Good things come to those who wait, and wait, … and wait.
This may someday be the opening sentence at a press conference at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California to announce mankind's first evidence of intelligent life off the Earth.
We've listened for transmissions from alien civilizations for 50 years without any luck. And there isn't the slightest clue when real data -– if ever -– may come. This bores some scientists who scornfully look at SETI as lost purely in "hypothetical-space."
Detractors say (1) nobody's out there, (2) we're listening on the wrong medium, (3) it's a scientifically meaningless experiment unsupported by any tangible hypothesis because of all the unknowns (as listed in the famous Drake equation). It's borderline pure faith.
However, there's no need for impatience with a null result. We've just ended a year of celebration honoring the 400th anniversary of Galileo's first use of the telescope for astronomical research. Galileo provided the first observational evidence in support of the Copernican Principle -– that we do not occupy a special place in the universe.
Following Galileo, it took no less than a century to make each step outwards into the cosmos.
The earliest telescopic observations from the 1600s through the 1700s focused largely on the solar system. In the 1800's astronomers characterized stars with the powerful new tool of spectroscopy. True, telescopes of that time resolved spiral nebulae (external galaxies) but they were widely considered simply accretion
disks around stars.
External galaxies were not recognized until a little less than a century ago, once their enormous distances could be measured. This month's Hubble Space Telescope portrait of a field of galaxies stretching almost all the way back to the beginning of time was the crowning achievement of "core-sampling" the universe.
The 21st century will carry us to the realization of a "second Genesis," the discovery of life arising elsewhere in space. But intelligent life too?
In an article in the Washington Post last week Marc
Kaufman reported that, with the influence of former NASA Associate
Administrator Alan Stern (also the principal investigator on the New Horizons 2015 Pluto
flyby), NASA is reconsidering funding SETI proposals and Congress isn't saying
"no." The National Science Foundation has been funding SETI research since 2004.
It was a dark day for SETI in 1993 when Congress cut off a
very modest funding for radio searches ($12 million/yr.) thereby extending
isolationism across interstellar space. They disconnected the phone on a targeted search of 1,000 nearest sun-like stars and a multi-million radio frequency all-sky survey.
Leading the attack was former Nevada Democratic Senator Richard
Bryan who found a great taxpayer whipping boy in the SETI goals. He milked the
patently un-scientific UFO phenomenon to belittle SETI as having any
intellectual ballast. "The Great Martian Chase may finally come to an end. As
of today, millions have been spent and we have yet to bag a single little green
fellow," he said in 1993. Other senators questioned the use of taxpayer dollars
and cited the skepticism that confronts SETI research.
Since then SETI astronomers have scrambled to raise money
through private donations. The powerful new $25 million Allen Array (pictured top), an orchard of interlinked
and mass-produced radio telescopes in northern California, was funded by
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Now I guess that means that if we get a SETI
signal the first to know may be Microsoft founder Bill Gates instead of President Obama.
Greek philosophers spoke eloquently of an infinite universe
full of life, but only until recently scientists have treated the question with
deep skepticism. A half century ago life was considered so fragile that the
circumstances that brought it on Earth were considered at best quite rare.
Today we know that life is tenacious, opportunistic, and will eat almost
anything in carving out an environmental niche. Evolution is the most awesome
manifestation of matter.
What's more, NASA's Kepler mission will likely tell us there are millions of inhabitable planets like Earth across the galaxy.
Still, intelligent life may indeed be exceedingly rare. But, armed with powerful new telescopes and technology, if anybody is out there, we should find them in the next 25 years predicts the founder of SETI, Frank
Drake. Drake had the scientific courage to listen for aliens 50 years ago when the idea was definitely un-cool in science circles.
My guess is that if intelligent life is common, then its detection — probably purely by accident — will happen before scientists celebrate Galileo’s 500th anniversary. The Copernican revolution will be truly completed.