In a country where some corporations do not pay taxes, millionaires get farm subsidies and a presidential candidate can run up a half-million-dollar tab at Tiffany’s, we’re deferring an attempt to answer one of our most enduring (and least inexpensive to answer) questions: Are we alone in the universe?
Certainly we don’t cotton to the idea of being alone. We yearn for the big signal from the stars, the cosmic hail. When Stephen Hawking warns us against contacting E.T. because we might end up invaded by Klingons, we argue about it around the water cooler. We thrill to “Contact” and “District 9" and play video games featuring tentacled aliens. We tune in when Carl Sagan and Timothy Ferris explain outer space on TV.
Yet we’re surprisingly unwilling to put our money where our imaginations want to roam.
News that the Allen Telescope Array is “hibernating” -- a curiously biological term for shutting down 42 radio telescopes designed to listen for signs of life from other worlds -- raises questions about our true commitment to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. The National Science Foundation recently slashed the University of California’s budgets for the Allen array by 90%. This, along with state cuts, has left UC Berkeley, which operates the Hat Creek, Calif., array in the Cascade Mountains, and the private SETI Institute, which conducts searches, in the lurch.
For now, the phone is off the hook -- as it was in 1994 when Sen. Richard Bryan (D-Nev.) derided NASA’s “Martian chase” and successfully shut down its SETI -- “Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence” -- program. It would cost each U.S. taxpayer just 3 cents a year to fund the Allen array, according to SETI Institute Senior Astronomer Seth Shostak. But in this political environment, direct taxpayer support is unlikely, so the SETI Institute is trying to raise $5 million to reboot the array.
Donors such as Microsoft’s Paul Allen stepped up after NASA’s project died; it’s for him that the array is named. In fact, SETI’s best hope may be the private sector. Privately financed astronomy is nothing new. In the 18th and 19th centuries -- the heyday of private observatory building -- such work was in part spurred by interest in alien life.
It’s an interest that, despite present budget tribulations, runs deep. As scholars Steven Dick and Michael Crowe have shown, we can trace the idea of an infinite universe full of other worlds to pre-Socratics like Democritus. This view was marginalized by more famous philosophers, such as Aristotle, and later, by a church fearful of anything that threatened the notion of a unique God-Earth relationship. But by the Victorian era, there were serious discussions not only about a lively universe -- which was widely assumed -- but about whether Christ might have to be endlessly reincarnated on a “plurality of worlds.”
That thorny issue eventually faded from view and new takes on the question of cosmic life emerged, such as whether there were canals on Mars. Arguably, the first organized SETI took place in the 1920s when astronomer David Todd persuaded the U.S. military to observe radio silence across North America while he and others listened to the Red Planet. More famously, pioneering radio astronomer Frank Drake turned a big dish in West Virginia toward the stars in 1960. SETI has continued, in fits and starts, ever since.
Still, while the public imagines a universe of star cruisers and galactic cyberwebs, budget-cutting bureaucrats find even partial grants for SETI an easy target. Did you write your representative or senator when the SETI funding was slashed? I guess we prefer our aliens to announce themselves without effort on Netflix.
So it’s time for more Paul Allens -- Carnegies of the cosmos -- to step into the void left by the cuts. And there’s not a moment to waste. NASA’s Kepler space telescope has identified some 1,200 potential planets outside our solar system -- dozens of which will be the size of Earth. Some of those could sustain liquid water.
It’s a big leap from puddles to technological civilizations, but if we don’t look, we’ll never know if the leap’s been made. And only penny-pinching solipsists with streaming video could be happy in such cosmic ignorance.