Will ET be phoning us in Lizzie's century? 'Absolutely.'

ALLEN ABEL October 10 2005


Will ET be phoning us in Lizzie's century? 'Absolutely.'

ALLEN ABEL October 10 2005


Will ET be phoning us in Lizzie's century? 'Absolutely.'


2085 Chapter eight, age eighty

“WHAT WILL BE the one news event that Elizabeth always will remember?” I asked my futurists and fatalists, and they said, “When the first robot graduates from Harvard,” or “The first cloned human who runs for Parliament.” But no one said, “The day we learn that there are others like us in the universe.”

By 2085,1 am just a hologram, an addled avatar telling the same old tales of watching the Brooklyn Dodgers play at Ebbets Field in 1957, and what a lovely town Toronto was, before Lake Ontario dried up in the 2060s.

(Wisely, just before I was uploaded, I programmed one of our household robots to delete my stories from its memory as soon as it heard them, and then to beg to hear them again.)

The voice called out from Mars and took itself through the places where there was no sunrise or sunset, but always the night with a sun in the middle of the blackness. And somewhere between Mars and Earth everything of the message was lost, perhaps in a sweep of electrical gravity rushing by on the floodtides of a meteor, or interfered with by a rain of silver meteors. In any event, the small words and the unimportant words of the message were washed away. And his voice came through saying only one word:

“... love...”



But Elizabeth, at this point, is only 80— brown-haired, green-eyed, fashionable and fit, still working, loving and helping others. If she still possesses any of the things her father left her, I hope that it is the sense of wonder that I felt so deeply when I was a boy with my first telescope, probing the immemorial mysteries that all humans once shared, before the city lights and the smoke of progress took away our starry, starry nights.

As the 21st century began, many men and women of my generation retained their Space Age wanderlust, and those who didn’t have a spare $20 million for a ride on a Russian rocket channelled it into a rigorous and patient hunt for a sign of life on another world. It was called SETI—the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence—and one of its founding visionaries was a blind man.

From the Frequently Asked Questions section of the SETI Web page:

Question: Do you have any pictures of UFOs or aliens?

Answer: No.

IN 2005, SETI had three radio telescopes designed to be attuned to the infinite sky (out of a hoped-for 350), and more than five million personal and office computers around the world were using free SETI software in the form of a screen saver to search for ET. Every possible frequency from every possible direction was methodically combed for a rhythmic pulsation that could not be dismissed as anything but a television, radio, or Rogers Wireless transmission from the little green women on the Planet Zork.

And the sighdess dreamer, Dr. Kent Cullers— the first totally blind person ever to earn a Ph.D. in physics—was living in Christchurch, New Zealand, a country that was, as his wife liked to say, the home planet of “wonderful people, and not that many of them.”

I asked Cullers whether he expected to confirm the existence of an advanced extraterrestrial civilization during my daughter’s century (or more) on Earth, and he said, without hesitation:

“Absolutely! In 50 years, we will have searched the galaxy, not only with light and X-rays, but even for gravity waves that will reveal super-civilizations that can control their own stars.”

“Are you discouraged that you haven’t found it yet?” I asked.

“The universe is vast, and our search is not big enough yet,” Cullers replied. “Today, it’s the near stars. Tomorrow, the galaxy. That’s the whole point of physics, to extend your senses into the great beyond. Most of the people in SETI have some sort of philosophical belief. To me, knowing what the universe is is vastly important. I’m blind, as you may know, and I’m using my computational powers to look into the universe.”

Cullers was proud of the fact that five million amateurs had joined their hard drives to his quest.

“Still, that’s a lot fewer than were searching for the Paris Hilton sex tape,” I noted.

And the truth was, more earthlings were wrapped up in the X-Files and Roswell fantasies and Area 51 than were doing the serious science that would be needed to find aliens if ET did anything short of landing on the White House lawn.

Some folks think that in 1947 alien rocket jockeys made a last-minute navigation error and crashed in the desert. The putative victims are generally portrayed as humanoid, if somewhat shorter than us, and with bigger heads—like children. While not impossible, this is unlikely. The fact that we have two eyes is good engineering, but having four appendages is an evolutionary accident. Most earthlings have six (they1re called insects). The Roswell aliens resemble us because we relate better to anthropomorphic creatures. Real aliens won’t be so similar. They probably won’t crash, either.




