you’ve reached earth, please leave a message
Unless you’ve completely avoided the web for the last day or so, you know that SETI’s radio telescope array is mothballed for the foreseeable future and the project’s funding is drying up. Maybe we can compose some sort of Hitchhiker’s Guide style message for aliens, like “hello, thank you for calling Earth. We currently don’t have the budget to take your call, but please leave a message and the coordinates of a star system where we can contact you and we’ll return your call as soon as we raise the cash?” Would an alien be willing to leave an interstellar equivalent to voicemail? But I digress.
This turn of events is a real shame and it’s unfortunate that just as we’re finding planet after planet that may be a viable habitat for something that may possibly evolve an abstract, elaborate intelligence and want to find other life like it in the galaxy, we’re shutting off the very devices we’ve created to catch their attempts. The Allen Array’s $2.5 million annual price tag isn’t even that huge of an expense if we put it in perspective, but unfortunately, the far-reaching and highly speculative nature of what it’s intended to do puts it among the first projects to be on the chopping block when finding runs a little low.
Hold on a second, you might say, didn’t you do a whole bunch of posts saying that it would be very hard to get anything out of signals sent by alien creatures? Didn’t you go into detail about why our first attempts at some sort of a conversation with extraterrestrials will more than likely fail, both in simple signals and mathematical codes? So why would you care about SETI getting an axe if intelligent alien life forms are rare and the odds of two intelligent alien creatures close enough to each other to truly talk are astronomically negligible?
Yeah, in the grand scheme of things whether we try to get an alien signal tomorrow or next century matters very little as far as the universe is concerned, but the sooner we start searching and the more we search through the vast real estate out there, the sooner we can find something amazing or tantalizing. And while we can look for any communication directed towards us, we can also use the Allen Array to listen in on signals that aren’t meant for us either, just stray blips on the radar like the Wow! Signal which may be an indirect sign that there’s either something out there or we discovered a new cosmic phenomenon. To say that we have all the time we want, and delaying the process of actually listening and searching is inexcusable procrastination given the fact that all we really want is a sign that there’s intelligent life out there and even the most mysterious and convoluted communication we could never translate would be a life altering event just by virtue of its existence.
There are moments in human history when something so momentous happens that we can look back at all recorded time and legitimately split all of our existence into years before that moment and the years after that moment. Right now we do it with religious milestones and ancient legends, while we could really be doing it with the first city state, the first nation, the first great monument, the first ship, and of course, the first human in space and the first human to walk on another world. Finding iron-clad proof of alien life would be one of those history-splitting moments because it will mark the point in our history when we didn’t just have a good guess that we weren’t alone, but know it for a fact. And the longer we wait for it, the longer we hem and haw about an otherwise small amount of money required for it, the longer it will take to get there and the more likely it is that we may miss a once in a thousand year opportunity to catch that elusive signal.
We didn’t have to build cities, learn how to fly, and go to the Moon. But we did. When those milestones happened was of little consequence to the flow of time. Another arbitrary date here or there is no big deal after all. But why do it later rather than as soon as we can? Why drag our feet and suggest we postpone every lofty goal until the world is just perfect for the accomplishment in question? We have SETI now. So let’s help them out and use its tools now rather than at some indeterminate point in the future when and if we run out of reasons to put it off!