Is SETI a Waste of Time?

RtelThe SETI program, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, started back in 1960 with astronomer Frank Drake from Cornell University, who used a 26-meter radio-telescope to examine the Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani systems.  No luck.  Today, SETI projects survey the sky for transmissions from distant civilizations.  The soviets took an early interest in the 1960’s and the U.S. contributed money early on, but now it is funded privately.

My question is this:  Is SETI wasting its time and resources in this endeavor.  I am NOT suggesting they be stopped from perusing their goals however they wish.  It is a privately funded program that can and should do what it honestly feels is best to accomplish its mission.  But is it truly realistic to think this has any meaningful chance of success?

100,000 light years side to side; 200,000,000,000+ stars.

100,000 light years side to side; 200,000,000,000+ stars.

From what I have read on the subject, our TV and radio transmissions, which travel out in an expanding shell away from our planet, will be so defuse within two lightyears that they will completely disappear into the cosmic background radiation and be utterly invisible to anyone they might encounter.  That’s not even half-way to our nearest solar neighbor, the triple Alpha Centauri system.

A radio transmission, to reach between star systems, would have to be of incredible power and restricted to an very narrow beam to have any hope of detection.  Even if thousands of other civilizations have attempted aiming such a transmission directly at us, the chances of our being in the right place at the right time to catch it seem astronomically small; quite literally so in fact.

Radio simply isn’t a viable technology for communicating across these kinds of distances.  You might as well roll up a piece of parchment and tie it to a balloon.  Remember the old story about the ancient Chinese astronomer who tied rockets to a sedan chair to go to the moon?  He had a general concept of what to do, but no real appreciation of the technical problems involved in achieving it.  Any advanced, spacefaring civilization has either found a radically different technology for disseminating information across the void, or else that information travels only as fast as the ships that carry it.

Also, though life may well be as common as liquid water, I suspect that a biosphere as complex as the Earth’s is likely to be incredibly rare.  Think about it, any number of fantastically unlikely things had to happen for our homeworld to become the hothouse of life that it is.

The Earth was unspeakably lucky.  It grows-up in a stable planisphere, survives massive bombardment and the collisions of the early solar system.  One glancing blow knocks off a nice piece to create a stabilizing moon.  It has lots of big jovians in the outer orbits to gobble the comets up.


I would wager that most worlds where life develops it I bet it never makes it far on.  Of those where it does, few will produce higher animals.  Of those which manage that, how many will produce biosystems as extravagant as our own?  Or an animal that will build tools and eventually leave its nest to spread life elsewhere.  Think about the number of both sperm and eggs that never get to join and create a new animal.  How many offspring most animals have because most won’t survive” Reverse attrition seems to the universe’s M.O; fewer and fewer each step; a tiny drop from one ocean, divided again and again.

Going by this, admittedly assumed trend, it also seems likely that few sentient creatures develop, fewer still will survive long once they do.  Doubtless many will kill themselves off with technology, as we may well do, or because they never leave their homes before some comet shows up and wastes their sorry asses.  Or whatever they’ve got.

SETI Institute:


10 Responses

  1. Agreed. While I would love for it to be a success I do no see it happening in this way. One day a new technology may make this feasible but for now I believe it is a pipe dream.

  2. Anything that might work should be given an honest chance to work. It would be the most amazing thing if it does and think about it–its a HUGE universe!

  3. can you imagine how big a pest David Drake would be if he didn’t have SETI to occupy him? Yikes.

    Is SETI a waste of time? Probably.

    It’s mission is to ID a signal from an extra-terrestrial source. Likely, there never will be one detected, but WHAT IF I AM WRONG? (I know, I know, I heard the GASP) It COULD happen. If such a signal was received, it would be really cool. (and that’s about it.)

    Don’t worry about money. We got lots. (just check out the number of aircraft carriers we can afford)

  4. No.

    seti is actually pretty cheap to run and the payoff is tremendous.

    your correct about radi waves not making it far, but perhaps, “they” have better tech than we do and might actually find a weak signal somewhere.

    better than nothing.

  5. Radio is the best we have to work with so that’s what we should use. Have a better idea? Smoke signals maybe?

  6. There must be IMPORTANT work these people could be turning their expensively trained minds to with some hope of success.

  7. There is no life except on the Earth or the bible would speak of it.

  8. faithisall, get a grip on yourself.

  9. dude, i’m starting to think that ‘faithisall’ is your biggest fan. he just can’t fucking help himself.

    oh, and by “grip”, i believe ‘chandler’ actually means “noose”.

  10. First off- Tik TOk? The Oz robot, of the murderous one?

    Second: yes, there’s a lot of noise to our measly signal. On the other hand, our signal to noise algorithms are pretty damned good (I can’t cite anything, but something like finding a lit match at noon…from a geosynchronous orbit. I could be misremembering trhat, though)
    IT’s cheap for the payoff, and radio astronomy has revealed a lot about the universe as it is (pulsars come to mind: an atom the size of a city is a pretty significant find.)
    So, is SETI worthless? Probably. So is a lottery ticket. But man, what a payoff.
    -Doc,. I’m your biggest fan and I burn for your body with bright blue flame

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