Denvention Day 3: SETI Comes to Denver

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"Who brought the Doritos?"

The annual Denvention has landed in Denver, and Jason Sheehan is there. Click here to read his first report from the science fiction convention.


What with all the time I’ve spent talking with people who invent scenarios of contact between human beings and alien civilizations -- with people whose business it is to make these stories scientifically credible, anthropologically probable or just plain goofy -- I thought that I might take an hour or two and listen to some guys whose business it is to ponder the execution and implications of the real thing: of actual alien/human contact and the probability that such an interaction would lead directly to us spending the remainder of our history laboring in the asteroid mines for our new alien overlords.

Thus, I found my way to the SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) panel at the Colorado Convention Center on Friday afternoon, hoping to get some wisdom and insight from people whose job requires them to deal daily with thorny issues like why, in a universe that should, by solid mathematical reasoning, be full of aliens, none of them have yet stopped by and asked us to borrow a cup of uranium, or whether or not it’s a good idea to let companies like Frito-Lay shoot advertisements for Doritos out towards distant, possibly habitable worlds by tight-band radio transmission. (This actually happened about a month ago, using the European EISCAT transmitter in Svalbard and targeting the thirty-second commercial at 47 Ursae Majoris—a potentially habitable star system with recently discovered extrasolar planets existing within the life zone.)

As a matter of fact, the Doritos controversy became a sort of center-point for the panel discussion, which dealt mostly with some fairly serious disputes within the SETI community over the past couple years having to do mostly with…people doing dumb-ass stunts like beaming Doritos ads out into space. The panel was being hosted by three guys with fairly impressive resumes: Stephen Baxter (a British writer of hard sci-fi with dozens of books and a fistful of awards to his credit, who also happens to sit on the SETI post-detection task group), Gerald Nordley (another science fiction writer and SETI/first contact enthusiast) and David Brin (a Hugo and Nebula Award-winning science fiction writer with a master’s degree in applied physics, a doctorate in space science and a recent, highly contentious resignation from the SETI protocols working group).

It started off reasonably enough, with discussions of the Fermi Paradox, the Great Silence, Drake’s equation and modifications thereof -- pretty standard hard science geekery. The three men, sharing microphones, tossed around the subject of why, in this allegedly overcrowded universe, no alien has yet landed his spaceship on the White House lawn, touching on all the standard arguments: because they’re chicken, because they just don’t care, because none of them have found us yet, because no one has yet come up with a way to travel between the stars (because Einstein was right and no one gets to travel faster than light anywhere but on Star Trek) or, possibly, because there really aren’t any aliens out there and we are truly alone in the universe (a sobering and saddening thought).

Rather quickly, though, things devolved into arguments over the purpose and goal of SETI in particular: namely the recent scrapping (or revision or reversal, I couldn’t be sure) of the contact protocols—basically what one is supposed to do if one happens to stumble across a suspected broadcast from an alien civilization, who one is supposed to call and what one is not supposed to say to the aliens when they arrive—and the decision by SETI to allow, with no discussion, things like the Doritos broadcast.

It was this stunt marketing idea that led directly to the resignation of Brin and some of his colleagues—pissed over the fact that no one was talking about what we, the human race, should or shouldn’t be tossing out there into space. All that talk about old episodes of I Love Lucy pulsing off into deep space and aliens receiving Hitler’s 1936 Olympic broadcast? Yeah, apparently that’s all a bunch of bullshit. Those kinds of signals degrade after a couple of light years and never go any further in any discernible form. But beaming a tortilla chip ad (or a Yoo-Hoo ad, which has apparently also been done) directly to 47 UM? That’s the kind of thing that gets a planet noticed in the interstellar community, and Brin’s point of contention was that maybe we shouldn’t be broadcasting anything at all, and we certainly shouldn’t be broadcasting commercials.

Something else that had his undies in a bunch? A recent proposal to beam the contents of Wikipedia into space as a kind of unedited primer on the human species and our history—spelling errors, bogus information, prank entries and hundreds of pages about the TV show Lost all included.

Imagine if the aliens really were out there listening, he said. Imagine they really are as smart as everyone thinks they are. Our technology is like child’s play to them. Our weapons are useless. Our valuables are worthless. What does that leave us, then, that makes our existence worthwhile? Our culture. “Wikipedia,” he said, “is our only trade good. Why would we give it away?”

It was funny to me how much of the SETI business came off as half drudgery and office politics with discussions of papers written, task groups formed, steering committees organized and who got angry and threw a stapler at who, and half the set-up for an excellent spy novel, with exotic and international locales (Paris, Moscow, the Hotel Metropole in Brighton) and passionate people laboring mostly in secret to accomplish goals only dimly understood by the public at large. It was double-funny to hear these learned men get to talking about planetary detection and their dreams for what we might one day find out there in the big black: water worlds and roofed, aquaeous oceans existing beneath ancient skeins of ice, massive planets with gasoline atmospheres and earth-like planets populated by intelligent dolphins and underwater chimps.

And when the time came for them to start wrapping up, it was Brin who had the day’s best line. In a return to earlier discussions about the wisdom of broadcasting junk willy-nilly out into the universe, the three men got onto a jag about the universe as a jungle and we, the human race, as a young species on a young planet in a virtual stellar backwater. So presupposing the existence of intelligent, communicative life out there in the universe, and presupposing that they’re deliberately not contacting us for some reason, “Is it wise for the new kids to start yelling ‘Yoo hoo!’? Or is it wiser for the child in the jungle to spend some time listening?” Brin asked. “If everyone else is being quiet, maybe they know something we don’t.”

Something to think about, isn’t it?

But in the meantime, I want to know how the underwater chimps build radios. It always seems that these panels leave the most important questions unanswered. -- Jason Sheehan


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