Monument Beacons of SETI

Centauri Dreams:

The Benfords — Jim at Microwave Sciences, Gregory at the University of California’s Irvine campus, and Dominic (Jim’s son) at NASA GSFC — believe that advanced societies, if they are to be found, ought most likely to exist toward the galactic center, and probably at distances of over a thousand light years. We’re thus talking, in all likelihood, about interstellar beacons rather than targeted transmissions when it comes to SETI. And if beacons are indeed at play, what can we say about their costs, and do our own standards of terrestrial cost have any application in an ETI context?

The message here is that any SETI search has to make assumptions about the beacon builders, and if we can determine something about the economics of the situation, we may learn how to target our searches more effectively. Here’s the essence of the argument about ETI:

We assume that if they are social beings interested in a SETI conversation or passing on their heritage, they will know about tradeoffs between social goods, and thus, in whatever guise it takes, cost. But what if we suppose, for example, that aliens have very low cost labor, i. e., slaves? With a finite number of slaves, you can use them to do a finite number of tasks. And so you pick and choose by assigning value to the tasks, balancing the equivalent value of the labor used to prosecute those tasks. So choices are still made on the basis of available labor. The only case where labor has no value is where labor has no limit. That might be if aliens may live forever or have limitless armies of self-replicating automata, but such labor costs something, because resources, materials and energy, are not free.

Our point is that all SETI search strategies must assume something about the beacon builder, and that cost may drive some alien attempts at interstellar communication.

SETI always seems to come with a built-in willingness to think the best of extraterrestrial cultures. If an alien civilization is sending out a message, it must be doing so out of altruism. The Benfords, though, are interested in exploring motivations from a different angle. They’d like to relate them to the only case of a technological civilization we know of, ourselves, and speculate based on human history. From that perspective, there are two reasons for sending out messages across vast time scales.

Think about what people do. You can go to the Tower of London and explore the chambers where famous prisoners like Thomas More were kept. Invariably, on the walls, you’ll find graffiti, names written into the stone. People have an apparently robust need to engage in one-way communication, putting a note in a bottle and throwing it. Indeed, the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft are examples of the impulse. Is it likely that any of these tiny vessels will ever be intercepted? Yet putting our names, our stories, our music and our pictures on board outgoing vehicles is a method that resonates. We have a need to encapsulate who we are.

A second reason is the drive to communicate the optimum things about our culture, what Matthew Arnold called “…the best that has been thought and said in the world.” Here the Benfords cite time capsules and monuments as examples of our need to propagate our culture. The contemplation of a legacy is involved here, especially in a scenario where human lifetimes are rising. Here again the communication can be one-way. The statue of King Alfred my wife and I admired in Winchester some years back was not built to impress people within a tight time frame, but to stand as a monument that would reach future generations.

So imagine scenarios like this: A civilization with an ability to plan over millennial time scales foresees problems that are beyond its capabilities. A SETI beacon might encapsulate a call for information and help — send us everything you have on stellar warming…

Here’s another: A civilization in its death throes decides to send out an announcement of its existence. We were here and are no longer, but as long as this message endures, so in a sense do we. And let’s not discount sheer pride of the sort that could keep a beacon in operation long after the beings that built it were gone. Robotically maintained, it might boast of achievements set against the backdrop of the ruin that may eventually attend all technological cultures. Or perhaps we’ll run into interstellar proselytes, out to convert the galaxy to a particular set of beliefs by placing their highest values into their outgoing signal.


I’m glad that finally somebody in mainstream SETI studies have proposed something different to think about when it comes to listening to, or broadcasting signals.

While I feel SETI should do more than just do the radio thing and look for possible Bracewell Probe signals, the Benford Clan at least looked outside the box.


The Monument Beacon theory sounds good, but something else should be added onto that.

If a suspected source is found, perhaps we should train all of our available listening, optical, and any other measuring devices we can muster to locate a Transcension Fossil in its general direction.

