Searching for Alien Life
To the Editor:
Ethan Siegel’s article “Are We Alone in the Universe?” (June) reminds me that there are some unexamined assumptions regarding the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. The main one appears to be that other intelligent beings will discover and use the same technologies used by intelligent humans. Thus, we search the cosmos for their radio transmissions. That radio waves, or frequencies, are inevitable discoveries is not necessarily persuasive. Looking backward through our progress, it might seem that science is a series of inevitable discoveries and their practical exploitation. But an acquaintance with the history of the sciences raises some doubts.
Consider astronomy. Its evolution in Greek thought required both plane and conic geometry, a theory of ratio and proportion, and a long prehistory of carefully measured observations. The origins of those measurements, indeed of arithmetic and geometry, are shrouded in mystery.
Our earth has one moon and sun. Think of the heavens as seen from other planets and galaxies with vastly different celestial appearances. Would the same astronomy have evolved in those places? Would there be a “sphere of the fixed stars?”
Consider also Francis Bacon’s doctrine of science as a project devoted to “the mastery and possession of nature for the relief of man’s estate.” My point is that the evolution of the sciences is not isolated from civilizations and from fundamental questions raised by those civilizations and their reigning opinions.
To the Editor:
Ethan Siegel’s “Are We Alone in the Universe?” argues that if there were other technological civilizations in the universe, or certainly in the Milky Way, we should have found evidence of them by now. As we haven’t, they probably don’t exist.
But this is not so: The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program is based on certain assumptions of how such civilizations would communicate. A sufficient explanation for the failure to find the evidence sought is that the assumptions made by SETI are wrong; i.e., they’ve been looking in the wrong place.
Among the three transitions on earth that Siegel deems improbable are non-life to life, life to complex life, and advanced life to advanced technology. However, each of these reflects a change in the organization of matter that makes the subsequent ones more likely. None of these is guaranteed, but none is as unlikely as Siegel suggests.
But there is something else needed for us to find an extraterrestrial civilization: That civilization would itself have to be curious about outside contact. SETI is based on this assumption and that an extraterrestrial civilization would channel its curiosity in a particular way. Though we might think it likely that an advanced civilization would be curious about the existence of others, this transition isn’t guaranteed any more than the previous three.
Thirty years ago, there was no direct evidence of extra-solar planets. The argument Siegel makes for no technological civilizations could have been used then to infer that only our sun has planets. Then the first extra-solar planet was discovered, disproving any claim that they didn’t exist elsewhere. Siegel’s argument could be disproved in a similar fashion: It would take only one signal indicating the existence of another technological civilization.
Ethan Siegel writes:
There’s an old story about a drunk man leaving the bar, realizing that he’s lost his keys. He keeps looking underneath the same lamppost, even though it’s very obvious that his keys are not located there. A concerned citizen sees him and inquires, “Why do you keep searching for your keys under this lamppost?” The drunk responds, “Because that’s where the light is.”
To an extent, all experimental and observational scientists are guilty of this: We look where our tools and techniques enable us to look. While the search for extraterrestrial life, in the early days, was exclusively focused on listening for intelligent signals in the radio portion of the spectrum, that is no longer an accurate characterization of the search. Scientists are looking for a myriad of signals across the electromagnetic spectrum, including indirect signals such as solar-system modifications or correlated signals between star systems that were only mere imaginings years ago. If there are intelligent civilizations out there, we are looking in every way possible.
We are also looking for direct and indirect signs of life in general: bio-signatures (or, more accurately, bio-hints) that would be the result of organic processes seen from afar. We must remember that an absence of evidence in favor of life beyond earth is not the same as evidence for the absence of life beyond earth, and that’s why it’s important to keep an open mind. But it would be highly unscientific, in the absence of a robust (or even a likely) detection of simple life, complex life, or intelligent life beyond Earth, to make an estimate of anything other than upper limits on the likelihood of any of those occurrences. And even that we have to do responsibly. That is to say, within the limits of our current scientific and technological capabilities.
Anyone has the right to speculate as to what might be out there, but they must confront their speculations with the full suite of data that’s available. Right now, despite the occasional extraordinary claim to the contrary, all we have are null results.
How to Deal with Gaza
To the Editor:
Jonathan Schanzer’s excellent article “The Gaza Conundrum” (June) accurately documents the severe problems emanating from Gaza. The best alternative is simply the least bad. This means Israel’s doing what creates the fewest casualties and least pain and economic cost. The hostilities will end when the government in Gaza gives up hope of causing endless harm to the Jewish state.
Unless there is a new and compelling alternative, the following steps might be considered. The Israelis could notify the leaders and residents of Gaza that if rockets and fire balloons continue to harm Israel, a small amount of Gazan territory will be taken over, and kept, by Israel.
The territory should be adjacent to Israel and taken only after Israel has given the people of Gaza time to evacuate and has used artillery and/or tanks to destroy local buildings from a safe distance. Cameras on drones can assure that no living enemy is located in the area. A period of weeks may be needed to survey the rubble.
If rockets and fire balloons are still used against Israel, a second area should be selected and taken.
There are a couple of benefits to this approach. First, Israel will not have to commit ground troops to dangerous urban warfare. As buildings in Gaza would be destroyed from afar, Israeli soldiers would not have to be on the scene where they’d be subject to harm.
Residents would have the opportunity to relocate to other areas of Gaza. As these areas became more densely settled, it would create additional pressure on Hamas to stop firing on Israel.
