Strange signals have been coming from the center of the Milky Way. Of course, we’ve had plenty of strange signals received by our varying apparatuses over many years — and new ones all the time — but this may be the first time it has not widely elicited the assumption or hopeful plausibility of being from an intelligent source. Why? Because it’s random.
The brightness of the object […] varies dramatically, by a factor of 100, and the signal switches on and off apparently at random … [T]he signal returned, but we found that the behavior of the source was dramatically different. The source disappeared in a single day, even though it had lasted for weeks in our previous ASKAP observations.
When I contributed computing power to the SETI project back in the 1990s (and a doubled electric bill to show for it), we were looking for repeated signals, such as perfectly spaced triplets. Individual bursts can be interesting, but easily attributed to some one-time phenomenon. Two does not make a pattern. But three evenly placed ones have, in our thinking, less likely natural explanations, or at least would be far less common in the constant role of the dice.
We acknowledge this outwardly by the transmission of signals bearing prime numbers. The hope is that extraterrestrial receivers will believe that the source must be intelligent because it demonstrates an understanding of mathematics that would not be perceived as random.
Or so goes out thinking. What if we have it backward? Time and again we get our hopes up over patterns from the heavens and yet all our natural phenomena can be recognized by having this or that particular pattern. When there is no pattern, there is not a discussion or even a raised eyebrow. We declare it “background noise” and move on to find the next notable pattern.
Science and mathematics have worked so hard to distinguish patterns. At some point, we can predict how a series of ripples can form a wave of a certain height and strength. We can write a formula that describes the flight patterns of a flock of birds or the swimming patterns of a school of fish. When we can’t make it out, we accuse such species of having some sort of collective intelligence.
As a beekeeper, I find no such thing in my little friends. They will follow their collective pattern of behavior based on instinctual individual rules. If you change their environment, they do NOT adapt. They build all kinds of crazy comb or do things that will endanger their survival. They literally do not “think” or problem-solve in any way. Only the slow march of Darwinism protects them.
To our limited minds, we don’t see a pattern in the minutiae of nature. The placement of shells on a beach are random. The clouds in the sky are random. And yet we strive toward predictability, and with collective genius can approach the patterns we do not otherwise see. Possibly due to prehistoric instincts developed long before the first philosophical though, we attribute nature to the realm of chaos. Science searches to find the Cosmos (order) within it.
But with more hubris than reason, we humans think of ourselves as orderly. Free will (or its appearance) throws stones into the already disturbed pond of human activity, yet we inflict our belief that our purposes and plans can subdue the very will of nature, human or otherwise. The more “advanced” we become, the more we lay out streets in grids, and our domiciles and other structures approach ideal specifications of Platonic solids. Ordo Ab Chao — order from chaos.
But maybe we aren’t that smart. Maybe we have it all wrong, where nature is order and intelligent will is chaos. Maybe more intelligent species communicate by the “background noise” of free-flowing signals — unmetered music and unstructured speech. Maybe it is some true randomness that distinguishes intelligent life from natural phenomena.
In other words, maybe we are looking in all the right places for all the wrong things. Perhaps there is a cacophony of intelligent discourse happening all around us and we’re just too dumb in our assumptions or unadvanced in our mental evolution to see it.