Seti still 'relevant' after 50 years

2011-10-05 10:55

Cape Town - The search for extraterrestrial intelligence is still relevant, despite running for 50 years and not finding any evidence of life outside of Earth, an expert has said.

"We are already finding a lot of things: We're not finding yet, the evidence for extraterrestrial intelligence which we have been seeking, but we're finding out a lot about the universe which we inhabit," Seti League executive director emeritus Professor Paul Shuch told News24.

Seti, or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, has been listening for signals from outer space in the hope that if advanced civilisations wanted to communicate with Earth, they would do so with radio waves.

The technology required to maintain the programme has contributed to an increase in science about the universe, Shuch said.

"Seti has already provided us with valuable scientific input."


He made his remarks on the sidelines of the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Cape Town.

The IAC brings together international researchers and professionals to discuss issues related to space exploration. Seti has been searching for intelligent life in space since 1961 when the first conference took place West Virginia.

Shuch said the organisation was focussed on searching for life as we know it on Earth because of familiarity with the conditions necessary for life to exist.

"The traditional paradigm for Seti has always been to search for life as we know it and the reason is very simple: How do we look for life as we know it? We kind of know how.

"This raises the question about life as we don't know it. The problem there is how does one look for life as we don't know it and the answer is of course, we don't know," he said.

The evidence for life in the universe has not been an easy task and Shuch said that Seti was unique because it was an experiment that was "open ended".


"Frankly, we don't know if and when we will discover what we seek or if it even exists. This makes Seti unique in science because in most scientific endeavours we know that what we're looking for exists, we have just not found it yet.

"Whereas in Seti we don’t even know for certain if there are other technological civilisations or if there is other life.

"The 'No' hypothesis states that we are seeking to prove that there are no other civilisations in the cosmos and the reason we frame our research in this direction is that it takes only one counter example to disprove that hypothesis," he said.

Some researchers have suggested that life on Earth may be the result of meteors or asteroids that seeded the planet with bacteria that survived the journey through space and multiplied when conditions were ideal.

Shuch conceded that the idea of panspermia was viable, but said there was little evidence to support it.

"There are no incorrect places to look [for life]. The thing about Seti is that we know so little that the more different avenues of exploration we pursue, the greater our chances of eventual success.

"As far as panspermia is concerned I think the same thing holds: We cannot rule it out therefore we should be open to the possibility that life of Earth originated from beyond and, perhaps conversely, life from beyond may have originated on Earth.

"There's so little we know about our own origin that we certainly would have to say that we know even less about the origin of our cosmic neighbours."


Shuch said he was not qualified to search for UFOs, despite the vocal lobby suggesting that intelligent life was abundant and that extraterrestrials have been visiting Earth for centuries.

"Well it's true that I'm not looking for UFO evidence personally. On the other hand, I am trained as a radio engineer and radio astronomer: I am arguably highly qualified in that rather narrow discipline of sifting through the electromagnetic spectrum for telltale evidence of patterns which might have originated from an intelligent civilisation.

"I am, however, not qualified to do the sorts of research that one might do when exploring alien artefacts or ancient astronaut theories. This is just not within my training.

"So I will continue to concentrate on what I know best, and I would encourage the UFO community to do the same," Shuch added.

The IAC is being held in Africa for the first time and runs until October 7.

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  • brok3news - 2011-10-05 11:12

    UFO community = hippie lunatics.

      planetboy - 2011-10-05 11:45

      Just like the people living in the pre columbus times thought that the earth was flat and anyone believing otherwise are lunatics?

      unrealchris - 2011-10-05 11:56

      Oh brok, I can see that you are one that just believes in one god that created all and that there cant be anything out there.... Shame man, I wish that one day you would be able to open up your eyes for a change, but I assume its easier to believe in something / someone of 2000 years ago who a bunch of goat hurders believed in...

      GLY - 2011-10-05 13:21

      @unrealchris. The evidence of God is right in front of us all, Science is continually discovering how amazing God's creations are. The problem is that many people do not want to acknowledge the exiatance of a Creator.

