Keith Cooper’s The Contact Paradox is a brilliant probing of the motives and technologies behind the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). If you’re like me, you might know that SETI has been going on for sixty years and that no signals have turned up pointing to an advanced civilization. And not much more. You probably remember Carl Sagan’s Contact, or more likely the film version, with its unforgettable image of Jodie Foster listening with headphones to a radio telescope signal. This is one of those science books that offers essential background for SFF readers.
The Contact Paradox not only provides a fascinating history of the technology of SETI research but also looks deeply at the basic assumptions that underlie this quest. Why do we assume that an alien civilization would invest considerable resources to beam messages across the stars to unknown listeners? What is the nature of intelligence that might try to communicate with us? What are our own motives?
Time and again, Cooper shows how our inevitably anthropocentric assumptions blind us to possibilities and limit the technical methods we have used thus far to find alien intelligence.
He also dramatizes how vast the scale of space is and what tiny numbers of the billions of stars out there we have been able to scan thus far. Our most sophisticated radio scans can only spend a half hour or so of continuous focus on any one star system, and we’ve been able to cover only a few thousand stars thus far.
We have made one assumption after another about the type of signals an alien civilization might send, the mathematical formulas they might try to communicate with, the frequency of those signals and what part of the universe to focus on. Each experiment has thus narrowed its scope to align with those assumptions.
Adding to these difficulties, proponents of each approach have had to compete for scarce funds. Innovators have faced the refusal of entrenched bureaucrats to consider deviating from the preferred radio technology. And even now, funding is largely dependent on private billionaires with their own preferences for how to proceed.
It’s no wonder that our limited efforts thus far have turned up nothing. That failure says a lot about the limits of our own thinking and the small scale of our programs set against the vastness of the universe.
Yet, Cooper points out, even while we have put all sorts of blinders on SETI, we are putting more and more resources into the search for life. Our research on exoplanets and possible biosignatures indicating the presence of conditions favorable to life has captivated astronomy. We are putting the bulk of our resources into probing our own solar system for signs of life.
New stellar surveys focused on exoplanets and other phenomena have opened the door to using search algorithms to probe massive data sets for technosignatures indicative of advanced civilizations rather than relying on specialized scans. That approach eliminates the need to hypothesize what technology or energy output a distant civilization might use. We only have to look for anomalies in the data and then try to understand what could possibly cause them.
Cooper argues for a different and much more open minded approach to SETI. He urges us to see the search for extraterrestrial intelligence as closely related to all the other efforts to find signs of life at any stage beyond earth. Rather than being a pariah of science, he believes, it should form another dimension of the multifaceted search for life. That includes exoplanets research, the expeditions within our solar system, the examination of stars and galaxies to find the sources of the elements that allow life to exist.
“The point is, the great questions of astronomy and cosmology, quantum physics and particle physics, nuclear physics and chemistry and so on — the laws of nature upon which everything that we see in the world around us today is based — are intricately wrapped up in the question of life. SETI and astrobiology are absolutely a part of that. They are the manifestation of all our questions about the Universe, and deserve to be at the forefront of our scientific thinking.”The Contact Paradox p.313
Cooper’s book raises fascinating questions at every turn, always bringing the complexities of technical methods and far-reaching questions about life and society into the real world of politics and funding. This is a book about the choices we need to make in continuing our search for life in the universe.
For further discussion of The Contact Paradox, check out Keith Cooper’s discussion with Paul Gilster at Centauri Dreams.