Utpal Borpujari

March 27, 2010

Search for ET life is too narrowly focused: Paul Davies

Is anybody out there? This question has continued to perplex human beings for ages, and even though the ET has become a popular character in sci-fi novels and movies, the real ET, should there be one, is yet to contact us. The US-based SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), the most-ambitious project to search life beyond planet Earth, completes 50 years this April 8. Almost coinciding with it, internationally-acclaimed cosmologist and astrobiologist Paul Davies has come up with The Eerie Silence (Allen Lane), a fabulously-told story of what goes into the search for ETs, and whether our science is even equipped enough to recognise a message that might come in from a planet far, far away. A winner of the Templeton Prize, Davies chairs the SETI’s post-detection task group that would be among the first to know about any ET contact. In an interaction with Deccan Herald’s Utpal Borpujari & Kalyan Ray, Davies shares his views on SETI and its future:

On its 50th anniversary, how would you assess the SETI’s achievements?

There has been an enormous increase in sensitivity, frequency range and data processing, following its own version of Moore’s Law. 

Do you think it needs to change the way SETI has been operating?

Yes. SETI is too narrowly focused at the moment, by concentrating on the search for narrow-band signals. This stems form a reliance on the scenario that a message is being directed at Earth from an alien civilization. That is not credible at this time because the aliens do not know we are here. If they are 1,000 light years away (a typical guess by SETI optimists) they see Earth as it was 1,000 years ago. There were no radio telescopes here in 1010 AD.  

The US government stopped funding the SETI. What would be your view if SETI can be turned into a global project funded by various countries?

Private funding has proved more secure for SETI. If other countries or agencies join in, they should do something new and different. However, I don’t think money is the key issue. 

Do you think instead of an unfocused SETI, something like the focused Project Phoenix (which concentrates on nearby systems most likely to have planets capable of supporting life rather than attempting to scan the whole sky for messages) should have been the ideal model for adoption from the very start?

No. I think the search strategy is flawed. They should scale back looking for narrow band signals and concentrate on looking for beacons instead. 

How do you view SETI@Home, which invites users to network their computers with SETI to help analyse date? Is it an effort to involve the common man in SETI or just a prop to develop curiosity value?

It’s a bit of fun that broadens the appeal of SETI. It is unlikely to make much difference one way or the other. 

What would be your explanation if someone asks you why humans are still not able to find out the existence of other life forms in the Universe in all these years?

It may be that we are alone in the universe or, as I explain in the book, that there will be no narrow-band directed signals. We should be looking for more general signatures of intelligence instead. I give many examples in the book. Then we might be successful. 

Science fiction – both books and movies – is full of various forms of ET life. Do you think the first contact with ET intelligence, whenever that happens, would be as dramatic as it is mostly in the sci-fi world?

Yes and no. I don’t think “contact” is likely. Rather, we will simply observe unambiguous signatures of alien technology, maybe in the remote past. This would be dramatic only in the sense that Copernicus and Darwin’s discoveries were dramatic. 

As the chair of SETI’s post-detection task group, what you think should be the ideal reaction to detection of ET intelligence, as and when it happens?

If it’s just a signature of technology, it needs to be published and announced like any other astronomical discovery. If it’s a radio source, we need to keep the coordinates secret until scientists have had a chance to evaluate what we are dealing with. That is to prevent unauthorized transmissions to the source from Earth by self-appointed representatives. 

How you would answer the question you yourself ask on the cover of your book: “are we alone in the Universe?”

Nobody knows the answer. It could be yes or no. We have no evidence either way. 

Why do you think most the radio-astronomers are not interested in searching for ET signals or beacons? Do they think it’s a childish idea on which one should not waste time?

They are not hostile, but they are interested in other things – things likely to yield results. SETI may never succeed, so it is a high-risk career strategy. 

What are the chances that proposed bigger radio telescope like SKA and Paul Allen array or the planned more sensitive neutrino detectors actually get ET signature?

It’s impossible to quantify the chance. Obviously the broader the strategy the more significant is the eerie silence. 

In the book, you argue that Darwin’s theory of evolution is a universal law of biology. Assuming that it is applicable to ET life also, what are the possibilities that the shadow biosphere has evolved over time and currently indistinguishable from the ordinary life?

I don’t think evolutionary convergence is so strong as to create identical biochemistry.

Have all the UFO sightings been explained satisfactorily? Scientists most of the time say that “most of them have been explained” without telling whether “all” have been explained. Are there still some secrets locked in military files or are there still some incident, which is beyond the current scientific knowledge?

I think they can all be explained. There are no significant “secret files” in my opinion. 

(Published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 27-03-2010)



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