Seti still 'relevant' after 50 years

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.

- Follow Duncan on Twitter
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