Saturday, August 22, 2009

Praying to Gliese 581d

COSMOS magazine of Australia is teaming up with the Australian national government and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and NASA in the United States to send a ream of messages gathered from the public via the JPL-run Deep Space Network (on which I once worked) to the nearby star system of Gliese 581, which includes the recently discovered extrasolar planet Gliese 581d. The schedule is to send the messages on Friday, August 28th. According to COSMOS's editor, Wilson da Silva,
Yes, it is a "stunt": the purpose is to engage the public during Science Week in Australia and get them thinking about the big questions: are we alone, is life common in the universe, how often does intelligent life arise, how big is space, etc etc.
It will apparently also be good for COSMOS' advertising and subscription revenue:
So far, it has been very successful: more than 1,000 newspapers and other media have published online stories all over the world, it has been featured on 9,000 blogs and more than 1.17 million pages of the site have been read in the past 10 days.
I can't say whether it will hurt or harm the quests of the government agencies and contractors involved for more taxpayer money.

Alas, this admitted publicity stunt gets the public thinking about "the big questions" in a way that is rather prejudiced about the answers. The very act of sending a message to a specific star suggests to our newly attracted pupils that there is some substantial probability of extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) at the other end, when astronomers have observed over 10 billion galaxies and have never seen any signs of ETI. The odds of even one other ETI civilization in our galaxy, much less specifically around one of the two hundred billion stars in our galaxy, Gliese 581, are rather remote. Just how remote we will now explore -- then we shall take a look at the prayers to Gliese 581d.

The mindset at work with the COSMOS transmission is similar to those behind the web calculator Drake Equations that I've seen. The Drake Equation supposedly brings together all the main probabilities relevant to calculating how many ETI we might expect to find in our galaxy: the expected number of habitable planets, the probability of the origin of life given a habitable planet, the probability of intelligence evolving given life, and so on. You are supposed to be able to input your own assumptions into these calculators and it spits out the expected number of ETI in our galaxy based on these assumptions. Real scientists actually observe the universe and fit their equations and parameters to what they see, rather than what they wish were true, but these "science education" sites invite the visitor to plug in what they wish -- unless it doesn't fit what the web site authors wish.

From these sites we learn something very interesting, not about how science should be done or what it has observed, but about the hopes and wishes of their authors. These calculators don't allow just any numbers to be placed in them, but only numbers within a range defined by the authors. They don't even allow numbers to be placed into them that are most consistent with what astronomers have actually observed in the universe, i.e. the ubiquitous naturalness and lack of artificiality everywhere they look. Let's use as an example the least pathological.

A reasonable guess, given the improbability of actually existential threats between the invention of printing (with the permanence it brings to civilization) and the end of the universe, is that most casually connected series of civilizations will achieve a substantially >1 billion years lifetime. (In other words, while many civilizations might rise and fall, and subsequent intelligent species might even replace prior ones, once a civilization achieves printing this causal chain of civilizations is unlikely to be permanently terminated, and will probably move beyond the home planet and within a few tens of millions of years spread across its home galaxy). The largest value this calculator allows for average civilization lifetime is 1 billion years, but even putting in this too small value makes it impossible to put in at least one other value consistent with our observations. (Update: since I wrote this section on the Drake calculator for a private list a few months ago, they've updated the calculator and it now supports lifetimes up to 5 billion years, but the other limitations remain).

Astronomers have looked far and wide in the skies, builders and miners and geologists and archaeologists have dug and examined millions of places on our own planet, and have seen neither any alien civilization, nor even their remains, on or near our planet or anywhere in our galaxy. They would likely have long since spread across our galaxy by now, a process that would take only a few tens of millions of years. They would have blotted out the stars to keep their energy from going to waste. Our observations of other galaxies -- with extremely few galaxies deeply moved into the infrared consistent with a space-faring civilization efficiently harvesting the energy of its stars -- strongly suggest that the number of civilizations is far less than 1 per galaxy. The naturally rare molecules used in the artificial surfaces of these massive constructions would also stand out in spectra against the naturally common molecules in dust clouds, planetary nebulae, etc. that astronomers actually observe.

But even sticking with the order of magnitude of between 0.1 and 1 per galaxy, this "model" does not allow the input of values consistent with both this order of magnitude and with what we observe about life on our own planet.

One has to put the minimum allowed for both the fraction of habitable planets with life the fraction of inhabited planets that achieve intelligent life to achieve this order of magnitude. Based on the commonality of near-intelligence life on our planet the latter number is probably much higher than the minimum allowed value 1/10^6. Based on the extremely improbable genetic complexity of even the simplest known self-sufficient microbial ecosystem, the former number is probably much lower than 1/10^6. But the program prevents input of these kinds of values most consistent with our observations.

