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by Morris Jones
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Nov 22, 2011
Most scientists think that we are not alone in the universe. Somewhere out there, there must be other intelligent forms of life. Our radio telescopes regularly scan the galaxy in search of a signal from a distant world. We may think they're out there, but we really don't know what another civilization would be like.
A team of international scholars has recently published a book on the sociological aspects of searching for alien life. SpaceDaily recently interviewed Professor Emeritus Albert Harrison, a co-editor of this book.
Q. Your new book, Civilizations Beyond Earth: Extraterrestrial Life and Society co-edited with Douglas A. Vakoch has just been released. What is the purpose of this book?
A. The book explores the cultural, social and psychological aspects of SETI, the scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence. SETI began the transition from science fiction to science circa 1960 when calculations showed that microwave radio would make interstellar communication possible and Frank Drake began the first search at the US National Radio Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia.
Since that time, well over a 100 searches have been undertaken not only using radio telescopes to scan the skies for microwave transmissions but also using optical telescopes for laser transmissions. Right from the beginning, the physical scientists involved in the search realized that their efforts had tremendous implications for humankind, and sought to involve anthropologists, historians, political scientists, psychologists, and sociologists.
SETI is a truly interdisciplinary effort that bridges the physical, biological, and social scientists, and there representatives of the humanities, including philosophy and theology.
SETI has two tracks: a science track and a social science track, and the cultural aspects of SETI or "CASETI" are the convenient short-hand way of referring to the activities of those of us who are pursuing the social science track. Civilizations beyond Earth include scholars from many different fields, but anthropology predominates.
Q. What are some of the major issues addressed in Civilizations beyond Earth?
A. The cultural aspects of SETI include the organization and conduct of the search, message decryption and interpretation, preparation of a model reply, and the potential impact on society of a verified "hit."
These topics may sound relatively simple, but they are profound and complex. How can we enlist political and popular support for the effort? What are the assumptions that we make that govern the search, and how might these assumptions limit our ability to find ET?
Can we identify forms of intelligence that come from a completely different genetic line and are raised on another planet in another solar system? How can we identify ourselves as intelligent, and enter into a dialogue - if we can consider messages that take years to reach their destinations a dialogue.
Can we avoid the gaffes and misunderstandings that are so common when different terrestrial cultures come into contact with one another? How long should we be willing to continue the search? Even though search technology has improved incredibly over the years - contemporary searches can cover billions of microwave frequencies or channels at once - only a small portion of the search space has been covered so far.
After an introduction and overview, our book is organized around three topics. The first is whether or not we are alone in the universe. These chapters address such issues as the origin, evolution, and distribution of intelligence in the universe. They also address the question of "longevity" - the length of time that a civilization keeps microwave or laser transmitters on line.
The greater the number of civilizations and the longer they keep transmitting the better our chance of detecting them. Here, too, contributors raise the issue of whether or not we would be able to understand them or would the situation be basically hopeless, like Neanderthals trying to understand the people of today" The second section explores some of the implications of the discovery for contemporary society. Under the SETI scenario, the "discovery" might consist of nothing more than identifying an interstellar beacon many light years away.
Additional information would be slow to arrive. After the announcement, people will have to live with uncertainty and ambiguity, creating, in the words of one contributor, "cosmic anxiety" and giving rise to an interpretation industry based on our hopes, fears, and pre-existing beliefs rather than the "facts" which are too sparse to be of much use. Chapters here include discussions of pre-existing beliefs, which are likely to play a huge role in our initial reactions.
Other chapters describe what happens when two radically different cultures come into contact with one another. The final section in Civilizations beyond Earth discusses various strategies for interstellar communication. Should we try to develop languages based on mathematics and physics (based on the assumption that their scientists are like our scientists), use pictures to tell stories, turn to art and music, or what?
An idea that has been circulating for a while now is that at some point we will be able to upload our personalities into computers and explore space while residing in electronic circuits. The general argument is that soon computers will have the capacity for this, but details on the actual uploading process remain muddy. One chapter suggests we can upload personality very soon - not by means of electrodes plastered all over the person's head, but by means of "personality capture" via a multitude of psychological tests.
Along with measures of culture, the measures of personality would make it possible to develop avatars that could then be sent into space with nothing more than a reliable power source for "life support." Avatars from many different civilizations could meet at a location called "Cosmopolis" where they could engage in diplomacy and conduct commerce.
Q. It is easy to identify the science of SETI, but where is the science in the social science of SETI? Many of the questions that you raise cannot be answered until we have some idea of what ET is like. In the absence of this information, can you offer anything more than hypotheses and speculation?
A. This is an excellent point. People get excited about the questions and in their enthusiasm sometimes lose site of the fact that their views are based on speculation. Almost everyone who is interested in SETI has an opinion, and since opinion is as good as another, so, in evaluating opinions, rather than relying on any kind of objective yardstick they rely on their gut.
But there is science in social science, and looking at what we do know. We can turn to anthropology and history to learn what happens when very different cultures come into contact with one another.
We can turn to historical prototypes or analogues - there are several of them ranging from a widely accepted hoax involving "bat men" on the Moon in the 1830s through the canals of Mars, the discoveries of quasars and pulsars (briefly thought to be interstellar beacons) and a few more - to educate our guesses as to how people might react today.
We do not know if ET and humans will be able to understand one another, but we can identify some of the challenges associated with human-animal communication, adult-child interactions, efforts to understand the worlds of people with brain injuries and neurological impairments, and, once again, contact among cultures that are remote in distance or time.
One chapter provides a wonderful description of the trials and tribulations of early missionaries seeking to understand the worldviews of American Indians. The use of analogues is very common as we contemplate the future of space exploration: we study people in Antarctica to get some idea as to how they might get along on Mars, and turn to studies of natural disasters when we wonder about how people might react to the prospects of an asteroid or comet impact.
Survey research is another powerful enabler, and some chapters look at the foundations of belief (or disbelief) in "ET," and how educational levels, religiosity and other factors shape people's views. It also helps if your ideas are backed by good theory. There's necessarily a lot of guesswork but as much as possible we try to make it educated guesswork.
Q. Do UFOs enter the picture?
A. Many people who are interested in UFOs - and subscribe to the extraterrestrial hypothesis that some UFOs are alien spaceships visiting Earth - tend to like SETI because it is consistent with their ideas that we live in a populated universe. Their affection is not returned, SETI scientists detest (my choice of terms, other terms would might be hate and abominate) UFOs and UFOlogy.
Sightings, alien abductions, international conspiracies and so forth wither under scrutiny and the like strike many scientists as imagination run amok with strong support from popular culture: in other words, bad or antiscience.
In my own chapter in Beyond Earth, I recount some of the problems that UFO myths posed for SETI gaining acceptance within mainstream science, and how confusion between UFOlogy and SETI has led too many problems, including both the threatened and actual loss of government funding, and the termination of SETI at NASA. From the perspective of a psychologist, people's beliefs in UFOs have to be taken into account because they will almost certainly affect initial reactions to "contact."
SETI scientists are absolutely determined to avoid a false alarm, and have many procedures in place to prevent this. They are extremely tough on themselves and highly skeptical of their own data. SETI's transition from science fiction to science required overcoming many difficulties and in my humble opinion is one of the most fascinating episodes in the history of science.
Civilizations Beyond Earth: Extraterrestrial Life is published by Berghahn Books (www.berghahnbooks.com)
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