Giving up, one millimeter past the starting line

In this very silly WSJ op-ed Science Increasingly Makes The Case For God, author and TV host Eric Metaxas concludes that since our forty or fifty years of SETI has failed to turn up any aliens, well then… God! Because isn’t it remarkable that out of an octillion planets*, we have not yet found life?

“With such spectacular odds, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, a large, expensive collection of private and publicly funded projects launched in the 1960s, was sure to turn up something soon. Scientists listened with a vast radio telescopic network for signals that resembled coded intelligence and were not merely random. But as years passed, the silence from the rest of the universe was deafening. Congress defunded SETI in 1993, but the search continues with private funds. As of 2014, researches have discovered precisely bubkis—0 followed by nothing.”

So little understanding of SETI, the Drake equation, evolution, time spans, distances, the inverse-square law. Take our own planet for example. Suppose there were someone out there trying to find US, with a handful of radio telescopes.

Our planet is about 4.6 billion years old, but we’ve been transmitting radio signals for only 118 years. Most of those years, low power. So that’s only about one forty millionth of the time our planet has been here. At any time, another world could have pointed their radio telescope at us and concluded; “No life.”

But it’s worse than that: our earliest radio signals have only reached out 118 light years – and our galaxy is a hundred thousand light years across. And the signal weakens exponentially, not linearly, the farther out it reaches.

Then there’s the question of angular view. Picking up a radio signal from a long distance isn’t done with a bare antenna; it’s done with an antenna at the focal point of a parabolic dish. The farther you are looking, the narrower your view must be. Yet the universe includes all directions. They don’t know ahead of time, which direction leads to us.

And yet, we are here. The SETI program on that lonely alien world, surely has its detractors. “You’ve been looking for forty years, and you have not found anything yet! WE must be the only creatures in the universe! It all exists for US!” And the alien scientists would shake their heads and say; “It is the beginning of a great endeavor. Likely it will take generations. We are endowed with curiosity; it may be the finest of all attributes of our species.”

The author’s understanding of “conditions required for life” is way off as well. It’s as if a puddle concluded that it was a remarkable coincidence that there was a depression on the sidewalk “created” exactly to match the shape of the puddle. Of course life would fit the conditions of our world pretty well. Other worlds, other conditions…

Is SETI a waste of money? Is space exploration? I don’t know; life on our planet will continue after the next extinction-level asteroid event. But maybe we should learn to watch for it. There is good reason to believe we can deflect asteroids. And if we find life, it might change how we look at the universe. What fantastic hubris to think all this is just for us. We just spent a couple trillion dollars to invade the wrong country, so my vote is that our view of existence… could use some changing.

NOTES:

  • *We have only looked at the tiniest fraction of those planets, anyway. I would hardly describe our network of SETI facilities as “vast”.
  • A dear relative posted the WSJ op-ed on Facebook with the title; “Putting this out there for reflection.” This post is the reflection.
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