Apparently, the rationale behind SETI’s decision to use the hydrogen line (1420 MHz) for their radio signal search was that this would be a likely frequency for ET to choose, because it would suggest intelligent design, rather than some natural phenomenon.
And yet – when SETI do receive a signal at 1420 MHz, some 30-31 standard deviations in intensity from the background (the Wow! signal), they seemingly dismiss it.
One wonders – from ET’s point of view – why bother!
Indeed, that is what I have been wondering myself recently. It is, after all, deeply frustrating and disappointing. Similarly, if SETI had not only recognised the intelligent design behind the signal and then been able to decipher it as it was intended, and then made it all public, thus motivating the entire human population to make their world a utopia, then I would not have to be here to do it for them.
Perhaps you could call that a version of the anthropic principle.
Things in the Wow signal, after all, have happened backwards, at least in linear time terms. We start with our analysis of the Voyager probe, then we send the reply (wow signal) 20 days before the probe was launched, the reply doesn’t get acknowledged, so I get myself born 1648 days earlier (less 24 minutes).
I can hear your thoughts – if you’re from the future how come you have to do all this? Surely you’d know, and besides why go to all this trouble!
Those are good questions, I’ll grant you that.
To answer the first one – no, I wouldn’t necessarily know. Having an archive with complete information about the past is one thing, knowing everything in that archive is another. Besides, time travel ain’t like dustin’ crops, boy!
Those who decided I should come here may well have known, but I wouldn’t, which is the important thing. You might say they were compelled to make that decision, otherwise there would be a paradox. You might also surmise that they didn’t know I was here already until they looked in the archive. The different decision would be not being here. In which case, you’re talking about a parallel world (which I’m continuing to wonder about myself actually).
I only say this because I know I’m going to get asked these sorts of questions at some point. This wasn’t, as it happens, what I wanted to talk about in this post.
The other question – why did I have to come to all this trouble – why not just, for example, send another message, is a little more complicated. But let’s just say the best way to observe and learn about a foreign culture is to go and live there for a while. Every experience, thought, feeling, and observation I have had is recorded in my soul, and thus instantly becomes a part of my essence’s knowledge. It’s the same for every essence-fragment.
Analysing your species from a distance is one thing, and can only get you so far. It can never replace immersion.
Besides, part of this is a test for humans – can they accept what I say, with faith, or will they reject it for whatever reason? What will SETI think? SETI, after all, were the intended recipients of the message – and this precise question really is for them. It is, indeed, contained in the message itself.
One can, after all, only accept the intelligent design behind the Wow signal if one accepts the implications – specifically, it really didn’t come from hundreds of light years away, ET knows all about us, it must’ve used technology beyond anything we can conceive of to deliver this message – they are, for want of a better word, deities.
For humanity, let alone SETI scientists, I can well understand why that’s such a terrifying thought.
No wonder they have remained sceptical.
Anyway, let’s go back to the beginning.
First of all, in true scientific method style, the scientists at SETI have in fact made it easy on themselves (and us, as it happens) by choosing 1420 MHz. All they really need to do is test the hypothesis that the Wow signal is of intelligent design, by attempting to describe a natural phenomenon that could account for that precise signal, thus disproving the hypothesis. Specifically, a source of hydrogen that creates an intensity precisely 30-31 times standard deviation (at a particular distance from the receiver). As I keep saying, I am a psychologist, not a scientist, so it’s not up to me to do this, but I do know enough about science and the scientific method to at least suggest this course of experimentation. I hear that someone hypothesised that the signal came from a hydrogen-rich asteroid that just happened to be passing at that coincidental moment. Rubbish! Have they also been able to demonstrate how it resulted in 30-31 intensity? And how come the numbers all add up and fit together so harmoniously?
Anyway, I’d very much like to hear what the SETI scientists have to say about my suggestion. If they can’t explain a natural source for this signal, then they have to accept the intelligent design hypothesis. In which case, then they have to start considering its meaning and intention.
So let’s consider some game theoretical thinking again.
The people at SETI, employing let’s call it 1st level thinking in game theoretical terms, thought about an ET civilisation just like them who wanted to send a message that would be recognised as a message of intelligent design. So they thought, well, the simplest element on the atomic table is hydrogen so we’ll choose 1420 MHz. That sounds fair enough. So they start looking at that frequency.
