Extraterrestrial Intelligence: The Search Gets Harder

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The opportunity to learn more about where we fit into the vastness of the cosmos is under threat from shortsighted decision makers who have politicized science.

For much of the 20th century, governments around the world wanted to boldly go where no man had gone before. More recently, though, austerity budgets around the world and political mindsets that view science with suspicion have threatened the survival of the kinds of projects that put humans on the moon.

I got my PhD in the 1970s, when we finally had the technology to begin answering the question that, for millennia, has boggled the minds of priests, philosophers, and anybody who’s looked up to the stars: Are we alone? After all these centuries, I belong to the first generation that can begin answering that question.

I joined the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, helping to found the SETI Institute. The institute’s searches were funded entirely by NASA until 1993, when a single senator terminated our funding. We’ve been raising funds privately since then. But last year, we had to temporarily shut down because we couldn’t secure funding to keep our operation going – and our operating cost is only $100,000 a month, which is essentially a rounding error in a federal budget.

NASA itself, probably the best-known scientific institution on the planet, is under enormous financial stress, although it has fared better than some other agencies in recent budgets. Now, for the first time, American astronauts have to hitch a ride with the Russians if they want to get to space.

It is extremely worrisome to see politicians refusing to invest in science and technology when we need it the most – when our survival depends on our ability to use it to get ourselves out of the holes that we’ve dug. This dynamic is responsible, for instance, for the never-ending fight to secure funding for climate science.

We would all be better off if our elected officials could think ahead, not just to next year’s budget, but tens, even hundreds of years down the line. Civilizations used to be able to take a longer view, simply because things changed less rapidly. (Remember, there was a 400-year gap between the printing press and the typewriter.) That’s not the case today, when things are turning over in time scales of years, or even months. People are getting used to the idea that their tools will change. What they learn to use today, they’re going to have to relearn to use three months from now. This is, fundamentally, a new point of view.

But there are still problems that have intrinsically longer time scales that are set by the planet and the laws of physics, such as the warming and cooling of the planet, shifting of the tectonic plates, desertification, and so much more. If you want to solve our ecological challenges, you have to think in 500-year time scales. Other ambitions, like sustaining a colony on Mars or making contact with extraterrestrial life, are similarly long term in their outlook, if not quite 500 years away.

Taking the long view, the importance of education becomes clear. It’s lamentable that individuals with decision-making power would in any way celebrate their ignorance of science and technology and our need to innovate. Another disturbing trend is the politicization of science of all kinds, degrading a field that is based on observation and fact by overrunning it with opinion and sentiment. Robust public education – not just in the sciences and maths, but also in language, history, and more – will ensure that students of today don’t have these same blind spots and biases when it’s their turn to control the levers of power.

Questions about our place in the universe, and how our behavior affects the planet, are what stimulate and sustain interest in science, just like the space race did in the 1950s and ’60s. When it comes to my line of work, I believe that projects such as SETI can profoundly change the way we see ourselves and our relationships with other earthlings and our home world.

The Kepler Telescope, run by NASA, has led to more discoveries in the past three years about potentially habitable planets in the Milky Way than we’d previously found in decades. It has legitimized SETI in a way that we couldn’t before, because now we can finally say, “If there’s life anywhere, this is where it’s going to be.”

The work of NASA, SETI, and other foundations contributing to this research has given us this amazing opportunity to appreciate the Earth as one of probably billions of planets within our galaxy, and to appreciate our galaxy as one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe. That is profoundly humbling.

I keep a bottle of champagne on ice in case we happen upon signs of someone else’s technology – that is, extraterrestrial intelligence – during my lifetime. Now, I’m not talking about extraterrestrial salvation, or some message that explains the meaning of existence. Extraterrestrial life forms are not going to tell us how to solve our problems. What we’re looking for is a proof of existence – likely an electromagnetic contact – rather than something on our doorstep threatening us. It will be a huge opportunity to learn about where we fit into the vastness of the cosmos. But we’re not going to find it at all unless we transform into a global society – one able to see the big picture – and figure out how to survive as a technological civilization far, far into the future.

Astronomer Jill Tarter is Director of the Institute’s Center for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Research, and also holder of the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI.

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