Sunday, May 22, 2005

The End of SETI As We Know It?

When I was doing radio spots promoting my book I was asked a lot of dumb questions, mostly in keeping with the David Bowie/Spiders from Mars theme. But I remember one particularly good question, I think by a DJ in Dublin. Essentially, he wanted to know what business I had writing a book on scientific subjects since I had no formal scientific background. (Unlike Richard Hoagland, who didn't graduate college, I can't claim experience as a planetarium director or advisor to Walter Conkrite, nor can I claim to have inspired NASA with the idea to include messages on deep-space probes.)

The gist of my answer was: Who exactly is qualified to assess candidate artifacts on the Martian surface? The stark truth is that there are no experts. There are no "working teams" exploring this possibility (with the exception of the Society for Planetary SETI Research, of which I'm a member). There's no grant money, no exo-archaeological funds on NASA's Mars exploration budget. Unfortunately, what we do have are lots of pseudoskeptics content to cling to dated "straw man" arguments in order to keep the status quo afloat -- even if that means misrepresenting or ignoring contradictory data.

It's not just Mars, of course. We've allowed a handful of people, foremost among them Seth Shostak and Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute, to become veritable ambassadors for the aliens they pretend to understand so well, despite a pronounced, utter failure to provide the hard evidence they claim is so vital. We're assured that aliens can't get here from there -- essentially because we have yet to get there from here using primitive chemically fueled rocket technology. We're treated to endless assurances that extraterrestrials will choose to communicate via radio (for a host of anthropomorphic reasons too numerable to explore in the available space).

Worse, SETI personalities tell us -- again and again -- that radio contact with ETs in inevitable, even imminent . . . and when the deadlines expire, the mainstream media dutifully forgets. Consequently, we're subjected to an intellectually vacuous false dichotomy between brash, self-proclaimed debunkers and equally brash believers, typified by the already-infamous Peter Jennings UFO special (which some commentators expected to break the UFO documentary mold for reasons still unclear to me).

But the edifice is cracking under an onslaught of fresh ideas and new discoveries. SETI's cult-like grip is slowly but certainly weakening as scientists dare to suggest alternative methods by which alien beings might contact us (assuming they want to). From messages grafted into our DNA to communiques wafted through space in the form of tangible artifacts (up to and including autonomous robots capable of building copies of themselves from raw materials), a chorus of vital new theories and revised assumptions about our role in the Cosmos has insinuated itself into the mainstream, posing a grave challenge to SETI and rocking our existential foundations.

I think the scientific community, for all its jaded self-assurance and adherence to brittle paradigms, is unconsciously tiring of SETI's charade. And who wouldn't? We've managed, against all odds, to grant a technocratic minority the right to effectively speak on our behalf, to tell us what to expect, to define the parameters of a universe we have yet to adequately map. Almost unbelievably, we've allowed the consuming question of extraterrestrial intelligence to become boring, the stuff of ha-ha sound-bites and rote dismissals of anyone inclined to dissent.

But we have reached a turning point. And the assumed "rules" have been revealed to be unexpectedly pliant, suggesting a galaxy vastly more colorful than that painted by SETI's equations.

(This essay originally appeared at Posthuman Blues.)

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

South African Mystery Spheres and the Iapetus Enigma

I've posted an unabashedly speculative essay at Posthuman Blues ("South African Mystery Spheres and the Iapetus Enigma") that may interest Cydonian Imperative readers. The gist is that anomalous metal spheres unearthed in South Africa could conceivably be extraterrestrial artifacts.