SETI: On receipt of what sort of signal is public told what sort of thing found?

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) looks for possible electromagnetic (radio/light) “signals” in the microwave range (and some in the visible range), that could come from a wide range of locations in our galaxy. It talks a blue (or maybe UV) streak about how scientific it is, and of course, it does use very advanced radio and optical receivers. But I fail to see any science in its underlying thesis. While having an elaborate protocol for announcing successful receipt of an “intelligent” signal, I find nothing to indicate how SETI could justify any distinction by it between “intelligence” and non-intelligence, or “life” and non-life or whatever, in any data received, such that its devotees could have any confidence in whatever description of the sender of such signal they should foist upon government officials or the public.

Some critics have simply claimed there can be no ETIs out there or that their signals could not reach Earth. I do not argue on either of those points, feeling I have nothing on which to justify such objections. I do, instead, claim that the SETI people have produced nothing in the way of theory and standards that should make anyone believe they have any informational rationale for what they claim to be doing. See my Web page on this subject.

Astronomers and astrophycists/cosmologists are convincing, with their spectral data indicate that matter/energy at an atomic level “out there” is about the same as that in the solar system. However, although the peculiarities the periodic table might indicate some similarity in the more complex chemistry that might occur elsewhere in the galaxy, nothing really establishes that anything at that level or above would likely be anything like what occurs on earth, which has resulted eventually in complex signals, correlating to the environment on Earth, 's emanating from this planet. One might speculate all of many other kinds of ways matter/energy could form so as to be able to produce such complex signals that correlate to some environment out there which need not simulate ours above the atomic level. And certainly today, the lines we technically draw between life and non-life and intelligence and non-intelligence appear very nebulous.

Besides research using only professional staff, e.g. those associated with the Seti Institute, there are also over 600,000 volunteer computer users around the world now crunching data for SETI@home from tapes of microwave-energy samples received by the Arecibo, PR radio-telescope. These soldiers seem to have no idea, really, of what they’re doing; they just see themselves as part of some expected glory.

I have talked to most of the people in charge of such goings on in Northern California, including Dr. Frank Drake, who devised the so-called Drake Equation, a long product of essentially unknown factors used to estimate the number of “communicating civilizations” in our galaxy, but which seems to me to merely demonstrate that one knows even less after multiplying so many unknowns together. When you ask the SETI leaders what exact characteristics of a signal make it appear to them to be artificial, i.e., from an “intelligence”, they hem and haw and start saying, well the target signal will at least show that it comes from something “living”, or even is only from something “interesting”. Well, mathematics doesn’t distinguish, of course, a “natural” squiggle from an “artificial” one, and such distinction is a human subjective one much beyond natural science, making SETI’s quest a philosophical quagmire.

But SETI’s claim is that it will announce receipt of a signal from xxx. And to the government and the public that is taken to mean there is an xxx out there: Like if an xxx suddently landed here and now in front of you, you could describe it. But it isn’t here/now; it’s very there/then, and there’s an extremely narrow communication channel traversing the separation. Informationally speaking, you have near zilch; it’s absolutely nothing like looking through a telescope even and seeing two eyes looking back at you – or even two antennae.

Waddaya think?


      • I think the chances of finding something recognizable as originating from a non-natural source are so small as to be not worth the time and fairly useless besides, for the reason you said. I see the whole SETI program as one step up from the “UFO spotting” groups. - MC

Ray, I think it’s probably odds-against picking up anything–I know it’s easier to find something when you’re looking for it. Besides, it costs nothing, and makes a cool screen saver!
–Alan Q
(first attempt at UBB, see if it works)

After reading your post twice, I’m still not sure what exactly your on about, but what they are looking for is AM and FM signals similar to those we have been broadcasting into space for decades, and have even broadcasted with the sole intent of soliciting ET contact.
The theory is that the evolution of commication with some ET civilzation will be somewhat parallel to ours and that said signals are generated by some kind tool that was built by the ET. Tool building is of course an clear indication of intellegence.

