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Review: The Contact Paradox

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The Contact Paradox: Challenging our Assumptions in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
by Keith Cooper
Bloomsbury Sigma, 2020
hardcover, 336 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-4729-6042-9

While most of the discussion about the House’s new NASA authorization bill revolved around its language regarding the agency’s human spaceflight plans (see “New challenges for NASA’s Moon 2024 goal”, The Space Review, this issue), there was another interesting provision included in the bill. Section 323, titled “Research on Technosignatures,” notes that “research related to the search for life has encompassed nongovernment funded research on and searches for intelligent life.” It therefore allows NASA to, “support, as appropriate, peer-reviewed, competitively-selected research on technosignatures,” defined as evidence of advanced technologies of extraterrestrial origin.

The language is the latest sign that, a quarter century after cancelling NASA’s modest program in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), Congress is willing to back renewed government-funded efforts in the field. Past hearings by the House Science Committee have been supportive of the topic, and NASA hosted an invitation-only “technosignatures workshop” in the fall of 2018. A session of last month’s meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Honolulu was devoted to a survey of research in the field, a sign of mainstream scientific acceptance of the topic.

“We search, we find, we observe and then we contact,” Cooper concludes. “It’s a unified, scientific and responsible strategy for both SETI and METI.”

What sort of technosignatures to look for, and how, remain hot topics of debate. For most of modern SETI’s history, dating back to the initial Project Ozma surveys by Frank Drake in 1960, searches for radio transmissions have dominated the field. More recently, though, optical signals and other techniques have emerged. All share something in common, though: none have detected any clear evidence of intelligent life beyond Earth.

In The Contact Paradox, science journalist Keith Cooper examines some of the issues behind that lack of detection. Does it mean life beyond Earth in general is rare, or intelligent life, or just intelligent technological civilizations? Or, does it mean we’re going about SETI the wrong way in terms of what we’re looking for?

Most of the book is a survey of those issues, from topics related to astrobiology in general to ones more closely tied to intelligence, development of technology, and search efforts. Cooper, for example, devotes a chapter to the concept of altruism, which at first glance might not seem relevant to SETI but which he argues is fundamental. “Understanding altruism may ultimately be the single most significant factor in our quest to make contact with other intelligent life in the Universe,” he argues. “It is at the heart at how and why we think other civilisations would transmit a signal for us to detect.”

Most of the book is a review of those issues, but the final chapter he calls for a “new strategy” that “pushes SETI into the mainstream as a key long-term objective for humanity.” He endorses the broader technosignature concept that moves SETI beyond primarily radio-based searches, such as looking for extrasolar planets whose spectra include not just biosignatures but those of industrial pollutants, like chlorofluorocarbons. Promising nearby worlds might be targets for spacecraft like the chip-sized, laser-propelled concepts proposed by the Breakthrough Starshot project, and ultimately transmission like messaging of extraterrestrial intelligence (METI).

“We search, we find, we observe and then we contact,” Cooper concludes. “It’s a unified, scientific and responsible strategy for both SETI and METI.” Language like that in the House NASA authorization bill may be a small step in that direction for tackling one of humanity’s biggest questions.

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