Home > Newsletter Archive > Newsletter #34
As promised in my last newsletter, Iíve 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 – Gravityís Arc – is published, Iíll 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.
Itís an interesting question, which Iíll be posting on my forum immediately after sending out this newsletter: In more than four decades of searching for ETI, since Frank Drakeís seminal efforts to listen for radio messages coming from Epsilon Eridani and Tau Ceti in 1960, weíve heard nothing (unless you include the Wow! Signal and a few other unexplained blips). Why not? Does it mean no oneís out there after all? Should we abandon SETI and get used to the fact that weíre alone in the Galaxy?
I think not. About all we can say is that there arenít 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 isnít that optimistic about the ease with which weíll make first contact!
Let me give you my personal take on whatís going on. I think there is other intelligence in the Galaxy and I donít think itís particularly rare. Iíd 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 havenít we detected them? For several reasons. First, I strongly suspect that weíre only capable of ďhearingĒ the messages being sent by ETI that fall within the same quite narrow technological window as ourselves. Weíre bound to be among the most primitive of technological species in space – weíve only had powered flight for a century! If a species is more than, say, 500 years more advanced than us, theyíll 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 weíre interesting in learning to speak to a fish. They may wish to study us from a biological and anthropological standpoint, but thatís about it. Third, Iíd be very surprised if ďsuperiorĒ beings donít follow some kind of Prime Directive that prevents them from destroying other cultures by interfering in their affairs. You only have to look at whatís 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, Iíd love to get your opinions on how common you think intelligence is in the Galaxy and on your reasons why we havenít yet heard from them. Put your two-centsí worth on the forum and letís have a good chat about it!
In the News
Itís amazing how much happens in a month. Since the last newsletter went out, Japanís Hayabusa probe has completed itís rendezvous with an asteroid (though whether it will ever get back home is another story), Cassini has returned pictures of vast volcanic plumes on Saturnís 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 Bransonís Virgin Galactic has announced the first 100 people whoíve signed up to fly as space tourists aboard the companyís 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 whoís only 16. For more details, see this New Scientist article and Virgin Galacticís homepage.
Itís also been announced that Virgin Galactic trips aboard ďSpaceShipTwoĒ – the eight-seater successor to Burt Rutanís X-prize-winning Spaceship One – will take off from a new spaceport to be build in New Mexico, a stoneís-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. Itíll be the real-life equivalent of the pod race in Star Warsí ďThe Phantom Menace! Thrilling stuff indeed. This really could be the future of manned space flight – entrepreneurial, exciting, fast-paced, competitive. I think itís an extraordinary prospect.
I was talking about SETI earlier. A big reason why SETI researchers are optimistic about their ongoing quest is the progress thatís 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, thatís 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,