The SETI Factor

A Rhodes’ Scholar, Frank White is the author of The Overview Effect and The SETI Factor, and coauthor, with Isaac Asimov, of Think About Space and March of the Millennia; this review originally appeared in The American Oxonian, as a review of White’s book, ‘The SETI Factor: How the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelilgence Is Changing Our View of the Universe and Ourselves’ which was published by Walker and Co., NY.

What one hopes to learn from a visitor depends on the visitor, the host and the circumstances of the visit. Frank White’s book, The SETI Factor, intelligently takes up this question of visitation. The acronym, SETI, stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. One project [1] which began in 1992 celebrated both the International Space Year and the 500th anniversary of Columbus discovering the New World. The search points to the sky using radio detectors tuned to scan for astronomical signals which beat perhaps irregularly but not randomly. The detection of such a particularly ordered communication is defined as an intelligent broadcast. Within the project’s goals, the reception of this stellar telegram would correspond to first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence. As a result, search proponents claim that within the next twenty-five years–by 2017–we as part of terrestrial life will most likely know whether or not we are alone.

The subtitle of the book gives a synopsis of its aims: how the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is changing our view of the universe and ourselves. The book contains ten chapters which frame the relevant questions of how to conduct a successful search and how to measure the impact of alien contact. A series of interviews with senior scientists and writers such as Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, and Phillip Morrison follow the final chapter entitled, "Getting Ready for SETI." The text itself employs a journalistic style, mixing interviews, direct quotes and counterexamples. This technique allows Mr. White to survey a wide-range of opinion, most of it from astronomers, physicists and astronauts.

The thesis of this book is that a significant reason for monitoring and exploring space has been overlooked. The Space Age will not only yield technological gain and knowledge of astronomy, ecology and human biology–in short, science. It will also complete a cycle of human evolution. In particular, an extraterrestrial perspective would act as a motive, dynamic force on human consciousness, lifting man’s destiny from land to air. The direction of this destiny is in part driven by man’s ongoing and apparently imminent destruction of that land and air–in other words, global ecology and the fear, quite explicitly stated, that somehow our evolving technological civilization needs reassurance from another technological, but alien, civilization that things will turn out alright. It may be that in this case, the taste-tester wants to ask the king about the sweetness of his poison.

The Overview Effect
Image Credit: F.White

While the book focuses on many of the practical problems of SETI–how to interpret a series of radio beats as intelligent, how to answer appropriately or perhaps seductively, even how to call the first press conference–Mr. White also touches on and expands upon political, philosophical and spiritual questions raised by his first book, The Overview Effect. That book also portrayed the space program as playing a role in human evolution; it compared the first man leaving Earth to the first fish leaving water. In practical terms, the early space photographs of Earth–the basis for this new human overview–brought forth increased EPA funding for environmental protection and directed attention to viewing issues such as climate change and resource use as global, rather than national or local. In this way, the focus of the space program has shifted, no longer being portrayed as a bold thrust into the unknown or exploration as a human birthright, but as a chance to pause, to reflect and using a higher vantage point of space, to judge with a clearer eye. The agenda is holistic and international. If the thrust forward has changed, the new path manifests itself as part of a global, and not a national, set of priorities.

As Mr. White points out, neither space exploration nor an extraterrestrial perspective can uniquely define this global path. Advances in communication (including satellites), increased resource linkages and specialization, and rapid air travel, all concurrently present the same issues. What emerges clearly from the SETI factor, however is that extraterrestrial contact would dramatically accelerate the evolutionary advance of life from water to land to air. An alien signal would have us all looking skyward.

But would this sudden upward tilting of heads lead, as many advocates have proposed, to a sudden gathering together of nations? Carl Sagan referred to this possibility of world unity as the strongest social value of SETI. On this most interesting and perplexing issue, there are myriad possibilities raised by Mr. White and others. For example, if the world unites from fear of foreign visitation or conquest, as say the Western alliance united against the Soviet Union, then what is accomplished? Only an escalation of competition from the globe to the galaxy? If the world unites for technological gain, as science and trade have traditionally brought together diverse nationalities, then the unification will be short-lived. Technology and material trade, by definition, must change and hence always shift alliances. Even a cursory view of current world events suggests that the more rapid the progress, the more rapid the national realignments. Finally, if the world unites from a conceptual notion of common human origins–particularly as prompted by a fresh comparison of humans with an extraterrestrial civilization–then the practical component of these shared origins must be translated into a concrete language intelligible to the common man.

