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View of Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico with its 300 m dish
its observation time is devoted to ETI searches.
the world's largest. A small fraction of
THE IMPACT OF SETI
IT IS BOTH TIMELY AND FEASIBLE TO BEGIN A SERIOUS SEARCH
A SIGNIFICANT SETI PROGRAM WITH SUBSTANTIAL POTENTIAL
LARGE SYSTEMS OF GREAT CAPABILITY CAN BE BUILT IF NEEDED
SETI IS INTRINSICALLY AN INTERNATIONAL ENDEAVOR IN WHICH
Heaven and earth are large, yet in the whole of space they are but as a small grain of rice.... It is as if the whole of empty space were a tree, and heaven and earth were one of its fruits. Empty space is like a kingdom, and heaven and earth no more than a single individual person in that kingdom Upon one tree there are many fruits, and in one kingdom many people. How unreasonable it would be to suppose that besides the heaven and earth which we can see there are no other heavens and no other curths?
Teng Mu, 13th Century philosopher
In the enormous emptiness of space we can now recognize so many stars that we could count one hundred billion of them for each human being alive. Yet we know of only one inhabited planet, our Earth. The Earth has supported the development of life nurtured by one commonplace star, the nearby five-billion-year old Sun. We look out into the starry Universe quite unable to see within its compass any sign that we are not alone. The other planets near our Sun offer some hope to a search for other life, and indeed for many months Viking on the surface of Mars has been reporting the enigmatic chemical activity of the Martian soil. We remain uncertain, at the time of writing, whether the chemical changes are biological or inorganic in nature.
The web of life here on Earth is the consequence of a long complex sequence of natural selection by which life increased its scope and its variety, always exploiting the flood of energy bestowed directly or indirectly by the Sun. The Earth has seen fire and ice, yet it has provided steadily, for three billion years without a break, some environments to which life could adapt. Changes were never so drastic or so rapid that all survival became impossible, though particular species have arisen and died by the millions. Indeed, life has spread from its origins, probably near the seashore, to alpine peaks and ocean troughs, and has diversified almost beyond description. Our species and a few of our forebears have achieved considerable technological abilities and some degree of self-knowledge. Nor do we foresee any natural catastrophe ending this fabric of life until in due course the Sun itself runs out of nuclear fuel, some five billion years in the future.
We all know the starry sky at night, and on our deep photographs of the sky we see everywhere a dusting of small dots. Analysis of the light which caused those images, using its intensity and the details of its spectrum, has made it certain that such dots represent suns resembling our own, about which we know only that they are suns. Our own Sun with its cortege of planets would be just such another single dot, quite indistinguishable from a hundred million others at the distances we scan.
We have been able to understand in a general way how stars are born out of dense clouds of gas and dust in the interstellar spaces; we can see other stars in the transient stages of birth, as once was the Sun and its planets. Are planets always born in the spinning disk of gas out of which the other suns form? Or is our own set of planets as rare as its central luminary is commonplace? We cannot now say, though we are sure that the processes that form stars and might have formed planets as well, were going on for billions of years before our solar system forned, and will outlast our Sun.
If around those other visible suns there spin other planets, hidden from us by the distances of space, it is at least possible that on some the work of natural selection has continued for times which could be five or ten billion years longer than the whole history of our Sun and Earth. We could conceive that life never arose on a given planet, or that it exhausted its resources of adaptability, to end in an algal monotony, or in total extinction. Or we can imagine the slow evolution of beings -- not human – able to control their world and themselves and to know the Universe.
In evolutionary diversity there is still unity. Squid and human see with eyes that evolved quite differently, and yet resemble each other, for they perform similar tasks. The big tuna, the extinct icthyosaur, and the dolphin resemble each other closely in streamlined form, and even somewhat in behavior. They are distinct evolutionary solutions to the problem of earning a living by predation upon fast-swimming fish; the three, fish, reptile, and mammal, have been molded alike by natural selection to solve the single dynamical problem of fast pursuit in the sea. Similarly, the way of life of H. sapiens appears to spread and to succeed; it seems to us that if natural selection has once built so subtle and successful a scheme, it can do so again. Sapient beings on other planets would in no way be our biological kin for they would share with us no common ancestor. But they might have converged with us in behavior; they might have evolved to culture, and then, say, to radio telescopes! Culture is a workable way of life, like hunting schools of mackerel. Indeed, we have seen that human cultural evolution, also, often converges: no less a development than writing was independently achieved by the Aztecs, the Chinese, and the peoples of the Middle East. On this basis, it would be consistent with the historical development of the great ideas of science to postulate that for a time of unknown duration, near an unknown number of stars, deliberate radio beacons or unintended radio leakage are present. This is a hypothesis untested, but capable of verification by experiment.
It is not idle curiosity to inquire whether other intelligent life has arisen and survived near some distant sun, beings in no way our biological kin. For by some sign of that presence we might come to learn, in a way, our own possible future. Indeed, the one most solid result of the calculus of chance which governs our thoughts about such uncertainty is this: intelligent beings out there if they exist at all – almost surely form societies which have endured for a time long compared to the history of our own civilization, a time which might even reach the span of geological time itself.
Astronomers have real hope of detecting planets near other stars, especially relatively neighboring ones, by new optical or infrared measurements from ground or orbit. But detection of plant or animal life implies a landing such as we made on Mars, and this is well beyond our capabilities over interstellar distances.