Reaction to Hippke 2017 (Non-EM Carriers): Is the SETI search too narrow-minded?

Since the conception of communications with extraterrestrial civilizations in the late fifties (Cocconi & Morrison 1959), the overwhelming majority of SETI endeavors have centered on electromagnetic communication systems, often in one narrow fraction of the entire spectrum. Hippke is aware of the potential shortcomings of such an approach and presents the possibility of alternatives, not just to microwave emission as in his previous work (Hippke 2017), but to electromagnetism as a medium for information carrying in general. In particular, he examines the merits and shortcomings of a variety of non-EM carriers such as electrons, protons, neutrinos, gravity waves, and occulting megastructures. Vetting based on energy efficiency and data rates, Hippke places these alternative channels in competition with EM-based communications. For transiting megastructures, Hippke fails to find a way for this method to be competitive when it comes to target communication with high data rates, and so tepidly dismisses them. He also quickly rules out charged particles, particles with short lifetimes, and heavy particles due to interstellar magnetism, longevity, and energy requirements, respectively. He is also critical of gravitational waves as a medium for signal carrying as their artificial production is extremely resource intensive and wasteful. Lastly he examines neutrino based communication, which fails due to issues with focusing when compared to photons and size requirements of detectors. All of his conclusions are based on current knowledge of physics, and so the possibility is open that with an improvement in knowledge, some of these avenues may potentially become viable again. He has framed this investigation to work within the confines of what is currently understood. With these limitations, he concludes that the best medium for point-to-point communications is still electromagnetic radiation, at around the 1nm scale. If the assumption of preference for speed is relaxed, then the best alternative would be inscribed matter, or probes carrying vast databases of information. This paper was a novel contribution to SETI because it is one of the first attempts at an exhaustive analysis of alternative modes of communication. Scientists can often times get caught up in the present paradigm, and so it is beneficial to get a fresh perspective on the issue from someone who is not formally scientifically trained and thus potentially not subject to the same prior perceptions. His conclusions also vindicate the thinking behind the Pioneer and Voyager plaques and records, since physical media transported on long timescales is shown to be one of the preferred methods of communication. The potential this paper had to to retroactively dismiss all of our previous SETI efforts as foolishly narrow-minded or misguided should not be discounted. While we will continue to perform SETI in the radio and microwave, we should always be open to the possibility of alternative means of communication, and at the very least entertain a more expanded search of the electromagnetic spectrum when designing future SETI surveys.

Author: Alan

Hi, I'm a first year graduate student in the Penn State Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics and the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds.