Are We Alone?

15. WHAT NEXT?

The story of SETI is unfinished but unfolding nonetheless. No evidence of any extraterrestrial intelligence has been found so far and every search conducted till now has been fruitless. Complex life is only known to exist on Earth, but scientists are not ruling out other locations in the Solar System.

What amazes me the most is that, many people have dedicated their scientific careers in the pursuit of something that has proven to be so illusive and their efforts may not bear fruits in their own lifetimes, or in the lifetimes of generations to come. Besides, there may not be any intelligent species in our Galaxy, barring our own, as many scientists and thinkers so passionately believe. So, what motivates these Contact Optimists?

SETI stems from a scientific curiosity, the urge to understand the unknown. Science explains how the universe works. It can tell us how the stars move, how galaxies form and interact with each other, and how the Universe was created in the Big Bang. As humans, we place a great deal of value upon this knowledge. There is no chance of an immediate return of our investment, but the curiosity to know the unknown is the overbearing factor which makes us innovate. This is the human spirit, the capacity to persevere in the pursuit of truth.

Today, even the most of the ardent skeptics agree that it is important to know the answer to the question as to whether we are alone in the universe. The only way forward is to build more powerful radio and optical telescopes for SETI research, develop state-of-the-art computer algorithms that can efficiently extract an artificially generated signal of extraterrestrial origin from the cosmic dial-tone (background noise), improve future directed searches for intelligent extraterrestrials, to name a few.

Scientists and astronomers do not expect humans to travel to the stars with planetary systems any time soon as they are much further away than the nearest Alpha Centauri star system. Even if we could travel at one-tenth the speed of light, which some futurists think will be possible in a few decades, it would take hundreds to thousands of years to visit them. The obvious question is, if we cannot go there now, why even look?

The idea is to scientifically study planets by remotely observing them with the aid of powerful telescopes. The most exciting possibility in the near future is to predict or actually find the existence of life forms (not necessarily the intelligent kind) by analyzing the gases in the exoplanet atmosphere and if we truly succeed to do so, we will enter a brand new phase in human civilization. Humankind will then have to revise the way it sees itself in relation to the Universe. Perhaps it will not take its “little blue planet” for granted any more.

As for intelligent aliens, we will have to wait and see!

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Further Reading

  1. “Searching for Interstellar Communications” by Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison, Nature, Vol. 184, Number 4690, pp. 844-846, September 19, 1959.The article can be found online here. The modern search for extraterrestrial intelligence was born with the publication of this article in the prestigious journal Nature.
  2. “Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infrared Radiation” by Freeman John Dyson, Science, Vol. 131, June 3, 1960, pp. 1667-1668. This is a landmark paper for SETI research where the celebrated physicist and futurist Freeman Dyson came up with an entirely new way of looking for signatures of advanced intelligent extraterrestrial life. Dyson himself remarked, “The discovery of an intense point source of infrared radiation would not by itself imply that extraterrestrial intelligence has been found. On the contrary, one of the strongest reasons for conducting a search for such sources is that many new types of natural astronomical objects might be discovered.”
  3. Drake, F. D. “Project Ozma,” Physics Today, 14, 140 (1961). The world’s first systematic search for alien radio transmissions was conducted more than fifty years ago by Frank Drake, then a 29-year-old researcher at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.
  4. Kardashev, N. S., “Transmission of information by extraterrestrial civilizations,” Soviet Astronomy, Vol. 8, No. 2, Sept.-Oct. 1964. Kardashev’s ranking of civilizations according to their energy profile can be found in this paper.
  5. “Is There Life Out There? The Search for Habitable Exoplanets” by Sara Seager. The PDF version of the document can be found here. This exciting, scientifically important article is written for non-specialists by one of the experts of Exoplanet research, Sara Seager, Professor of Planetary Science and Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Most of the material concerning Exoplanets is taken from this article.