Yeah I know, semi-religious technorapture crap and such an object would be hard to find, even if the broadcast signal was strong enough.

But if we were lucky enough to intercept a Beacon in the first place, why not trace it back to the source to see if such things as Technological Singularities take place?

It could explain the Fermi Paradox.

And give us a clue to our ultimate fate possibly.

SETI: Figuring Out The Beacon Builders


17 responses

  1. A few corrections if I may…

    1. Advanced societies would have a hard time existing close to the galactic center. Just like there are habitable zones in solar systems which balance the radiation from a star (that is light and heat) and are in a relatively steady orbit, galaxies have habitable belts too. Too close to the highly active galactic center and you’ll have planets being roasted by radiation, GRBs and so on. If anything, advanced aliens are probably in the same belt as we are, they just evolved a few million years earlier.

    2. SETI doesn’t always assume that the intentions of an alien race are noble. In fact, Seth Shostak is often on TV specials saying that it’s more likely that aliens will just come from the sky and blow us away than come to give away stellar goodies (I have a post about that btw… pardon the shameless plug).

    3. It’s very difficult to make accurate assumptions about alien culture based on human history. Aliens will come from different backgrounds, have different experiences, ideas and traditions. Guessing about their cultures is just that, a random WAG.

  2. Advanced societies would have a hard time existing close to the galactic center…

    Possibly, if it was carbon based.

    But what if they were silicon or even some kind of metal ( not necessarily artificial ) ?

    Our definition of life is severely limited, due to lack of a larger sample.

    Which plays into your third statement concerning accurate assessments about aliens, and I agree.

    But the Benfords freely admit using the only sample available, us, as the template for their thesis, and I can’t fault them for that.

    However, like you said, anthropocentrism can never be an accurate measure of ETI thinking and motivations.

    My point is if Monument Beacons exist, could they be the result of civilizations experiencing a Technological Singularity?

    We’ll never know unless we are actually lucky enough to intercept one.

    BTW, I read the post you’re referring to.

    I love snark!

  3. Metallic life forms would be very rigid and couldn’t move as easily as carbon based life. So while silicon and some metallic isotopes could become the base of alien living things, it’s more likely that carbon or a 50/50 carbon and silicon bond would be the primary mechanism for mobile living things because carbon is much more abundant in the universe and forms flexible bonds very readily.

  4. Looking over the Wikipedia article provided by the jarhead, I like the alternative where other intelligences simply aren’t interested in hanging with a basket-case civilization like ours. It fits in with my theological training, too, where Earth is declared off-limits until God ‘sorts her out.’

    I mean, c’mon… just LOOK at us! Look at our economy… our politics, sociology, our late-night programming… WHO in their right mind would want to associate with US? I’m serious! Think about it… really think about it!

    We are incredibly vain and self-absorbed to think that the universe is tripping over themselves and each other to get to us. That everyone’s trying to communicate with us, or, waiting, just to hear of our existence… gimmee a break! More likely, there’s a picture of Earth (wearing a dunce cap) in an alien bar, somewhere, with darts sticking out of it!

    I’m reminded of an old joke where some professor is telling his young son that all of the other galaxies in the universe are speeding AWAY from us. The kid asks: “Why… they know something?”

    They sure as hell do!

  5. Case in point.

    I rest my case.

  6. I don’t know what kind of a trip your taking in your truck, but I’d sure like to ride along sometime. It must be smoking like the old van in the Cheech & Chong movie…

    Cheers … 😆

  7. Yeah… well, today, I went to worship God… or, at least, visit with Him, and got into a theological discussion with a fellow Christian about… well… things spiritual. The result was not what one would expect, along the lines of mutual understanding and cohesive fellowship. It’s apparent to me, now, that there are (at least) a thousand ways of looking at anything, nowadays, and with that basis in fact, there can be no right or wrong way to look at anything… only perspective.

