Saturday, October 23, 2010

SETI vs. UFOLOGY

I often think that those who pit SETI against ufology are setting up a false dichotomy.  The whole debate seems to be more a clash of egos than a serious argument between irreconcilable views.  Both ufologists and SETI scientists zealously defend their turf, not acknowledging how much they actually have in common.  SETI scientists, while otherwise astute, seem glibly dismissive of the vast body of UFO evidence.  At the same time, ufologists wedded to ETH seem equally dismissive, as if SETI scientists were harnassing the Arecibo telescope to search for prairie dogs in Wyoming.  Yet, so long the extraterrestrial origins of the strange disks that ply our skies eludes us, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence elsewhere in the universe seems like a noble calling.

Nonetheless, there are compelling scientific arguments against the probable success of a program like SETI.  Recent observers have pointed out that with the advent of the digital age, the old analogue signals of the past are going silent.  Even Frank Drake, founder of the SETI project, has sounded a note of pessimism here.  “If we are the model for the universe, that is bad news.”

A more powerful argument against SETI points to the rapid decay of broadband signals, namely radio and television signals leaking from Earth.  In other words, in spite of its brilliantly creative evocation in the film, Contact, the broadcast of Hitler’s opening declaration at the 1936 Berlin Olympics is not making its way to Vega.  In fact, only directed, narrowband signals would be detectable by even the world’s largest radio telescopes.  In other words, in order for a program like SETI to be successful, ET would have to phoning Earth.  


(Photo by Bradford Evans, Hat Creek Radio Telescopes )

I tend to think of dreams as portraying psychological realities, reflecting the preoccupations, conflicts and unlived aspirations of the dreamer.  However, occasionally a dream will arise that seems to carry an objective message.  (Many examples of this have been reported in the biographies of scientists and artists, such chemist Friedrich August Kekul√©’s dream of a snake biting its own tale, which suggested the structure of the Benzene molecule.)  Consider the following segment from a recent dream of mine.  A secret scientific group is altering and enhancing the mind of one of its star subjects so that she can better detect alien intelligence.  As I pondered the meaning of this image, I thought about the debate between ufology and SETI.

Both sides of the SETI vs. ufology debate share in common a belief in the physical nature of extraterrestrial reality.  When extraterrestrials aren’t busy darting around the sky in exotically powered craft, they are beaming out signals with terra-watt transmitters.  According to this narrative, when we finally meet them face to face — either on Vega or on the White House Lawn — all our science will change and the encounter will usher in a new age of free energy and easy space travel or perhaps utter subjugation.  

However, for a moment, let’s strip away the material superstructure of this shared utopian/dystopian vision and pose the provocative question:  what is the most sensitive detector we have?  The answer that came to me after the dream was — the human mind.  With its hundred billion neurons and hundred trillion synapses, the human brain is both the most complex system in the known universe and an apparent vehicle for glimpsing alien realities.  If UFO denizens are not flesh and blood creatures from Vega (or elsewhere), then perhaps our best shot at understanding them is to harness and, indeed, enhance this magnificent and mysterious instrument called the human mind.  If we follow this logic further, then perhaps the most sensitive and eloquent abduction experiencers provide our best window into the alien reality.

On the other hand, maybe unlocking the mystery will require both technology and the fully enabled human imagination and perception — both hard-headed scientists of the SETI and ufology kind to detect extraterrestrials tinkering with warp drive fields and narrowband transmitters — and psychonauts, with enhanced mental capabilities, to uncover the stratagems of metaphysical John and Jane Does, identities unknown, riding the rails of interdimensional space.

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