New Search Strategies

As I have tried to explain in previous pages, orthodox SETI, whatever advances it may make in the application of technology to its search, continues to target civilizations whose technology mirrors that of our own circa 1960 when SETI was conceived. However, there is a path by which a somewhat more generalized SETI is beginning to move beyond the old rigid definition.

At the time that SETI was first being formulated, physicist and electrical engineer Ron Bracewell was arguing for the possibility of "messenger probes" - robotic probes sent out from advanced civilizations to roam and contact other societies, no matter how long the journey might take. The class of probes he described later became known as Bracewell probes, and telescopic searches for them were actually carried out at two major observatories.34

The concept was considered acceptable because our own society was on the verge of being able to build them. Had there been a willingness to consider the most obvious implications of the direct contact with, let us call it, something other, that individuals and governments were experiencing, the concept of searching for primitive robotic probes would have been recognized as quite ludicrous. However, this was and still is not to be.

Still, as our own technological society has continued to advance, some members of the SETI community, as well as new researchers not committed to the classic paradigm, feel justified in expanding the scope of the search.

SETI Incrementalism

Here, as an example, is Harvard University Professor Paul Horowitz, speaking at an Optical SETI Conference, providing the justification for a new telescope that will scan for rapid light pulses:

"Using only Earth 2001 technology, we could now generate a beamed laser pulse that appears 5,000 times brighter than our sun, as seen by a distant civilisation [sic] in the direction of its slender beam.

"In other words, interstellar laser communication is altogether practicable.

"The new Optical SETI Telescope will allow us to search the entire northern sky for such signs of intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy."

I call this SETI incrementalism--tuning the SETI search strategy to match our present capabilities or those envisioned in the relatively near future.

Dr. Raghir Bhathal of the University of Western Sydney provides another example of the use of SETI incrementalism in making a case for optical SETI (Bhathal, 2000). He points out that "a Moore’s Law doubling of laser technology over the last 40 years has seen laser power rise exponentially from the milliWatt lasers used in undergraduate laboratories to megaWatt lasers in industry.... [For instance] the National Ignition Facility in the US has produced laser powers in the teraWatt range (1012 Watts), albeit for short periods. These developments give tremendous credence to the search for ETI signals in the form of nanosecond laser pulses...." [italics mine]

Note the application of "Moore's Law" to laser technology only up to the present moment, with not a thought of the future.

In defining and calling attention to this process of building out search strategies to look for targets suggested by our developments at home, I don't wish to detract from the validity of performing the new searches. Prospective search targets should at least reflect our own present or projected technologies. But using this rationale leaves us open to its converse, the fatal flaw in conventional SETI:

If we don't (yet) know how we would do it, then we doubt that anyone else would be able to do it, we shouldn't look, and we should probably dismiss evidence of it if we do find it.


The Search for Extraterrestrial Artifacts (SETA) provides another important example of SETI incrementalism at work. As originally proposed by Freitas and Valdes (1985), SETA would be a search within our solar system for artifacts placed by ET civilizations employing technologies that our own society could envision. (Note that "artifacts" did not refer to more generalized artifacts and cultural traces that may have been left on this planet by colonial extraterrestrials. The organization known as AAS RA is dedicated to "Paleo-SETI", which they define as aa search for such artifacts.)

Fifteen years after Freitas and Valdes, Allen Tough (2000), noted:

"With the rapid development of computers, robotics, and nanotechnology in the past ten years, we now realize that a probe could be even smarter, smaller, and more flexible than we assumed in the mid-1980s. A search for a nearby object less than 35cm in length now seems appropriate..." [Italics mine]
...and so updated the parameters of SETA.


A further development of the SETA idea is SETV (The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Visitation). The website SETV, operated by The Organization for SETV Research, presents a balanced and erudite review of the SETV field - its motivation, history, and current activities - and a very complete set of links and references to resources.

As described in proposals by JPL engineer Scot Stride (2001a, 2001b), SETV comprises a program to search for extraterrestrial interstellar robotic probes by means of "passive autonomous data acquisition platforms" using "commercial off-the-shelf" (COTS) hardware. Information on the SETV proposal is being provided by Stride on his Interstellar-Probes.Org:Resources page.

