Re-examining our search for other intelligences in the Universe
In our search for alien intelligence in outer space we seem to suffer from tunnel vision in several ways.
It strikes me as odd that I never see anything in science news about either size-scales or timescales greatly different from our own. Also, in looking for intelligence among
earth creatures we seem to look for artifacts and symbols - the physical manipulation of materials into purposeful shapes - because that is the way we do things. Mammals and reptiles, some birds and fish, have life-spans and attention-spans comparable to ours, and we can communicate with them in various ways if we [quoteright]take the trouble to do so. However, our scholars have a hard time crediting the cetaceans with intelligence in spite of their responsive behavior and large brain size, because they don't use tools or language or numbers as humans do. Our scientists refer to "intelligent life forms" in outer space as if the only forms that are intelligent are the ones that copy humans.
Consider, on a low-mass planet with short days, that life may have evolved at a stepped-up rate, perhaps microscopic in size, with complete life spans on the order of one minute or less - the experience of 60 years compressed to 60 seconds. Since that life's biological processes would be correspondingly rapid, its creatures might have evolved a high civilization in terms of communication and manipulation of data - data of interest to them, of course - but a human intelligence would be quite unable to keep up. To such creatures, any human signals would take interminably long, and would not be recognized as information.
It is equally possible that on a heavy planet with slow rotation life may have evolved very slowly, with life spans of a hundred thousand years. The universe is old enough; that's not impossible. Such creatures would be conscious of geologic happenings, but shorter events would escape their attention. Their cell-growth, fluid circulation and nervous responses, or whatever served as equivalents, would be geared to geologic time, yet they might be able to perceive patterns in geology better than we do, and to manipulate their environment to their own advantage. They might even be capable of esthetic pleasure in the dance of tectonic plates and the minuets of mountains. To them, any human signals must seem like ephemeral squeaks, not recognized as information.
If we are willing to spend large sums of money in the hope of communicating with alien life forms, why don't we begin at home, with insects and bacteria? We never see bacteria in their natural environment. No one has studied the tribal behavior of a colony of spirochetes. "They all look alike to me!" We see them smeared on glass slides under bright lights. Possibly on a microscopic scale bacteria do build towers and halls as ornate as any of ours, but we destroy them unaware. Or perhaps they destroy their own, like our downtown office buildings, and rebuild to fit their rapidly changing environments. The daily experience of bacteria includes large organic molecules with lopsided electrical charges. Microöganisms may even scorn to build with molecules and atoms in favor of constructions using electromagnetic fields. How can we detect this activity if we never look for it?
Many of us have experienced the remarkable effects of time-lapse films of flower buds unfolding and clouds forming, or speeded-up tapes of blue whale songs. Both of these bring slower phenomena into the range of human perception. Has anyone ever tried the reverse, such as a super-slow-motion film and sound of a cloud of gnats? I think the result would be amazing.
The search for alien intelligence in outer space is much more likely to succeed if we first get some practice communicating with the alien intelligences already available to us here on earth. A broader definition of intelligence and a wider field of vision would improve our chances of success.
Engineer and technical writer Polly Pitkin Ryan contributes both art and philosophical speculation to the Ecphorizer, as she has for many years to the SF Mensa Intelligencer.
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