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Lonely Planet: Social Media Gets on Board in the Quixotic Search for Extraterrestrial Life

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Extrasolar planets are targets for SETI investigations

The count of exoplanets, those outside the Solar System, now has reached the multi-hundreds, with mucho mas inevitably to be counted.

Working through financial troubles, SETI is again searching for intelligent life in the great Out There.

So paraphrasing the relevant question posed by Enrico Fermi: If they’re out there, why aren’t they here?

The answer may be simple. A new book by noted science journalist John Gribbin suggests that there may be no there out there, or at the very least in the Milky Way. The peculiarity of circumstance that led to the early efflorescence of life on Earth and ultimately to beings capable of fashioning the iPad 2 and the Burj Khalifa may be an anomaly unrepeated anywhere in the cosmos, the result of a chain of huge collisions in the Solar System that set preconditions in just the right way for promoting rapid evolution

The existence of primordial biology may be a relatively common event—planets populated with some semblance of Streptococcus pneumoniae, Pseudomonas aeroginosa or maybe a Planet Yuck wrapped in Neisseria gonorrhoeae. But a being that can contemplate the meaning of the Planck constant or engage in a critique of pure reason may have no home beyond the third rock from the Sun.

In its quixotic quest for contact, the SETI Institute has pressed its Earth Speaks program—a social media outreach effort to gather text messages,  pictures and sound as suggested messages for sending off to aliens. And, of course, there’s  Twitter. Earth Speaks has its own handle. But there is a case for gathering more. The entire Tweet stream reads like real-time discourse on even the most minor brain burp of human activity and would make an ideal accompaniment to the I Love Lucy broadcasts emanating through the galaxy.

If Gribbin is right, though, this exercise may become more a form of global group therapy than a reasoned exercise on what to say to ET, a psychological projection of humans’ treacherously fickle predilections, more of a message about what we’re trying to tell each other than a means to communicate to a celestial life form.

A page-through of the anonymous postings on the Earth Speaks site reinforces the impression of a lonely planet looking inward—a plea to some all-powerful non-earthling to extract us from our state of overbearing angst or give  answers to multitudes of unresolved scientific conundrums.  A sampling of earth speak follows:

We are stupid, unconscious, ignorant, malicious and weak. please don’t eat us.

Be very careful of humans while a few want to meet you and become brothers, there are those who will harm you for your vehicles and knowledge solely for the purpose of power and control. As it stands now, we are at the mercy of our government. WE NEED HELP”

Earth is a beautiful jewel whose dominant life form, humans, are a primitive carbon-based species engaged in tribal warfare. Their spiritual essence is suppressed, their history forgotten, and they look to corrupt religious leaders for guidance. Humans use other life forms for food, sport, entertainment and research. They pollute everything in reach. They don’t taste good.

We Come In Peace, (Shoot to kill!!)

A few messages appeal to an omniscient Answer Man:

Certain neutrinos…were recently observed traveling faster than the speed of light. Were our measurements wrong, or can anything be faster than light?

About four-fifths of the substance of the universe is a type of “dark matter” whose presence we infer but cannot detect directly. a) Can you tell us anything about it? b) Would it be dangerous for us to have this knowledge now?

Does P=NP? That is to say, if a solution to a problem can be verified quickly by a computer (in say polynomial time), can the problem also be solved quickly by a computer? Also cold fusion would be neat. You guys got that?

Have whales been keeping you informed of Earth activity? If so, do you find us uncivilized?

Still others, invoking Steven Pinker by way of Abraham Lincoln, emphasize the better angels of our nature:

You are not alone. Life is precious. We hope to meet you. We come in peace.

We are a species seeking knowledge. We are flawed but seek to improve ourselves. Please accept us as we are. Perhaps you have also become wiser because of mistakes you have made. Let us learn from each other. Let us learn together!!

Finally, others opt for a laconic, existential sparseness, way less than 140 characters:

We are here.

Hang tough.

Mind the Step!

Klaatu barada nikto

Would you like a glass of water?

Do you know what it means to ask a question?

GET ME OUT OF HERE!

Nuff said.

Source: NASA

About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. N a g n o s t i c 10:20 am 02/24/2012

    I find it implausible that beings capable of what we do are so rare that only one copy may exist in any given galaxy. What’s more likely is they live and perish at such distances from one another that attempts at interplanetary communication, even if one-way, are bound to be unsuccessful unless spread out over time. Centuries, perhaps.

    Link to this
  2. 2. MadScientist72 11:29 am 02/24/2012

    Mr. Gribbin appears to have overlooked that fact that our first unmanned probes have only just left our solar system. For an alien race to personally travel across interstellar space to reach earth, they’d have to be vastly more advanced than we are. It’ll take centuries – if not longer – before we could have any possibility of detecting any evidence of our evolutionary/technological equals “out there”.

    Link to this
  3. 3. brublr 6:27 pm 02/24/2012

    The latest modern miracle of non-aging mice (news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2010/11/partial-reversal-of-aging-achieved-in-mice/) has a certain implied and ominous portent of, say, having to live in 10 year shifts alternating with 20 years of suspended animation until galactic colonization can tidy up on humanity’s excess proliferation. Or perhaps mulching the remains of those choosing virtual sublimation would be the optimal solution to Malthusian constraints. Hmm,this could be the answer to Fermi’s paradox of the non-appearance of advanced civilizations – they’ve all sublimed off their planets. But only boring people are bored, don’t sublime and the galaxy is ours!

    Link to this
  4. 4. morbas 9:00 am 03/2/2012

    The known intellectual life is a rare as known Sol-Earth-Moon systems. So far atleast. To be added to the drake equation is the evolutionary control of the Galaxy Arm Passage. Within the Era of Life (Phanerozoic) is an interleaved 417Ma pattern which I call the Galactic Geologic Interval (GGIT).
    Within the emerging ICS Geologic Time Scale including circa 1982 Geological Society datum, reside co-variant 417Ma intervals of major Periods extending into the upper (late) Precambrian Eon. The eight 417Ma Geologic pattern sets offsets have a pattern set in the Phanerozoic Eon. These patterns fit a Milky Way (MW) Solar System (SOL) relative rotation rate of 0.863O/Ma, and an underlay of a 139Ma SOL absolute elliptical orbital of the MW. Re-review of journals reveals Gillman (2008, 408Ma Galactic Driver) as the closest numerical approximation. Association with NASA space observations is still clouded by miss match biased by SOL MW 220Ma orbital period. Perhaps a complication causal of the undefined 90% dark matter in the MW, an unaccounted Bremsstrahlung red shift operator(s), thus a VLBA red shift distance calibration issue. The Bremsstrahlung operator is a proposed correction factor for red shift of astrophysical measurements.
    You are invited to see wikipedia user morbas page for further analysis.

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