As a fan of the movie Contact and a general enthusiast for anything space-related, I was especially excited to hear Jill Tarter speak at Common Hour Thursday. Tarter is one of the most well-known extraterrestrial astronomers and public faces of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), and her talk did not personally disappoint; instead it was an invitation to change your perspective on extraterrestrial life as a way to understand the importance of what SETI is doing. When you believe in the existence of extraterrestrials, as I do, you encounter a decent amount of skepticism and resistance. Some people don’t see the logic behind it; others reject the idea on religious or personal grounds. The most frustrating critics, though, are those who think the search for these extraterrestrials is useless, and organizations like SETI shouldn’t even exist.
Many American taxpayers are just concerned their tax dollars are going towards looking for aliens. The good news for them is SETI is a completely private endeavor, funded only by private donations.
The organization needs to engage with the public to survive, as it cannot continue the search without external support. For those who support the cause yet do not wish to donate, Tarter mentioned SETI Live, the online tool that uses the power of crowdsourcing to analyze some of the many thousands of signals received every day. Even when you aren’t using your computer, you can still help out with SETI@home. SETI@home is a program that links your computer to the SETI receivers and uses your machine as part of a giant virtual supercomputer that processes the incoming signals.
It is this devotion to the cause that has taken SETI this far. It is the same dedication and fervor that is used to research cancer or solve the energy crisis, and yet the search for extraterrestrial intelligence has not gained the same legitimacy as these fields. Perhaps it is because the idea of searching seems ridiculous and laughable, or the critics would rather the time and money go towards fixing the “real” problems. It is this thinking that exposes the hypocrisy of American spending.
No one bats an eye when we wastefully spend money on luxury items. It is expected of people to give to their religious institutions out of faith and goodwill. So how is the belief in extraterrestrial life any different? Jill Tarter presented us with an unimaginable number of stars and planets in the observable universe, and even if there is a one in a million chance of finding life in space, the probability of success is still promising.
If nothing else, the search itself is a profitable venture. The SETI Project has spawned many technological advances as a side effect of the search. Breakthroughs in cryptography and encryption, radio electronics, satellite technology, optics, and data processing have all resulted from SETI’s continued efforts to improve its capabilities. Even though we haven’t found extraterrestrials in the 29 years SETI has existed, the benefits that come from its mission have helped the world in ways that have gone unappreciated by many of its detractors.
Searching for extraterrestrial intelligence also opens up discussions of philosophical and ethical issues that help humanity define itself in the grand scale of the universe. Tarter quoted the scientist Phil Morrison, who said that “SETI is the archeology of the future.” We will not only be able to decipher an alien past, but gain insight into our future. It would prove that we are not destined to destroy ourselves, and that contact between worlds is possible. Even if our space expeditions find evidence of less-advanced life, like microbes on an asteroid or primitive organisms in the oceans of an alien moon, our understanding of ourselves as living things would be called into question. The revolution in thinking would overturn ideas of biology, chemistry, theology, and philosophy. Proving that we are not alone would change our whole comprehension of life and, as Tarter suggested, unite humanity under one common identity.
SETI’s cause is not only vital for the advancement of science and technology but for the human spirit. If you cannot give your money, give your time or your computer. Spread the word. There is nothing wrong with faith in extraterrestrial intelligence. In fact, it may be more likely than we think.
Questions? Email Sean at firstname.lastname@example.org.