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Norman Sperling
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ET Isn't Phoning Us

© Norm Sperling, October 25, 2010

One of humanity's longest longings is to find life elsewhere in the Universe. The search has been somewhat respectable scientifically for more than 3 centuries. Does any other scientific topic have a longer track record for not finding what it seeks?

The oldest book I own is a 1695 discussion on the possibilities for life elsewhere: Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds by Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle (1657-1757). It surveyed what was known about life, and what was known about conditions elsewhere, and noted where the 2 surveys found common ground.

Books on the same topic from the 1800s and 1900s take much the same reasonable approach, though they differ markedly as scientific understanding of life, and alien habitats, improved.

The Science changed about 1960, when radio astronomers began searching for ET's signals.

Frank Drake led the research, tuning ever-improving radio telescopes and computers to seek signals from more and more stars at more and more frequencies and timings.

In the 1960s, a number of "strange" signals were picked up, but they didn't repeat and couldn't be identified. Techniques improved in the 1970s, and a few signals qualified as "strange". Tighter controls in the 1980s filtered out most candidate signals, leaving only rare ambiguous detections, but nothing persuasively from ET. The tightest controls, with the best systems and highest standards, characterized the most massive survey by far in the late 1990s and early 2000s ... resulting in zero detections of ET.

If ET really is broadcasting around the galaxy, as detection technology improves, we should find more signals, and less ambiguity about their source. If, instead, ET is not broadcasting, as detection technology improves, we should eliminate most, and finally all, candidate signals. That's the pattern of results that we actually observe. It offers little to be optimistic about.

If ETs are highly technological, they should be clever enough to not waste huge amounts of energy by casting their signals broadly – "broadcasting" – instead of sharply pointing their signals only where they are wanted – "narrowcasting". Unless they want to hail Earthlings, it's exceedingly unlikely that we'd intercept a narrow-beam signal of theirs. We just wouldn't stand in its way. So the null results of radio searches might mean either that there are no signals, or that we're not listening competently.

ET's fans cling to the hope that we're not searching in the right way yet, and should press on. They may be right. I hope they are. But I've long wondered if their whole scenario is reasonable.

Much of the recent research has tacitly assumed that ETs would be surface critters on their planets. I think that's Earthlings' surface-chauvinism. Life began in the warm fluids of Earth's seas, as far as we know. Plenty of other celestial objects have fluid layers where the temperature and chemicals are probably accommodating for life.
The gas giants' cores are certainly too hot, and their cloudtops too cold ... meaning that somewhere between, the temperature is comfortable.
While Venus's surface is too hot for complex molecules to form, its cloud layer is about room temperature.
The oceans inside Europa and Ganymede lie under thick icy crusts.

Critters developing in the warm fluids of those settings would have to penetrate vast stretches of hostile conditions to emerge above the clouds or ice. Only there could they discover the "rest" of the Universe. They could develop enormously in their home habitats without ever encountering the concept of "worlds beyond". Surface-chauvinists don’t seem to consider that.

The radio search will continue. It's privately funded, and conducted by reputable scientists. It doesn't harm anything. But don't hold your breath.

The Journal of Irreproducible Results
This Book Warps Space and Time
What Your Astronomy Textbook Won't Tell You

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