Fort Lee, New Jersey
To the Editor:
Jonathan Schanzer’s “The Gaza Conundrum” perfectly illustrates why it’s a major mistake to trust the Palestinian leadership in “land for peace” deals. If Ariel Sharon had not disengaged from Gaza in 2005, it’s likely that the Gaza problem would be far more manageable today.
Schanzer accurately describes the challenges that Israel has faced since Hamas seized the reins of power in 2007 following the 2006 elections. Instead of using foreign aid to modernize Gaza, Hamas squanders it on advanced missiles and smaller armaments targeting Israel.
As long as Hamas rules Gaza with an iron fist, there will be no peace for Israel and no prosperity or security for the inhabitants of Gaza. There may be, however, a solution to the ongoing cycle of instability.
First, Israel could form a coalition of partners to interdict the flow of Iranian-funded weapons before they reach Hamas as well as Lebanon-based Hezbollah. Projecting strength is the only realistic pathway to peace.
Next, Israel could utilize sanctions against Hamas to dry up its revenues that are used for arms and tunnel development. The terrorist regime in Gaza must be squeezed until it capitulates, allowing for the reinstallment of a more moderate Fatah administration.
During this transition, economic aid to the Gazan populace could be implemented until a viable economy could be created and built to sustain itself. There might be a need for the IDF to provide security during this process, but an Israeli occupation would be unnecessary.
Christian P. Milord
Jonathan Schanzer writes:
The Gaza conundrum, among other things, stems from the fact that traditional or even creative military approaches don’t seem to work. Deterrence is difficult to establish when the terrorist group in question relishes the public-relations value of an Israeli strike. The ongoing chaos on the border is explicitly designed to generate sympathy for Hamas and outrage against Israel. And that’s before a shot is even fired. Thus, the pressure on Israel builds. The question of using public opinion against Hamas, as Arthur Horn raises, is an interesting one. We know from empirical reporting and even some polling data that the population is frustrated and disaffected. The question is whether that matters to Hamas. Until now, it certainly has not made the terrorist group accountable. Looking ahead, any viable Israel strategy should try to capitalize on how Hamas is reviled by the people it purports to govern.
The effort to dry up smuggling to Hamas, as mentioned by Christian P. Milord, has been incredibly effective since the 2012 rise to power of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt. El-Sisi’s disdain for Hamas, because of its Muslim Brotherhood roots and sympathies, arguably exceeds that of Israel. Egypt, over the last seven years, has thus destroyed the vast majority of tunnels connecting the Sinai Peninsula to the Gaza Strip. This has driven smuggling down in ways that Israel had never envisaged. Israel has no equivalent el-Sisi to its north, so halting Hezbollah smugglers is far more difficult. Sanctions on Hamas should be tougher, but Israel has held back because the terrorist group (just like its terror masters in Tehran) pass the financial pain down to the people. And, as noted in my piece, Israel has been trying to find a way to support the population while depriving Hamas. To be sure, this is not easy. If one country has shown an ability to find creative solutions under adverse conditions, it’s Israel. But it’s certainly taking its time getting there.
To the Editor:
Was Vasily Grossman the greatest writer of the past century? This question, which appears as a subtitle for Joseph Epstein’s “The Achievement of Vasily Grossman” (June) sounds too demanding. The short answer would be “No” for now—even among Russian-language writers of the last century. Most of what Grossman wrote before Life and Fate was in the mold of the Soviet propaganda machine, reluctant socialist realism. This includes the first part of the duology For the Right Cause, entitled Stalingrad in the English translation. It was damaged by editors, censors, and self-censorship.
Unfortunately, Vasily Grossman’s main book was not read by his audience in time. The Soviet authorities did not want to repeat the Doctor Zhivago mistake, which led to an international scandal. In 1961, the KGB officially “arrested” the Life and Fate manuscript. This meant, among other things, taking the writer hostage if the manuscript were to appear in the open press abroad. Grossman retaliated by writing Everything Flows. In the beginning of the 1980s, my friend and I photocopied Everything Flows from a manuscript that was smuggled into the Soviet Union from abroad. For us, it was a political pamphlet in the form of a fictional story. Because of this, the book’s more literary aspects went unnoticed—though Everything Flows is not up to the level of Life and Fate. Grossman’s work hastened the onset of the 1991 revolution, aiming a bullet at the heart of the system, which is still very much alive in different forms.
The jury is still out regarding Grossman’s legacy. Life and Fate touches on basic human and social issues, which are highlighted at one of the crucial turns of WWII. And other shorter pieces are certainly destined for continued rereading, although the power of Grossman’s Russian is lost in translation. Even though Grossman died more than half a century ago, his books are still weapons in the fight against the totalitarian legacy in Russia and elsewhere. He was one of the best Russian writers of the second half of the 20th century, and his influence persists into the 21st.
Grand Rapids, Nebraska
To the Editor:
Joseph Epstein’s interesting piece on Vasily Grossman contains a serious error. Referring to Stalingrad, he writes, “roughly 2 million Russians and 4 million Germans are said to have perished there.” Total losses of German military personnel during the entire war were estimated at 4.3 million. While the battle of Stalingrad was the first blow that contributed to the German loss on the Eastern Front, the number of German soldiers killed was in the vicinity of 250,000. Another 150,000 German soldiers were captured. The total Axis losses (killed, wounded, and captured) at Stalingrad and during the German attempt to break through to the city in January 1943 were estimated at between 650,000 to 850,000 servicemen. Total Soviet casualties at Stalingrad were more than 1.1 million soldiers, of whom less than half were killed.
Joseph Epstein writes:
I am grateful to Harry Lieber for correcting my error.