SETI, Really?


As you may have heard, SETI is in trouble.

Funding cutbacks on a state and federal level have forced the Allen Telescope Array -- SETI's new homebase, actually just a part of the U.C. Berkeley's Hat Creek Radio Observatory (HCRO) -- into indefinite hibernation. With U.C. Berkeley losing ninety percent of its NSF University Radio Observatory money this year, and the growing California budget shortfalls, the hunt for extraterrestrial life has simply, and pragmatically, fallen by the wayside.

This financial deficit particularly smarts because the Allen Telescope Array was just about to undertake radio observation of the many exoplanets discovered by the Kepler mission, which are the most exciting thing to happen in the field since Carl Sagan. This is the first time in human history where we have a shot at discovering extraterrestrial life; we've been scanning the universe since Frank Drake first pointed radio telescope to sky in 1960, but now we know where to look. Lovable SETI mouthpiece Seth Shostak, in a article for the Huffington Post, compared the timing of this powering down of the Allen Array to putting the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria back into their dry-docks.

It feels like the ultimate redundancy to go on a tirade here about the importance of SETI research, since basically all my posts are about "our place in the Universe" and "the meaning of life," but I will throw my pennies into the void anyway. SETI is a philosophical position as much as it is a scientific quest. Regardless of whether or not there is life elsewhere in the universe, or whether or not that life is technologically advanced enough (or nearby enough) to have a valuable conversation with, the hunt has a value that transcends its ostensible end goals. Simply by looking, we're making a stance against human chauvinism, acknowledging the possibility that Genesis wasn't just the privilege of planet Earth but rather a cosmic possibility. It's the ultimate statement of humility, and a very concrete reminder of our insignificance. And let's be honest: as a species, we need constant reminding of our insignificance.

If we can't get ourselves together to agree on the importance of SETI -- or to pay for scientific research of any kind, it seems -- perhaps we aren't quite ready, as a species, to undertake the search. But I'd rather think we are. As Shostak notes, "we can never prove that we're alone in the universe. But the Allen Telescope Array could prove that we're not." And that would do us a lot of good.

Donate money to SETI if you can!

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I feel this, hard and sadly.

As with anything that doesn't have a profit margin, we need some unbalanced fo' free individuals to be seeking while they are tweaking. I could go for some legislature that grants seekers embassy privilege.

By Ryan Harackiewicz (not verified) on 01 May 2011 #permalink

Sad and mad actually. I tipped them a few dollars as well. But looks like those that care enough are not enough. Really sad.

SETI is so comparatively cheap by the standards of such things, that it is 'worth it', I feel, even though the chance of hearing anything is small -- because if we did, the implications are huge ...

I have a feeling that traditional SETI is not in fact the best way to look, however, as I see little reason to think that anybody would purposely transmit (I doubt a rational species would want to make itself any more visible than it had to, since it couldn't know there weren't more advanced hostile species around). Looking for megastructures, astroengineering, the flares of relativistic engines would probably be the best bet.

(Personally, I lean toward 'nobody advanced enough to detect in the Galaxy', but...)

By intercostal (not verified) on 02 May 2011 #permalink

I agree with your philosophical position as to the importance of SETI. 3 hours ago today the space shuttle Endeavour's launch, the second to last mission ever for the program, was delayed once again due to failure of its auxiliary power box. Bush signed off on all of NASA's funding for the next 30 years, but now the Ares/Orion planning for establishing a moonbase/launchpad for Mars is presently transforming due to the influence and emergence of what some are calling a "private space industry." While NASA's future, as well as SETI's, is looking pretty grim, the "Church of Progress" is receiving all scientific donations to the furthering of artificial introspection with the 17 miles long Hadron Collider in Geneva. The concordance of these two events can be recognized not as coincidence, but as correlation. We aren't so much interested as pushing outward nowadays, but moving inward, trying to discover some thing so basic and essential that it re-defines everything. Is this the scientific mind's God particle delusion? Or perhaps, it is, that looking out and looking in are conceived as oppositional, not referential to one another, and is in fact, potentially, in some hearts and minds, the same movement..?

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