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Ask Dr. SETI ®

Chapter 4: Psychology

Decoding of ETI signals

Dear Dr. SETI:
I have never been able to get excited about SETI. It is not that I doubt the possible existence of other intelligent beings in space, but it would seem that because of the vast distances involved any possibility of two-way communication is unlikely.

If we did receive some kind of message, could we ever understand it? These beings certainly went through a very different evolutionary process than we did, and their thought patterns might be incomprehensible to us. We have not yet deciphered ancient Etruscan, which was spoken by human beings like us right here on earth.

I have read many articles on SETI over the years . . . Some of Dr. Drake's speculations on the possible nature of alien civilizations are pretty far out.

I sometimes think that what SETI is really looking for is a father figure out in space who will tell us how to solve our earthly problems of nuclear weapons, overpopulation, and destruction of the environment.

Of course, we know the solutions to these problems. We just lack the will to solve them.

H. H., Tempe AZ

The Doctor Responds:
I fully agree that the vast distances between the stars preclude two-way communications with our cosmic neighbors. But does this negate the value of simplex transmissions? All my life I have been receiving one-way communications which have enhanced my being -- from Moses, Aristotle, Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw. Because I cannot engage them in a dialog, is the communication any less valid?

You are absolutely right about the challenges of decoding a communication from a race with which we have nothing biologically in common. But translation and interpretation aside, the mere confirmation of the existence of other civilizations can have a profound impact on humanity. If, because we have at least all physical law in common, we do manage to interpret some of the intercepted transmissions, I would consider that a bonus. But existence proof alone is, in my opinion, worth the price of admission.

Father figure? I prefer to think more along the lines of finding a brother figure, or maybe a distant cousin. Though I have never personally met my cousins in Europe, though we do not speak the same language, I still feel there is a bond between us. Why should it be otherwise with our cosmic cousins?

Finally, Frank Drake's speculations as to the nature of alien civilizations are just that -- speculations. But about the nature of photons, we need not speculate. They are indeed the fastest spaceships known to man, and stand a far better chance of traversing the distance between the stars than do alien visitors, be they benevolent or malevolent. Further, they are the substance of ham radio communications, and we hams are in a unique position to exploit them for the good of all humanity.

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