SETI – The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

by Wal Thornhill | April 9, 2003 2:38 pm

“Next we come to a question that everyone, scientist and non-scientist alike, must have asked at some time. What is man’s place in the Universe?”
– The Nature of the Universe, Fred Hoyle.

In March this year 13,000 people from across the U.S converged on Philadelphia for the largest meeting of science educators in the world. Many teachers there remarked that their students are always asking about SETI[1] and astronomy. Kids have a keen interest in astronomy and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. What’s out there? Are we alone?

The first question we need to ask before we look for life on other worlds is how did intelligent life come to form on this planet? Are these unique circumstances, or are they common? Which stars are most likely to harbour worlds like ours?

It is a question involving a broad mix of cosmology, mythology, geology and biology. Unfortunately, viewpoints today are polarized into only two choices, both requiring miracles. These choices are the creationist story and the evolutionist story. Subscribers to each camp have dug in for a fight to the death. Each side has quite sound arguments against the dogma of the other. Neither side allows the possibility that the answer may be found in no-man’s land.

Religions have adopted a literal belief that the creation stories of myth explain the origin of the Earth and the universe. However, mythical creation stories required human observers. They have nothing to do with the question of how the Earth began, much less how the universe was formed. Nor are they about how life and intelligent life originated. They are the story of the most recent in a series of cosmic cataclysms that have visited the Earth in its long and chequered career. Those cataclysms are recorded in the tortured strata and buried flora and fauna of the Earth.

Science has adopted its own evolutionary mythology of Earth’s history that largely discounts cosmic cataclysms unless they happened in the remote, unfathomable past (although in recent years there has been a grudging acceptance that the dinosaurs may have been wiped out by a hypothetical asteroid impact). The dogma has been expressed by Dr. Maxine Singer, President of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, when she wrote “Evolution is the framework that makes sense of the whole natural world from the formation of atoms, galaxies, stars and planets… “

The religious story gives us no clue about where to look for extraterrestrial life. But the dogma of evolution also limits our thinking about SETI. Success is unlikely if our beliefs about our origin and place in the universe are wrong. This is demonstrated clearly in the following bleak excerpt from New Scientist.

Earth was a freak

New Scientist 29 March 2003

BAD news for people hunting extraterrestrials: the cosy, rocky planets that are essential for supporting life might be rare, cosmological freaks. The only reason we are here is because a nearby star happened to explode next to our young Sun just as the Solar System was forming, claims an applied mathematician. Thomas Clarke at the University of Central Florida in Orlando predicts that the vast majority of planets in the Milky Way are frigid gas giants like Jupiter, with hostile atmospheres and no solid surfaces to walk around on. “On average, a solar system will consist of an extensive rocky asteroid belt and some gas giant planets and moons,” says Clarke. “It’s kind of a dismal conclusion.”

Astronomers agree that the planets and moons of our Solar System formed in a swirling disc of gas and dust around the Sun. In the outer regions, cold, slushy gases condensed into the giants Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. And in the inner regions, dusty particles melted and stuck together, forming hot blobs of rock that cooled and merged to make Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars.

Typical solar system
TYPICAL SOLAR SYSTEM: Debris in the asteroid belt will not form rocky and potentially hospitable planets unless there is an additional heat source.

But it is not clear why the rock melted – the Sun then was not much hotter than it is now. Astronomers believe that the extra heat may have come from radioactive aluminium-26 that was sprayed out of a star that exploded up to 50 light years away when the planets were forming. Decay products of the isotope, which has a half-life of 720,000 years, have been found in meteorites.

At last week’s Lunar and Planetary Science conference near Houston, in Texas, Clarke suggested that without the heat from the aluminium, the Earth would not have formed. While asteroid-sized rocks would have aggregated in the inner Solar System, they would not have melted and clumped together to form planets.

According to Clarke’s calculations, the solid rocks would simply zoom past each other or collide and recoil like snooker balls. Only molten, squidgy rocks would deform and lose energy in a collision, he says, allowing them to stick together and grow.

Debris in the asteroid belt will not form rocky and potentially hospitable planets unless there is an additional heat source.

But the chance of a star exploding at just the right time and place is very much against the odds. Stars only explode three or four times a century in our Galaxy. Clarke estimates that the probability of a supernova happening within 50 light years of any new solar system that is busy forming planets is only about 1 in 100. “So only a small fraction of planetary systems would be expected to have terrestrial planets,” says Clarke.

“Trouble comes, however, when what we think to be knowledge is actually no more than illusion. Education then serves to transmit illusions from generation to generation, with the situation getting worse all the time. ..wrong ideas eventually become so deeply entrenched as to become unshakeable dogma.”
– Our Place in the Cosmos – Fred Hoyle & Chandra Wickramasinghe.