Anyone contemplating SETA or SETV should read Human/ETI Contact in Ancient Times.

Solar System SETI (S3ETI)

A strategy for searching for evidence of robotic ETI-based probes within the solar system was detailed by Bruce Cornet and Scot Stride in an important paper, Solar System SETI Using Radio Telescope Arrays, presented at the SETI League's SETICon03 symposium (2003). Their paper attempts to identify all likely observable emissions and physical signs of probes' operations. Some of these manifestations, the authors argue, would in principle be detectable by means of ground-based instruments. The subset of these manifestations that consist of microwave energies would be the subject of their proposed search, which they call Solar System SETI, or S3ETI. The S3ETI search volume is a heliocentric sphere of radius 50 AU, which roughly includes the orbit of Pluto.

The SETI League provides an appropriate forum for proposals of this sort. Although its literature conforms to the views promulgated by The SETI Institute and The Planetary Society, etc. ("ETs cannot travel here or at least we have no evidence that they ever did; life evolves independently on suitable planets"), the League is a much more democratic organization, supporting innovation and creative engineering projects among its membership of amateur and professional scientists. Thus no one objected when Cornet and Stride bent the rules a bit, and argued that even if no living ETs could ever reach our solar system, perhaps their instruments could be here. In fact the paper received the conference Best Ideas Award.

For the purposes of their proposal, Cornet and Stride argued that if the resources of ET societies were stretched to the limit when sending probes here, they would likely need to adopt various strategies for enhancing their communications channels - strategies that the authors attempt to anticipate in designing a search program.

Were it possible for ETI to travel "in the flesh" and colonize large regions of the universe, the approach of Cornet and Stride would seem less than optimal. But the possibility that we could be a colony is dismissed by the authors, who refer to a "very strong case against it" made by SETI League member Al Harrison (1997).

What actually is Harrison's "very strong case"? His discussion (pp. 188-192) is no more than a musing on Fermi's Paradox ("Where are they?"). Since "they" are apparently not here, why aren't they, if they exist? And his suggestions: resource limitations; lack of motivation due to abundant sources near wherever "they" are; no need for more knowledge than they already have; they just happened to miss us; we are not worthy of their interest; we are a natural preserve; advanced societies prefer inner contemplation; they would have found enough to interest them before reaching our planet. Some may feel that by dreaming up more and more of these explanations, eventually the case is made.

At any rate, given their assumptions, the authors pack into their paper a great deal of engineering data, calculations of possible orbits, and other technical information that will be invaluable for anyone intending to conduct a S3ETI program. In fact, this paper could evolve into a handbook for carrying out searches of this sort.

The paper also outlines a proposal for employing the Allen Telescope Array in a solar system search, making reference to specific features of that instrument.

Returning for the moment to the possibility that our solar system is in fact a colony, what would be the implications for S3ETI? In such a case, searching and monitoring by whatever means possible would seem to be an excellent idea, but programs to accomplish this must already be underway by various human agencies, contact has already been made, and some sort of relationship exists. Then the proposal of Cornet and Stride would be encroaching on areas that have not been approved for public access. In fact, even without any ETI in the solar system, defense organizations might have reason to object to civilians conducting S3ETI.47

For an update on the progress of the S3ETI proposal and a discussion of its engineering principles, see the April 2004 Astrobiology Magazine interview with Scot Stride, Can SETI Probe for Probes?.

SETI Decrementalism

Several years ago, Berkeley Radio Astronomy Lab director Jack Welch made a public statement to the effect that we should not attempt to send radio messages to ETs because "they might come and take us over." There is little point in dissecting this statement for its many absurdities in the context of SETI dogma as well as SETI likely truth, because Dr. Welch probably said it "tongue-in-cheek" -- although it is difficult to tell, as almost all statements by scientific SETI would go down better if they were understood to be facetious from the outset.44

Perfect example: Fermilab physicist Richard Carrigan, Jr., speaking at the 54th International Astronautical Congress (2003), expressed his deep concern that incoming SETI signals might be harmful, in the spirit of a computer virus, or they might even be computer viruses! "Put simply, the receiver needs virus protection."

