Are we ready to reach out to the stars?

Posted on Tuesday, March 8th, 02011 by Austin Brown
link Categories: Long Term Science, Long Term Thinking, Technology, The Big Here   chat 0 Comments

SETI Director Jill Tarter discussed in a 02005 blog post that we recently discovered the possibility of broadcasting humanity’s presence to the universe. SETI’s position for at least the next decade is that we’re not ready.

Any technology that is observable over interstellar distances cannot be more primitive than our own. After only 100 years of manipulating the electromagnetic spectrum, we find ourselves in the midst of an exponential explosion of technology. But it has taken us over 4.5 billion years of planetary and biological evolution to get to where we are today. If there is detectable technology out there, it is statistically improbable that their evolution and development will be fine-tuned to coincide precisely with our current emerging technological capabilities. They will be older, potentially billions of years older since the Milky Way Galaxy was around for at least five billion years before our solar system began to form.

In exploring some of the ways to make this decision, Tarter explains that communication across galactic distances will take protocols we can’t imagine and timescales we’re simply not seriously dealing with yet.

She searched Google and graphed the number of results she found for plans ranging between “The One Year Plan” to “The Two Hundred Thousand Year Plan.” As a point of reference, the green arrow just below 10,000 hits on Google represents the number of results she found when searching for her own name. Plans over one hundred years in scope were most often the result of science fiction and religion, though Y2K and nuclear waste had lead to some longer plans as well. (Long Now is in there right next to the 10,000-year Yucca Mountain plan.)

I did a quick Google Book N-gram viewer search on some of these terms over the last hundred years and found that during the late ’60s there was a peak in books discussing ‘x year plans’, the favorite being 10 year plans. ‘One year -‘ and ‘hundred year’ plans show consistently, but few other plans registered at all.

  • Consider this project: saving the Earth from the coming red giant phase of the Sun. It's expensive. It's feasible – we already understand the physics. It's long term – hundreds of millions, if not billions of years. And, it's worthwhile. After all, the Earth is where i keep my stuff. Will we do it? We have to start soon – in the next few million years or so.

    By comparison, a conversation with aliens seems short term. It's cheap. It's probably feasible, once we figure out how. It's a multi-generational project, but comparitively short term – maybe only thousands of years. There are ideas on how to do it. One idea is that once contact is made, send the entire Internet as a message. Let them figure it out. If they send us something similar, then we'll have another project. Worthwhile? Consider that wikipedia has an image of the Andromeda Galaxy. If aliens compare it with their own shot, they'll have light years as a baseline for parallax. Who knows what we could learn?

  • Revneil

    I have preached in sermons, any number of times, about how we think in short spans. Some might make fun of the caricatured fundamentalist who says the end is near, but figuratively-speaking, most of us see the world ending when we end.
    An image I have used is that, one day, the city of Toronto (fill in the blank) will be uttely gone, and there will be no sign it ever was here. Nothing more than a rudimentary view of gelogy is needed for this–or grade 8 English class and 'Ozymandias'–but it seems like an eccentric sort of thing to talk-about.
    Yes, you may cvall me a religious source (I should be so good at my job as to merit that) but identifying this particular myopia might be more common than is first imagined.

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