You all know that the Gormogons love science dearly—although to be fair, ‘Puter dislikes the mathy-kind of science and likes the coloring-book-kind so much more. Once, he watched a high definition animation of an asteroid crashing into Earth and wiping out the dinosaurs twenty-something times in a row. He wiped away a tear of laughter and said he wants more science.
With that in mind, you might expect the Czar in particular to be a little bummed out that a severe lack of funding is basically shutting down SETI. These are the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence folks you saw in Contact, except they aren’t nearly as good-looking as Jodie Foster, nor as inexplicably well funded. Anyway, they would spend their days monitoring computers, and the computers would search millions of frequencies at once looking for any radio signals produced by aliens.
Over the years, there were flurries of interest. Almost all of these turn out to be military satellites, and once there was a bizarre signal that appeared once, briefly, and was never heard again. But while we learned much about the constant noise of space—finding new types of stars, identifying monster astronomical events, and so on—we never found anything close to an alien signal.
But with two-hundred billion galaxies, each with billions of stars, most we now suspect with planets of some kind, there has to be life out there looking to say hello to someone, anyone. And to increase the chances of being discovered, they will blast out a large transmission of repeating, non-random signals that make it clear there is intelligence behind it.
Yeah, probably. Still, the Czar thinks SETI is a waste of time and money. Why?
Anthropomorphism. When SETI started as an idea in the 1950s, we thought we knew everything. We loved radio, and television was taking off. Both used radio signals to send broadcasts, and that made Earth a very noisy planet on the RF spectrum. But why would aliens be broadcasting The Jack Benny Show on AM/FM signals?
And while RF is a great way to transmit programming, it is noisy as hell. Drive by electrical wires while listening to KLMR AM-radio, and you know what we mean. A smarter species will begin to get off analog broadcasting as quickly as possible.
We are, after all: a large amount of broadcast transmissions are digital now. Do you know how digital transmissions work? Well, for one, they are bigger. To increase the speed of transmission to analog-or-better speeds, we need to compress the data. This is usually done by taking any repeating data and replacing it with a smaller packet of code. This is easier to understand with a digital photo. If you take a picture of someone, the encoder looks for a particular shade of red (say FF0000) and replaces that with a simpler code (like F1). If you take a picture of a friend of yours against a red background, you get a lot of real savings: your 5 MB photo shrinks down to under 1 MB because all the repetitive color codes get replaced with smaller ones. When you view the photo later, the F1s all get replaced by FF0000, and you see the picture back in all its original beauty.
In the world of digital transmission, the voices, images, sounds, and control codes also all get reduced to 1s and 0s. A similar process looks for repetitions (take all 10101010111111s you find and replace them with F1), and shrinks the size of the transmissions massively.
Unfortunately, what this means for SETI fans is that intelligent broadcasters strip out all repetitive, non-random patterns and replace them with smaller codes. The end result is a data stream that sounds like noise unless you know the decode pattern because anything remotely repetitive is reduced out.
And who massively blasts out broadcasts? We don’t because it is expensive and requires super-powerful transmitters that eat up a crapload of electricity. Why should we expect another alien species to do so? Why should they pick up the tab?
Moreover, while it is plausible that alien astronomers might use radio signals to explore their universe like we do, they probably will not conclude that Earth—a noisy, gibberish-laden speck emitting low-power radio signals—is anything more than some heavily metallic planet plagued with gigantic electrical storms, or is some vaguely interesting brown dwarf star with some freakish ionization event that has lasted for a few decades.
So the problem the Czar has with SETI is that it presupposes that aliens think like us, transmit like we used to, and devote monstrous resources to getting Earth’s attention, based on the fact that years ago they started receiving Gilligan’s Island on a 54 MHz radio signal they happened to be monitoring. Whales have been receiving our noises for years, and yet they have not made any efforts to use their communication methods to say hello. Why should someone out there?
Conversely, what makes us think we could understand their signals correctly? Frankly, who is to say we could even comprehend their communication? What if instead of using terrestrial radio signals, the aliens have been reaching out to us using gravity waves we cannot detect? Or deflecting pulsar emissions so that we recognize some unique symbolic significance in its frequency? Or some other method that our brains cannot recognize, just as a macaw cannot comprehend Twitter? Most humans are lost on Twitter.
Okay, it was worth a look. But we looked, and there was nothing remotely obvious talking to us or anyone else. If someday we establish contact with aliens, the SETI folks will be bummed out that none of it will be on their radio frequencies. And because of that, we could easily shut it down. You tried, you did your best. But it was not going to happen, any more than the moonbats in boats off the coast of Santa Monica can talk to those whales by making whooping noises, or kids can get a parrot to understand Shakespeare by squawking at them.