SETI letter to the editor

Dr. H. Paul Shuch (
Wed, 16 Jun 1999 13:31:58 -0400

Mr. Aregood, Lawrence Hall's column of June 16, 1999 ("Moving heaven and earth in a futile search for E.T.", Star-Ledger) accurately points out a few of the shortcomings of some current searches for life in space, but draws the totally specious conclusion that SETI scientists are "blind to the realities of life on Earth." On the contrary, it is precisely because we are acutely aware of Earth's ills that many of us have chosen to devote our lives to SETI science. SETI@home, an innovative experiment in distributed computing, now has more than half a million participants, and forms the world's most powerful super-computer. Yes, it suffered some serious glitches at startup -- what project of such magnitude wouldn't? Those problems hardly negate its scientific validity, or the importance of the lessons being learned about distributed computing. These are lessons which can be applied to solving terrestrial problems, whether or not terrestrial problems, whether or not SETI@home ever detects evidence of other civilizations in the cosmos. True, there were errors in the Encounter 2001 message recently beamed into space. This *commercial* stunt was staged despite the objections of most of the world's SETI scientists, and in violation of international telecommunications policy. Is the science of SETI to be criticized because some companies choose to embrace its name in pursuit of financial gain? Yes, laser inventor Charles Townes advocates optical SETI. So do I. So do most SETI organizations worldwide, and at least six of them are currently operating or building optical SETI observatories. Townes never once said we shouldn't be looking for microwave signals, only that we should *also* look for visible and infrared ones. I agree, as do all SETI scientists I know. True, the overwhelming majority of lifeforms we expect to encounter in space are microbial. So are the overwhelming majority of lifeforms we encounter on Earth. Does that mean that no technological lifeforms can ever exist on Earth? Certainly not, and neither should we make similar assumptions about life in space. And Hall's reference to "aliens zipping by in the heavens" is completely off topic, since SETI science has nothing whatever to do with UFOs or space-faring aliens. We merely seek microwave and optical evidence from other civilizations who, like ourselves, might pollute their electromagnetic environments. It is a logical search, since the photon is the fastest spaceship known to man. It travels relatively unimpeded through the interstellar medium at the fastest of all possible speeds, the speed of light. And it's simple. So simple that even *we* were able to learn how to harness it. It must also be pointed out that SETI is a science, not a particular search. Hall refers to SETI as though we were some sort of monolithic force. In fact, since Congress cancelled all funding for NASA SETI in 1993, SETI science has been privatized by a scattered handful of nonprofit organizations working independently toward a common goal. It is a science which refuses to die. The SETI League, perhaps the largest of these educational and scientific groups, boasts over 1000 members in 53 countries on six continents, and operates on just one percent of the late NASA SETI budget (money contributed by private citizens, not governments). Our members are hobbyists, doing SETI science for the same reasons that amateur astronomers seek (and find) asteroids, comets and supernovae. They spend their own time and money in pursuit of greater knowledge of the cosmos. Hall seems to think that their amateur SETI efforts are a waste of time and money. And I can't disagree. Isn't that the very definition of a hobby? Readers interested in the privatization of SETI are invited to visit The SETI League, Inc. online at <> Respectfully, H. Paul Shuch, Ph.D. Executive Director The SETI League, Inc. -------------------------------- H. Paul Shuch, Ph.D., CFII, FBIS Executive Director, The SETI League, Inc. 433 Liberty Street, PO Box 555 Little Ferry NJ 07643 USA voice (201) 641-1770; fax (201) 641-1771 Project Argus station FN11LH "We Know We're Not Alone!"

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