    Incredulous and mystified, I had to walk away from a situation that might have entailed me having to lay my hands upon this man in a way that reflects neither the conventional evangelical manner of benediction, or Christian deportment.

    I’m thinking… why do I even bother? After all, we come from apes, and what’s wrong with that? Furthermore, what’s wrong with killing other apes and just taking what we want? There is no right or wrong, and definitely no God, so what are we whining about? I can give in to my urges, now, primal as they are. That cutie next door? So what, if she’s someone’s wife? I’ll take care of her! I’ll take good care of his car and house, too! Don’t need the kids, I’ll just kill them. (Hell, lions do it, all the time!)

    So what, if the politicians are crooks… I’ll be a bigger one! They’re only fulfilling their genetic programming, instilled by quadzillions of years of mudskipping and plankton-guzzling, and are merely achieving their evolutionary mandate & potential. They are now declaring their emancipation from the trees, and joining the predators on the ground, killing, eating, and fucking their way up the food chain, so that they can eventually join their star-cousins, out there, and ‘Von Daniken’ their way around the universe, further complicating an already complicated myriad of possible explanations as to just what primal pool of pee we ultimately came from, and begin the cycle again. After all, we only have x number of years before the universe contracts, and squashes the octopi-like remnants of our race into K-Y Jelly! With each contraction of this eternal pulsation, we can realize something akin to the Hindu belief (which nobody questions… only Christianity) that we have possibly worked ourselves a little closer to some Utopian concept of perfection.

    The spiritual, HUMAN thing is out, in favor of the artificial, sterile… lifeless. The hopeless attempt to attach any form of order or morality to ‘society’ is universal… rediculous, as is the concept of good and evil ever having a place in the land of fang and claw. ANYTHING, however, is preferable to something smacking of intelligent design, overall. Even men marrying each other makes more sense than believing in God and morality! Even mating with animals is merely another avenue of expression… just don’t do it in front of the kids!

    So, after a fruitless encounter, today, with a so-called enlightened ‘brother’, in, of all places, an alley behind the church, I am now fully convinced that there is now more than one direction that you can fall, if you should happen to obey some urge to step off of a cliff. Just falling DOWN isn’t good enough, now UP and SIDE-WAYS is hip, too, possibly mandatory, needing only congressional approval… certainly, needing only the blessing of science and/or Al Gore. Anyway, I do stand corrected.

    I have adopted the philosophy of “Mutt”… now.

  8. The lack of patience in our dealing with our fellow man is a sign of the failure of our Christianity to the world and to the Saints, for we are taught to “be patient toward all men” (1Thessalonians 5:14)

    You better get some brother!

    You rant that your fellow SDA doesn’t share the views you expect him to share, and you wonder why people have issues with Christianity and their supposed “inside knowledge of the whole Truth?”

    You’re smarter than this HW, you can’t let your emotions and lack of patience cloud your judgement.

    If you wish to make your words valid, live them as deeds.

    Otherwise, your words are just rants, as others who proclaim all religions are bunk and the law of the jungle rules!

    And yes, I laid the smack-down on ya tough guy, straighten the hell up!

  9. “You’re smarter than this HW, you can’t let your emotions and lack of patience cloud your judgement.”

    Speaking of which…

  10. Okay, I know you’ve talked to people who insulted God and talked smack and Richard Dawkins is dogmatic as any religious person, I realize this.

    If God is God, why would he/she/it care?

    Look, I know your temper and you’re probably mad and hurt from what I said, and I’m not sticking up for people like Dawkins, who’s just as blind as anyone else, but you were surprised that somebody from your own church didn’t agree with you and you got mad.

    It doesn’t matter that you talked to infidels for thirty years and listened to them insult God and praise the “god” of science, the job of the Christian according to Scripture is to take up the Cross and follow…

    But that’s the issue I had when I broke away those same thirty years ago, Scripture can be interpreted many ways and people can argue that their view is the “right” way.