      Delusion - 2011-10-05 13:28

      Brok, looking for life elsewhere in the universe is quite something different to hippy lunatics who see and hunt flying soucers. Indeed, the latter are lunitics. Our nearest star is some 2.4 million light years away. IF they have a planet with hyper intelligent life on it, it is still WAY too far for their crafts to reach us.

      Nicolai - 2011-10-05 14:16

      Correct me if I am wrong here please...but if another galactic society wanted to communicate with us...why would they use Radio waves? It's not fast enough...I personally think SETI is useless...rather invest in Space Travel so we can go look for them one day.

      LJ Graey - 2011-10-05 14:57

      Lol... Wow. People at each other's throats already. Just to clarify: @ planetboy. The difference between flat-earthers and round- earthers is that round earthers could prove what they were saying... So far UFO evidence is somehwat lacking... (Anecdotal evidence and blurry photos do not constitute scientific proof unfortunately.) @ GLY. Sorry to burst your bubble, but finding something amazing doesn't mean it's divine. Planes, cars and watches are all amazing, and I'm pretty sure God didn't design any of them... @ Delusion. Nearest star to us is Proxima Centauri. Distance - about 4.22 light-years. Close enough if you can manage to travel fast enough. But getting up to that speed presents a whole lot of troubles on its own. @Nicolai. Radio signals travel at the speed of light, which is about as fast as you can get in this unniverse as far as we know...

      Abrie Jurgens - 2011-10-05 15:33

      @ LJ Graey "Planes, cars and watches are all amazing, and I'm pretty sure God didn't design any of them..." True, but they obviously have a designer. DNA, life and stuff are all amazing, and I'm pretty sure man or random events didn't design any of them...

      LJ Graey - 2011-10-05 16:11

      Lol, that's assuming life was designed in the first place Abrie. Complexity alone is no indication of that. And Natural Selection and Adaptation are far from beng random processes as some would have us believe...

      ratex - 2011-10-05 16:25

      so broken news, in your educated view we are the only planet with life on it? Lets see, there are billions of planets in our solar system and then there are billions of solar systems in the galaxy and then their are billions of galaxies in the universe [ which by the way is also expanding and adding to itself]. Dam, you must have a very limited view on everything, kind of like a non believer. No worries mate, stupidity is rampant.

  • Brainbow - 2011-10-05 11:17

    We are the extraterrestrial intelligence.

      Almaki - 2011-10-05 12:09

      I'll stick with the old saying: The surest sign that there is intelligent life in outer space is the fact that they haven't contacted us yet.

  • Playnice - 2011-10-05 11:20

    UFO's do exist. There are plenty of Useless F%^^ng Official in our government , but no intelligent lifeform has been found.

      Robbie - 2011-10-05 11:37

      Almost spewed my coffee! LOL

      Mark Haupt - 2011-10-05 14:40


  • Robbie - 2011-10-05 11:39

    50 years and not a peep... the odds on intelligent life being out there shrink each year.

      Tony - 2011-10-05 11:55

      Maybe they picked up on one of Malema's speeches and decided there is no intelligent life on Earth!?

      JMan - 2011-10-05 12:16

      @ Robbie No they're not..with the way technology is advancing these days, they are anything BUT shrinking.

      Andy - 2011-10-05 12:22

      Our universe is huge, there's no way they have even manage to scope out 0.0001% of the universe so i don't know how you can claim the odds of intelligent life dimishing.

      Wollie - 2011-10-05 12:37

      Well considering that the first man made singnal powerful enough to escape the atmosphere was Adolf Hitler opening the Olimpic games, wouldn't be surprised if no one wanted to caontact us after seeing him.

      MBossenger - 2011-10-05 12:58

      Robbie - based on the size of the universe, 50 light years is a hair's breadth. We shouldn't give up the search just yet.

  • Kurt - 2011-10-05 11:56

    The 'expert' should decline to be called one. A new kind of expert - an expert at 'nothing'. If you could not produce - after 50 years of heavily funded international research - one shred of evidence for the money spent... The same billions and billions of dollars (and other currencies) could have been spent much wiser and to the benefit and alleviation of this planet with all of its present crises. But no... ET really phoned home! Yeah right... pass me some of than green stuff...

      unrealchris - 2011-10-05 12:01

      Yes and the europeans should not have looked across the ocean and wonder what was at the other end.... Blind you people are

      JMan - 2011-10-05 12:11

      @ kurt... "If you could not produce - after 50 years of heavily funded international research - one shred of evidence {...}.... you mean like religion...?