Seth Shostak was shocked! He explained that signal averaging will smooth out any high-information-content message...and the information will be lost!

Again, this dialog is riddled with absurdities, which I could point out, but I would prefer not to insult the reader's intelligence. After all, this is SETI scientific discourse, so what else would you expect? (SETI discourse always requires a certain suspension of disbelief.)45

There is a point worth making from all of this, however: it's just SETI Incrementalism again, though in this case it works in reverse, hence SETI Decrementalism. That is, uncomfortable feelings about our society lead to calls to degrade our search and communication efforts. It is another example of a current transitory earth-human cultural development being projected onto our ageless search targets, causing us to yet again reevaluate our strategy. This activity is vigorously if unconsciously pursued by virtually the entire SETI community.

Beyond Incrementalism (and Decrementalism)

Underlying all the examples of SETI proposals on this page, not to mention the example of orthodox SETI itself, is the principle that SETI is always formulated as a search for something "out there" that has capabilities matching our own capabilities here and now, or here and soon--within perhaps one or two hundred years. Thus as the decades march by, according to the unspoken rule of SETI incrementalism, the targets of proposed searches evolve step-by-step to match our technological progress.

As stated earlier, if this way of rationalizing a search strategy helps us to expand our search horizons, it has its value. Yet it is still a serious limitation on our vision. It is as though we were saying, "Once they had to use E-M beacons. Now their probes are here. This year their probes became smaller and more robotic. Next year they will be able to genetically manipulate human populations. Perhaps one day they will be able to clone humans."

What is out there, if anything, is out there. It, if anything, is the ensemble of all extraterrestrial societies. It does not in the aggregate mirror our technological progress in any way. Our searches, if they are well formulated, will be open to what is there, not merely to a projection of what we are this year, this decade, or in the next century. (To begin to understand how far off the mark we may be with our SETI programs, I recommend that the reader spend some time studying an essay on Human versus ET Superpowers Part One and Part Two by the great SRI remote viewer Ingo Swann.)

The SETIs, the SETAs, and many proponents of SETV ignore this obvious fact because they are trying to achieve recognition from the scientific community, and they need to maximize their prospects for obtaining funding. That is one reason why, in the page Ways of Knowing, I suggest that the model of a scientific research project is ultimately not appropriate for SETI; the vicisssitudes of conducting scientific research skew the activity away from its most productive possibilities.

Locating a technological civilization is no more a task for a scientist than would be, say, searching for a group of terrorists in a distant country. Suppose you were given that task, with an update that the target group had the means and likely the motivation to station some of its members in the outskirts of your own city. Would you hire a scientist to find them? That would not be your best choice if the scientist intended to treat the problem as a scientific study and publish in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.24 If you had an intelligence service, that is what you would use. Would you examine all interesting items of data relating to your target regardless of their standing in the scientific annals? Of course you would. But while this is not a scientific research program, would you utilize "scientific" (i.e., high-tech) instruments as surveillance devices where they might be helpful? Absolutely.

Current SETV Programs

Presumably, astronomers would know how to put this instrumentation to use. Isn't that the implicit reason for having so many of them in leadership roles in the SETI organizations? But the SETI "astronomers" don't see their role in that way. They are: 1) promoters of microwave and some optical searches for distant hypothetical targets using expensive fixed facilities, and 2) debunkers of juicy local targets that have actually been seen.

SETV researchers turn the tables through their innovative use of a wide range of instrumentation to collect data from persistent earth-bound targets. The approach is described by astrophysicist Dr. Massimo Teodorani, for example, in his paper Physics from UFO Data that proposes treating "UFO targets" as astronomical objects having no fixed coordinates.

Several well-instrumented SETV programs are being conducted in that spirit:

  • Recognition that the target of the search may be well beyond what we can easily understand
  • No apologies to the holders of the mainstream SETI paradigm
  • A focus on surveillance rather than a search for the best-guess target.
Studies of anomalous luminous phenomena - suspected by some to be possible probes of ET origin - in the Hessdalen valley of Norway have been conducted for over 15 years by the Norwegian group known as Project Hessdalen under the direction of engineer Erling Strand of Østfold College. A variety of instrumentation has been employed, including photography and related optical and infrared systems, seismographs, radar, HF radio spectrum analyzer, geiger counter.