The failure of the SETI project to find signs of extraterrestrial intelligence may indicate the Earth is a freak. Or it might indicate that many of the things confidently asserted by scholars like Thomas Clarke are far from the truth. For example, the fact that “astronomers agree that the planets and moons of our Solar System formed in a swirling disc of gas and dust around the Sun,” does not make it so. It is probable that consensus about the so-called “nebular hypothesis” has been achieved simply because no astronomer has come up with a more plausible alternative. Clarke indicates one of the problems – how do you form a planet from a ring of dust stretching clear around the solar system? Astronomers were surprised to find that moonlets in Saturn’s rings on commensurate orbits merely swap orbits without colliding. So the ad hoc proposal making objects like that hot and “squidgy” will not help them to stick together if they never come into contact.

In an ELECTRIC UNIVERSE® there is a far more plausible explanation for the genesis of planets. It has almost biological overtones and is appealing in its simplicity – one measure of a good theory. It explains why gas giants have been found recently in large numbers orbiting their parent star far closer than expected by the nebular hypothesis. But first we must deal with the origin of the parent stars.


The ELECTRIC UNIVERSE® model assumes, based on good evidence, that the universe is not electrically neutral. So electric currents flow through the thin plasma of deep space in the form of giant filaments, detectable by their magnetic fields. These cosmic filaments take the form of “twisted pairs,” well known to electrical engineers. Plasma physicists call them “Birkeland currents,” after a pioneering scientist in the field. Observations and experiments support this model. Birkeland currents are ultimately responsible for the formation of stars.

These cosmic electric currents are the most efficient scavengers of dust and gas in space. Matter is squeezed or “pinched” toward the current axis by a strong force that varies inversely with radial distance from the axis. Contrast that with the weak force of gravity, which falls off rapidly with the square of distance. Stars are formed like beads strung along a cosmic power line with their rotation axes aligned along the current filaments. Evidence for that model comes from the alignment of the spin axes of stars with the magnetic field in giant molecular clouds. The effect is rather like the old toy spinning tops, with the helical thread plunger passed through them to impart spin. The strong electromagnetic coupling between the proto-star and its environment is also capable of removing angular momentum during collapse – a severe problem for the gravitational collapse model of stars.

Centaurus A
The Hubble telescope offers a stunning unprecedented close-up view of a turbulent firestorm of star birth along a nearly edge-on dust disk girdling Centaurus A, the nearest active galaxy to Earth. It shows spectacularly the filamentary nature of molecular clouds from which stars are born.

The ELECTRIC UNIVERSE® model is a major departure from conventional views about how stars shine. It proposes that stars, after they have formed, continue to receive power from galactic Birkeland currents. Eddington wrote in his famous work, The Internal Constitution of the Stars: “In seeking a source of energy other than contraction the first question is whether the energy to be radiated in future is now hidden in the star or whether it is being picked up continuously from outside. Suggestions have been made that the impact of meteoric matter provides the heat, or that there is some subtle radiation traversing space which the star picks up.” It is the second possibility that is true in an ELECTRIC UNIVERSE® model.

But Eddington did not pursue it because he was convinced that a star must collapse under its own gravity unless supported from within by an energy source. That was an incorrect assumption because gravity induces charge separation and electrical repulsion effects within a star – something that Eddington dismissed. The simple fact that a proton weighs almost 2000 times as much as an electron ensures that this will occur. Each hydrogen atom in a star will be distorted by gravity to form a tiny radial electric dipole. The resulting electric field will ensure charge separation inside the star. Free electrons will drift toward the surface and leave behind a positively charged core. (This simple fact exposes the nonsense of collapsed stars – that is, neutron stars and black holes. The phenomena attributed to them are simply explained electrically).

The resulting internal electric forces counterbalance compression due to gravity more or less uniformly throughout the star. As the gadfly British physicist, Dr. Harold Aspden, had the temerity to remark, knowing the volume of a hydrogen atom and the mass of the Sun 19th century physicists could have calculated this. He wrote, “..the mass density within a star is not concentrated into a non-uniform distribution by the force of gravitation. The importance of this to cosmological science cannot be overestimated. It bears upon that question of how a nuclear fusion reaction can be initiated to feed the star’s energy output. It obliges one to consider the prospect of a cold fusion process or to look for other explanations for the stellar energy source.” Precisely! – the simplest of observations about the Sun supports the electric star model. By the way, the problem of short-lived radioactive isotopes is solved by the fact that stellar electric discharges manufacture all of the heavy elements seen in their spectra. A supernova is not required.

