Wednesday, 10 August 2011

So long, SETI?

Times are tough and belts are being tightened everywhere with unwelcome consequences and closures. One such closure is some of the telescopes engaged in SETI, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. The iconic dishes scanning the skies for alien messages, so beloved by cheesy Science Fiction filmmakers, will scan the sky no more. Or at least, some of them won't. And perhaps more will be canned without private investment.

But does SETI represent a worthwhile use of money in such tough times? Or would only Hollywood miss SETI? (Not for long - I'm sure they can find some other stereotype to fill that particular niche.) Is SETI really anything than a rather expensive waste of time?

The chances of there being extraterrestrial life close enough to us in both time and space to detect their signals is pretty darn small. And even IF such life exists, they have to be emittng signals. And even IF they are, they have to be using a technology that we can detect and recognise. And even if they are
doing that, we have to be explicitly looking for that specific technology in the right part of the sky. Then, if we find a signal, what then? Presumably they are many light years away and would need all the same ifs in place on their side to see any messages from us, making communication incredibly difficult at best.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all in favour of science and endeavour for the sake of knowledge alone, and finding evidence of alien life would be cool, but the also has to be a cost/analysis of some kind. There is too much quality science that can be done on a budget - too many interesting questions to answer - to fritter money on an exercise that is both likely to fail and unlikely to be of any use even if it succeeds. Furthermore, there are too many immediate issues and worthy causes in our world without encouraging philanthropists to direct their cash to an off-world whimsy.

I'm not saying we should scrap SETI completely. It's just that it will probably take years to find anything - if it ever does - and then many more years before anything can be done with the discovery. Given this, slowing things down two-, four- or even ten-fold with a bit of a budget cut is not really the end of the world.

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