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Skeptical Inquirer


Volume 16, No. 1, Fall 1991, pp. 94-102

From Letters to the Editor

Our Spring 1991 issue stimulated an unusually large number of letters to the editor, more than double the normal amount -- 25 alone concerning the two articles on extraterrestrial intelligence.  Unfortunately, available space didn't miraculously also double and so many excellent letters have to be omitted, but we want you to know we deeply appreciate your lively and thoughtful interest. ---EDITOR


Letter from Stuart Kingsley:

Since last summer, I have been actively involved in developing an alternative rationale to that currently accepted by most of the SETI community.  Most of my approach, which is centered around optical communications, is not new, and ETI laser communications was first suggested by Schwartz and Townes back in 1961, only two years after Cocconi and Morrison's classic paper identifying 1.420 GHz as a "magic frequency."  For various reasons, the optical approach wasn't accepted by the SETI community.  The idea that ETI signals may be in the optical spectrum is another explanation of why we have so far been unable to detect their signals.
. . . .

The SETI community has been extremely conservative and timid about ETI technologies and , at most, has tended to only slightly extrapolate our current technology for assessing the technical abilities of ETIs.

I treat the subject of SETI just like a communications problem, and I would argue that, within a few decades, photonics (optoelectronics) will become the major communications (and perhaps computer) technology on this planet.  It is likely to become the primary mode of electromagnetic terrene communications through deep space and interstellar space.   The same applies to ETIs, and they will have no trouble aiming very narrow optical beams at targeted star systems.

I believe that the SETI community, which is just initiating the first search program at the CO2 "magic wavelength" of 10,600 nm, should be more active in searching the entire optical spectrum.

Stuart A. Kingsley
Fiberdyne Optoelectronics
Columbus, Ohio


Reply to various letters and the above from The Planetary Society SETI Coordinator, Dr. Thomas R. McDonough:

If, as I suspect, we discover that the universe is teeming with clever cultures, I don't think we'll use that as an excuse to build a Doomsday Machine.  Instead, we'll do what humans usually do when confronted with a technologically more advanced civilization: learn from them.  Maybe we'll become the Japanese of the galaxy, and wind up teaching them a thing or two.

Yes, let's continue searching, even if we find nobody.  Perhaps there's as better way to communicate that we haven't figured out, so let's keep trying different techniques.

It is entirely possible that there may be hostile aliens out there.  My suspicion is that the really nasty civilizations blow themselves up before they have a chance to develop interstellar travel.  But even if they don't, I think it's better for us to know of their existence than to be ignorant of it.

I agree with Kingsley that optical SETI searches should be conducted.   Such a search was done by the late Soviet researcher, Shvartsman, and I hope that more will be undertaken in the future.

It's true that these could be planets crawling with alien Aristotles who can't use tools.  Drake recognized that, and in his equation, he only calculates the number of civilizations capable of communicating over interstellar distances.

I agree that some civilizations might evolve into artificial (AI).  That's all right for SETI, as long as they communicate across interstellar space.  AI would make it easy for them to maintain transmitters for billions of years, increasing our odds of success.

Our search methods are bound to be naive from the point of view of a physicist a thousand years into the future.  But they're not as naive as they sound.  Most SETI searches are specifically designed to look for beacons, not random TV or data signals, because we do not yet have available the giant antennas that would be needed to detect such faint signals.  It is entirely possible that an advanced civilization would set up an easily detectable beacon using primitive "Galactic Boy Scout" technology, precisely in order to make contact with primitives like us.  Also, the SETI community is well aware that there may be means of communicating that our present science has not yet discovered.  We are faced with the problem of doing something now, given existing human technology and limited funds.

The bottom line is that if we don't look, we'll never find anything, so let's look!

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