If no pings go out, does that mean there aren’t aliens? The defunding of SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute, an array of 42 radio telescopes and over a dozen scientists at the Hat Creek Observatory in Northern California may be a blip on a national screen already mined with natural and man-made chaos. For 27 years, SETI has sent the question ‘Are you listening?’ out into the void. Without the facility and the question, humanity may miss an otherworld answer from Alpha Centauri and beyond. Penny-pinching at the National Science Foundation and by the State of California has silenced Earth’s primary welcome mat to the cosmos, and barring some groundswell of opinion or big bucks coming into SETI’s Adopt a Scientist program, the dream is over.
As stated on their website, “The mission of the SETI Institute is to explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe.” Oh, so it isn’t to provide fodder for dozens of Hollywood movies from “Close Encounters of a Third Kind”, to “Contact.” But up until recently, those movies, Star Trek, Klingon clones, the fiction of abductions, and the national “really out there” mentality, have paid the bills, kept interest in SETI and its mission alive and in the public eye. It is “what makes money, what people find sexy,” admitted Dr. Jill Tarter, a chair at SETI.
No longer. As SETI’s lights dim and the antenna hibernate, a measure of national imagination may fade, too. Financial logic demanded the cuts, but as Steve Jobs has said, “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” Perhaps our current issues are too “out there” to contemplate what might be happening in the heavens. Nevertheless, there is a part of me that wants to gather with other, like-minded folks on top of Mount Tamalpais, star-filled sky above, and, in the spirit of universal citizenship, wave our LED and photon flashlights…just in case.