SETI Close to Home
Tyler Kokjohn, PhD
The intentional search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has proceeded in one form or another for over 50 years. An active subject for conjecture long before Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison published a seminal paper on the practical prospects for detecting intelligent extraterrestrials (www.coseti.org/morris_0.htm), efforts to find and communicate with aliens have generated an interesting mix of enthusiasm, concern and derision over the years. SETI is an extreme high-risk project for scientists because there are no guarantees that any signals will ever be observed. In addition to concerns over dedicating a career to a doomed quest, the methods have been criticized by scientific peers as inadequate. Despite these issues and challenges of securing funding support, some adventurous scientists have persevered both in keeping SETI efforts going and improving them through the years.
SETI scientists walk a fine line; carefully respecting broadly acceptable scientific tenets they are also dedicated to pushing the limits. Outlining the political history of NASA SETI programs, Stephen J. Garber noted the negative impacts of the “giggle factor” due to an unavoidable association of these projects with iconic “little green men” and UFOs (A Political History of NASA’s SETI Program, page 28, In Archaeology, Anthropology and Interstellar Communication, Douglas A. Vakoch (ed.) 2014, http://www.nasa.gov/ebooks). Since the scathing conclusions and recommendations of the Condon Report (http://files.ncas.org/condon/?m=1) regarding the value of further UFO phenomena study, mainstream scientists have largely dutifully exited the arena. However, the survival of SETI despite the obstacles reveals that some scientists will challenge authority and common wisdom.
SETI anthropologists have examined the potentially momentous impacts that a discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence would have on human society. Would the revelation induce political chaos, religious crisis or panicked military responses? One favored approach has been to examine human history to discern how terrestrial societies have coped with contact with other peoples (Archaeology, Anthropology and Interstellar Communication, Douglas A. Vakoch [ed.] 2014, http://www.nasa.gov/ebooks). As Dr. Jacques Vallee pointed out long ago, the facet of UFO phenomena most amenable to direct study is the experiencers themselves. Unfortunately, the giggle factor may have caused SETI anthropologists to scrupulously avoid any connection with UFOs and completely overlook the unique opportunity this group presents. UFO investigators often complain about the lack of interest mainstream science takes in the phenomena, but there is now an opportunity to rectify that situation. Investigators could contribute to efforts to predict public reactions following ET contact by collecting a body of information gleaned from a far more direct analogue than anything examined by SETI anthropologists to date – UFO experiencers. How will contemporary humans react when confronting evidence of the extraterrestrial other? Systematically interview the people who have encountered UFOs or other paranormal phenomena to assess if and how they changed after their experiences. Studies of experiencers might provide a novel perspective SETI scientists have overlooked and may find extremely valuable as a model for what could transpire if and when humans have scientifically-confirmed cultural contact with aliens. If UFO investigators are able to offer some novel, well documented information, I predict SETI anthropologists will be open minded enough to evaluate it and extend it as opportunities allow.
Since Frank Drake initiated Project Ozma to listen for alien radio broadcasts (http://www.seti.org/seti-institute/project/details/early-seti-project-ozma-arecibo-message) to efforts informed by the latest information on extra-solar planets provided by the Kepler Mission to discover habitable planets (http://kepler.nasa.gov), SETI efforts have been concentrated heavily on star systems. Indisputably logical based on generally held ideas as to how and where life similar to that on Earth might emerge and evolve, this focus on a fast expanding roster of illuminated worlds is restrictive. One of the great ironies of the search for distant extraterrestrial life is that much of the strategy employed is based by necessity on lessons from Earth and the human experience. A focus on stars similar to our sun, hunting “habitable” planets and seeking signals compatible with our technologies are eminently logical starting points. Life may begin on the illuminated worlds, but intelligent life may not necessarily be confined to such places. The insights of Cocconi and Morrison (www.coseti.org/morris_0.htm), reveal it is scientifically plausible that even if aliens or their devices cannot navigate the vast expanses of interstellar space, their signals and ideas may still reach and influence us. For those wondering about what happens when humans become cognizant of intelligent aliens, some of the answers may be close at hand.