Extraterrestrial Intelligence: A Novel Way to Hunt for It

Astronomy may be less important than behavioral science in finding ETs.

Posted Jun 20, 2019

In the third week of August 1977, Ohio State University astronomer Jerry Ehrman was going over a computer printout of signals collected a few days earlier from his university’s “Big Ear” radio telescope (shown below), which was tasked with looking for radio transmissions from extraterrestrial civilizations.

Big Ear Radio Telescope
Source: CC0

Dr. Ehrman later said, that in the middle of reading the printout

 I was astonished to see the string of numbers and characters "6EQUJ5" in channel 2 of the printout. I immediately recognized this as the pattern we would expect to see from a narrowband radio source of small angular diameter in the sky. In the red pen I was using I immediately circled those six characters and wrote the notation "Wow!"

Below are pictures of the actual print out and “Wow!” notation along with two graphics that convert the “astonishing” "6EQUJ5 into more understandable forms that plot signal strength and RF frequency over time.

1977 "Wow!" Signal
Source: CC0

What got Dr. Ehrman, and many other scientists, so excited was that the “Wow!” radio signal was almost certainly not of terrestrial origin, and that it was at a precise frequency, 1420 Megahertz, that other astronomers had predicted alien cultures would use to communicate with us, because that frequency represents a “Hydrogen line” (spectral emission) that is constant throughout the universe, and therefore a common basis for starting a trans-galactic conversation.

CC BY-SA 4.0
"Wow!" signal bright dot in lower left
Source: CC BY-SA 4.0

However, despite years of hunting for a repeat of the “Wow!” signal in the constellation Sagittarius, where Ehrman first spotted it, the “Wow!” signal has never reappeared, prompting many astronomers to believe it was merely an artifact, basically a big interstellar false alarm.

Source: CC0

To this day the significance of the “Wow!” signal is hotly debated, as is the lingering question of whether or not intelligent ETs are out there. Although astronomers estimate there are 5 X 10 to the 22nd power (that’s 50 sextillion) potentially habitable planets in the universe, many scientists argue that doesn’t mean that life forms advanced enough to communicate with us exist, or, if they do exist, can–or want to–communicate with us over vast interstellar distances.

And indeed, supporting the ET skeptics’ point of view, thousands of professional and amateur scientists from across the globe have scoured the skies for any hint of intelligent life for almost 50 years and have, with the lone exception of the "Wow !" signal, come up dry.

Surely, the ET skeptics argue, in a universe that’s over 13 billion years old–harboring so many other habitable planets–there has been so much time for alien civilizations to emerge, that if they existed. we’d have seen something more than one “Wow” signal by now. Wouldn’t we?

Well, no. Actually.

Although I’m not necessarily a believer in ETs, I am a big believer in Dr. Daniel Kahneman’s work on human cognitive biases.  And that work suggests that the way we have been looking for ETs might be so flawed that our failure to detect alien intelligence could have more to do with our own perceptual shortcomings than it does absence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

Let’s consider just a handful of the hundred or so cognitive biases Kahneman and colleagues have identified over the years in the context of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (also known as SETI).

  • Anthropocentrism: projecting human perceptions and norms onto other species
  • Expectation bias: we see what we expect to see and are blind to what we don’t expect to see
  • Law of the instrument: we only focus on things we can easily measure in familiar ways (when  you’re a hammer, the whole world’s a nail)

Taken together, these unconscious biases lead most scientists to assume that

  • Intelligent life forms share many of our attributes, such as being based on carbon chemistry, requiring liquid water and moderate temperatures (witness the widely accepted notion of “habitable” planet), and are curious enough about the existence of other intelligent life forms in the universe to attempt to search for them as we do.
  • Intelligent life forms would, as we do, communicate long distance using some form of electromagnetic radiation (radio waves, infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, x-rays, gamma rays).

But what if these expectations and biases are not only off-base but wildly wrong? What if, for instance, individuals representing other forms of intelligence live millions of years and think, and communicate so slowly (what’s the hurry, after all, if you live 20 million years) that to them, repeating a signal beamed at earth (like the “Wow!” signal), every hundred years or so is an exceptionally rapid repletion rate?

Further, what if advanced alien civilizations have learned that electromagnetic radiation (e.g. light, radio waves) is a terribly inefficient way to communicate vast distances, and decided eons ago that sending information at light speed via other means, such as organized busts of atomic fragments (cosmic rays including protons and helium nuclei) or neutrinos (ultra-light subatomic particles) were a much better way to go? Astronomers and astrophysicists currently detect such particles passing through our atmosphere (or even through the Earth) but no one thinks to look for messages that might be carried by such exotic forms of matter zipping through the cosmos.

These ideas for listening to intelligent ETs may sound very strange, even crackpot, but then that’s the whole point.

By definition, if intelligent ETs are actually trying to contact us, and the orthodox methods we’ve used over the past five decades continue to fail, the only techniques that will bear fruit in the future will seem to us now to be extremely weird.

So here’s a new idea for where to look for signs of intelligent life out there: instead of looking outward, let’s start by looking inward at all of our cognitive biases, on the theory that we haven’t heard from ETs because they are broadcasting smack in the middle of one or more of our cognitive blind spots: Blind spots that–from our current point of view–seem wildly implausible means of communicating.

This doesn’t mean we should stop listening for messages that might be beamed to us via “normal” electromagnetic channels, only that we should expand our search to possible methods of communication that now seem quite “alien” to us.

Why would hyper-intelligent alien beings rely on seemingly weird means of communicating such as cosmic rays or neutrinos?

Well, maybe they have their own cognitive blind spots that blind them to what might blind us!