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the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence
gabe weinberg

What we know about extra-terrestrial intelligence is simple: the universe is big, we are small, and somewhere out there aliens might be trying to contact us. That's about it.

Hence the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI)--listening for signals sent through outer space by aliens. Pretty damn cool if you ask me. You could even argue that the first alien contact would be a major turning point in history. Hollywood and sci-fi buffs sure seem to think so...

Yet some view the search as wasteful. Congress won't fund it and academia won't support it. Scientists are even going out of their way to show that it's futile. A new book by two such scientists is receiving extreme media attention by purporting that we are probably all alone in the universe.

All alone? I find it hard to believe that these scientists somehow know we're all alone. They definitely haven't scoured the universe with a magnifying glass--so what's going on here?

Their arguments center around one core assumption: that we are special. Common examples are: that liquid water is required for life, that life requires organic chemicals, and that life requires an Earth-like planet. These claims are of course true for terrestrial life. But we're searching for extra-terrestrial life. Just because life is one way down here on Earth doesn't mean it's this way out there in space.

Perhaps their arguments would seem more convincing if we knew the details about the origin of life and intelligence. Or if we could even define life and intelligence. But we can't. We don't even understand ourselves. The only reason to suspect extra-terrestrial intelligence is like us is that we're the only example.

Now if you have read any science fiction (or seen the movies), then you know that non-human intelligence could exist (or are the Men In Black just that good?). After all, thousands of scientists are in the business of creating intelligence on computers--with silicon and electrons, not with blood and amino acids. And thousands more scientists are in the business of discovering new aspects of chemistry and physics, which may lead to new possibilities for life and new ways to contact and travel to other parts of the universe.

Really all we know today is that outer space is huge and most of its detail remains undiscovered. Outer space may be the home of zero, one, hundreds, millions, or trillions of intelligent species. And so we continue the search because the search will never be over. In the spirit of Copernicus, there's nothing necessarily special about humans or Earth--no terrestrial arguments can rule out extra-terrestrial intelligence.

Copyright © 2000 Gabe Weinberg All Rights Reserved

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