Then there is the Sun’s strange atmosphere. Fred Hoyle wrote in 1955, “We should expect on the basis of a straightforward calculation that the Sun would ‘end’ itself in a simple and rather prosaic way; that with increasing height above the photosphere the density of the solar material would decrease quite rapidly, until it became pretty well negligible only two or three thousand kilometres up.” Instead, the planets orbit inside its “huge bloated envelope.”

The Sun’s atmosphere matches that expected from an electric discharge in a very low pressure gas – the solar “wind” accelerating away from the Sun, the million degree temperature of the solar corona above a “cool” photosphere at 6000 degrees, and the magnetic fields that reveal electric currents in space.

Where do planets fit into this picture?

Companion stars and gas giants may be formed in the initial string of stellar “beads.” Or they may be “born” later from a star when electrical stresses cause the expulsion of some of its positively charged core. It is an effective way to increase surface area to relieve electrical stress. A gargantuan stellar “lightning flash,” called a nova, accompanies the birth. The result is generally a close-orbiting binary system and an “expulsion disk” – in contradistinction to an accretion disk. The new companion can be a star or a gas giant. Gas giants may also undergo the same process, albeit less violently, giving birth to their rocky moons and planets. Notably, Saturn still has an ephemeral expulsion disk.

With such an unconventional scenario, where is the best place to look for extraterrestrial intelligence? The immediate answer is – not near a star like the Sun! Our situation is quite precarious – almost freakish. A small difference in Earth’s orbit or radiation from the Sun could extinguish intelligent life on this planet. Earth is highly unlikely to have supported life for hundreds of millions of years in its present situation. So SETI is mistaken to concentrate its search on Earth-like planets orbiting energetic stars like the Sun.

A more helpful answer is that Earth-like planets and intelligent life are most likely to be found very close to less energetic, dim red stars. That is good news because they are the most numerous in the galaxy. It should be clear that there is no such thing as a “failed star” in an ELECTRIC UNIVERSE® because internal nuclear energy is not the source of their radiance. It is also important to recognize that the term “dwarf” is a misnomer when applied to a dim red star. All red stars will appear much larger than the central physical body because their colour and size is largely due to a spherical anode glow at a great height above the surface. Many satellites will orbit within the glowing shell and diffuse atmosphere of a red star. That is the ideal place for life to take hold. Radiant energy falls equally over the surface of such a satellite, or planet, regardless of orbit, rotation and axial tilt. There are neither seasons nor day and night. And life-giving molecules, including water, will mist down through an atmosphere drawn from their parent star.

The giant red star, Betelgeuse, sports unexpected hot spots. They may be stellar objects within, shining through an enveloping anode glow. The glowing sheath is so huge that if Betelguese replaced our Sun then Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars and Jupiter would be orbiting within it. Astronomers recognize that the plasma envelope of such stars is so tenuous that it would not impede planets in their orbits.

There is a catch however for SETI enthusiasts. Intelligent beings living on a planet in this benign environment would not see a dark, star spangled heaven. If the misty atmosphere cleared sufficiently they might see a diffuse, brighter light from their primary or possibly a nearby binary partner shining through the glowing cocoon that surrounds them. If intelligent beings living on these protected planets have learned to use radio signals, we would not detect them, because the plasma of the anode glow would act as an impenetrable shield against radio signals. Nor would they be able to detect our radio signals, for the same reason. In fact, there would be nothing to suggest the existence of an immense universe beyond the plasma glow that surrounds them. There would be no reason for them to search for extraplanetary intelligence. Unless… they discovered a way to communicate over cosmic distances that does not involve radio signals. In any case, radio signals are far too slow for sensible communication over the gulf of deep space. Having intelligent civilizations electrically “quarantined” inside their stellar wombs would satisfy the so-called “Fermi paradox,” which is the question, “If the universe is teeming with aliens, where is everybody?” We are the freaks who have been given the opportunity to see the immensity of the universe and to live to ask the question.

Our creation myths seem to be a human memory of Earth’s expulsion from the maternal womb. Surely we should mine them for insights into the real history of the Earth and the only intelligent life we know, before letting our imagination run riot. If we appear to be alone it might simply be due to our primitive understanding of the universe, which is leading us to look in the wrong places and maybe with the wrong tools.

I believe that if SETI is to succeed we must challenge our kids with possibilities and questions, not with the overwhelming “illusion of knowledge” that modern science portrays. Because, contrary to the bleak conventional outlook, the ELECTRIC UNIVERSE® seems designed to produce intelligent life. The search must ultimately succeed!

Wal Thornhill

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