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the eerie silence

26 july 2010

Paul Davies, in The Eerie Silence, enlists science fiction in speculating about what intelligent beings elsewhere in the Galaxy might turn their hands, or whatever it is they have, to. It's unlikely that we'll get a message from intelligent extra-terrestrials in the form of broadcast TV – surely a highly-advanced civilization has cable by now. We might instead detect their existence because they are mining comets for deuterium, or building gigantic energy-collection devices around stars or black holes. Or, suggest some out-of-the-boxy thinkers, the aliens might litter Earth with viruses that attach themselves to terrestrial hosts and then hatch open, revealing encoded information about extraterrestrial intelligence.

It was at this point that I started to wonder: just how intelligent are these aliens? What of interest could we possibly learn from message viruses? That they've found inexhaustible sources of clean, renewable energy? That they've mastered the hitherto-unsolved challenge of sending reliable voice transmissions over an iPhone? That they're intelligent enough to construct message viruses? Who cares? As Eric Idle once sang, "Pray that there's intelligent life somewhere up in space / 'Cause there sure is bugger all down here on Earth." But if Life Up There can think of nothing better to do than spray the Universe with viral tweets, I think we have to question their judgment.

In fact, one of the many intelligent things about Davies's book is that he insists we have no idea what the green men are thinking, doing, or care about. All attempts to picture them are anthropomorphic, and all are equally silly. When SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) began 50 years ago, people figured we'd hear radio transmissions warning us against nuclear weapons. Today some folks imagine we will get laser beams warning us against global warming. (I hold with an SNL report from the 1970s, after it was announced that rock & roll had reached the nearest stars: the aliens' first message, said Jane Curtin, was "SEND MORE CHUCK BERRY.")

Davies thinks the idea of aliens starting such conversations is nonsense. Except for having to obey Maxwell's equations and the laws of thermodynamics, ET will be of a vastly different order from us, and will have inscrutable concerns. All we've done so far is project our hopes and fears onto him.

Unlike Seth Shostak in Confessions of an Alien Hunter, Davies is less interested in giving the history of SETI than in envisioning its future. To do this he must think in big ways, and they're wonderfully inventive, oblique ways. The first problem is whether ETI is likely to exist at all. Enrico Fermi thought not, raising still the most cogent objection of all: Where is everybody? Jacques Monod found DNA (his own academic specialty) so complexly contingent that he concluded earthly life to be a one-time freak occurrence. With his head, in fact, Paul Davies agrees; but the question is too interesting, and the payoff for being refuted too great, for him to abandon the search.

Weirdly, the best way to be sure that life exists elsewhere is to find that it evolved twice or more here on Earth. Unfortunately, all terrestrial life shares DNA, indicating a single source. This may be the only time and place that life has ever developed. Davies explains that there are just two potential scenarios: either life on Earth is all she wrote, or life across the universe is as common as dirt. The conditions for life are probably everywhere, as we learn with each new discovery of an extra-Solar planet. A single instance of life in the universe is quite plausible; so is billions and billions. But, let's say, 42 is not.

For now, keep watching the skies. And keep waving! Davies sees no harm in METI, the project of sending Messages to Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. Some are worried that sending the wrong message might get us vaporized, but as Davies says, "there isn't a snowball's chance in hell of anyone out there picking up the signals" (199). This is a peculiar thing for someone so invested in picking up such signals to say, but it corresponds to Davies's reasoned pessimism about life elsewhere in the universe. It's even extremely unlikely, after all, that we would recognize a message from space, so we can't be hopeful about space recognizing ours. But on Pascal's-wager principles, we might as well send some outgoing mail.

Davies, Paul. The Eerie Silence: Renewing our search for alien intelligence. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2010.