Toronto Star

Stranger than we can imagine

Why have humans failed to find extraterre­strial intelligen­ce? Maybe we’re making the mistake of searching for beings like us

- JORDAN BIMM Jordan Bimm is a NASA research fellow and a PhD candidate in science and technology studies at York University.

On July 20, Russian tech billionair­e Yuri Milner announced a massive and unpreceden­ted investment in the Search for Extraterre­strial Intelligen­ce (SETI) that’s taking the form of a $100-million, decadelong sky-survey called “Breakthrou­gh Listen.” Backed by an internatio­nal consortium of scientific luminaries, including Stephen Hawking and SETI founder Frank Drake, Milner, who trained as a physicist before making a fortune investing in Facebook and Twitter, has committed to significan­tly amping-up the fledgling search for alien radio signals. But is this the right approach to finding extraterre­strial intelligen­ce?

The news has already revived the array of deep and difficult questions SETI projects provoke, including the nagging possibilit­y that our searches have failed so far in part because they assume, as this one does, that aliens are largely like us and their technology like our own.

The notion that the heavens are inhabited by other intelligen­t beings is old and widespread among human cultures. In Europe and America, the invention of radio transforme­d the old “plurality of worlds” debate by suggesting that beings on other planets might already be transmitti­ng — and maybe we could listen in. In 1960, American astronomer Frank Drake turned an early radio telescope towards the West Virginia sky, hoping to be inundated with extraterre­strial chatter.

Despite decades of silence, his pioneering “project Ozma” evolved into the nowfamilia­r SETI acronym and enjoyed NASA funding in the early 1990s. However, in 1993, Congress yanked support for the controvers­ial project, leaving SETI scientists to eke by on a hodgepodge of private funding, as excitement shifted to the possibilit­y of finding microbial life on Mars and, more recently, the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Milner’s money now changes all of this.

Motivated by the accelerati­ng pace of exoplanet detections — especially Earthsized planets in the liquid-water-friendly “habitable zone” — Milner hopes that his investment will help scientists discover alien transmissi­ons emanating from some of these watery worlds.

Despite the relatively small scale of various SETI searches over the past 50 years, the complete lack of any detections has critics pointing to the famous Fermi Paradox: Where is everybody?

Various answers have been posited: humans are the only intelligen­t life in the universe; technologi­cally advanced civilizati­ons quickly destroy themselves; aliens actively conceal their presence; or even the unnerving possibilit­y that we’re part of a galactic zoo. But the dearth of evidence may simply signal a lack of imaginatio­n on our part, rather than a lack of alien intelligen­ce.

The basic problem is that for examples of intelligen­t, “technologi­cally advanced” civilizati­ons, our sample size is exactly one — us. Basing key assumption­s about alien intelligen­ce or civilizati­on — like the expectatio­n that some will communicat­e via radio waves or optical lasers — on our own history and current technologi­cal capabiliti­es could be way too specific. What if, rather than being alone, we’re just the only ones interested in radio right now? What if intelligen­t aliens perceive and order the universe in a completely different way? What if their ways of thinking, communicat­ing and making things are to us, well, alien?

The void of space is vast and terrifying, so the idea that alien minds might evolve along a similar intellectu­al trajectory — and share our understand­ing of pi, prime numbers and radio telescopes — is comforting when faced with the more likely alternativ­e: that alien life and “intelligen­ce” is radically different from anything Milner’s dream team is counting on.

The sheer strangenes­s of some life on Earth, such as biolumines­cent deep-sea creatures, still shocks us. We struggle to understand intelligen­ce in other animals, like cephalopod­s, and haven’t had much luck communicat­ing with them. There are ancient human languages still undecipher­ed. The notion that some aliens have developed, and still use radio, makes the big assumption that intelligen­t life will follow a roughly similar path of cultural and technologi­cal developmen­t as we have — but the diversity of life and cultures on Earth suggests otherwise.

Most likely, we will see evidence of extraterre­strial life in the not-too-distant future, but in the form of inferences of biological processes based on long-range analyses of exoplanet atmosphere­s — suggesting life, but not necessaril­y intelligen­t life.

So what will Milner get for his millions if not an alien signal? He’s already boosted the status of SETI scientists and rekindled popular interest in detecting extraterre­strial intelligen­ce. Even if this search is initially hampered by “terracentr­ic” assumption­s, a robust SETI program will hopefully evoke deep critical reflection­s about the nature of life, intelligen­ce, technology and civilizati­on, and how utterly different these might be elsewhere in the universe.

 ?? THE NEW YORK TIMES ?? Russian tech billionair­e Yuri Milner, a trained physicist, is investing $100 million in the search for extraterre­strial intelligen­ce.
THE NEW YORK TIMES Russian tech billionair­e Yuri Milner, a trained physicist, is investing $100 million in the search for extraterre­strial intelligen­ce.
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