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The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) in the

Optical Spectrum


Charles Townes: I don't see an immediate response, let me comment on that a little.

First, of course, we would learn that there is someone there, and that's not unimportant to us. I think the importance of our ideas and our culture is frequently brushed aside. Why do we pay so much money for music, what good is music doing us? Well, it's a cultural phenomenon, we enjoy it, we think it's important, and so are ideas. I think you are quite right that an alien civilization might not even quite have the concept of the electron the way we do. On the other hand, if we believe that the nature of the universe is in fact universal, we have really pretty good tests of that, they do something, and they are going to see a reaction, just as we do the same thing and see the same reaction. So they may describe electrons in terms of waves, they might have started out looking at them as waves as we do to. They may have a different kind of explanation, but the phenomenon they will be describing will be essentially the same. If they have in fact some new phenomenon, that would be fantastic, and we'll learn a lot from that. So I think that if in fact we could find such a civilization and communicate intellectual growth would be tremendous.

Floor: Communications presupposes a lot, because it presupposes that you have at least the same intellectual concepts. Language in the most general sense. I guess my point is that we have arrived at the concept of the electron because our history and our evolution causes us to poke nature in certain ways, and nature then showed us something which we called an electron. If you have grown up in a culture where you do not do sorts of poking - I can't describe such culture because I have grown up in the western culture, so I am based on mathematics, and physics, etc, etc - it seems to me not inconceivable that another civilization will not have interrogated nature in the way that we have done. But they may have interrogated nature in very different ways, and therefore they may have technological capabilities which we are insensitive to, but also they may simply not be capable of communicating. I take your points.

Barney Oliver: Charlie, let me respond a little bit.

These things may give scientists and philosophers a lot of trouble, they don't give engineers much trouble, and the reason is that you prove your concept - either the gadget works or it doesn't work. I would expect that the aliens' power plants wouldn't look very different from ours, because they have to be based upon principles that we both commonly understand. So it's that body of knowledge - proof that you get something and it functions or it doesn't function, that tells you whether you are on the right track or not.

Charles Townes: I guess maybe I am enough of an engineer to agree with you in part, and I would say OK, so they are not poking something, they are interacting with the world around them as we are, so they are finding out some things, they are interacting - otherwise, they can't signal us. They must be interacting with the universe, and hence they are sampling some of the same things we're sampling, maybe in a different way. Nevertheless, it will be common knowledge in my view.

Clive Goodall (Floor): Let me just apologize for asking so many questions from the audience. I never intended to do that, but there was one thing that was said back here a few minutes ago - it's something that has always been very much on my mind and I felt I just had to respond to it, so please bear with me.

This concerned the general justification for doing SETI. You had said that it's really not much of a cost in real terms, or relatively speaking. I agree with that, but I think that there is a much more effective response to the kind of view that was expressed earlier, back here - the negative views on SETI, just doing SETI per se. It connects with the question that I thought was a good question for the panel "What do you think the impact would be of the discovery of the certain existence of ETI?". I think, contrary to what I heard being expressed from panel members, that the impact, the discovery of ETI will be very profound indeed because it will rob certain myths, certain strong anthropocentric myths, and I am thinking here especially of certain religious myths, of the logical possibilities that they see themselves as having right now for justifying their world view. Once we know that ETI is out there then certain kinds of justifications will no longer be available. There won't be something that you can put into the public market place and persuade people about.

Consequently, one then can say, well look, given the damage that a lot of religious outlooks and world views have inflicted on populations over time, one can go back in history and find reasons for making good that claim, then I think one can say, look here's a good reason for doing SETI. Maybe we'll increase, if we discover the existence of ETI, our sense of vulnerability as a species, make us more cautious about preserving the environment, makes us more cautious about managing our resources, cautious in our dealings with each other. So I think that's a fairly forceful response that can be given to somebody who says "Why should we do SETI, we're spending a lot of money, and wasting it?". And I'll shut up now.

Fred Johnson: I'd like to respond to that a little bit if I may. I am a strong believer in serendipity, and that's why I think the SETI project is an excellent one. Astronomers until twenty years ago only looked at static signals, that was photographic plates, now they are looking in the time-domain. I think it's long overdue - that is a field which should be explored, and I'm willing to put money on this - they are going to discover something, something in this technique will make discoveries. I don't know what, but serendipity always worked. You are looking for the Lock Ness Monster, they never found the monster, but boy did they make big discoveries - I think they will make discoveries.

Floor: What I was saying is negative. It's just that the desire to find intelligence is honorable and good but there is plenty of intelligence on this planet. It's like I say to my wife who may be into astrology "Why look for magic that's not verifiable when there is all this miraculous science that exists on this planet? Why look for intelligence outside of this planet when there is tremendous intelligence and many different species of life on this planet that requires substantial investigation?". I'm not saying we shouldn't do SETI, I'm just saying that the same desire and heart that goes to SETI ought to also go to people who you pass on the street who obviously need something as well.

Charles Townes: I think most of us would say yes, we should do that, but we should do all of it. We should do all of it, and it's a kind of a matter of taste and place and so on as to what individuals happen to be doing. I don't think anybody would downplay the importance of what you are saying.

Floor: Perhaps the whole community is misnamed, there is a division between what the engineers and the scientists can do and the interpretation of communications and what it might mean. Perhaps what we really have is a search for extraterrestrial technology or a search for extraterrestrial engineering. And we can all have fun and talk about the intelligence behind it and whether we can interpret it or not, but in fact, with the engineering comment in mind, it's only the engineering and the technology that we can really search for.

Mike Klein: I think you've nailed it exactly right, and that's really what's behind "SETI", someone mentioned it earlier, "SETI" is in my view, looking for signs of extraterrestrial technology. Now "CETI", (How do you pronounce it Barney?), CETI with a "c" a cyrillic "c", then gets into communications and that's when you get all the philosophers and everybody else involved. Those of us who are engineers and technologists may be not participating so much, it will be a whole different audience. So I think, in fact, you put your finger right on it.

I wanted to address just for a minute the idea that we should be helping our fellow human. I want to say that I have some expertise in engineering and technology, I know how to take those tools and apply them to a problem which I think most people in this room think is an important one. But I am not applying my tools to poor people, because I don't know how to take radio telescopes or detectors or optical mirrors and help the poor person in the street. But I do help poor people, because I happen to contribute a great deal of my money to help support those people - not support them so much, as I particularly like to give them to groups that offer them ways out of their morass, rather than just giving them a handout.

So I think we have to do all of these things, and we do, and we take the tools that we know how to use and put them to the best use. So you are not going to get a physicist or an astronomer turning his or her radio telescope or optical telescope to help support somebody who is starving in the street. That's my answer to that - I am contributing to it, and I can show you the checks I write!


Copyright , 1993, SPIE

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