SETI—coming in from the cold of space
Fantasy fuels funding
Recent news reports have once again promoted the concept of extraterrestrial life into the forefront of public consciousness.
SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) has, for many years, been scanning the heavens with radio telescopes in an effort to detect radio signals from space. Their hope is to discover a message that they can determine is from an intelligent source.
Some years ago, not long after the heady days of the ‘space race’, SETI became the ‘flavour of the month’ and received substantial US government funding for its search of the stars. When it became apparent that ET was not phoning (our) home and the project produced no results, the US Congress cut funding dramatically. Dr Frank Drake is a former chairman of SETI whom many regard as its founding father. He said, in ever so blunt terms, that for most of the last decade:
‘SETI was a four-letter word in NASA. … It was not uttered in speeches, or in documents.’1
However, SETI recently received a boost in funding from an unexpected source—its former critic, NASA.
When questioned about the reason for such a radical change in policy, NASA says nothing in their approach to space exploration has changed. But the reality is—it has.
NASA used to engage in projects that fuelled the public’s imagination (and thus loosened its purse strings), such as the Apollo moon missions. But as interest waned, coupled with the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster of a few years ago, it has never recaptured the halcyon days of leading the ‘space race’. Subsequently, it has struggled for relevance and purpose, and even for its very expensive existence. However, in recent years NASA launched the ‘Origins’ program, the purpose of which is to ‘explore the Universe and search for life’.2 Its website proclaims that its goals are to determine, ‘Where did we come from?’ and ‘Are we alone?’2 In a famous speech, NASA’s chief administrator at the time, Dan Goldin, listed one of the goals of their exploration of space:
‘The fourth goal is to search for Earth-like planets that may be habitable or inhabited … .’3
It is easy to see the shift in NASA’s focus. In 1996, it even proclaimed that it had discovered traces of Martian life in a little piece of rock that was uncovered in Antarctic ice many years earlier (this has now been solidly debunked by many scientists).4
This year they launched two Martian ‘roving’ exploration vehicles, called Spirit and Opportunity, that will try to find water, and they hope, prove that life once existed on the red planet.5
NASA has learnt how to market itself very well. There is an increasing public fascination with the idea of ‘life in space’. This is fuelled by the most popular entertainment genre of today—science fiction—which almost invariably seems to contain alien themes! Lamar Smith, a member of the US House of Representatives, also believed that SETI was more popular than it was being given credit for, when he said:
‘Funding should match public interest … and I don’t believe it does.’1
In the financial lean years that SETI has endured, it has relied on private sponsorship to keep it going. High profile benefactors have included David Packard, William Hewlett and Dr Barney Oliver of Hewlett-Packard; Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel; Paul G. Allen, co-founder of Microsoft; Arthur C. Clarke, the science fiction author; and Steven Spielberg, the famous Hollywood movie mogul. In addition, millions of individual citizens from around the world are encouraged to ‘explore space’ in the SETI@Home project. This involves enlisting home computer users in a massive computing project that analyzes data gathered by the Arecibo radio telescope.
Such high-profile endorsers of SETI, and popular culture, have helped to elevate its image. Realizing the immense popularity of the idea of discovering life in space, it appears that NASA wants a piece of the action.
ET, where are you?
In 1960, Frank Drake commenced Project OZMA (named after Princess Ozma in The Wizard of Oz), which was the first organized search for extraterrestrial intelligent radio signals. He also developed a binary coded message system, with the idea that a picture could be obtained through a proper decryption of the codes.
Drake constructed the first interstellar message ever transmitted via radio waves by our planet for the benefit of any extraterrestrial civilizations. This message is known as the Arecibo Message of November 1974. His ‘messages’ have also been incorporated on the plaques on the Pioneer 10 and 11 missions and on a recording that was placed aboard the Voyager spacecraft,6 just in case aliens happen to intercept one of these craft.
The chances of anything coming from Mars…The movie version of H.G. Wells’ novel War of the Worlds was a great success—like its predecessor radio program, narrated by Orson Wells in 1938, which caused a nationwide panic. Popular culture science fiction, itself inspired by evolution, has helped advance the evolutionary notion of life on other planets. Today, evolutionary beliefs fuel the SETI program as well as multi-billion-dollar efforts to locate life on Mars and in other areas of space.
