As you may have heard, SETI is in trouble.
Funding cutbacks on a state and federal level have forced the Allen Telescope Array — SETI’s new homebase, actually just a part of the U.C. Berkeley’s Hat Creek Radio Observatory (HCRO) — into indefinite hibernation. With U.C. Berkeley losing ninety percent of its NSF University Radio Observatory money this year, and the growing California budget shortfalls, the hunt for extraterrestrial life has simply, and pragmatically, fallen by the wayside.
This financial deficit particularly smarts because the Allen Telescope Array was just about to undertake radio observation of the many exoplanets discovered by the Kepler mission, which are the most exciting thing to happen in the field since Carl Sagan. This is the first time in human history where we have a shot at discovering extraterrestrial life; we’ve been scanning the universe since Frank Drake first pointed radio telescope to sky in 1960, but now we know where to look. Lovable SETI mouthpiece Seth Shostak, in a article for the Huffington Post, compared the timing of this powering down of the Allen Array to putting the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria back into their dry-docks.
It feels like the ultimate redundancy to go on a tirade here about the importance of SETI research, since basically all my posts are about “our place in the Universe” and “the meaning of life,” but I will throw my pennies into the void anyway. SETI is a philosophical position as much as it is a scientific quest. Regardless of whether or not there is life elsewhere in the universe, or whether or not that life is technologically advanced enough (or nearby enough) to have a valuable conversation with, the hunt has a value that transcends its ostensible end goals. Simply by looking, we’re making a stance against human chauvinism, acknowledging the possibility that Genesis wasn’t just the privilege of planet Earth but rather a cosmic possibility. It’s the ultimate statement of humility, and a very concrete reminder of our insignificance. And let’s be honest: as a species, we need constant reminding of our insignificance.
If we can’t get ourselves together to agree on the importance of SETI — or to pay for scientific research of any kind, it seems — perhaps we aren’t quite ready, as a species, to undertake the search. But I’d rather think we are. As Shostak notes, “we can never prove that we’re alone in the universe. But the Allen Telescope Array could prove that we’re not.” And that would do us a lot of good.