Frank Drake: "It Would Be Silly" To Message Alien Life Today

Illustration for article titled Frank Drake: "It Would Be Silly" To Message Alien Life Today

Frank Drake, creator of the eponymous equation formulated to predict the probability of finding communicative extraterrestrial life in our galaxy, thinks that actively transmitting messages into outer space (as opposed to listening passively for extraterrestrial communication) is a silly, expensive, and inefficient idea.


Photo Credit: Stephane Guisard/ESO

Drake's opinion contrasts with that of Douglas Vakoch, Director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI Institute, who advocated for active, directed communication during a press conference at this week's annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, claiming that doing so would be part of humanity "growing up."

Kiki Sanford reports on the press conference at Boing Boing, where she summarizes both Vakoch's stance and the supporting viewpoint of scientist Seth Shostak, who "rapidly and eloquently listed the reasons that behoove us to set resources to an active search for intelligent life beyond our solar system."

You can read Sanford's writeup here, but one of the more interesting sound bytes came from Drake, who, Sanford reports,

... said in conversation that despite the many potential benefits of making contact with an advanced life-form, "it would be silly to send messages now." For starters, we won't be able to benefit from such a project for at least 50-100 years. So, it would be a waste of resources at this point in time. Our time, money, and energy would be better spent searching as "sending messages is not efficient."

According to Drake, we should focus our resources on exploring and utilizing our own solar system as "intelligent species wouldn't be travelling between the stars." Why is that? Moving between stars is cost prohibitive. He went on to say that a 100 year space flight to a nearby star at one-tenth the speed of light (the fastest tolerable to the human body) would require the equivalent of the full power output of the United States for 200 years… and, that doesn't include the power needed to stop or land.

Also opposing the transmission of messages to other star system is physicist and sci fi author David Brin, whose stance on the matter we reported on last week, in advance of the meeting.


Read the rest of Sanford's coverage at Boing Boing. See also Rowan Hooper's reportage at New Scientist.



Yeah, I know it's copy-pasted but I think it's still useful to say:

We have a sample size of one and lack any other data to really safely guess at the motivations of other tool using species out in the universe. We just don't know enough to make reliable guesses.

As biologists love to point out, you can conduct carefully planned experiments to test very narrow hypotheses on the organisms being studied and then watch in horror as the organisms being tested do damn well whatever they please, invalidating your hypothesis and teaching you nothing beyond the perversity of life. It's not impossible to reduce the variables in biology but it's pretty hard. I imagine it's the same for xenopsychology: the study of alien minds.

We just don't know enough to make confident assertions yet. Personally, I favor Sagan's hypothesis that there are evolutionary pressures to reduce the appearance belligerence and shortsightedness in other tool users in the universe but I freely admit this is just guessing.

We need more data.