1. Beings from the planet Metaluna need our help against the evil Zagons in This Island Earth, 1955.

2. Teenagers necking in the woods accidentally spark intergalactic mayhem when they run over a visitor with their car, prompting the Invasion of the Saucer Men, 1957.

3. Yes, that is David Bowie, who plays an alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth, 1977.

4. Steven Spielberg depicts space invaders as benign beings in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977.

5. One of the many species from Gene Roddenberry’s imagination, this one from Star Trek, The Motion Picture, 1979.

6. The nastiest Alieno!the bunch, 1979.

“WHAT WILL happen on the day you get the signal?” I asked Kent Cullers.

“Our promise is that all of us will announce the truth, fully and early,” he said. “We will say, ‘We have discovered something that just might be a sign of extraterrestrial intelligence. It is not an error. It is not a problem with our equipment. It is real.’ So, then we know it is real, and we keep listening, and we start to understand the signal. But even if they send us the equivalent of the Rosetta Stone, it will take a long, long time.”

“When it happens,” I asked, “is it The Day the Earth Stood Still? Does my daughter’s life change instantly and utterly?”

“No,” said Cullers. “Life goes on, because the information won’t be invasive, in the way that an attack on Earth would get your attention.

“What I will want to see is if ET gives us little keys that might make our lives better, cure all diseases, something like that. If you find out a small mathematical trick that can be deciphered from the signal, even a small intellectual thing that we never heard of before—like ‘We know a way to rejig your DNA to increase the human lifespan by a factor of two—are you interested?’ That could change the world for you.”

“Wouldn’t you prefer that the resources of science be used not to hunt for ET, but to cure blindness?” I said. “That would change the world for you.”

“But I don’t think it can be done,” Cullers answered.

7. Earth’s favourite E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial phoned home in 1982 and still can’t get over those roaming charges. The Spielberg film won four Oscars (not best director or best picture-those went to Richard Attenborough and Gandhi) and is fourth on the list of all-time top-grossing movies.

8. A rendition of an alien from Communion, 1989, a tale by horror novelist Whitley Strieber who penned a non-fiction account of his alien abduction.

9. Although It built a sizable fan base, Alien Nation lasted only a year on the Fox Network in 1989, though cast and crew have returned for five made-for-TV movies.

10. Über-capitalist Quark, from Star Trek, Deep Space Nine (1993-1999), is really a nice Ferengi underneath that prominent brow.

11. Cute little critters from Tim Allen’s 1999 Galaxy Quest are juuuuust about ready to get very, very nasty.

“You can set all the resources you want on a problem, but that doesn’t mean you can solve it. A better example is cancer, or extending the human lifespan by a factor of two. I don’t know how to cure blindness, but I do know how to use my intelligence to look into the stars.”

“Isn’t the proper goal of science the end of affliction?” I asked.

“The most altruistic and safest goal of science is for the human good. But a large number of scientists believe that the purpose of science is to satisfy curiosity, that the need for knowledge is in itself a good thing.

“Perhaps I’m prejudiced, but I find the promise of interstellar intelligence to be more surprising than anything I might see if I had vision. I’ve got lots of other senses I can use to intuit what our world is like. Whatever we learn from another technological civilization will be infinitely more interesting than anything we can extrapolate from our experiences here on Earth.”

By 2085, of course—give or take a half-century-the Singularity Machine would have joined the search, if it had been programmed to wonder about the cosmos beyond its own mainframe, and if it chose to share with humans the knowledge that it gained from the organisms—or fellow machines—that it contacted. Cullers might not still be alive, but his hologram would rejoice at the news.

“As computers become more and more intelligent,” he said, “they will design themselves, and technology will advance so fast that we can’t guess what will happen next. We will be a different intelligence—‘biobeings.’ It is quite possible that bio-intelligence and computer intelligence will be complementary. Information will be sent back and forth between silicon intelligences, and when the information is useful to humans, the computers will pass it on to us.”

“Why are you so certain that the computers will tell us everything they find out?” I asked.