In 1995, as a result of private funding, Project Phoenix was launched. SETI’s website says:
‘The name derives from the mythological Egyptian bird that rose from the ashes of its own demise—in the case of SETI, the ashes of congressional funding cuts.’7
Phoenix is a targeted search as opposed to a general sweep of the sky. SETI’s network of radio telescopes can scan 28 million radio frequencies per second, and is estimated to be 100 trillion times more effective than Project OZMA. In addition to SETI’s efforts, there have been over 60 other projects spanning over 40 years. With all these mind-boggling efforts, what have they found? The answer is nothing—not one single extraterrestrial message.
What drives SETI?
One may well ask then, ‘How is it that so many are willing to spend so much on so little?’ The answer—a belief in evolution!
A SETI information sheet asks: since evolution has happened here on Earth, why shouldn’t it have happened elsewhere throughout the cosmos? They say that ‘there may now be about 10 million advanced civilizations in our galaxy alone’. Because evolution (cosmic, chemical and biological) is presumed to be true, many believe that this enormous universe should be literally teeming with life. But after 40 years of listening (and at 28 million frequencies every second, I might add) there appear to be no ‘ETs’ out there.
Despite the demonstrable lack of evidence, the US government is once again going to spend millions of dollars of public money in promoting SETI.
Would SETI recognize an intelligent message if they saw one?
One would think that to establish that any signal from space came from an intelligent source, it would need to contain coded information. (Any language system is coded information.) This would be a sign of intelligence because it always takes (greater) information to produce information, and ultimately information is the result of intelligence. Many years ago, the very first radio signal was received from space. It was called LGM-1. A regularly repeating blip had evolutionary astronomers very excited. Co-discoverer Jocelyn Bell-Burnell said:
‘One of the ideas that we facetiously entertained was that it might be little green men [emphasis added]—a civilization outside in space somewhere trying to communicate with us.’8
LGM-1 actually stood for ‘Little Green Men-1’, which gives you some indication of what they were expecting to find. However, the radio signal was from nothing more than a pulsar, a very dense celestial object, probably formed from a star that has undergone gravitational collapse. As it rapidly rotates, it emits regular ‘pulses’ of radio waves.9
Despite the mega-billions of dollars spent on the search for extraterrestrial life, it has often been pointed out that the universe gives the appearance of being designed specifically for life in the only place we find it—the earth.
When these same scientists swap their telescopes for microscopes, and look at the DNA molecule contained in every living creature, they see highly coded information as part of the most complex language system in the universe. This is the very same evidence of intelligence for which they are searching the heavens! They claim this information has evolved by chance, yet if they were to receive even an extremely simple ordered sequence from space, they would say it was a sign of intelligence!
How sad it is that a preconceived evolutionary worldview blinds them from seeing the true glory of the One who is the ultimate source of all knowledge—God the Creator.
‘For this is what the Lord says—he who created the heavens, he is God; he who fashioned and made the earth, he founded it; he did not create it to be empty, but formed it to be inhabited—he says: “I am the Lord, and there is no other"'. (Isaiah 45:18).
References and notes
- Quoted in: Search for Life Out There Gains Respect, Bit by Bit, nytimes.com, 8 July 2003. Return to text.
- Origins, origins.jpl.nasa.gov, 29 March 2004.
- Dan Goldin’s speech to the American Astronomical Society, home.fnal.gov, 29 March 2004. Return to text.
- More Mars doubts, Creation 24(3):8, 2002; Mars bacteria disputed, Creation 24(2):7, 2002; Sarfati, J., Life on Mars? Separating fact from fiction, Creation 19(1):18–20, 1997. Return to text.
- Rigg, A., Mission to Mars—The search for meaning, Creation 26(1):10–15, 2003. Return to text.
- SETI Institute/Drake, Frank, The Encyclopedia of Extraterrestrial Encounters, Robinson, London, pp. 192–193, 2001. Return to text.
- Frequently Asked Questions, seti.org, 22 February 2003. Return to text.
- Ham, K., Calling little green men, Acts & Facts 21(11):a, ICR, California, USA, 1992. Return to text.
- In contrast to the complex DNA code, or the writing on this page, a repeating signal actually has a very low level of information. Return to text.