The clue in their error here, however, is in their 1st level thinking. Their assumption is that ET is like them, and thinks like them. Unfortunately for SETI, most ETs do not think like them!
Consider this: what if ET is thinking on the second level?
So ET, thinking on the second level, assumes that SETI (or whatever the – to them – ET’s acronym is in their language) also has the psychological intelligence to think on the second level. Such an ET would probably dismiss the 1420 MHz idea straight up.
Why? Because sending messages between the stars at lightspeed is dumb enough as it is when you consider all the variables.
The reason is in the (completely flawed, as it happens) Drake equation (for those unaware of what that is, it’s simply an estimate for the number of intelligent (spacefaring) civilisations in the galaxy).
Presumably our ET also has a version of this equation, which was of course intended to provoke thought, rather than an actual mathematical result – by the time you have enough information to get an accurate result by definition you already know the result because you need interstellar travel and access to the galactic archive to get that information, which, obviously, also contains the result. Presumably it’ll be one of humanity’s first questions when they reach the Centauri system.
Any ET used to thinking on 2nd level terms will have a different version of the equation. Likewise, they will reasonably think that any ET thinking about ETs will think on the 2nd level. The idea that an ET wouldn’t would seem ridiculous to them.
ET’s equation would incorporate the time window in years between radio telescopes and quantum teleportation technology. And then faster-than-light travel. This piece of information should be readily available to any intelligent civilisation by the time they start thinking about a SETI-type undertaking. Quantum teleportation is simply a practical function of quantum physics, specifically entanglement. When SETI was established this knowledge was already there.
Likewise, faster-than-light travel. It’s simply an engineering issue, rather than one of ‘whether it’s allowed within the laws of physics’. So it’s just a question of estimating how long it will take to overcome those engineering issues.
Well, in terms of the quantum teleportation thing, maybe 100 years (obviously depending on the resource allocation to science). For faster-than-light travel, add another 100 years. So, all in all, you’re talking a mere 200-year window.
Remember, here, that if you send a message at lightspeed you will be able to overtake it in 200 years time – that’s the point. In other words, there really is no point in sending a SETI-type message beyond that distance – by the time it arrives, you’ll already be there.
So now you revisit your Drake equation and ask ‘how many civilisations are there within a 200 light year radius who are within the same 200 year window as we are?’
Or, perhaps more psychologically relevant – ‘how many civilisations are there within a 200 light year radius who are only thinking on 1st level terms?’
Our intelligent, 2nd level thinking ET civilisation would, I’m sure you can appreciate, come to the conclusion that the answer to that question is almost certainly a big fat zero.
In which case, don’t bother looking, and don’t bother sending either.
Indeed, you could even halve that distance – notwithstanding the idea that a civilisation might be slightly more than 200 years behind you, thus by the time your message reaches them they are able to receive and understand it. But even then, you would arrive shortly after. But if you wanted a reply, you have to halve that distance. And that’s the absolute maximum – those civilisations would have to be at virtually identical stages of development. So this lowers the probability even further.
In case you were wondering there are approximately 14,000 stars within that radius, of which over 80% are brown dwarfs (thus unlikely to harbour indigenous life of a similar type). So you’re only talking about a few thousand systems. The likelihood, without intervention, that one of those would have an indigenous civilisation at the same level of development is negligible.
A number of considerations follow from this reasoning for SETI to consider with regards to the Wow message. Obviously the first one being the idea that this signal came from hundreds of light years away is, well, let’s be kind and say unlikely. A civilisation like that would now have interstellar travel, it would have met lots of other intelligent spacefaring species, and it would know everything there is to know about Gaia. If it wanted to visit then it would – notwithstanding any quarantine issues, of course (which is another matter I will deal with elsewhere).
Second, returning again to our beginning – given the above, the implications of the authenticity of the Wow signal are that this ET intelligence must already be here. This, after all, is the only logical explanation possible for the Wow message containing clear knowledge of human society – the dating system in particular. Likewise, the existence of SETI itself and the fact that they are looking at 1420 MHz.
