NASA

First years may take comfort in the fact that they are not alone at ANU but what’s more, most experts are sure that we are not alone in our galaxy. Our own solar system may be teeming with simple life forms such as bacteria and certain politicians. But why haven’t we found evidence of other intelligent civilisations?

One of many probable reasons is that we haven’t been looking hard enough. Institutions such as Harvard and UC Berkeley are already on board with the international Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). As Australia’s foremost university in the field of space research, ANU could easily join the effort to further this cause.

Last year, ANU students Alvaro Bretones and Yicheng Guo gave a presentation at Mount Stromlo Observatory on potential applications of the old Honeysuckle Creek antenna. The ANU’s Advanced Instrumentation Technology Centre and has considered re-commissioning the antenna for use in the SETI program.

Projects such as SETI are enticingly cheap to run. The total cost of SETI research around the world is currently estimated at US $20 million a year.[i] By comparison, Australia’s F-35 fighter jet fleet alone will cost over $24 billion during their lifetime.

So why haven’t we joined the search for other advanced civilisations? Astrobiologist Dr. Charles Lineweaver of the ANU Planetary Science Institute has added to the list of reasons why scientists should not to be too surprised if they don’t receive a call from E.T. He argues that even the most long-lived creatures would not necessarily evolve towards human-like intelligence.

“If human-like intelligence were so useful, we should see many independent examples of it in biology [on Earth] … but we can’t. Human-like intelligence seems to be what its name implies – species specific.”[ii]

In a fascinating and sometimes funny paper,[iii] Lineweaver suggested plenty of reasons why we may not recognise advanced life forms elsewhere in the galaxy.

He discussed the Drake equation, which is used by experts to ‘guesstimate’ the number of intelligent civilisations within our galaxy that humans could communicate with. It considers factors such as the number of planets in the galaxy that will develop life forms. It helps if those life forms aren’t likely to destroy themselves through, say, nuclear war or climate change.

Most contentiously for Dr Lineweaver, the Drake equation considers the probability that each intelligent civilization will communicate in ways that we would detect from earth. Some aliens may have a far more developed emotional intelligence (EQ) than IQ. Other kinds of aliens may live solitary lives and only appear intelligent when viewed in the context of a hive mind, in the sense that a single bee may seem unremarkable if we didn’t know about the impressive coordination of the bee’s colony. There are many reasons why aliens are unlikely to communicate their intelligence in ways that we would understand or appreciate.

So should ANU join SETI? Despite Lineweaver’s cautions, he supports the program.

“I am a strong supporter of SETI, because I may be wrong about how the evidence is best interpreted, and because SETI is relatively cheap science. [It is] inspiring research.”