Other Drake calculators I have looked at are far worse still in not allowing the most reasonable values to be placed into the Drake Equation. They are not teaching science -- numerology, or here we might call it Bayesiology, is not science -- they are selling a belief, the belief that our galaxy is filled with morally advanced beings that we can talk to. How are these grossly misleading "educational tools" and publicity stunts like COSMOS helpful in teaching the questions of "are we alone, is life common in the universe, how often does intelligent life arise, how big is space, etc."?

COSMOS An Enid News & Eagle piece republished by COSMOS invokes another prejudiced cliche of the SETI (Search for ETI) crowd: ETI living in a heavenly utopia:
Me [Human interviewer]: "... So you don’t elect leaders?
Then who keeps you safe?”

Bleem: “From what?”

Me: “From criminals, from other countries that declare
war on you.”

Bleem: “Explain criminals.”

Me: “People who steal other people’s things or hurt
them. Some even kill other people.”

Bleem: “Explain steal.”

Me: “Taking things that don’t belong to you.”

Bleem: “Explain kill.”

Me: “To terminate one’s existence.”
This nonsense neatly avoids an important question Drs. Jared Diamond and David Brin have raised -- if, per COSMOS' assumption that ETI is common, these creatures, likely far more ancient and powerful than humans, do receive our message and thereby discover us, may that not put humanity in severe danger? Instead of "shouting at the cosmos", shouldn't we put reasonable restrictions on the power, focus, and targets of transmissions until we learn whether and what kinds of threats might exist? (I realize Gliese 581 probably doesn't raise this issue, because being within about 20 light-years they would probably have already detected our oxygen spectra, our "I Love Lucy" and "Seinfeld" broadcasts, our nuclear tests, and much else, but the [update: COSMOS' own, as well as the EN&E's] article[s], supposedly an exercise in education, doesn't even raise the issue and explain this).

By blithely ignoring this issue while it sends the messages, COSMOS again answers the question with extreme prejudice by assuming it is safe. They even have a theological justification: ETI wouldn't harm a flea, because the only thing these innocents can understand is their seraphic utopia. Apparently no living thing up there in the heavens eats any other living thing -- our ETI are puzzled by the very concept of "kill". Our beatific interlocutors were apparently created by an onmniscient and omnibenevolent god to dwell together in heavenly communal bliss rather than evolved through Darwinian evolution. Children of Australia, there's your biology lesson for the day.

COSMOS has rejected "inappropriate" messages to Gliese 581d, but it does not describe what its criteria for "inappropriate" might be. How can any of us humans predict the reaction to any given message of a genetically completed unrelated creature, even assuming it exists, in a culture about which we know absolutely nothing? COSMOS has no basis for deciding that any stupid or insulting message, and there are plenty of stupid and insulting messages that they let through, is better than any other, besides their own particular human 21st century Australian reactions.

Many submitters are sending normal chatty messages, while some are quite properly treating the whole thing as a joke, but it is worth thinking abut how closely many of the messages in this "science" project resemble prayers (all errors in the original):

"I hope when you recieve these messages that you will come and visit and bring a new age to the human race. LIVE LONG AND PROSPER."

"All things work together for good."

"We're live in one universe,so we just like a family.We can share our happy with you."

"We are so small."

"Please help us to stop the obesity problem that haunts our world!"

"Please come visit us on Earth as soon as you can.We've been waiting a long time to see you.Don't make us wait any longer! LIVE LONG & PROSPER!!!"

"I know we are not alone.You are watching us."

"Don't let humans colonize habitable extrasolar planets, contact us before then please. Thanks for not colonizing Earth long ago and allowing humans to evolve."

"Bring some peace to the earth."

"I am told if you say something to the universe it may come true."

"We know that we are not alone,hope to hear from you."

"Your technologies must be advanced than humans by millons of years.let us share all good things and we shall be friends."

"Hello God, are you there?"

And that's just from the first page of messages. These interstellar tweets that COSMOS collected and NASA obligingly plans to send via its Deep Space Network to Gliese 581, the earlier "Teen Message" sent by Dr. Alexander Zaitsev and his team from the Evpatoria dish in the Ukraine, and the Drake calculators that invite you to believe that your wishes are scientifically true, unless they disagree with the authors', are exercises, not in science education, but in "educating" the public in the tenets of an often twisted faith.