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Jon Teamlaverne Jon Teamlaverne | 17:15 UK time, Thursday, 12 August 2010



For the launch of the WOW Signal, Sir Patrick Moore has written a piece for Lauren's blog on the SETI (Search For Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) Institute. We are truly honoured.


Seti, Is It Worthwhile?


Most people - not all - believe that the Universe is teeming with life. After all, our Sun is a very ordinary star in a very ordinary galaxy, and the Earth is a very ordinary planet. There must be myriads of planets in the Milky Way alone, but one question remains unanswered; on a planet where life could appear, will it?


There are several points to borne in mind. First, there is no reason to be sure that all life-forms must be of the same kind as ours, wholly dependent upon carbon; there may be many forms so different that we could have great difficulty in recognising it. Secondly, life may occur in places intolerable to us, and we have already found living things in the most unlikely places, such as the thermal springs on the ocean-beds. And thirdly we do not know if primitive life will generally evolve into intelligent life, if its environment remains stable over a sufficiently long period. We can look here at our twin, Venus, which was presumably born at the same time as the Earth. Its initial condition may well have been Earth like, but when the Sun became more luminous Venus quickly changed from a welcoming world into the scorching desert of today.


Where should we search for intelligent life? I will confine myself here to life we can understand, because once we enter the realm of flying-saucers and "bug-eyed monsters" speculation becomes both endless and pointless. This means we can forget the Solar System, where only the Earth could support anything so advanced as an earwig. We must turn to other planetary systems, light-years away.


Visual methods have been suggested, but lasers have their limitations, and all in all it seems (to me, at least), that radio is the only hope. This is why SETI programmes have been organised, and it is true that with our 21st century equipment we could easily detect signals from a similarly equipped operator on, for example, a planet orbiting Epsilon Eridani, 11 light-years away. We could even exchange signals, though the finite speed of a radio-wave would make quick-fire repartee rather difficult; send your message to Epsilon Eridani in 2010 and the response would not arrive until 2032 even if the Eridanian was alert and replied immediately.


Any interstellar code must surely be based upon mathematics, because we did not invent mathematics; we merely discovered it, and any other advanced civilisation will do the same. Haphazard searches are a waste of time if success is ever achieved it must be by a SETI-type programme.


We may well ask why we are so keen to make contact. There are, however, some people who demur; claiming that far from making contact we should try to avoid it, and should do our best to conceal ourselves just in case we attract undesirable attention. It has been pointed out when relatively advanced beings encounter tribes of lesser development, the results are usually unpleasant (look at what happened to the Native Americans and Aborigines). To me this seems illogical, because races capable of interstellar travel would be genuinely intelligent, and would have long since abandoned warfare. They could no doubt teach us a great deal.


So what is the outlook? All I can do is give you my personal view. I believe that intelligent life is common, and that there are many races too advanced to destroy themselves, as we terrestrials are in danger of doing at the present time. If I am right, then SETI is of immense importance. It may bring success tomorrow, next month, next year, and we have to admit that contact will never be made. But the challenge is there and we must surely accept.


Who knows whether anyone out in the Universe will ever detect your 6 Music transmission, that's not really the point; it's the trying that counts! I wish you and the venture success, and of course, happy stargazing.

Patrick Moore



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