WHY SETI? A Sagan Retrospective (l978)

Robert Owen (rowen@technologist.com)
Mon, 13 Sep 1999 05:03:33 -0400

REPOST due to apparent bounce. [RMO]

                 Cosmic Search Magazine Vol. 1 No. 2 May, 1978


                                       By Carl Sagan

                                         ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Through all of our history we have pondered the stars and mused whether
mankind is unique or if, somewhere else out there in the dark of night sky,
there are other beings who contemplate and wonder as we do - fellow
thinkers in the cosmos. Such beings might view themselves and the
universe differently. Somewhere else there might exist exotic biologies,
technologies and societies. What a splendid perspective contact with a
profoundly different civilization might provide! In a cosmic setting vast and
old beyond ordinary human understanding we are a little lonely, and we
ponder the ultimate significance, if any, of our tiny but exquisite blue
planet, the Earth. The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is
the search for a generally acceptable cosmic context for the human
species. In the deepest sense the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is
a search for ourselves.
                                        ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

There are some who look on our global problems here on Earth - at our
vast national antagonisms, our nuclear arsenals, our growing populations,
the disparity between the poor and the affluent, shortages of food and
resources, and our inadvertent alterations of the natural environment of
our planet - and conclude that we live in a system which has suddenly
become unstable, a system which is destined soon to collapse. There are
others who believe that our problems are soluble, that humanity is still in
its childhood, that one day soon we will grow up. The existence of a single
message from space will show that it is possible to live through
technological adolescence: the civilization transmitting the message, after
all, has survived. Such knowledge, it seems to me, might be worth a great
                                        ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

There will surely be differences among civilizations which cannot be
glimpsed until information is available about the evolution of many
civilizations. Because of our isolation from the rest of the cosmos, we have
information on the evolution of only one civilization - our own. And the
most important aspect of that information, the future, remains closed to
us. Perhaps it is not likely, but it is certainly possible that the future of
human civilization depends on the receipt and decoding of interstellar
messages...It is difficult to think of another enterprise within our capability
and at relatively modest cost which holds as much promise for the future of


The above passages are excerpted from the Article in "Cosmic Search
Magazine"; for the complete text go to:


The text of this article is reproduced by permission from SMITHSONIAN
      Magazine May, 1978. Copyright 1978 Smithsonian Institution.

Robert M. Owen
The Orion Institute
57 W. Morgan Street
Brevard, NC 28712-3659 USA

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