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.
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?