The SETI League, Inc., a membership-supported, non-profit {501(c)(3)}, educational and scientific organization Searching for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence

Ask Dr. SETI ®

Chapter 5: Sociology

No Intelligent Life in This Part of the Galaxy

Dear Dr. SETI:
I am reading news articles in which some researchers say that there is no identifiable intelligent life in this part of the galaxy (except us). This claim is due to the fact that after 50 years of SETI science, nothing has been found. In view of this lack of success, what is the current status of SETI? How likely is it that we are alone?

Jim, an amateur radio astronomer

The Doctor Responds:
This is hardly a new claim, Jim. When we had been doing SETI observations for ten years, there were those who said "after 10 years of SETI science, nothing has been found." Ditto after 20 years, and 30 years, and 40. It is certainly true that we've now been doing SETI observations for nearly half a century. It is equally true that, although we have surveyed most of the local neighborhood (at least at some frequencies), we have yet to detect convincing evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. Thus, I would have to agree that, at our present level of technology, there appears to be no identifiable intelligent life in this part of the galaxy.

Does this mean that we can conclude there is no nearby intelligent life? Hardly! For one thing, on a cosmic scale, fifty years of SETI science is a mere eyeblink. Then too, our searches to date have covered only a tiny fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum. And finally, our technology is still continuing to expand exponentially, according to Moore's Law -- signals that may be falling on our heads, undetected and undetectable at this very moment, may become instantly obvious at some future level of human technological prowess.

I believe it's far too soon to draw conclusions from our null result to date. Once we have developed the technology to look in all possible directions, at all possible frequencies, at significantly enhanced sensitivity, if we still come up dry in a couple of centuries, there will then be plenty of time to contemplate our uniqueness in the cosmos.

But, for now, we have yet to scratch the surface. Hell, we haven't even felt the itch.

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