The team has carried out similar measurements in the Australian desert and at Mexico's Popocatepetl volcano, a well-known focus of anomalous activity.

Their work has led to a collaboration with a team of Italian researchers headed by Dr. Teodorani on two Italian exploratory missions (EMBLA 2000 and 2001), focused on effects in the VLF and ELF portions of the radio spectrum and on new aspects of the optical phenomenology including low-resolution spectroscopy. The programs have collected a rich and extensive set of recordings, sufficient to allow the testing of a number of theories and hypotheses as to their origin (Teodorani, 2001).

Dr. Teodorani, in a 2004 research article, reviews the EMBLA missions and examines several possible conclusions that might be drawn from the observed phenomenology. Also see his talk, The Physical Study of Atmospheric Luminous Anomalies and the SETV Hypothesis, presented at the EuroSETI 2002 Congress, Republic of San Marino.

Anomalous Light Phenomena: 1994-2003 Research Papers (Teodorani 2003), published in the Coalition for Freedom of Information (CFI) Section: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, is a collection of abstracts of papers and reports with Internet links where available.

At Kingsland Observatory in northwestern Ireland, Eamonn Ansbro and Catherine Overhauser (2001) are developing instrumentation that builds on the findings of the Hessdalen and EMBLA research projects. Their remarkable surveillance system employs 11 cameras covering the whole sky hemisphere, with sufficient intelligence to recognize and track targets, and to trigger a video tracking system. They have also proposed ULF-VLF radio spectrum coverage, radar, magnetometers, and other instrumentation, as well as a 30 mW, 532 nm laser "for reaction tests on the target". They presented a detailed description of their work at EuroSETI 2002.

As Ansbro and Overhauser pointed out in their 2001 paper, SETV is finding a certain amount of support in Europe, and the publications and workshops of the European Space Agency are not averse to covering this field. And [reported in private communication], barriers to SETV publications and proposals appear to be coming down in the United States as well.

It would be logical for SETI to support and include SETV as part of its programs, as the search for nearby extraterrestrial intelligence, especially considering that SETV assumptions are derived directly from previous SETI theoretical studies.

Massimo Teodorani (2006) sets out the framework for this approach in his article An Alternative Method for the Scientific Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life - The “Local SETI” (Abstract).


The National Institute for Discovery Science (NIDS) was "a privately funded science institute engaged in research of UFOs and related anomalous phenomena." NIDS was associated with the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and was funded by Robert T. Bigelow. In October 2004, after an extended period of declining operations, Bigelow deactivated NIDS, stating that there was no longer any activity needing research. Click here to read Bigelow's announcement. The page has a link to what appears to be a relic of the old NIDS website.

In its time, this unusual organization managed to attract a mix of frontier scientists, high-level ex-military researchers, and ex-law enforcement investigative teams (see Ways of Knowing What "Is"), contracting with nationally-accredited laboratories. At one point, NIDS appeared to be a serious research organization, with divisions devoted to UFOs/Aerial Phenomenology, Animal Pathology Research (i.e., cattle mutilations), Astrobiology/SETI, and Consciousness Studies. Publications followed peer-review procedures common in more established scientific fields.

However, in March 2002, its principal researchers and investigators were laid off. but at about that time, the organization was named the officially-designated point of contact recognized by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for UFO research.

Although NIDS collected UFO sighting reports from the public and the FAA, it would not disclose any details of reports or even statistics to the general public. Since no official government body expresses any interest in this information, one wonders where the reports were actually going.

The NIDS website was a useful information resource. The Astrobiology/SETI section listed numerous articles on SETI strategies going well beyond the orthodox radio searches to which mainstream SETI organizations confine themselves. A version of the site is still accessible for the moment but it appears not to be being maintained.