What happens next will probably depend on the whether we think we are technilogicly superior to them or not. As human we have a long history of poor treatment of tool using animals and even technilogicly impared groups of other humans. If the premis of the quest is to find critters “like us” then if THEY turn out to be techinlogicly superior, we have a real problem.
As for the signal classification, if a weird signal is found there is no doubt they will throw lots of resource at it to determin what the heck is causing it. So far there (allegely) have been no unexplained signal found. One huge hole I see in the process is that we are looking for AM or FM signals which are obsolete by our standards and are only maintained for backward compatibilty of installed systems. New transceiver systems use CM which would pretty hard to detect unless you know the broadcast code.

As for what seti is reporting, I too am quite annoyed that the havent posted any information whatsoever about the detected sigal, explained or otherwise. It they are going to burn my cycles, it would be nice if they just said “signal x59 was just a satelite” “signal y72 was just a pulsar.”

You could ask the same questions about a lot of things. Why even think about manned missions to Mars when robots can do the job cheaper and better? Man needs to go simply because he can. Since the universe was all created from the same matter, civilizations, if they exist, are most likely going to be similar in nature to ours.

For instance I know SETI is particularly interested in looking for a signal on the same frequency as a Hydrogen atom. The simplest form of atom in the universe. Any other advance civilization wanting to be found would be apt to send a “Look Here” signal along that frequency.

It is my understaning SETI doesn’t want to send a “Look Here” signal for other civilizations so most likely other civilizations would do so too. Thus we have peoples looking and no one sending info.

My current belief is, yes we are not alone, will man ever know for sure? My belief is no. We are unlikely to ever meet intelligent life forms even in our own galaxy we are on the edge. We are just too far.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. As a previous poster said if you don’t look you, you WON’T find anything. Man should look simply because he now has the capacity to do so.

Nanobyte, I would appreciate it if you would make clear your basic objection to the whole SETI project. You’ve got many criticisms of it, but they’re all fairly easy to make if you take a hard line. What’s essentially wrong with it? Wasted resources? Even the SETI team admit that this web project has a minute chance at best of finding anything. Their stated goal is to start the process of an organized search for someone else out there. If you rate each project on the odds of success, nothing by SETI would ever get started. All we’d have then is no effort at all.

Ok Ray, It was my bad for not looking at your web site. You obviously know what SETI is doing.

The fact is, its quite simple. From decades of observation, we do know what “natural” radio signals look like. An we know that the radio signals produced localy are quite different, and easily classified differently.

So, what does a “natural radio signal” look like?

And the “radio signals produced locally are quite different,” which I take to mean that they are “unnatural”.

See, this kind of thinking doesn’t go anywhere scientifically. Here is a planet with a bunch of atoms of/on it. Natural right? They combine into molecules. OK, natural. The molecules get to really complex variations incorporating carbon. Still natural. Conglomerations of the very big ones learn to replicate their structures. Still natural? They get complex enough to call themselves ‘intelligent’. Is that natural? Then they try to tell the whole galaxy their smart. Then they decide that isn’t so smart, so they just listen for some other smart-asses unrelated to them on a different planet or whatever. I guess somewhere along this line you decided they weren’t natural anymore. Why? Or is it just the marks they make that are “unnatural”? A sulphur deposit makes a mark, an oil desposit makes a mark, a bacterium makes a mark, a fly makes a mark, a cat makes a mark, a human makes a mark. Only a human can commit a crime against nature?

An eel causes an electrical discharge. Does that not create an electromagnetic field? Thermal noise, 1/f noise, etc. can be transmitted locally. If these are produced locally, they are “different from” “natural radio signals”?

But SETI is not about the difference between whatever you call a “natural radio signal” and an Earth-human modified radio signal; it is about the difference between the former and whatever out there elsewhere in the galaxy is interpreted as a modifier of what I guess you would call an unmodified “natural radio signal”. I also pose that you have a problem in defining the line between “natural” and “artificial” out there as well – and that difference is totally unknown, yet that difference is exactly the information you are trying to determine and announce as xxx. So what is it? Nobody has said its transmission has to sound like “I Love Lucy”, only in HyperMartian or something. Nobody has any pan-galactic definitions of ‘life’, ‘intelligence’ or any breakdown of the scale of complexity of what goes on out there from whence the “signal” comes. On the basis of simply the naive probability, of all possible high-complexity formations of atomic/ionic/molecular matter, as appears to be identical on Earth and elsewhere, one might conclude the existence of such levels of complexity out there, but why would one conclude that their nature must correlate to the nature of such level of complexity here on Earth? Two ships pass in the night at least tens of light-years apart – both in distance and superatomic organization.

