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David Darling's Newsletter #34


November 17, 2005


As promised in my last newsletter, I’ve set up a new forum where we can all share thoughts, ideas, news items, and personal experiences on subjects ranging from life in the universe to weird and wonderful phenomena here on Earth. Topics will include all aspects of science and scientific speculation, science fiction, the unexplained, and philosophy. Let me warmly invite you to get involved by contributing to one of our existing discussion threads or starting one of your own. In June, when my new book – Gravity’s Arc – is published, I’ll be awarding a signed copy to whomever I think has been the star contributor.

One of the more interesting things I was asked to do over the last month was reply to an article, by a one-time SETI enthusiast, which argues for a far more cautious view about the likelihood of extraterrestrial civilizations. The request came from Ken Frazier, editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and went out to both myself and Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute. Both our comments/rebuttals are to be published along with the article, by Dr. Peter Schenkel (the author of three books on extraterrestrial intelligence) in a forthcoming issue of the SI.

It’s an interesting question, which I’ll be posting on my forum immediately after sending out this newsletter: In more than four decades of searching for ETI, since Frank Drake’s seminal efforts to listen for radio messages coming from Epsilon Eridani and Tau Ceti in 1960, we’ve heard nothing (unless you include the Wow! Signal and a few other unexplained blips). Why not? Does it mean no one’s out there after all? Should we abandon SETI and get used to the fact that we’re alone in the Galaxy?

I think not. About all we can say is that there aren’t very large numbers of inhabited planets in our cosmic neighborhood routinely sending out fairly powerful radio or laser signals in our direction. But even Star Trek isn’t that optimistic about the ease with which we’ll make first contact!

Let me give you my personal take on what’s going on. I think there is other intelligence in the Galaxy and I don’t think it’s particularly rare. I’d guess there are many thousands of planets among the hundreds of billions of star systems in the Milky Way that harbor intelligent life at or beyond the level found here on Earth. Why then haven’t we detected them? For several reasons. First, I strongly suspect that we’re only capable of “hearing” the messages being sent by ETI that fall within the same quite narrow technological window as ourselves. We’re bound to be among the most primitive of technological species in space – we’ve only had powered flight for a century! If a species is more than, say, 500 years more advanced than us, they’ll have moved, I believe, to a new level of communication that is as inconceivable and as undetectable to us as satellite communications are to a native in the rain forest. Second, a race that is older and far more advanced than us will not be interested in making contact with us, any more than we’re interesting in learning to speak to a fish. They may wish to study us from a biological and anthropological standpoint, but that’s about it. Third, I’d be very surprised if “superior” beings don’t follow some kind of Prime Directive that prevents them from destroying other cultures by interfering in their affairs. You only have to look at what’s happened here on Earth, numerous times, when more technically advanced people have made contact, benignly or otherwise, with races that are a few centuries behind in terms of technology. First encounters with native Americas, the Incas, the Aborigines, the list goes on.

For more of my thoughts on this, you might like to check out the page of my on-line encyclopedia on the Drake Equation.

Most of all, I’d love to get your opinions on how common you think intelligence is in the Galaxy and on your reasons why we haven’t yet heard from them. Put your two-cents’ worth on the forum and let’s have a good chat about it!

In the News

It’s amazing how much happens in a month. Since the last newsletter went out, Japan’s Hayabusa probe has completed it’s rendezvous with an asteroid (though whether it will ever get back home is another story), Cassini has returned pictures of vast volcanic plumes on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, Mars Express has detected huge reserves of ice beneath the surface of Mars, a completely new species of mammal has been found in the forests of Borneo, one of the spiral arms of our Galaxy has been shown to be twice as close to the Sun as previously thought, and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has announced the first 100 people who’ve signed up to fly as space tourists aboard the company’s sub-orbital spacecraft in 2008-09.

Would you pay $200,000 for a three-and-a-half flight to the edge of space? Apparently, there are a lot of people willing to do just that, including a woman in her nineties (who learned to skydive at the age of 85!) and one future passenger who’s only 16. For more details, see this New Scientist article and Virgin Galactic’s homepage.

It’s also been announced that Virgin Galactic trips aboard “SpaceShipTwo” – the eight-seater successor to Burt Rutan’s X-prize-winning Spaceship One – will take off from a new spaceport to be build in New Mexico, a stone’s-throw away from Roswell, scene of the most famous alleged alien encounter in the annals of ufology. The so-called Southwest Regional Spaceport is also slated to be the venue for the annual X-prize Cup, an annual event showcasing the fledgling commercial spaceflight industry. This Cup will be awarded to the winner of the Rocket Racing League, which will pit intrepid rocketeers against each other on a three-dimensional trackway just 5,000 feet above the ground. It’ll be the real-life equivalent of the pod race in Star Wars’ “The Phantom Menace! Thrilling stuff indeed. This really could be the future of manned space flight – entrepreneurial, exciting, fast-paced, competitive. I think it’s an extraordinary prospect.

I was talking about SETI earlier. A big reason why SETI researchers are optimistic about their ongoing quest is the progress that’s being made in astrobiology. It seems that hardly a month goes by without further evidence that the conditions needed for life-as-we-know-it to emerge are plentiful out there. Mars looks more promising all the time as a current abode of life, especially in the light of the intriguing methane in its atmosphere. Titan and Europa are also good bets for advanced biochemistry, if not biology itself. And now we can add Enceladus to that exobiological shortlist. Any world that can spout plumes of water vapor high above its surface has at least two of the ingredients needed to kick start life – an internal energy source and water – on tap. Add the possibilities for life in our own solar system to the discovery, to date, of more than 150 planets going around other stars, and you can understand why seekers of extraterrestrial life and intelligence can hardly wait for the more detailed studies that are to come over the next couple of decades.

Well, that’s it for now. I hope to chat with you on the forum on these and many other mouth-watering topics. And, from my family to you and yours, have a wonderful holiday season!

All the best,
David Darling