There was an article in the Charlotte Observer about a controversy concerning the SETI program (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). Should we keep on just passively listening to the universe for some signal from another intelligent life form, or should we actively beam our own signals hoping to get somebody’s attention out there? Do we seek wisdom from those more advanced? Do we risk alerting the vicious Klingons to our presence? The debate is lively.
Are we alone in the universe? is certainly among the Top Ten Ultimate Questions. Many think we cannot possibly be alone, based on sheer overwhelming statistical probability, and given the obvious universal similarities of the solar system formation processes, which inevitably create uncountable systems much like our own, wheeling around other stars.
But what good would incoming radio signals have been to us over well more than 99 percent of humankind’s radio-receiver-less history on this planet? Incoming messages would have also gone utterly unnoticed over the millions of years the dinosaurs ruled the earth before us. So any of our signals that happen to reach other planets inhabited by similar primitive creatures will also go unnoticed.
To either listen or transmit with any practicality, we’ll have to target planets that lie within reasonable reach of radio waves, which travel at light speed. The vast majority of stars are thousands, millions, and billions of light years distant. (A single light year is six trillion miles.) Our earth will be long gone, or at least long-since uninhabitable by the time any signals we send can even reach most of those stars. Our sun only has a life expectancy of some four billion more years, so systems lying any more than half that distance away (two billion light years) have no chance of receiving our signals and responding in time for anybody left on earth to hear them. And our signals must reach an alien civilization at a moment in their likely equally lengthy history when they’ve developed the ability to not only receive but also to interpret those signals. The odds are long.
But the unarguable, dead-certain fact remains that if we don’t find a young habitable planet circling a young star that we can reach one day, even if each colonizing voyage spans generations*, then everything we’ve worked and suffered to achieve, all our myriad accomplishments—our books and paintings and philosophies and inventions and self-knowledge—will be utterly lost to the rest of the inhabited universe. In that case it will be highly probable nobody out there will ever know we even existed.
Viewed in that light, what more important effort could there be to help ensure the far future of mankind than a vigorous fledgling space program in all its aspects, including SETI?
As writers, we can speak for and encourage that effort.
Many decry the cost of venturing into space.
I submit that the cost is a pittance compared with what we spend—and what we waste—in so many other areas. The news recently mentioned, sort of in passing, that the Pentagon in its ponderous wisdom has apparently misplaced a half-billion dollars in advanced weaponry in, of all places, Yemen, that hotbed of terrorism. To put that in perspective, a half-billion dollars in $100 bills would weigh five tons, a pretty good load for a common dump truck, but only another line item in the massive Federal budget.
If we can afford that kind of cavalier (not to mention dangerous) waste, surly we can afford to fund a program that at least has the glimmer of a chance to elevate and perhaps even to ultimately perpetuate our species.
But wait, even as I write this, there’s good news that the Russian billionaire Yuri Milner has just donated $100 million to UC Berkeley to fund SETI for a decade, broadening the search over much more of the sky and over a wider swath of the electromagnetic spectrum, looking for life among the closest stars to us under a new breakthrough initiative that will be open to the public. Any of us will be able to track the data via a screen saver called SETI@home. SETI has more than six million followers already.
Some ten percent of the suns in our own Milky Way galaxy are now thought to have earth-like planets, of similar size to our sphere and in an orbit where water is liquid, so the odds of finding other life out there are looking better than ever before.
Famed cosmologist Stephen Hawking was on hand to take part in the generous funding announcement. He said of the revitalized search, “We are life. We are intelligent. We must know.”
*I saw an excellent IMAX documentary about the almost impossibly long and dangerous annual migratory journey of the fragile monarch butterfly, which spans thousands of miles and three of their butterfly generations. Maybe we’ll take a lesson from this tiny creature when we finally launch some courageous pioneers to the stars.