The promised crux of the project is that something, i.e., a description of an emitter, is to be announced to at least some Earthly authorities, if not the public of the world. The public expects little green men? Tell them it’s little green men, right? And tell them that, on the basis of a “signal” the delineation of which you refuse to nail down prior to its announcement. If you have an extremely narrow bandwidth over which the information must flow as to what is unique about the “signal”, you cannot justify conjuring anything that even authorities, let alone the public, will see as evidence of your “unnaturalness”. And SETI is not just going for life, however you’re going to find it out there, but for “intelligence” (the ‘I’ in ‘SETI’). Recognition of “intelligence” requires correlation between the entities so attributed, not just comparable levels of complexity.

I agree that the above is not all that well stated, but I gather, from other posts, that there are at least 1/2 doz persons here who could state my stance in more orderly fashion, even one understandable by a general audience. Because the distinction of “natural” from “unnatural” is not a task achievable with mathematics or science, I contend that the essence of the SETI quest is a philosophical one.

You will also note that, aside from one astromical group, SETI@home cannot come up with any scientists who will commit their signatures to recognition of its legitimacy.

Ray (nobody here but us chickens)

Coincidentally, I just updated my Encarta Encyclopedia, and there was an interview with one of the SETI people. What they are looking for generally falls into two categories; one would be picking up unintentional transmissions of radio or TV or something of that nature (which she said would be incredibly lucky since it would have to come from a very near source (astronomically speaking, of course, she mentioned Alpha Centauri as an example), the other would be a deliberate “Hi, There!”, and would be probably along the lines of a mathematical constant like pi, and probably using the signature for hydrogen as the key, much like we did visually with the plaque on the Pioneer probe. The artificiality would be that it would be constant, unvarying and predictable.
Anyway, the data are available, it’s privately funded, it doesn’t get in the way of the “hard” scientists, I say go for it–and I *still[/] think it makes a cool screen saver!
–Alan Q

NanoByte, the “natural” digression is a red herring. SETI is, as the acronym suggests, looking for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. Specifically, evidence in the form of a radio signal which indicates that some form of intelligence intended that signal to carry information of some kind.

We DID send a signal once. It was a sort of low-resolution version of the Pioneer plaque (not that they looked anything alike, but they carried similar information). I remember that there was a diagram of the Arecibo dish, part of the periodic table in graphical form, and enough information to show that the signal originated on the third planet from its sun, and was sent by entities based on CHON chemistry.

Sending signals ties up the dish though. I’m not sure that it’s worth doing THAT, but if they can use data that was being collected anyway and scan it for signs of intelligent origin… it’s not getting in the way of other experiments, so why not look?

>NanoByte, the “natural” digression is a red herring
Good call torqe, I was going to say Sleight of mind:nit-picking. But it doesnt realy mater. The problem that nanobyte has with the vocabulary semantics doesn’t have any effect on what SETI is looking for.

Dang I had a good picture of an NTSC signal but now I cant find it. IIRC, Aside from pulars which have a spike at regular intervals, all other stelar phenomina generate random noise across a wide radio spectrum. SETI is looking for a narrow band signal with low freqency drift which would be similar to a radio station. Lots of human made signals are framed by crisp null synch markers like TV and TDM cell phones. So far as I know, there are no NON-HUMAN radio sources that fit these description ET or otherise. Once such a signal is discovered, there will be LOTS of speculation about exactly what the hell is causing it, and I’m sure that the answers “Natrual”,“Unnatural”,“ET”,“Uhura”,“God”,“Electric space eels” will all be posed.

I thought the one thing SETI should be finding en masse is pusars, I’m a bit confused why they havent psoting anything about them.

Lets count:
MC: Finding a good signal is not likely.
Alan: Cant find anything unless you look
Markxxx: Unlikely, but worth a shot.
Hansel: Doesnt understand what your on about?
None of them seemed to reinforce the statement

This is about the only point you make thats both valid and clearly stated. The SETI program is based on the assumption that ETI will be at least in some ways like us. Although there are some rather astonishing examples of parellel evolution of similar species on earth, Science does not strongly indicate ET will be even remotely similar in form or thought.

I’ve commented on this recently in misc.fact.straight-dope if anyone cares to take a look.