    I’m finding there is no “right” way, other than the path one has chosen.

    Might I suggest a little more “honey” than a baseball bat approach?

    Besides, the guy couldn’t have been too bright anyways, meeting with you behind the church in an alley!

    I damn sure wouldn’t do it! 😉

  11. 😆

    First off, Marine… the guy isn’t a fellow SDA, he’s a ‘freelancer/evangelical’. (My term.) And, a good friend, too. We do spar often, though! (He’s a driver, too!)

    Second… I was a tad taken back, but not hurt, ’cause I know you don’t take shit, either. Perhaps, though, I do take my friends a little too much for granted, eh?

    You’re right about the honey, though. Advice taken.

    See you in a week, Jarhead!


  12. First off, Marine… the guy isn’t a fellow SDA, he’s a ‘freelancer/evangelical’. (My term.) And, a good friend, too. We do spar often, though! (He’s a driver, too!)

    That clears it up, and that’s what I get for being an asshole assumer! ( happens to me all the time, character flaw I guess )

    Have a safe week my friend and don’t run anyone over! 😆

  13. […] something from Crowlspace that should’ve been in my recent SETI post: A ~ 10-metre object on a heliocentric orbit, now catalogued as 1991 VG, made a close approach to […]

  14. bruceleeeooowwe | Reply

    I think gfish is new to speculating life forms and he is not programmed to think that much possibilities of life forms. Well, I dislike him. He can’t hear anything going against his arguments. He thinks he is running a self hosted popular Blog and that means he is a correct encyclopedia of thoughts.
    but I think he is totally wrong. Yesterday I left a comment on his fuzzy weird things post named microbes key to life…bla bla…. but what response I received wap quite naive minded.
    Your mind is programmed to think only that way you have said already just as a calculater always respond 4 for 2+2, no matter how far you do in time dimension.
    Who is saying Diamond is alive? Graphite is another allotrope of carbon and soft enough and due to sp2 hybridization. So what matters is arrangement of atoms. That’s why I find it odd when you keep saying metal based life could be possible because it would be rigid and not be agile. Metal is hard and tough at NTP not at all conditions and this is not carbon which make us alive. Carbon has a high catenation property which make it capable of forming complex molecules. Metals could show such properties under right condition. Remember spider’s web,just another carbon based material, about 50 times more stronger than steel. So it is not hard to imagine a agile metal based life forms. Chemistry is based on observation. We can’t predict whether it would act in same manner as we expect.

    The italic text is comment which he has deleted. so what do you think? HE is your old friend?

    1. Maybe he just misunderstood you Bruce, you do tend to ramble at times. 😆

      Yeah, Greg is an Orthodox Empirical Thinker where black is black and seeing and touching is the only proof needed, but he ain’t a bad guy.

      I think growing up in the old USSR might have something to do with his rather ‘rigid’ thinking at times.

  15. 😆

    I (sometimes) like these trips down memory lane. I look at my comments and think; “I wrote that?” And, all this talk of empirical thinking reminds me of science’s demands that any evidence be testable, observable… in other words, visible and touchable. Some of the most rigid and dogmatic people I’ve dealt with thought themselves quite compliant and open-minded. Myself, I’m rigid where I have to be, and there are places where rigidity is a good thing… ‘ahem’. 😉

    I’m waiting patiently for you all to come around to the eventuality I know that you must come to. Dad knows I was once of this cloth, then I tripped over a shortcut that shaved a few years off of having to wander in the wilderness. No credit to myself for being exceptionally brilliant, I just seemed to ‘luck out’, as it were. (Actually, I don’t believe in luck.)

    As for carbon being the ‘observed’ blueprint for life as we know it, who am I to argue with the Creator on His choice of that over, say, diamond? Or iron? I figure His choice worked out pretty good, we’re all here, aren’t we? Why complicate life any more than it already is?

    I know, I know… remember where you came from, HW, the old jarhead would tell me…


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