Can Science Survive a SETI Detection?

Robert Owen (
Tue, 21 Sep 1999 19:11:52 -0400

I was re-reading a Paper by Dr. Allen Tough <>
found in the "References" section an item previously overlooked:


I found this article completely engaging; I'm passing along the link so
you can read it in complete form if you wish. The Abstract is repro-
duced in order briefly to present his thesis:

                                    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

"Any civilisation that we detect in a SETI experiment is statistically
likely to be vastly older than ours, and consequently their science
is likely to have advanced to a stage which we cannot even guess.
Following the first "one-bit" SETI detection, we will start trying to
discover something about the sender. This may be as simple as
trying to deduce, from the characteristics of the signal, something
of the technology and environment of the sender. On the other hand,
it may be as comprehensive as actually downloading texts, or even an
encyclopaedia! In either case, we are confronted with the existence
of a civilisation which may have answered our current scientific pro-
blems millions of years ago, and which is now embarked on answering
different questions which would be meaningless to us. Their "science"
may even have evolved to a methodology which would not be recog-
nisable as "science" to us.

"Currently, our science is driven by the premise that there are unknown
discoveries "out there", waiting to be made by the researcher with the
right skills, equipment, insight, or persistence. Every new discovery
made is added to the store of human knowledge, with succeeding gen-
erations building on the discoveries of those that came before then. This
model is threatened if we find that a civilisation out there has already
been there and done that, and our discoveries are actually re-discoveries
of something which is old hat to someone else. Rather than doing con-
ventional science, it would be much more profitable to try to find out
what the other civilisation has already discovered. A download of an
encyclopaedia would do just that, although we may well not understand
even the questions being asked. It would be sensible for our most brilliant
scientists to spend their time trying to understand what would be con-
tained in those encyclopaedias, and the current scientific debates would
be replaced by debates of interpretation. In effect, our scientists will
have become theologians, trying to interpret a text handed down from on

"Would this be the end of science as we know it?"

                                    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


For those of you who are unfamiliar with Dr. Alan Tough and his truly
enormous contribution to the field of ETI and SETI, I encourage you
to visit the following Site for a Biography and Bibliography as well as
for links to his publications available online (including the work cited

Robert M. Owen
The Orion Institute
57 W. Morgan Street
Brevard, NC 28712-3659 USA

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