Bet 10

Duration 48 years (02002-02050)

“The Bet: By 2050, we will receive intelligent signals from outside our solar system.”

Paul Hawken


Hawken's Argument

My bet is many scientists' hunch. It was inspired several years ago by listening to Rusty Schweikart talk about NASA's SETI research (canceled in 1993) and the recent and proliferating discovering of planetary systems. Basically, you either believe life is a singular, random, once in a trillion fluke, as does cognitive scientist and linguist George Lakoff, or you believe that the universe is life and biological organisms arise as a matter of course. I believe the latter.

In October 1995, an exoplanet was discovered in the orbit of star 51 Pegasi by Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz in Geneva ( Shortly thereafter, three more were discovered. Today there are confirmed 75 planets and 67 "exosuns" (, and 7 multiple planet systems. My bet is based on the simple proposition that we have better aim now. And that our aim will get even better.

The first planet discovered wasn't a great candidate for life. It appears to be the size of Jupiter and orbits so close to its sun that it has a four day rotation. In 1961, radio astronomer Frank Drake created a formula (N = R* x fp x ne x fl x fi x fc x L )to calculate the number of potential civilizations in the galaxy. R is the rate of formation of suitable stars, fp were those stars with planets, ne is the number of earthlike planets in a planetary system, f1 is the number of planets where life develops, fi is the ratio of planets where intelligent life develops, fc is the fraction of planets where technology develops, and L is the length of time a civilization engages in broad and narrow band communication. It is a great equation except we don't know one input. Any kind of contact will put some flesh on the bones of the variables.

Contact changes the figure/ground relationship for practically every major institution and belief system. The bet is fun because it is Copernican in its implication. And it is a good news bet. It is about something going right. When it is announced, I think people will be awestruck, incredulous, and happy. I cannot explain why it is so, but I believe it will lift people's hearts. It is the opposite kind of astonishment experienced after the event of September 11th which held up a mirror to how astonishingly cruel we can be, have been, and continue to be. In the case of contact, people would talk about it for the rest of their lives. It would provide dimension to the pettiness of human activity with respect to war, ecological depredation and economic systems that promote injustice. It transforms the meaning of the word "universal." One meme changes everything.

SETI researchers aim at Sun-like stars and, with their 28 million channel receiver, are equipped to find narrow band signals that are distinctly different from background frequencies. When we do monitor intelligent communication from one or more civilizations, we will be better able to estimate how many we are not monitoring. In other words, as we get more signals, we can begin to do theoretical planet population studies and, using the Drake equation, estimate how many millions (or billions) of worlds are populated by intelligent life. Extrapolations to be sure, but such studies would at least establish an estimated benchmark. As we develop our own technologies, we will expand what is possible in terms of communication techniques and modalities, thereby expanding our scanning capabilities. My guess is that in a hundred years, we will be naming civilizations the way we presently name stars. Let's just hope we don't auction off the naming rights.

All of this happens absent decoding. Decoding would be yet another civilizational threshold. Would it be an advertisement or a Sagan-like universal beacon? We wouldn't know for sure because the technology that can detect carrier signals cannot actually parse the message contained within the signal. But finding the signal would unleash the funds that are required to build the dishes that would enable us to decode. When it is decoded, it will be like sitting on a far off mountain and listening to a story on the radio. There will be no way to respond. It reminds me of an story told about Mother Teresa. When asked by a journalist what she says to God when she prays, she replied "Nothing, I just listen." When asked what God said, she replied again "God doesn't say anything, he just listens."

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