This is the problem that has plagued spiritual and political leaders through history; how to speak of brotherly love and compassion both urgently and forcefully. Even in the presence of a higher vantage point in space, its resolution requires far more skill and ingenuity than building radio recievers and translating the dot-dashes of an alien signal. On this question has turned the lives of Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tsu and Mohammed–how to communicate a shared destiny, whether referencing God, aliens or science. The history of religious struggles suggests that its peaceful solution may not follow simply from even the most historic press conference announcing alien contact. Consequently the impact of SETI on human thought and spirit must remain speculative. As Isaac Asimov pointed out, only recently has man suddenly felt alone, split from such traditional aliens as angels, fairies and mythological creatures. In this view, the SETI factor may do less to change human consciousness than to restore it to its old patterns.

This problem highlights a missing element of the debate put forward in The SETI Factor. The book builds on a spiralling and momentous sense of human destiny, an evolutionary leap, with complete inattention to the dimension of past time. The concrete questions of intelligent life elsewhere cannot even be posed without reference to our own past. How did life develop? How did intelligence evolve and manifest itself as communication? These questions are not merely scientific, but philosophic and historical. Hence the forward-looking exploration begun in this important book should begin most appropriately in an examination of our own past and origins. This may not be the book Mr. White set out to write, nor may it interest the scientists running the SETI Project. However, if we are truly to get ready for SETI and set an outline for inquiring about the path taken by an alien civilization, the preparation will be partial and unfocused without an equal inquiry into our own path and its record in the past.

An illustration of the Kepler spacecraft, designed to detect earth-like planets.
Image Credit: NASA/Ames

What is clear from our own past is its paradoxes. Historically, what we have learned from a visitor is where we live ourselves. This we have already learned from exploring space: leaving the earth is teaching us the value of life on earth. What we learned in Frank White’s first book, The Overview Effect, was that as astronauts go outward, inner journeys dominate their recollections. The SETI Factor tells us that alien intelligence, if it exists in a form intelligible to our limited scientific instruments, will receive its first probing from a jury of scientific inquisitors. However, to begin this historic conversation the probing questions must be more broadly formed and sweeping–who we are and where we came from–lest science lose sight of its own history and in its quest for capturing popular imagination, it may forget that after discovering the New World, the bold and imaginative explorer Columbus died a pauper and alone in his homeland. In this regard, the higher scientific aim of SETI would concern itself less with making history and more with benefitting from it.

If the claims of SETI proponents bear out, and within our lifetime some answers about alien contact present themselves, Mr. White has written one of what would become many significant books on man’s place in the universe. Even if these answers prove less definitive, then The SETI Factor raises questions which themselves, like the SETI Project’s many radio dishes directed skyward, can serve as collection points for interpreting and deciphering signals about human origins and destiny. In this exploration it is impossible to know whether the SETI factor will serve as a pointer, a map, a fad, or a handbook, but in its closing message, "Be Prepared", it relies on wise advice which since ancient times has successfully guided both stargazers and firebuilders alike.

[1] In 1992, the US government funded an operational SETI program, in the form of the NASA "Microwave Observing Program (MOP)". MOP was planned as a long-term effort, performing a "Targeted Search" of 800 specific nearby stars, along with a general "Sky Survey" to scan the sky. MOP was to be performed by radio dishes associated with the NASA Deep Space Network, as well as a 43-meter dish at Green Bank and the big Arecibo dish. The signals were to be analyzed by spectrum analyzers, each with a capacity of 15 million channels. These spectrum analyzers could be ganged to obtain greater capacity. Those used in the Targeted Search had a bandwidth of 1 hertz per channel, while those used in the Sky Survey had a bandwidth of 30 hertz per channel. MOP drew the attention of the US Congress, where the program was strongly ridiculed, and was cancelled a year after its start. SETI advocates did not give up, and in 1995 the nonprofit "SETI Institute" of Mountain View, California, resurrected the work under the name of Project "Phoenix", backed by private sources of funding.

Related Web Pages

Drake Equation
The Drake Equation and Extraterrestrial Life, a Brief Overview
Rare Earth? Are we so special?
What Does ET Look Like from 40 Light Years Away?
Anybody Out There? Part I
Anybody Out There? Part II
Search for Life in the Universe: Neil deGrasse Tyson Interview
Aliens Depend on Time to Grow Brains
Rare Earth Debates: Complex Life
The Search for Life in the Universe
The Search for Distant Earths
Extrasolar Planets with Earth-like Orbits
Astrobiology/Life’s Origins