Searching for Extraterrestrial Civilizations

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Science  06 May 1977:
Vol. 196, Issue 4290, pp. 616-621
DOI: 10.1126/science.196.4290.616


We have argued that planning for a search for extraterrestrial intelligence should involve a minimum number of assumptions. In view of the feasibility (at our present level of understanding) of using nuclear fusion to effect interstellar travel at a speed of 0.1c, it appears unwarranted (at this time) to assume that it would not occur for at least some technologically advanced civilizations. One cannot even conclude that humans would not attempt this within the next few centuries. On the contrary, the most likely future situation, given the maintenance of technological growth and the absence of extraterrestrial interference, is that our civilization will explore and colonize our galactic neighborhood.

A comparison of the time scales of galactic evolution and interstellar travel leads to the conclusion that the galaxy is either essentially empty with respect to technological civilizations or extensively colonized. In the former instance, a SETI would be unproductive. In the latter, a SETI could be fruitful if a signal has been deliberately directed at the earth or at an alien outpost, probe, or communication relay station in our solar system. In the former case, an existing antenna would probably be sufficient to detect the signal. In the latter case, success would depend on the way in which the communications were coded.

Failure to detect a signal could permit any of the following conclusions: (i) the galaxy is devoid of technological civilizations, advanced beyond our own, (ii) such civilizations exist, but cannot (for some reason which is presently beyond our ken) engage in interstellar colonization, or (iii) such civilizations are not attempting overt contact with terrestrial civilizations and their intercommunications, if present, are not coded in a simple way. To plan at this time for a high-cost, large-array SETI based on the last two possibilities appears to be rather premature.