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Physics, Earth & Space Icon Physics, Earth & Space

The Search for ET Artifacts Misses the Elephant

Photo: James Webb Space Telescope, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Now that NASA’s freakishly powerful James Webb Space Telescope is fully operational, there is renewed chatter about the possibility of discovering extra-terrestrial life. Our galaxy alone is filled with hundreds of billions of stars, and the thinking among many space geeks is that some of these are bound to support living planets, and some of those are bound to have fostered intelligent creatures who have developed technology capable of sending radio signals and even spaceships to distant star systems, including our own.

An Elusive Mediocrity

Then there are the skeptics. In the summer of 1950, four top physicists were discussing the possibility that the universe is teaming with advanced extra-terrestrials. Later, when they sat down to lunch, one of them blurted, “But where is everybody?” In other words, if the universe is chock full of extra-terrestrial space cowboys, why aren’t we overrun with them? Instead, at the time there was not one verified piece of evidence of any extra-terrestrials, the various dodgy UFO reports in the popular media of the day notwithstanding. 

The man who posed the question was Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi, and his puzzler has come to be known as “Fermi’s Paradox.” The paradox persists because there still isn’t a single verified piece of evidence for extraterrestrials, and this despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent searching for them.

Of course, the situation is only puzzling if we assume nature burps up living planets and intelligent life as effortlessly as Michigan highways breed potholes in spring. Fermi’s Paradox dissolves if one assumes that a living planet like ours is extraordinarily rare, perhaps even unique. The problem is that such an explanation runs afoul of a principle cherished by many cosmologists, known as the mediocrity principle. According to this idea, not only are we not the center of the universe, we aren’t special in any way, and to think otherwise is egotistical superstitious benighted Medieval nonsense.

Many opponents of Christianity cherish the mediocrity principle because it undercuts the Judeo-Christian belief that humans are special, the crown of God’s creation. But even some anti-religious materialists have nevertheless abandoned the mediocrity principle, for one or both of two reasons. 

First, there is mounting evidence planets like Earth may be highly unusual, requiring as they do a long list of fortuitously fine-tuned parameters to support life. Second, even with a habitable planet to work with, nature faces the daunting challenge of conjuring a planet’s first life from non-life. Before you can invoke a Darwinian process of random mutation and natural selection, you first need a self-reproducing biological entity, and it’s increasingly clear that even the simplest such cell is extraordinarily sophisticated. How does a lifeless mix of chemicals in a primordial ocean toss together something like that? If it is even possible, it is a freak occurrence, like winning a multi-million-dollar lottery forty years in a row without anyone gaming the system. 

The ET Enlightenment Myth

So, then, maybe we are the only intelligent creatures in the universe, a freak one-off in the history of the cosmos. Some conclude this and go even further to insist that we are utterly alone, without even a God in heaven to fill the void of cosmic loneliness. 

Yes, pretty dark, and I would guess, a pretty unpopular position, perhaps because humans are strongly attracted to the idea that some sort of wise savior figure is out there — if not, God, then ancestral spirits or pagan gods or, in a contemporary incarnation, superhumanly wise and powerful ETs. The films 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Contact (1997) are just two of the many science fiction stories that trade on this theme. 

In Unbelievable: 7 Myths about the History and Future of Science and Religion, historian of science Michael Keas dedicates a chapter to what he calls the “ET enlightenment myth.” He says the cultural loss of faith in a creator God has left a void, and “the ET enlightenment myth now fills that void for many people.”

The Search for Alien Artifacts

Between those animated by this ET salvation myth and those who are simply curious about what is out there among all the billions of stars in the universe, there is a lot of interest in seeing if we have the means and the ingenuity to uncover evidence of extra-terrestrials. To that end, recently published a piece by Paul Sutter, “If Aliens Have Visited the Solar System, Here’s How to Find Clues They Left.” Sutter shifts the focus from the longstanding Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) to a companion strategy: 

So far, all searches for extraterrestrial life have come up empty. But there is another avenue that is relatively unexplored: the search for extraterrestrial artifacts (SETA). The idea behind this approach is that if aliens become advanced enough, they might want to explore the galaxy.… In the roughly 4.5-billion-year history of the solar system, these aliens would have had plenty of time to swing by our neighborhood and maybe leave a mark.

Sutter then distills a recent paper in which astronomers describe various types of alien remnants we might be able to discover, including “spacecraft, probes and even just trash,” either in space or on the surface of a planet or moon.

How would we tell a piece of ET tech from a natural space object? In many cases it might be a no-brainer, but not necessarily. For instance, it could be a fragment of advanced technology so foreign to ours that we wouldn’t immediately recognize it as technology. And we might have to decide from only a grainy telescopic photograph of the object. 

