Out There

Someone recently asked why I run the SETI@home program on my computer, usually overnight, but also during times I'm not working. (I start it manually: running it as a screensaver doesn't work for me because of a discrepancy between the system's and my definition of "idle time.") Why do I do it? The SETI effort hasn't turned up anything! Did I really think they were little green men out there sending radio signals, instead of (perhaps) watching first-run episodes of I Love Lucy as they weakly stream past some nearby star?

SETI@home 1000 Work Units Completed Well, the short answer is that running the SETI@home software is a habit: I've been participating in the project for almost six years, and have it down to muscle memory, kinda like brushing your teeth or folding your socks.

The long answer is that I think there's a strong probability life of some sort also exists elsewhere in the universe. I don't know if we'd necessarily recognize extraterrestrial life if we encountered it, but my gut instinct is that it's far more common "out there" than we might suspect, at least at a primitive level.

I don't think it follows extraterrestrial life would be "close" to us, either physically or temporally. Much possible life may have yet to develop, or may have long since developed and perished. So far as we know, human history is a microdot on the vast unfolding scroll of time, and we may not share that mote with many others. Likewise, the universe is a vast place: without mastery of exotic physics and energies we're only starting to imagine (let alone develop)—or some heretofore unimagined "magic"—it may be impossible to detect or locate other life, even in our own back yard.

Similarly, I don't think existence of extraterrestrial life would mean there are vast interstellar civilizations, technologically advanced alien societies, or species interested in "making contact" with others, even if they have the knowledge, means, and/or opportunity. Speculating about the behaviors, motives, and activities of alien life at this juncture in human history is to anthropomorphize and project human psychology: it's all in our heads, and built around our varied human conceptions of consciousness, self-awareness, intelligence, self-preservation, propagation, and cultural mores. My bet is aliens will be alien. They won't have any of that. We probably won't understand them, if we can even perceive them. They probably won't understand us, even if they can perceive us.

So, while I'd be ecstatic if the SETI effort detects artificial extraterrestrial signals, I'm not surprised it hasn't happened yet.

Should humans transmit a beacon for others to find? Sure... but only if we aren't worried about showing around our baby pictures. Right now, I don't think we should try to send information: a beacon should just be an indication of non-natural origin. Anything else is too ambitious. Such a beacon—if it's received and understood—might be embarrassing one day. I mean, can you see advanced civilizations sitting around at the methane-and-pumice bar:

"Heh—remember when those guys were transmitting primes with piddly little radio beacons! Primes! Bwah! I mean, really: how tacky is that?! Don't believe me? Look, I've got pictures!"

(There again with the anthropomorphizing.)

Anyway: I run SETI@home because, given what we understand today, it seems better to try to look for a candle than sit idly by and wonder what might be in the darkness. Sure, the SETI effort is a tremendous longshot which may never succeed. We can only guarantee we won't hear anything if we aren't listening.

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