      LJ Graey - 2011-10-05 15:21

      Sorry Kurt, but your wrong. The "heavily funded" you're talking about amounts to about $2.5 million US a year. In contrast the Gauteng toll system cost about $2 BILLION US (R16.2 billion according to SANRAL.) So who exactly is wasting money?

  • unrealchris - 2011-10-05 11:59

    Well, its been only 50 years! The universe is close to 16 billion years old, so you are still crawling along people. If we ever get a signal, it could be in the hundreds of millions of years time only!

      Analyst - 2011-10-05 12:14

      That's the problem, the other civilization should be quite a bit more advanced than us(depending on how far they are away) for us to receive the signals already, we probably won't be around in a million years, so if we get a signal from another civilization they might be extinct already. So called "intelligent life" doesn't appear to be sustainable in the long term.

  • Damian - 2011-10-05 12:49

    The same can't be said for religion though... after thousands of years. Let there be photons!!

  • Bongza.GP - 2011-10-05 13:00

    Can anyone explain the WOW signal that was received by the SETI telescopes in the 70's?

      TheGoat - 2011-10-05 13:13

      To too tricky, they thought they had a repeating pattern signal that could only be constructed by intelligent life but later realised they were picking up background radiation/pulses that are completely explainable and not the product of intelligent life as initially proposed

  • trueblu&real - 2011-10-05 13:29

    We know intelligence when we encounter it...there is a methodology to the seti programme...assuming a basic ability to identify intelligence when we encounter it is inherent to both seti and the Intelligent Design movement. If there is anything scientific about seti, it is likewise the case with ID because both employ a similar strategy in searching for and identifying intelligence. ID is just focused on biological systems rather than outer-space.

      LJ Graey - 2011-10-05 15:41

      I couldn't disagree more trueblu. SETI makes no claims as to whether there is or isn't intelligent life beyond earth. They're merely looking for anything that might indicate that there is. And even then any evidence would be thoroughly scrutinised before drawing any conclusions. It's merely based on the conclusion that any civilisation advanced enough to send non-random/complex radio signals out into space would necesarily have to be intelligent enough to build/understand the required technology. ID on the other hand operates on the ASSUMPTION that a "higher power" exists, and uses the COMPLEXITY of an organism as an indication of intellegence on the part of a "designer", which requires them to also ASSUME that all life was intentionally "designed" in the first place.

      Caramel85 - 2011-10-06 13:03

      LJ, SETI makes the assumption that they are able to distinguish a radio signal showing signs of intelligence (that is, complex, coded and non-random), should their instruments detect one. We know that there is no known force in nature able to generate information from randomness. Only intelligence is observed to be able to generate information. Therefore, SETI knows that should they discover an information-bearing radio signal, it is evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. ID applies the same logic. There is an abundance of complex coded information in the DNA of living cells. We have never observed information arising by chance without intelligent input. So, by inference to the best explanation, we can say that life must have had an intelligent designer. Everyone has starting assumptions. Materialists start with the assumption that there is no "higher power", as you put it. They then have to assume that life originated by chance with no intelligent input in the first place and then they have to try to explain the obvious design and complexity of living organisms as being explainable by natural processes. The problem with a naturalistic explanation for life is that it does not fit what we observe and know about the nature of information and its presence in living organisms.

      carlkristen - 2011-10-06 16:39

      and don't tell me seti makes no claims...probably billions of $$ invested...thats faith;)...secondly, ID is inductive, not deductive, as you seem to suggest.

  • Johnny Bravo - 2011-10-06 11:54

    What is the relevance after 50 years with still no evidence? What a waste of time and money? Good Luck for the next 1,500 years! Have anybody ever notice that UFO's and Aliens are mostly an American phenomenon ? Alien and UFO’s sittings, Alien abductions, UFO crash site’s (Roswell), Government cover-ups and conspiracy theories only happens in the America.

      Trevor - 2011-11-02 11:58

      @johnny bravo! you sound as intelligent as the cartoon chrachter you named yourself after !

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