Is SETI worth it?

In recent weeks, SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, has been all over the news and the intertubes. This was because of the SETI Institute being forced to shut down its research at the Allen Telescope Array due to a lack of funds.

Front view of antennas of the Allen Telescope Array
Front view of antennas of the Allen Telescope Array, being built by the University of California at Berkeley, outside San Francisco. The first phase, consisting of 42 6-metre dish antennas shown here, was completed in 2007. Eventually it will have 350 antennas. (Photo by Colby Gutierrez-Kraybill, via Wikimedia Commons)
But is this shut down, or “hibernation” as they’re calling it, a good thing or a bad thing? Is SETI worth the time and effort, not to mention the funds, to keep going?

On the “nay” side, it’s extremely unlikely we’re going to hear anything. After all, we’re not talking about picking up the equivalent ordinary radio or television broadcasts: this would have to be a message deliberately beamed in our direction. So it assumes an intelligent civilisation in our nearby galactic neighbourhood (out to about 1000 light years), sending a message at just the right frequency the precise moment we’re pointing our telescopes at them.

Now, the only “intelligent civilisation” in the galaxy that we know of is, well, us. And we generally seem to agree that sending messages out into space isn’t a good idea (or at least, that’s what Stephen Hawking says). So why should we expect someone else to be doing it?

Normally when you have a scientific hypothesis that’s so theoretically unlikely, and hasn’t shown a positive result in over 50 years of experiments, then you’d say that it’s time to give up. Especially when there is so much other good science on which to spend your money and effort.

But on the other hand, the amount of money required really isn’t that much compared to other things humans spend money on. And the potential payoff if something is found is incredible: it would be one of the biggest scientific discoveries in the history of, like, ever; it’s something that couldn’t help but change our view of our place in the universe.

And, to put it simply, you’ve got to be in it to win it. As described excellently by Carl Sagan, it would be a shame if someone sent us a message and we weren’t listening.

It’s a bit like playing the lottery every week: your chances of winning are so slight, that on average you’re going to spend far more on tickets than you can expect to win. But the weekly cost is still relatively small, and the possible payout so enormous, that maybe it’s worth it. At least that’s what plenty of people seem to believe  - although I have to confess, I’m not one of them.

What do you think? Is the lottery of alien communication worth the cost? Or do we, as a civilisation, have better things to do?

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3 thoughts on “Is SETI worth it?

  1. I don’t mean to be a snarky la-la, but if radio waves travel at the speed of light, wouldn’t we need to point our telescopes in the right direction 1000 years after a civilisation 1000 years away sends a message at the right frequency?

    Nah, it’s not worth it. It’s like missing a phone call. If they REALLY want to talk to you, they call back.

    1. Well, if you have to be pedantic, yes that’s right. Which is actually another disincentive for sending messages – it’ll take you 2000 years for a reply.

      As for putting the onus on them to get in touch, well that’s just what the WETI Institute is advocating.

  2. Hi, I found this post because you used and correctly credited the photo I took.

    I currently live on the observatory where the ATA is located. I’m in the middle of transitioning my work to a new organization which will soon be taking over operations.

    I wanted to point out that the general idea behind the long term SETI work at the ATA is not that another civilization would beam a tell tale signal directly at Earth on purpose, but that we would see some radio emissions that happen to be unmistakable signs of a non-natural origin.

    Direct communication is not expected, nor required to find such evidence.

    Another thing to keep in mind is that any civilization within 1000 light years and has advanced to our level of technology and/or beyond, would be capable of knowing about the existence of the Earth and that it has signs of our sort of biological activity on it (methane and oxygen production).

    We already have the capability ourselves to survey planets within that distance of our solar system, it’s purely an issue of engineering at this point (putting the proper equipment into space) and as a species we’re just beginning such surveys with instruments like Kepler and future missions that would put space based interferometers into orbit.

    If we have another 200-300 years (blink of an eye in astronomical time scale) of not dying off, I’m optimistic that we’ll have a good map of all the star systems within at least 1000 lys.

    - Colby Gutierrez-Kraybill

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