Jan 03 2010

the Impossible dream?

Category: science,Uncategorizedharmonicminer @ 9:43 am

For 50 years we’ve been Waiting for ET to phone us.

West Virginia. It is 6 am on an April morning in 1960 and Frank Drake is freezing cold. He peers up towards the focal point of the radio telescope. He mounts a flimsy ladder to the top and climbs into a space about the size of a garbage can. For the next 45 minutes, he tunes the receiver inside, which feels like starting an old car. He climbs back down and begins to listen.

Drake and colleagues were conducting a seminal experiment: the first modern search for extraterrestrial life. For four months, the researchers used the Tatel Telescope in Green Bank to listen for any intelligent signals from the stars Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani that might be hidden on the same wavelength as radiation emitted naturally by hydrogen. Drake named the effort Project Ozma after the princess in the 0z books by Frank Baum, who wrote that he used a radio to learn of events there.

April 2010 will mark the 50th anniversary of the start of Project Ozma, and those involved in the search for extraterrestrial life, or SETI, will be raising a glass. Not only did the experiment inspire countless people to continue the search, it brought alien-hunting into the mainstream and arguably seeded the science of astrobiology.

Other famous searchers for things that were never found:

Albert Einstein and Unified Field Theory.

Don Quixote and defeatable windmills

Ponce de Leon and the Fountain of Youth

Isaac Newton and a way to turn lead into gold

AI researchers and actual machine intelligence

Modern physics and cold fusion

You get the idea.  Some things just SOUND plausible, even likely.  The argument that “the universe is just so big that there has to be intelligent life out there” is like that.  It just instinctively sounds right.

That doesn’t make it right.

And even if they are there, the aliens are almost certainly far, far ahead of us, so far that we wouldn’t recognize one of their artifacts or communications methods if we saw it.  Or, they are so far behind us that they’re still working on inventing the bow and arrow, or controlling fire.  The odds of intelligent aliens in a detectable state of technological development anywhere near us (i.e., in detectable range) are so small as to be risible.

The notion that there is a “science of astrobiology” is especially humorous.  How can there be a science of something with no data?  Without a single example of its presumed subject?  Medieval alchemists were closer to turning lead into gold.  At least that turned out to be possible, albeit very difficult, using nuclear transmutation.  So I suppose we could be said to have a science of alchemy now, though it is nothing like what the ancients thought it would be.

We know more about mental telepathy in human beings than we know about alien life.  See what reaction you get from most scientists when you discuss the “science of telepathy.”

Since we have no useful theory about how terrestrial life began, we have no useful theory about whether there is or can be alien life, other than a philosophical commitment to “non-exceptionalism” regarding Earth-life.  That may or may not be true….  but philosophy is not science, and a priori commitments are not data.

The only data that “astrobiology” provides are observations about what conditions would make terrestrial-style life impossible.  While that is an exceedingly long list, it doesn’t automatically follow that there is extra-terrestrial life anywhere that terrestrial life could survive.  The funniest part, to me, though “astrobiologists” don’t get the joke, is that they develop “arguments from plausibility,” not data, exactly as they accuse believers in Intelligent Design of doing, whose perspectives they mostly despise.  Somehow, theories of essentially infinite numbers of universes are still considered science, although they aren’t really testable, either.  It’s very simple, of course; any theory is “scientific” if it doesn’t involve God the Creator, regardless of how many ridiculous assertions and intellectual back-flips it contains, or how many just-so stories upon which it depends.

Astrobiology could be seen as a sort of “science of the gaps,” except that that there aren’t any gaps for it to breach.   There isn’t anything for it to explain, yet, and there may never be.  So rather than “science of the gaps,” it is the science of hope, rather like theories of the multi-verse.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’ll all for funding more SETI, though I’m not acquiescent about more active approaches.  ET may not be nice, if he/she/it is there at all.

But I don’t expect much to be found.