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OSETI I WORKSHOP - 13

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) in the

Optical Spectrum

 

Neil Tennant: Could I say something about why we should study other intelligences besides our own? Suppose you have that attitude towards the study of your society at a different time. Why should we want to know anything about this society one hundred years ago, it's this society now that we want to know something about. Then you would lose all the value of history and the wisdom that comes from that. If you applied that to the study of societies in other places, you would lose all the wisdom of anthropology and how it reflects on your own society and the provinciality of your own circumstances.

If you had that attitude towards the study of other natural languages besides English, you'd miss out on the prospect of the principles of universal grammar and enlightenment as to the basic cognitive operations of the human mind. And you could just multiple this over and over. You should never limit your attention cognitively to any particular provincial instances of what you hope is a natural kind, be it a human society or a racial group or a species. Don't study slime molds - human beings are far more interesting, why study slime molds, or don't study haplo-diploid species, we've got enough problems with the diploid ones. I mean, I just don't see the force of the argument. [laughter]

Charles Townes: Well, let me see if I can say something controversial. [laughter] I would make two points:

I think overall that the higher frequencies are probably somewhat better and more powerful for SETI, and I would pick for those higher frequencies somewhere in the infrared region as a compromise between the amount of background noise and the size of the quanta, and so on. But any case, somewhat higher frequencies I think are somewhat more favorable. Now, I don't think one can be completely convincing in either direction, but that's my own conviction and I believe the reason we are doing SETI in the microwave region now is a historic matter of how our technology happens to lie at the moment. I am all in favor of it, I think we should do it there because I don't think it's so obvious what another civilization would pick. On the other hand, from the fundamental point of view, I think the shorter wavelengths are really somewhat more favorable.

Now the second controversial thing I would say is that I don't think that the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence will have very much effect on religion. That's been brought up a few times and is the reason for mentioning it. I just call your attention to the effect of Galileo on religion. That had a very strong effect for a while. It changed religion some, but Pope John Paul II has in the last decade expressed himself many times with apologies to Galileo, that science is just fine and Galileo was right, and so on. The Catholic religion has been modified, and all religions have probably been modified some, but nevertheless are here and have much the same characteristics. So, while I think it could shake up religion, I don't think it would change it very basically. Anybody want to argue with that or comment on other matters?

Floor: I would like to make a few comments which are not directly related to that. Earlier, we had been talking about what would be the impact of the detection of ETI signals on society. I had commented that there would be a brief interest followed by perhaps a slow diffusion, which will depend on how imminent the signals seemed to be, and I was pleased to see some of the experts echo what I had said.

One thing that I didn't get to say was, and this goes to your comments about myths and stuff, it will have an impact on society by way of the way of the subject that comes to you in a plain brown wrapper. I refer of course to UFOs. Now, there is presently a saturation of some level going on in society, even as we speak, on the subject. Polls over the years have shown a belief on the order of 50% of the population thinks "UFOs are real", whatever that means. Aside from whether scientists argue among themselves on the validity of the detection, if someone were to go public and say "we detected extraterrestrial life", maybe weeks, days, months or years later, it will be proven that the detection was wrong. But if that were to happen, I think that one effect would be legitimizing UFO sightings.

Now of course from the scientific point of view there would be no connection, but in the publics' mind and the public is awfully much affected by the entertainment industry, and by reporters and so on, who are shall we say, less than critical - you would see this pop up in the tabloids as proof that UFO sightings represent ETs that have been coming here for years or what ever, and you'd see all sorts of theorizing about it. But the point I am making is that this is something that hasn't been brought up. One impact on society will be the legitimization to some extent of the UFO phenomena, at least in the minds of the lay people.

Charles Townes: Well, One last comment here, go ahead.

Clive Goodall (Floor): I feel I have to respond to what you said about religion, very briefly. Here's one way in which there won't be an impact on religion from the certain discovery of ETI. From the psychologist's and sociologist's point of view, people will continue to be religious, if that means that they use vague language to describe something called religious experience, or experiences which for them are counted by them as religious experiences. That's the way, one amongst a number of ways in which religion won't be affected.

Here's a way in which religion will be affected. It will be affected to the extent that you have an explanation about existences, namely how this whole show of ours came to be here couched in terms of there being a creator who has properties which are rather like ours, only a perfect reflection of the properties that we have. So, this idea of a God who is omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and who's modelled us in his image, I think will be blown to smithereens for ever and always, and a good thing too by the discovery of ETIs, who perhaps if we can solve the decoding problem will be discovered to have a biological morphology, unimaginably different from ours. That's the way in which religion will be profoundly shaken.

Charles Townes: We are modelled in his image in what sense?

Clive Goodall (Floor): Well, according to certain myths, he's got human-like qualities, but they are perfect.

Charles Townes: If you mean that he looks like us or something like that.

Barney Oliver: Grey, perhaps. [laughter]

Clive Goodall (Floor): Wears a big white frilly frock.

Charles Townes: I think it will be only in that kind of sense that it will change some.

Mike Klein: Wouldn't it blow you away if all of a sudden you found out from that decoding that you worked on so diligently, that the God that people talk about, in fact is not anthropocentric and doesn't look like us or think like us. My god, they've got one too and there is a lot that matches. What would you do with that one?

Clive Goodall (Floor): Well then I'd turn to the anthropologists, the anthropological experts, and some biologists to, and we'd have some interesting . . .

Neil Tennant: The thing to say is that you couldn't get better evidence of bad translation. [laughter]

Mike Klein: Keep an open mind, my friend.

 

Copyright , 1993, SPIE

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