Vallee and Davis on Unidentified Aerospace Phenemona

In an important paper that was published on the NIDS website (Vallee 2003), Jacques Vallee and Eric Davis examined the place of unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) in the orthodox SETI and the SETV paradigms, finding both to be biased by anthropomorphism or anthropocentric viewpoints. For orthodox SETI, limited models of physical reality imply that UAP sightings cannot possibly represent actual phenomena, while SETV, in the opinion of the authors, invokes the Extra-Terrestrial Hypothesis (ETH) to interpret the phenomena in terms of interstellar travelers. Both camps are fighting rear-guard battles to maintain their limited worldviews.

Vallee and Davis, seeking a less restrictive framework, advocate acceptance of the phenomena as such, whose study may provide "an existence theorem for new models of physical reality" -- parallel universes, extra spatial dimensions and other time-like dimensions, traversable wormholes, even allowing for a "psychic" dimension in the sense of interactions between physical reality and human consciousness (beyond the commonly-recognized ones). (Open SETI advocates this as well, providing Open SETI Physics 101 to remind SETI practitioners to consider at least current physics in constructing their models of the SETI situation.) Vallee and Davis propose a model with six "layers" corresponding to levels and categories of "strangeness" in UAP reports.

The authors suggest that their model would work well for UAPs as the products of some sort of technology.

All this seems fair enough at first blush, although SETV researchers would probably object to being accused of "invoking ETH", which they usually try not to do -- mainly for political reasons.

One of the authors' objections to the emphasis on ETH on the part of some researchers is that through "the physics of high strangeness", "intelligent entities or forms of consciousness might use time travel or exist near Earth within a parallel universe" or in "different dimensions". This is a useful reminder, but it might be a bit of a red herring as many researchers use "ETH" as a short-hand notation whose meaning could very well include the broader definition of Vallee and Davis.

A much more significant difficulty with the paper from the viewpoint of Open SETI is the authors' attempt to address "The Incommensurability Problem" (Vakoch 1995) in which assumed divergent ways of conceptualizing the world would interfere with any attempts at communication between human and nonhuman cultures. Doug Vakoch has been making a bit of a career in the application of semiotics, the general theory of signs, to the problem of communication between alien cultures.61 That is all very well, and an interesting theoretical study for those inclined, as is the SETI Institute, but none of these researchers seems to recognize that the ability to employ exotic physics in contacting our civilization gives the visiting entities a capability for overwhelming power and control. Add to that the ever-present relationship to "the gods" in our ancient cultures, and even the modern relationship to "God", all of which suggests the capability for power and control has been amply exercised, and it becomes clear that semiotics is not the issue of choice here.

It is remarkable that, having come this close, the authors continue the obtuseness of the entire scientific community and indeed our modern human culture on this point. This blind spot is itself a much more interesting and even vital problem for us. This is why the Open SETI paradigm includes an exploration of the possibility that we have been and are still living in some sort of a colony.

Take for example the frequently-reported phenomenon of the "alien abduction", suggesting an activity that would make a great deal of sense in the context of humans as subjects of ET colonizers. Neither the orthodox SETI nor the SETV communities would touch this phenomenon, while Vallee and Davis are driven to suggest that these "absurd" events may be "merely iconical defense mechanisms deployed by the UAP to protect itself from the subject". I submit that this suggestion itself is absurd, and is an example of the illogical and irrational refusal to accept an abduction as an abduction and whatever that may imply. In fact it is so absurd as to make one wonder if it is not deliberately contrived.

Other aspects of the Open SETI paradigm, such as the views of Rhawn Joseph on evolutionary metamorphosis, would make for a more satisfying and ultimately more productive line of study.

In summary, Vallee's and Davis' paper gets mixed reviews from Open SETI. Calling for increased recognition of "physics of high strangeness" on the part of SETI and SETV, is useful. However the paper's characterization of those two camps may not be fully accurate. And finally, it completely fails to address the most pressing problem of the interaction of human and "ETI": the possibility that they may be our masters. One wonders if a deep unconscious recognition of this aspect is not itself the reason for avoiding it.

Open SETI Open SETI Assumptions and Paradigm Pulsars