Nevertheless, Sutter is confident there are many ways we might detect ET artifacts or their aftermath. For instance, any spacecraft able to travel from a distant star system would possess an extraordinarily powerful propulsion system, potentially rendering its exhaust trail visible to the James Webb Space Telescope or the Chandra X-ray Observatory. Alternately, “If aliens opened up a strip mine on Mercury, for example, we would still be able to see it today.” “Or… we may be able to find geochemical anomalies — the result of tinkering with chemical processes on a world (or just outright pollution).”

Hunting for ET artifacts may sound fringe, but it’s being pursued by mainstream astronomers.

SETI, SETA, and Design Detection

Set aside the question of whether such pursuits are money well spent. Consider instead a significant feature of both SETA and SETI. SETI got a major PR boost from the movie Contact, based on a novel by astronomer Carl Sagan. SETI employs radio telescopes to search the heavens for signals from extra-terrestrial civilizations. 

In Contact, a scientist detects a curious signal from the star system Vega, one that repeats a sequence of prime numbers. While the scenario is fictional, it conveys how SETI could readily determine if a signal was indeed from an alien intelligence rather than purely natural, such as the regular radio wave pulses emitted by a neutron star. A signal that embedded a long series of prime numbers isn’t something natural processes can generate. It’s an instance of complex specified information. If the signal embedded the same number over and over, it wouldn’t be complex — e.g., 3, 3, 3, 3, 3, etc. If it embedded a random series of numbers, it wouldn’t be specified. That is, it wouldn’t match an obvious purpose or preexisting pattern. The series of prime numbers embedded in the signal in Contact, however, does. It’s both specified and complex. In our experience, the creation of specified complexity — also known as complex specified information — is strictly the purview of intelligent agents, who, unlike natural processes, routinely generate such information in the form of novels, poems, text messages, software programs, and other artifacts. 

There is much to explore in the logical steps involved in reasoning to intelligent design as the best explanation in such cases, but the gist of it runs like this: both reason and our uniform experience strongly suggest that natural processes do not and cannot produce specified complexity. The one type of cause we have ever witnessed doing so is creative intelligence. So creative intelligence is the best explanation when we find examples of it. 

Strategies for differentiating extra-terrestrial artifacts from natural objects involve similar reasoning. Recall that Sutter says we might discover an ET artifact by looking for “geochemical anomalies — the result of tinkering with chemical processes on a world.” How would we know if a geochemical anomaly was the result of ET activity? Presumably by considering various explanations for the anomalies, both natural and artificial. If the anomalies are beyond the reach of natural processes to produce and possess the signature of intelligent design — that is, specified complexity — the researchers could reasonably infer that the geochemical anomalies were the product of intelligent design.

The Elephant in the Room   

Both SETA and SETI share something in common with the theory of intelligent design (ID). They are searching for evidence of the past creative activity of extra-terrestrial intelligence. The principal difference is that ID researchers do so without question-begging constraints on their search. If nature itself possesses the signature of intelligent activity, so be it. Follow the evidence. Contemporary microscopic technology has uncovered molecular biological machines of astonishing sophistication, far beyond our most advanced technologies. Even the simplest cell capable of self-reproduction is a nanotech factory that puts our most advanced factories to shame, and it requires reams of precisely sequenced biological information, much of it found in the four-character alphabet of DNA.

Physicist and engineer Brian Miller points out that mainstream systems biology operates on the working assumption that biological systems are optimally engineered systems. Many systems biologists, he says, pay lip service to evolutionary theory, but they don’t approach the biological systems they study as contraptions thrown together by mindless natural forces. They approach them as masterpieces of engineering, an approach that is proving extraordinarily fruitful. 

Miller offers an analogy. Imagine that what appears to be a highly advanced alien spacecraft is discovered abandoned in the desert. It’s quite different from our spaceships, right down to the materials used in it. Half the scientists who arrive to study it refuse to believe it’s an alien spacecraft and insist instead that it originated through purely natural processes — rain, wind, erosion, perhaps an odd volcanic eruption. The other half decides that, no, it really is an alien spacecraft, and they set about trying to understand how the various parts are meant to contribute to its overall function. Which group, Miller asks, do you think will make better progress toward understanding the alien craft? The group, of course, who recognize that it’s the work of intelligent and purposive design.

The same goes for biology. Those practicing systems biology are making much more progress than those committed to the old, reductionist Darwinian approach. 

Intelligent design biologists are in the camp of the systems biologists, but where they stand out from rank-and-file systems biologists is in adapting the design rubric frankly and wholeheartedly. That is, they are convinced that treating biological systems as works of high-tech engineering is proving fruitful precisely because the biological systems really are the work of high-tech engineering, in this case, an extra-terrestrial intelligence far beyond any depicted in Contact or 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Cross-posted with permission of the author from Salvo Magazine.