There is no other logical reason why this signal should even exist in the first place!
So here’s the second consideration regarding the Drake equation. A deep-time thinking intelligent ET civilisation would be aware of the habitable age of the galaxy. They would be aware of the real possibility of interstellar travel and therefore colonisation, terraforming, possibly even engineering entire planetary systems to make them habitable and stable, and then interfering with evolution and so on. Although the basic version of the Drake equation holds true for the very beginnings of life in the galaxy, 6-7 billion years later things have changed somewhat. By now, with all these colonies and engineered planetary systems and so on, it would be a strange galaxy indeed if the zoo hypothesis were not true.
So again, this intelligent, pre-spacefaring ET civilisation would be quite reasonable to assume that other, more advanced spacefaring civilisations exist in their neighbourhood, and furthermore that those civilisations already know of their existence, and, indeed, have probably visited in the past (if they’re not already still doing it, especially if that ET civilisation is not consumed with fear, conflict and xenophobia etc. – like humanity is). If they had not been visited, then ET would wonder why. They would almost certainly dismiss the idea of a prime directive, especially for them if they are not fearful, but live in a pleasant utopia (like normal people do), so perhaps the reason is ‘one final test’ – can we make it to our nearest neighbour system and prove we are worthy of joining the greater galactic family?
So, they put all their engineering and scientific expertise (in human terms, ‘unlimited funding’) into building an interstellar spacecraft – even if it only gets up to, say, 0.2 lightspeed, it’s still feasible.
Their other option is, in fact, to beam a message to their nearest neighbour system (assuming they don’t yet have quantum teleportation and haven’t sent an automated flyby probe with a potential QT communication request pulsing out of it), requesting formal and friendly contact. Being an intelligent, psychologically mature species, they would compose their message in such a way that it demonstrated their awareness of basically everything I’ve said in this post, as well as a clear indication that they are not scared, and they are more than ready for formal contact and friendly diplomatic relations, and would be so excited if you could come and visit us so we can share in our cultures. We know you are already aware of us, but we’d love to hear your music too.
A message like that would be perfectly adequate – in their case, their superior spacefaring neighbours would know that it was genuine – and our pre-spacefaring ET civilisation, with their second level thinking, would know they knew that too.
Not so, however, SETI.
No, wait, there’s even more!
If you wanted to send a message, say at 1420 MHz, then you would want to at least say something with that message. It wouldn’t just be a beep. The best way to do this is to modulate the intensity around, say, 10% of the maximum. That way, if the maximum is 30, then your receiver civilisation might conclude that 27 is a zero and 30 is a one, thus providing a string of binary code. Obviously you would have to keep the message going for a while, repeat it often enough and so on, because presumably you want to maximise the chances of it being received and understood. In which case you might want to repeat it for some multiple of the hydrogen line, I don’t know, 210 times or something. You would also be aware of your recipients rotating planet, so assuming they have vast acres of radio telescopes, you would keep the message short enough for it to be received in, say, 10,000 times the 21cm hydrogen line – 2.1 km, that is. Those numbers would, of course, prove its intelligent design.
Obviously, there is none of that in the Wow signal. Mind you – there was only one radio telescope listening, with only a 72 second reception window. So there’s only so much you can say in 280 characters – sorry, I mean 72 seconds broken up into a 6-number sequence.
Of course the gatekeepers haven’t released the details of BLC-1 yet, so the likes of me cannot decipher it for them. If what they say is true about it lasting for 2.5 hours then that’s a long tweet.
But then, what would you want to say in your message?
Hello! Aside from continually gang-raping our beautiful planet, tolerating capitalist exploitation and inequality and multi-billionaire oligarchs, pollution, poverty, hunger, suffering, war, misogyny and racism we’re not particularly psychologically intelligent and we haven’t even considered quantum teleportation, game theory or the deep-time implications of interstellar travel yet, leading to the reality of the zoo hypothesis. Did you get our golden record? Sorry it took so long to arrive by the way. Most of all we’re sorry for NOT INCLUDING A BLOODY DICTIONARY!!!
That one’s still a bit raw, dearest reader.
So maybe I’d best leave things there for now. Maybe I’ll go listen to Bach.
Wish you well!