Week 5 – The Viability of Searching for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

The other day my friend was telling me about some distant planets which were pretty big deal about a year ago. The one in particular that he mentioned was Kepler-22b, which is special due to its classification as a “habitable” planet. “Habitable” from a scientific, astronomy standpoint refers to the living conditions of a planet and their proximity to the ideal life conditions of Earth. Apparently, scientists have discovered several planets which could potentially harbor life. I thought this was pretty amazing discovery and I was eager to read more about it and check out some pictures. It was then that I realized our current limitations. The planets aren’t in our view, they are merely assumed existences based on observable light patterns. Several artists provided hypothetical renderings of planets, which displayed a bit of an interesting relationship between art and science. Science to a very high extent is dependent on artistic representation in order to aid what it has difficulties representing visually.

Kepler-22b, a "habitable" planet.
Kepler-22b, a “habitable” planet.

Artists and researchers have expressed a degree of curiosity and hopefulness in regards to potentially seeking out or making contact with extraterrestrial life. Wilson’s text wrote of the Arts Catalyst, a collaborative arts and research group which examined radio telescopes and other tools. They produced artworks based on the imagery from the use of the scientific devices and also presented the insights learned from their project through lecture. Richard Clar’s Spaceflight Dolphin takes a more blatant approach to space, launching a wire sculpture into orbit which releases dolphin signals to potential inhabited planets. In this case, we see how human culture and art is placed into the public sphere of the galaxy. I think it is inspiring to see science interact with art in a manner that is educational and visually pleasing as well.

To look at the various projects of Arts Catalyst: http://www.artscatalyst.org/projects

On the other hand, there are numerous critiques of the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), all of which challenge space research and its value. Here are several of the criticisms along with some of the potential problems that I see with an increasing interest in space exploration.

  1. The decision of seeking out alien life should be agreed upon by an educated, majority representative body. If a majority of humanity thinks that it is a bad, potentially harmful idea, then it should not be approached by any means. The implications of continuing this kind of research would affect humanity on a large scale if there are results, and those affected should have a say on the matter.
  2. Steven Hawking postulated that extraterrestrial life is likely more intelligent than us, and therefore a threat. He also stated that the likelihood of us being discovered by them is much higher due to their probable greater advancements in technology. Using this kind of logic, however, you could reason that we would only discover primitive forms of life, keeping us free from harm.
  3. This kind of research is very expensive, with questionable benefit. We are a long ways from needing to relocate to a new planet, and it’s very possible that the discovery of new life could have an adverse effect on humanity due to the religious and ethical implications that would come into question.
  4. The motives for SETI may be motivated by an illogical manifest destiny mode of thought. Humanity is constantly looking for a new frontier to discover, and our consideration for other lives seems to always be on the backburner.
  5. We haven’t even discovered all that Earth has to offer. The ocean is a mystery on its own, and the amount of enthusiasm to discover its depths should be satisfied before moving on to other planets.

In this video, several different scientific perspectives consider the pros and cons of space research. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-2WMJX1z84

What do you think? Do the reasons listed above damage the viability of SETI? Why or why should humanity not consider continuing space-related research?

-Paul Llanura


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