Do we know what we do not know?

This article is based on pages 133 – 152 of Paul Davies `s book Eerie Silence. The extract builds upon the third law of Arthur C. Clarke, that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It discusses the principle for SETI artifact searches.

There are various structures / particles postulated by the fundamental theories of physics which have not been observed experimentally. Few of the examples cited in the passage are magnetic monopoles, dark matter particle and cosmic string. An example given is that the paucity of these could be due to exploitation of this structures / particles by a hyper – advanced ET civilization for energy production.

Moving on from here, the author builds on the ‘nature plus’ theme for ET. Basically how ET could manifest itself as the next step after nature and thus not stand out obviously like a sore thumb, but as an extension of the abilities and phenomenon seen naturally. He gives the example of a scenario from Roger Penrose about dumping waste into a black hole to harness its rotational kinetic energy.

Another important point made is that it is quite possible, perhaps even likely that ET manifests itself in a manner unfathomable to us. The example given is of lasers. For someone from a few centuries ago, lasers would not seem like a man – made thing and would seem like a weird (then inexplicable) naturally occurring phenomenon. On a similar note, potential ET technology could be right in our face but its artificial origins undetectable to us.

The last thing he covers is how the ‘laws of Physics’, which in theory are set in stone, are not really. They are only sacrosanct as far our current measurement capabilities are concerned. For example, ether was accepted till Michelson – Morley proved it otherwise. Newtonian gravity was good enough till observations began diverging from it and could no longer be explained by simple theory. Therefore the laws of Physics which we let govern us in our search for ET, might fundamentally be incomplete.

I think the point of this article is not to cast a gloomy note over our search for ET, but just to say that we do not know what we don’t know. Our knowledge and understanding of the ‘known’ Universe is severely lacking. Therefore, 1) we should not consider our search for ET exhaustive even if we plough through a major portion of the cosmic haystack unsuccessfully; 2) always be open to and on the watch for anomalies in observational data (similar to the point made in GHat 4).