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SETI is Alive, Not Well August 9, 2011

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.

I grew up on a steady, self-imposed diet of Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Larry Niven, and a host of other writers in what might be called the golden age of science fiction (including Philip K. Dick, who wrote a short story that became the recent and strangely compelling movie “The Adjustment Bureau”).  Like many youth, I dreamed of reaching the stars and exploring the unknown of space.

As a young adult in the late 1980s, I had the opportunity to visit the famous radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, an event that I still recall with fondness today.

Arecibo has been one of the principal locations associated with the decades-long Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI.  A James Gunn novel that I read in high school romanticized an early fictional search for life in space centered on the Arecibo Observatory.

SETI is a quixotic quest to find evidence of intelligent extraterrestrial life in the universe.  It is quixotic because it has a very specific goal that will never be accomplished unless it finds that life (after all, you can never prove that it doesn’t exist).  Plus, it is pure curiosity, as opposed to some sort of directed scientific experiment with a result that can advance knowledge in the traditional sense.

It turns out that the principal SETI facility, the Allen Telescope Array (yes, Paul Allen), was shut down earlier this year after running out of money.  It was only through a crowd funding effort in Silicon Valley that the SETI Institute has been able raise $200,000 to restart it.  Donations came from the likes of Larry Niven, Jodie Foster (who starred in the movie “Contact”), and former astronaut Bill Anders.  However, future funding is uncertain.

It’s also worthwhile noting that the Arecibo Observatory, owned by the US Government, has projected future funding that will require it to shut down in the near future.  Come the new US fiscal year, it will no longer be considered a Federally Funded Research Institution.

I recognize that there are plenty of worthy things on which to spend public money, but SETI tries to answer a fundamental question of our existence – Are We Alone?  We as individuals don’t need to know the answer to that to survive until tomorrow, but we as a civilization may well require that knowledge to fulfill our potential.

I called the SETI quest quixotic, but I didn’t mean that in a futile way.  One of the tenets of Larry Niven’s sci-fi novels was that curiosity is a survival trait.  He meant it both individually and as a society (and species).  Some things are larger than ourselves and our individual concerns.  I think this is one of them.



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