SETI: The Search For Ourselves

This post was first published at Scientopia’s Guest Blogge.

The Alan Telescope Array, Northern California. (SETI Institute)
In April 2011 funding shortfalls in the budget of the State of California resulted in the ‘hibernation’ of the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) north of San Francisco. The ATA was primarily used by the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, a not-for-profit scientific organisation that investigates the origin and nature of life in the universe. Scanning the sky for radio signals from distant alien civilisations, the ATA was an integral tool in our quest to uncover some of the mysteries of our astronomical neighbourhood and to answer a fundamental paradox that has puzzled scientists for over 50 years. Where is everyone? Everything we observe about the nature of universe suggests that life, and eventually technologically advanced civilisations, should be prevalent across the cosmos, yet we have no evidence suggesting that life exists anywhere except here on Earth.

What does this apparent isolation say about us and our planet? Are we the product of an extremely fortunate evolutionary accident resulting from the interplay between our astronomical and planetary environment? On some distinguishable level, the search for other intelligent species is a thinly veiled search for our own place, both physically and philosophically and convincing proof of a co-existent alien civilisation would most likely have significant social, political and religious ramifications as well as the potential to cause deep psychological distress at the level of the individual. I have no doubt however, that religious and philosophical doctrines will be reinterpreted by scholars and priests to incorporate these monumental findings in an effort to remain pragmatic and to provide guidance for their respective followers and adherents

We have nothing to fear when we listen. Could there be a more relevant or important allocation of public money than to attempt to answer some of the most fundamental questions of our time? Who are we, where did we come from and are we alone? Are we the only extant advanced civilisation in the universe? Are we the only species capable of uncovering the meaning behind their very existence at a level otherwise completely out of the reach of most organisms?

Or, like a moth alone in the dark are we seeking the comforting light of ignorance; is it better not to know at all rather than to uncover the true scale of our isolation? The burden of the knowledge that help will not come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves may be, for some, too much to bear. The weight of our responsibility to ourselves, our children and our planet will put strain on our collective psyches; mired by loneliness on an unprecedented, truly universal the scale we have only ourselves to blame for our significant shortcomings and failures.

But with this knowledge also comes perspective. Perhaps this will be the perspective required to finally rid ourselves of our incessant propensity to view different races, genders or ethnic groups of our species with contempt, mistrust and hostility. As the only species able to discover and preserve the secrets of the universe for future generations, or future civilisations, we owe it to ourselves and our children to unite as a single species with a truly global heritage.


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