From looking at nanobyte’s web site, it seems to be a lot of whining. So the people searching for SETI don’t have all the answers. So they aren’t able to detect every conceivable form of intelligence. So they don’t have the resources to search a huge bandwidth over 100% of the sky. So they don’t have everything planned out right down to how they are going to send someone there, to look for a person who can sit down and take an intelligence test. Should they not do what they can, just because they can’t do everything all at once?

It also isn’t clear what he feels the SETI researchers SHOULD be doing. There are no suggestions, just complaints.

One distinction needs to be made clear. The search is for technology, i.e. radio transmissions. That is what is detectable. Intelligent life without technology, or with technology, but none that generates radio waves, won’t be detectable this way. I don’t know how you could detect a pre-radio society.

For the record, I have the SETI@home screensaver, but I am otherwise not affiliated with any SETI researchers.

OK, let’s line 'em up and tailor the ammo to each target.

First, however, I’ll repeat the categorical essence of my criticism of SETI, because the posts here seem to ignore it:

I am only criticizing what SETI tells the world they are doing – in an attempted intellectual way (yes, with some help from sarcasm occasionally), on the basis of the priciples of science and mathematics insofar as I’ve experienced scietists to respect them – vs. what it appears they are doing. I am not criticizing SETI morally or the private sector as to their spending their own money on this pursuit. I am only questioning the scientific/philosophical consistency of what SETI’s doing and what it says it is doing, as I’ve heard their leaders in person express such.

Alan Q:

I’m curious as to who the person is that Encarta interviewed. Is her name given?

Let’s say, on the very-low-bandwidth buckshot level, SETI gets a data sample that, say, “looks improbable” (of low probability in the eyes of an Earthman). I assume the SETI inner circle would not say anything to anyone about this, but would proceed to get a much-wider-band data sample. First off, what’s the probability that, by the time they set up to receive a much-wider-band “signal” with equipment “fixed” on that specific target (which I presume would disrupt serious radio-telescope projects), there will be any more such data samples forthcoming from that target? But let’s say they do receive such.

Now, you say they will look for a mathematical constant like pi – expressed numerically? What number bases will they try? How does the “key[ing}” you mention work? In what form is the “signature of hydrogen expressed” – again numbers representing the ratios of its spectral lines? And again, in what bases?

But radio-astronomers are constantly looking for the “signature of hydrogen” directly expressed in wavelengths of light received on this planet. Then consider all the possibilities of a process that could, with finite probability, given our extreme limit on knowledge of how matter might complect out there, convert that phyisical “signature” to some numeric form. Such a process could be described in terms of entities anywhere in the hierarchy of the complexities of matter as we know them on earth, or, above atoms/ions, entities totally unknown here on earth. These entities could – but why – be claimed to be ‘alive’ or ‘intelligent’ or whatever, but with no way of correlating their attributes to what these terms mean here on Earth. The process of attaining the EM “signal” could be by an “intelligent” organism with an inanimate tool, as it is done on this planet, or it could be by some integrated process of some presently inconceivable material structure, say.

In any case, somewhere along the line, maybe years from now, per their credo, this work of SETI is supposed to result in an announcement to Earthbound authorities – and even the public, they say. When announced, it would need to be associated with some attributes of the process sending it, which, per the ‘I’ in ‘SETI’ is supposed to be intelligent in some sense. I also presume that the expectation is that this process somehow should be seen by the Big White (well, whatever color) Hunter and the announcees as an organism in some way comparable to us fools here on Earth. However, the probability that I think is usually held is one of complete lack of correlation of such things out there to things here, at levels of material structure above at least small molecules. So the point is: What is it that SETI tells everbody about what they have found? If, after all these years, they just say, "Well, we received an ‘unusual signal’, that really doesn’t stack up well to the ‘I’ in their name and doesn’t heap the glory on that SETI@home lottery-entering zombie whose computer happened to process the original low-bandwidth data sample and who has been told by SETI that (s)he is helping to find a true-blue ETI.

What the effort of this million-element team of distributed processing really seems to be is just a greater implementation of a data-processing methodology for finding radio- or light-emissive phenomena in the heavens – the usual peculiar pastime of radio- and conventional astronomers. What hath dog rot?

