The Allen Telescope Array run by SETI—Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence—has been forced into hibernation because of the lack of money (Mercury News story). The electronic ears will remain planted on Mount Shasta, but their juice will be turned off.
From now, and unless somebody rich with stars in their eyes comes to the rescue, we won’t know if ET is calling and we’ll have to rely on our nation’s annual crop of out-of-focus photographs of sightings and hypnosis-recalled memories of abductions to verify that there is sentient life elsewhere in the universe.
Not everybody is sad about SETI’s setback. There have long been complaints from white-shoe science firms, which all have the flavor that “SETI isn’t real science.” The argument is that since SETI listeners haven’t proved that there are aliens to listen to, then there are no evidence that aliens are calling. This is a valid argument, but it is tautological. Of course SETI doesn’t know if there is anybody out there: if they did, then they wouldn’t have to search!
Besides, there is evidence that other life exists: us. We, who are nothing special, evolved over a (rough) five billion-year period in a universe which is about two-and-a-half times that. Further, wherever we look on this rock, even in the most (to us) inhospitable places, life thrives. And since, as Carl Sagan did not say, there are billions and billions of other planets throughout the universe, and since physics appears (somewhat?) invariant in the best and worst neighborhoods, it is likely life evolved elsewhere. So why not look for it?
Trouble is, SETI listeners have the mathematics of communication theory working against them. Hidden in the arcana of that set of equations is a theorem which shows that the more efficient the mode of communication, the more the signal resembles noise. This is easy to get a feel of. Ordinary text and speech are filled with redundancies and extraneous effluvia. Strip that out and and all that is left is the core of an idea which, when transmitted, looks a lot like noise. That makes discriminating between signal and noise difficult or impossible.
If the aliens that are out there are more sophisticated than we, and if they still feel like chatting, then eavesdropping on their conversations is unlikely. Any communications we intercept from advanced aliens would have to be purposefully directed. But if the aliens are superior in smarts, they might not be especially interested in ignorant just-out-of-cave-dwellers like us (have you seen what’s on TV lately?). There are so many unknowns here that we cannot say with any certainty that there are definite signals to be found. That is, even if other, more-advanced life exists, there might not be anything for us to hear (or the search may take thousands of years).
Then again, there might be other life in other places, but none of it may be as advanced as we are. It is at least plausible to suggest that humans are the first sentient species in the universe. So it is possible that other species might hear us. However, our species is not old, especially when considered as a fraction of the age of the universe, and it has just been in the last 100 years or so that we have learned to communicate.
Proof of our existence is available in a sphere surrounding Earth with a radius of about 100 light years, but it is weak, sorely weak in strength. Space is vast, vaster than our federal deficit, so vast that the distances between objects is difficult to imagine. 100 light years is nothing; it is just around the block. Nobody has had time to hear us yet.
Is it worth funding SETI? Sure, for an individual and not a government, but only for the bragging rights. One justification oft heard is that the discovery of other life “Will change the way we view our place in the universe.” This is rot. Finding ET won’t change anything. For one, there are already millions convinced that ET is here and been meddling with human affairs (how do you explain Obama’s missing birth certificate?). The number of UFO reports after SETI verifies will skyrocket.
Everybody else will assimilate the news so fast that the only shock will be on the faces of the atheists who had hoped that proof of extraterrestrial intelligence would force the religious to abandon their beliefs. Once people realize how next-to-impossible it is to travel to or from the signal’s origin, the news of ET’s existence will be pushed off the front page as soon as a celebrity commits some gaffe; which is to say, within a week.