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The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

October 24th, 2007

ngc4414galaxy.jpgThe idea of searching for intelligent life in other areas of the universe is one that has intrigued astronomers and other curious stargazers for years. This article by Jamie Sue Austin posits that we should not give up the search even though the possibility of finding anything within our natural life spans seems very remote. On the other hand, with all of the ignorance and stupidity that still exists in the world today, we may need to keep searching for intelligent life on this planet.

Since the 1960’s, individuals and organizations have been searching the skies for radio transmissions from worlds other than our own. The largest organization to date is SETI or Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, which was founded in 1983. Radio signals from Earth have been traveling into space since “Hey Rainey” (the supposed first words to be spoken on radio in 1892). We have yet to receive a reply. This leads some to believe that the search for extraterrestrial life is a futile one. Although the evidence may be weighed in their favor, now is not the time to give up the search.

There are several problems involved in searching for signs of intelligent life beyond our solar system. The most pressing problem is the lack of sufficient technology to make contact. As of today, radio is our only means of communication beyond this planet. However, there is no way to determine if any other form of intelligent life will be capable of sending or receiving radio signals. Our nearest neighbors may not be technologically developed enough to send or receive radio signals, or they may be so incredibly advanced that radio waves are considered nothing more than quaint means of communication used by ancient civilizations. If they no longer send radio signals, they may not feel the need to respond to us. After listening to transmissions of Rush Limbaugh or Bubba the Love Sponge, they may feel there is no intelligent life on Earth.

Radio signals aren’t the only concern in regard to finding life on other planets. The definition of life itself is a problem. Until 1970 scientists thought that sunlight, oxygen, and water were necessary for the genesis of life, but that view was challenged by the discovery of Archaea. Archaeans include inhabitants of some of the most extreme environments on the planet. Some live near rift vents in the deep sea at temperatures well over 100 degrees Centigrade. Others live in hot springs, or in extremely alkaline or acidic waters. They have been found thriving inside the digestive tracts of cows, termites, and marine life where they produce methane. They live in the anoxic mud of marshes and at the bottom of the ocean, and even thrive in petroleum deposits deep underground. Some archaeans can survive the desiccating effects of extremely saline waters (Berkeley).

There are even some bacteria that metabolize iron and sulfur, give “live birth” and live in thermal vents and volcanoes. It’s obvious that life will develop regardless of environmental conditions. In our search for intelligent life we must concede that life forms that have evolved from these extreme conditions will be vastly different from our own in a way that will probably make contact impossible.

New technologies have led to startling discoveries suggesting that another solar system like ours might be out there. “For the first time we have detected two planets in nearly circular orbits around the same star”, said team member Debra Fischer of the University of California at Berkeley. “Most of the 70 planets people have found to date are in bizarre solar systems, with short periods and eccentric orbits close to their star. As our sensitivity improves we are finally seeing planets with longer orbital period, planetary systems that look more like our solar system.” (qtd. NSF). It is just a matter of time before another Earth-like planet is discovered and the possibilities of life like ours become less unbelievable. There is so much left to discover that to make a definitive judgment that intelligent life does not exist on other planets is unintelligible.

It does no harm to continue the search. At one point in time SETI was part of NASA which was funded by the US government. “The NASA effort was called the High Resolution Microwave Survey (HRMS). In 1993, Nevada Senator Richard Bryan successfully introduced an amendment that eliminated all funding for the NASA SETI program. The cost of the program was less than 0.1% of NASA’s annual budget, amounting to about a nickel per taxpayer per year. The Senator cited budget pressures as his reason for ending NASA’s involvement with SETI” (SETI). The organization is now privately funded by a few major foundations and private individuals taking the burden of cost for questionable research from the general public. We may not find intelligent life tomorrow, but the most important part of being human is to continue searching for knowledge in all its many forms.

One Response to “The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence”

  1. comment number 1 by: Shechaiyah, webmaster

    Folks, if you haven’t figured out that there’s life out there — yet — you’re as phoney as a three dollar bill.

    Phoney dysinformationalists. We ALL know there is life out there already, and we all know the earth is ROUND.

    Apparently you don’t, eh?

    Emily Cragg

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