Why do you say the phenomenon recorded “would be constant, unvarying and predictable”? It could be, but it would be very improbably so. And, of course, the most common phenomena throughout the galaxy bear such attributes. And there are things less usual, such as pulsars and quasars, which also bear these attributes. Why not such predictable things on a full continuum of complexity – but maybe stopping far before the level of our species plus our radio transmitters, but still complex enough to induce some absurd claim by SETI that something like us is putting pi in the sky? I still say: artificial from what or whose outlook? I’m a product of a natural process. My typing ‘3.14159. . .’ is still a product of such. . .no matter how long I do it. Even my building a microwave transmitter is a process/product of nature. Artifice is in the brain of the beholder. Is the squeal of a whale artificial or natural? An EM field in the vicinity of an eel discharging electrical energy?

As noted above, I’m not complaining about how private money is spent or accusing SETI of “getting in the way of ‘hard’ scientists.” But SETI seems to advertise that it is based on “hard” science. I just claim that I can’t see that it is. I further note that, in SETI’s attempt to claim this, they post statements about scientists (presumably “hard” ones) being supporive of what they are doing. . .but then they are only capable of listing one scientific organization, an astronomy group, that will lend its name. Yet, OTOH, I don’t see more than one scientist (the biologist I link to on my page, objecting on a different point than mine) questioning in print SETI’s quest – on any basis. One would expect one or the other of these two scenarios.

And, ah, yes, the world really needs another cool screen saver. For 4 yr I’ve never even used an uncool screen saver, yet the screens I’ve used seem to have always saved themselves. Must be atheists like me.


Red herring? Well, when you talk to SETI people, e.g., the SETI@home ones, they seem to think in terms of finding an “intelligence” that would produce an EM “signal” that would be other than “natural”, in the sense that our signals to each other are other than “natural”, i.e., “artificial”. So if you want to substitute for “artificial” squiggle ‘the product of an entity having “intention”’, I guess we can do that, but then NB that we are really then arguing a philosophical issue, rather than a scientific one. Viewing “intention” in some phenomenon is a sort of empathetical teleological mentation, not a scientific one. (If a computer program under stress generates a virus and sends it onto the 'Net, do we try the program in court and punish the act as an intentional crime? Perhaps, as I’m told, France once tried animals in court? :wink: )

As to our transmitted signals, of course, we have no feedback on any of their interpretation by “others” out there, or on any consequences of them whatsoever beyond our planet.

As I understand it, SETI doesn’t use others’ data, it just piggybacks the Arecibo antenna with its own receivers during others’ experiments, allowing those experiments to control where in the sky its receivers get their own data – and in cases of other than SETI@home, uses its own antennas.

And, as I said above, I’m not saying what SETI should do in the way of looking, in respect to how it affects other projects; I’m just trying to find consistency in what they say they are doing, what they actually are doing, what their data-crunching voluteers think they are doing, and what the public and other scientists think they are doing.


You object to the “natural”/“artificial” word choice of mine as a digre

Ouch my brain really hurts now. I am gonna have to read this thread three or four times.But not tonight way too serious.besides as I posted in another thread we HAVE received an intelligible signal from ‘out there’ it says “send more chuck berry.” Yall write some more I’ll come back and read it.


This, specifically, and the paragraph leading up to it, is what I meant when I said “red herring”. It’s a semantics quibble, which is fine if you like that sort of thing (I have a similar quibble about “natural” vs. “chemical”), but it has basically nothing to do with the scientific validity or lack thereof of SETI in general or SETI-at-home in particular.

You’re right about the signal we sent: we don’t know how a hypothetical intelligence “out there” would interpret it. Still, it was designed to transcend language issues by virtue of being pictoral, and any beings smart enough to construct a radiotelescope ought to have a good chance of puzzling most of it out.

SETI decides that there are certain rules for calling something artificial based upon what they have observed on Earth. They then go out and search the galaxy searching for stuff that fits those rules. If you assume that there are an essential infinite number of solar systems in the universe and 1% have intelligent lifeforms that still leaves an almost infinite number of ETIs and some of them are bound to develop similar to us. Even if we only find those ones that make the same kind of artificial noise that we do doesn’t that justify their guidelines? It doesn’t matter that they may not include all civilizations and may include some false leads but it’s better than sitting on our asses and saying “Well, I don’t really know what an alien civilization might use for technology, so I’ll just do nothing until I can figure it out, which I won’t be able to do until I meet them”.