‘Why are you so certain that the computers will tell us everything they find out?’

“Because we don’t want the same things

that computers want. We, the bio-beings, provide a nice substrate to help them advance. I don’t think they’ll want to get rid of us. But if we don’t build an interest in the universe into our computers, they won’t find information that’s interesting to us.” In the midst of this discussion, I realized that I was speaking through a cordless handset to a man across the Pacific Ocean whom I had never met, and how, to my grandfather as a boy in Bialystok, Poland, this would have been a miracle beyond his comprehension or dreams. It was not quite Ted Sargent’s Death of Distance—I could not see Kent Cullers, and he could not touch my hand—but we were sharing our thoughts, and our hopes and our understanding, and that was not too bad for a mid-size planet in orbit around an unexceptional sun.

So we climbed deeper and deeper into the fantasy of First Contact.

“Let us say we made contact with a civilization 250 light years away, so that it took 500 years to get a response,” Cullers said. “Five hundred years is about the time span that separates us from Columbus. If Columbus had the chance to ask a question of a more technologically advanced civilization, he probably would have asked for the secret to making better sailing ships. But by the time the answer came back, we had jet airplanes. So we’d better get the question right the first time.”

“We should ask them, ‘What is the worst thing that ever happened on your planet, and how did you survive it?”’ I volunteered.

But then I wondered, “What if their next message is, ‘Our warships are on their way’?”

“If we should have been silent,” said the blind man, “it’s too late.”

Question: Has the SETI Institute found an extraterrestrial signal yet?

Answer: No SETI search has yet received a confirmed extraterrestrial signal. If we had, you would know about it. ...In the past, there were several unexplained and intriguing signals detected in SETI experiments. Perhaps the most famous of these was the “Wow” signal picked up at the Ohio State Radio Observatory in 1977. However, none of these signals was ever detected again, and for scientists that’s not good enough to claim success and boogie off to Stockholm to collect a Nobel Prize.

After we ask our question, what if their next message is, ‘Our warships are on their way’?

“WHAT COULD we learn from them?” pondered my friend Don Page, the most celestial man I know. “I mean, okay, so we got a signal—now we know they’re out there— and nothing more. If we were expecting to hear it, then it just confirms our expectations. If we weren’t, then psychologically it

probably would have a big effect: ‘We are not alone,’ and that sort of thing. But it would teach us one important fact about biology— namely, that evolution up to the technological level is a probable outcome.”

Page is an astrophysicist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, a frequent collaborator with Stephen Hawking, the father of five, including two Haitian adoptees, and a practising evangelical Christian. He grew up in some of the most isolated hamlets of Alaska, where there are eight stars on the state flag—Baby Lizzie’s favorite constellation, the Big Diaper—and a trillion more in the sky.

“I’m skeptical that SETI will find anything,’

Page said. “We’re so ignorant of the percentage of planets that have life on them, because we are the only planet that we know of that does. We don’t even know the probability that any given star has a solar system, so perhaps we could guess that it is one out of 10. Even then, I think it is somewhat unlikely that there is another advanced civilization in our galaxy of 100 billion stars.”

As Cullers admitted, committing resources to a question does not necessarily mean that there is an answer to be found. But unlike Elizabeth’s generation, he never had the Singularity Machine listening to every channel at once.

“All right, then,” said Page. “Suppose we imagine that they are emitting energy the same way we do—radio, TV and things like that. It is likely that they themselves are quite different from us, but we know that

electromagnetism is the same throughout the universe, so let’s assume that they have TV. So we receive TV images and we can project them and see things and they can see ours. At first, they don’t know what our language is, but they can figure that out from the emotions and actions they see expressed when they hear the words.

“If we could communicate, go back and forth, do we send missionaries to them? If they have fallen and need redemption from sin, then maybe we should. The Bible says that human beings were created in the image of God. But it is just one interpretation to say that we are the only beings in the universe created in the image of God. Maybe there are other beings on other planets who are also in the image of God. I would not see a theological problem with it. The Bible was written for humans, and humans live on Earth...”

But now we were talking about religion, and religion assumes that we still need a God or gods at all. To answer that Frequently Asked Question, we’ll have to turn the page another 10 years. lî'l