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"Why our imagination for alien life is so impoverished"

18.04.16

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For as long as scientists have looked for alien life, they have conceived them in our own image. The quest arguably began with a 1959 Nature paper by the physicists Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison, who argued that ‘near some star rather like the Sun there are civilisations with scientific interests and with technical possibilities much greater than those now available to us’. The two scientists further posited that such aliens would have ‘established a channel of communication that would one day become known to us’. Such alien signals would most likely take the form of shortwave radio, which is ubiquitous through the Universe, and would contain an obviously artificial message such as ‘a sequence of small prime numbers of pulses, or simple arithmetical sums’.

Nothing in this suggestion was unreasonable, but it’s self-evidently the result of two smart scientists asking: ‘What would we do?’ Cocconi and Morrison’s proposal to look for familiar types of signals, coming from familiar types of technology, has heavily conditioned the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) ever since. Today, the Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb thinks it might be good to look for spectroscopic signatures of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the atmospheres of alien planets, apparently in the conviction that aliens have fridges like ours (or perhaps they’re just crazy about hairspray). Other scientists have proposed finding aliens by looking for their light-polluting cities; their starship Enterprise-style antimatter drives; or the radiation flashes from extraterrestrial nuclear war. It all sounds dreadfully… human.

The obvious defence is that, if you’re going to bother with SETI at all, you have to start somewhere. That we have the urge to search for life elsewhere probably owes something to our natural instincts to explore our environment and to propagate our kind. If – and this does seem rather likely – all complex life in the Universe originated through a competitive Darwinian evolutionary process, isn’t it reasonable to imagine that it will have evolved to be curious and expansionist? Then again, not all human societies seem intent on spreading beyond the village, and whether Darwinian selection will continue to be the predominant shaping force on humanity over the next millennium (never mind a million years) is anyone’s guess.

 

 

 

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