History shows that the scientific method doesn’t develop in a vacuum. It sometimes advances viewpoints at odds with an empirical understanding of the cosmos. In this respect, the Einstellung effect applies to the advancement of science because the persistence of previous experience may prevent finding a better idea or solution. The ancient Greek Aristarchus of Samos, for example, relayed the earliest description of our heliocentric system—the sun as the center of the universe. However, those principles remained marginalized for thousands of years until Copernicus distributed a brief sketch, the Commentariolus, launching the first steps of the impending revolution in astronomical sciences.
Right now, any conversations about the potential connections between the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) and quantum science and engineering tend to be volatile and polarizing. Sahba El-Shawa and I discussed at length some misconceptions.
“There’s so much overlap between the big questions in the fields of space, SETI, and quantum science, that’s fascinating to me. But this primary connection between defense and space is a huge issue, because it keeps a lot of people out of the field. Second, the biggest hurdle is the fact that ideas that aren't so integrated into the mainstream are kind of shunned by the scientific and engineering community. If you want to explore these topics, it’s almost at the expense of being taken seriously. That’s definitely one of the factors that hold us back. All these quantum phenomena, which we’re still in the process of understanding, could lead to more advanced technologies and advancements in other fields, as seen in quantum biology.”
The application of quantum science and engineering to biology, materials, and astronomy is becoming increasingly relevant. The recently announced collaboration between Zapata Computing and the University of Hall in the United Kingdom is a concrete example of new developments underway for SETI. Researchers seek to leverage quantum computing to detect biosignatures in deep space.
“Realistically, it’s very likely that within our lifetime we will not see the outcomes of work when asking these big questions about our universe and minds. But every contribution that anyone makes along the way is feeding into this bigger picture on behalf of all of humanity. SETI and these topics might not impact my personal life directly, but in the long run, we’re laying the building blocks for the people that come after us to continue that work. I’m sure that if we keep doing this, eventually we’ll reach a point where we will understand.”
Despite these exciting developments, it’s important to remember that no real breakthroughs develop in a knowledge vacuum. The communities that inform, enrich, and expand across disciplines can either propel our curiosity to new heights or stunt them. This paradigm also applies to how professionals enter the space workforce and what they choose to pursue. For example, Sahba developed an inner conviction early on, defying perceived limitations and expectations. This inner conviction tapped into early dreams and motivated her as she pushed through any perceived setbacks in her professional journey.
She remembered the following:
“I was a bit obsessed with the Moon and understanding how the human mind worked in high school. I ended up going into mechatronics engineering at my university in Jordan, because space robotics is cool. After I immigrated to Canada, some of my university credits weren’t transferred, but I was able to get involved with student engineering teams working on a cubesat and a suborbital rocket. For me, that felt like the first time I could start getting involved in the space industry. In the last year of my undergraduate studies in Canada, the German Aerospace Center (DLR), which had been my dream to work with since high school, started a partnership with the university. In retrospect, it was ultimately fortunate that some of my university credits weren’t transferred from Jordan, because this is how I actually got to work with the DLR on the first two projects with them.
Much later, I still wasn’t able to work in the space industry. There were still many barriers to entry due to how tightly the defense sector is coupled with space, and I had not yet lived in Canada long enough to obtain the required security clearance. Only years later, when the conversation about going to the Moon picked up again, I felt this push that I couldn’t put it off anymore. I started learning about different interpretations of the measurement problem and quantum physics, so when I decided to undertake more studies at the International Space University, I realized how huge of an impact quantum physics will have on SETI.”
With robust instrumentation and new technologies in development, I suspect that we will continue to be pleasantly surprised. Likewise, I trust that we will continue to discover new quantum applications to search for alien life. Thus, the joint pursuit of quantum science and SETI might become less niche after all.
Stream of consciousness [photos]
I have a particular interest in open rooftop parking garages that overlook skyscrapers. This seemingly “unintentional” futuristic design with columns and glass windows was fascinating to me. However, I decided not to crop out the car and the shopping carts for a reason: humanity will need to adapt to almost everything in space.
Empty parking lots are perfect scenarios for sci-fi aesthetics and SETI.