Editors Note: This one resulted from a confluence of news stories. I had noticed several items about water unexpectedly being found in various parts in the solar system, as well as stories about the number of planets being discovered around distant stars. Then I read an item about the 2014 federal budget that mentioned that NASA’s line item had been reduced. I wondered how this would affect the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), but when I looked it up, I found that it had already been terminated. Seemed sad to me that, at a time when alien life seemed more likely to be found, we’d stopped looking for it.

SETI Is a Bargain


“In all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes
the emptiness bearable is each other.”

Carl Sagan

During budget crises, politicians often treat spending programs that have tiny budgets as sacrificial lambs. Slashing funding for PBS or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) promotes the illusion they’re responsible adults dealing with the national debt, without touching the controversial, big-ticket line items that actually create the deficit.

For example, the SETI Institute was defunded in April 2011. As the Kepler satellite’s telescope continued to identify large numbers of potentially habitable, earth-sized planets, the Curiosity Rover has discovered dried freshwater lake beds on Mars, the Hubble Telescope has observed water vapor on Jupiter’s moon Europa and the Cassini orbiter has detected water vapor on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Meanwhile, SETI remains inactive.

The presence of water in our solar system increases the likelihood of extraterrestrial life, as do recent discoveries of organisms flourishing in some very inhospitable pressure and temperature environments here on Earth. But, as the odds of finding alien life improve, Congress has reduced NASA’s 2014 budget to its lowest levels in nearly a decade.

SETI’s goal is answering what’s arguably the second-most-important question man can ask. Most people agree the most important question is “Does God exist?,” along with its three corollaries: “What’s He like?,” “What does He want from us?” and “Will He reward us with an afterlife?” However, The Big Guy hasn’t made any effort to provide us with the answers.

Man has made little, if any, progress in resolving the existence-of-god or the nature-of-god debate during the past 4,000 years. If it had been settled, the discussion would be over, and the competing faiths might have stopped killing each other millennia ago. Forests have been depopulated printing books on an academic discipline called “theology,” which hasn’t even been able to prove that the subject (“theo”) of its study (“ology”) does or does not exist.

If He does exist, the one thing we do know about God is that He’s not terribly interested in demonstrating His presence to us; it’s almost as if He doesn’t really care whether we believe in Him or not. And the contradictory commandments in the myriad primitive holy books indicate a lack of interest in letting us know exactly what He wants from us.

The world’s major faiths have barely changed since the Earth was flat, so they’re unlikely to come up with anything new or convincing on God’s existence or essence. Nor are the more recently developed sects, such as the Mormons or the Scientologists, bringing new evidence to the debate. SETI’s question, which is mankind’s second-most important, is similar to theology’s — are we alone, or are we part of something bigger? The difference is that SETI has a realistic chance of coming up with some answers.

Finding we’re not alone in the universe would probably be the biggest discovery in human history and would change how we view our place in the cosmos. If SETI’s radio telescopes detect alien signals, it would resolve the question posed by physicist Timothy Ferris: “Is human intelligence a fluke, or a spark of universal fire.”

The belief that mankind is the unique “Crown of Creation” may have made sense to primitive people who thought it plausible that two of every animal could fit in a single homemade boat. And it made sense to our ancient ancestors who believed the Earth was the center of the universe, but now we know better.

Our sun is but one of 150 billion stars in the Milky Way, which is only one of 150 billion galaxies. Using the Drake Equation, which is partly based on the number of stars in the Milky Way, scientists estimate that as many as a million star systems in our galaxy alone are capable of harboring life.

As author and astronomer Carl Sagan put it, “The universe is a pretty big place. If it’s just us, it seems like an awful waste of space.” Comic George Carlin was more cynical: “If it’s true that our species is alone in the universe, then I’d have to say the universe aimed rather low and settled for very little.”

Given man’s past, it would be depressing to think that what James Joyce called the “nightmare” of human history represents the zenith of 14 billion years of evolution. Man’s yearning to believe in something higher is so universal that most societies have developed mythologies and pantheons of gods and goddesses, demigods, fairies, spirits and angels. It explains the desire for a Christ in Christmas, as well as our persistent belief in UFOs, absent any concrete evidence for their existence.

It would be awful to think that Shakespeare’s most nihilistic (and perhaps greatest) lines could be true: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (Macbeth V, v).

Thousands of years of technological progress have provided us with the tools for discovering our place in the universe. It would be a sin against our humanity if we failed to do so, just so we could remove one small line item from an enormous budget.

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