of the bell curve, but still within the bell.

Again, if we're any yardstick to go by, most technological species will be sociologically incapable of supporting a robust enough contact/exploration program: they're there, they have the tech, but politics always gets in the way.

Edward M. Lerner said...

"if we're any yardstick to go by, most technological species will be ..."

But are we any yardstick? How can we know? Many lines can be extrapolated through one point :-)

Anonymous said...

Hobson's choice: we're the only yardstick we have.

We investigate everything else around us starting with observations of the 'known', and then move on to compare the outliers to what we thing we already have a handle on.

Starting from scratch, there's as much reason to assume that anyone else out there is is essentially like us as there is to assume they're radically different. Throw in the only known example (us) and you have to shade things at least a smidge in the direction of 'more like us'.

Yes, it's a circular argument, but it has to remain so until we get at least one other data point, I think.

Edward M. Lerner said...

Agreed: We must allow for the one data point we have. It's still only one data point.

So: One political system of one species has -- for a few decades -- lost the will to invest in space. Hence we can conclude that expansion into space by a technological society isn't assured.

I'm unwilling to conclude from a single data point that all political systems of all races for all time will come to the same result.