SETI's Demise Is Not the End of the Search for Alien Life

The SETI Institute always sparked my imagination, fueling the hope that someday the people of Earth might discover that they are not alone in the universe.  So it is with sadness that I learned that the research group whose name stands for the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence will be shutting down its massive Allen Telescope Array in California due to funding cutbacks.  Those iconic giant telescopes will scour the skies no more.  Their mission to listen for radio transmissions from deep space with the goal of discovering intelligent alien civilizations will be left incomplete because of insufficient money to pay for day-to-day operating costs.

Critics have argued that the entire concept of looking for non-natural electromagnetic transmissions is a far-fetched assumption for evidence of intelligent alien life, another example of human hubris and the belief that any possible lifeforms in outer space would be like us and follow our path of technological evolution.  Yet, the mere possibility that those antenna might be able to pick up those signals if they exist is sufficient justification for some to support the program. 

Then there are others who feel the project is a waste of time and money.  Their argument is that years and years of similar research have had no positive results (except for the infamous, brief but strong, "WOW signal" of 1977 in Ohio that was never heard again or sufficiently verified as any positive proof of intelligent origin).  The process of detecting EMTs in the vastness of space, and then determining if they originate from natural causes or something that could only come from an intelligent species, is a daunting, monumental task. I would imagine it is like finding a needle in a haystack. 

Another critique is that with 90 percent of Earth's own oceans unexplored, why spend money exploring space?  This condemnation is misguided -- shouldn't we be studying and exploring both?  Some do not want government money supporting such projects without a clear, justifiable, overwhelming return on the investment, but the funding for SETI's ATA lately has been from mostly private sources, and the elimination of most of the financial support from the National Science Foundation was too much to make up elsewhere.

The timing is unfortunate as new planets are being discovered in the so-called "Goldilocks Zone" of other solar systems (where conditions are just right to possibly support life as we know it).  Those would have been the perfect coordinates to aim those mega-sized dishes and listen for a while.

The optimist in me hopes that this shutdown is only temporary, and maybe it might serve a beneficial purpose, forcing scientists, astronomers, entrepreneurs, investors, and curious civilians to find ways to make such research fiscally sustainable, and also to question whether the methods we have been using to seek other lifeforms are the most effective.  Another thought is, if intelligent species are indeed out there somewhere, they just might discover us first, but with the immense distance of space, would there be time or even practical ways for us to find out or do anything about it?


Mike said…
Sorry, I can't justify keeping those telescopes going when people are really hurting here on earth. Like you, I hope the shutdown is temporary until our economy, our government, and our citizens get back on their feet.