Extraterrestrial intelligence: The search gets harder

For much of the 20th century, governments around the world wanted to boldly go where no man had gone before. More recently, though, austerity budgets around the world and political mindsets that view science with suspicion have threatened the survival of the kinds of projects that put humans on the moon.

I got my PhD in the 1970s, when we finally had the technology to begin answering the question that, for millennia, has boggled the minds of priests, philosophers, and anybody who’s looked up to the stars: Are we alone? After all these centuries, I belong to the first generation that can begin answering that question.

I joined the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, helping to found the SETI Institute. The institute’s searches were funded entirely by NASA until 1993, when a single senator terminated our funding. We’ve been raising funds privately since then. But last year, we had to temporarily shut down because we couldn’t secure funding to keep our operation going – and our operating cost is only $100,000 a month, which is essentially a rounding error in a federal budget.

NASA itself, probably the best-known scientific institution on the planet, is under enormous financial stress, although it has fared better than some other agencies in recent budgets. Now, for the first time, American astronauts have to hitch a ride with the Russians if they want to get to space.

It is extremely worrisome to see politicians refusing to invest in science and technology when we need it the most – when our survival depends on our ability to use it to get ourselves out of the holes that we’ve dug. This dynamic is responsible, for instance, for the never-ending fight to secure funding for climate science.

We would all be better off if our elected officials could think ahead, not just to next year’s budget, but tens, even hundreds of years down the line. Civilizations used to be able to take a longer view, simply because things changed less rapidly. (Remember, there was a 400-year gap between the printing press and the typewriter.) That’s not the case today, when things are turning over in time scales of years, or even months. People are getting used to the idea that their tools will change. What they learn to use today, they’re going to have to relearn to use three months from now. This is, fundamentally, a new point of view.

But there are still problems that have intrinsically longer time scales that are set by the planet and the laws of physics, such as the warming and cooling of the planet, shifting of the tectonic plates, desertification, and so much more. If you want to solve our ecological challenges, you have to think in 500-year time scales. Other ambitions, like sustaining a colony on Mars or making contact with extraterrestrial life, are similarly long term in their outlook, if not quite 500 years away.

Taking the long view, the importance of education becomes clear. It’s lamentable that individuals with decision-making power would in any way celebrate their ignorance of science and technology and our need to innovate. Another disturbing trend is the politicization of science of all kinds, degrading a field that is based on observation and fact by overrunning it with opinion and sentiment. Robust public education – not just in the sciences and maths, but also in language, history, and more – will ensure that students of today don’t have these same blind spots and biases when it’s their turn to control the levers of power.

Questions about our place in the universe, and how our behavior affects the planet, are what stimulate and sustain interest in science, just like the space race did in the 1950s and ’60s. When it comes to my line of work, I believe that projects such as SETI can profoundly change the way we see ourselves and our relationships with other earthlings and our home world.

The Kepler Telescope, run by NASA, has led to more discoveries in the past three years about potentially habitable planets in the Milky Way than we’d previously found in decades. It has legitimized SETI in a way that we couldn’t before, because now we can finally say, “If there’s life anywhere, this is where it’s going to be.”

The work of NASA, SETI, and other foundations contributing to this research has given us this amazing opportunity to appreciate the Earth as one of probably billions of planets within our galaxy, and to appreciate our galaxy as one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe. That is profoundly humbling.

I keep a bottle of champagne on ice in case we happen upon signs of someone else’s technology – that is, extraterrestrial intelligence – during my lifetime. Now, I’m not talking about extraterrestrial salvation, or some message that explains the meaning of existence. Extraterrestrial life forms are not going to tell us how to solve our problems. What we’re looking for is a proof of existence – likely an electromagnetic contact – rather than something on our doorstep threatening us. It will be a huge opportunity to learn about where we fit into the vastness of the cosmos. But we’re not going to find it at all unless we transform into a global society – one able to see the big picture – and figure out how to survive as a technological civilization far, far into the future.

Author Infomation

Jill Tarter
Jill Tarter
Astronomer Jill Tarter is director of the Institute’s Center for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Research, and also holder of the Bernard M Oliver Chair for SETI.
  • 6

    kaminarioyaji

    A sound and valid argument, though unfortunately the vote chasers won't listen to it. A pity that politicians' vanity clouds their view.

    Extraterrestrial intelligence: The search gets harder... To be honest, finding terrestrial intelligence is hard enough...

  • 0

    Jack Stern

    As an avid SF fan for many years, I fully support the ideas of SETI and its search for ET. The question of SETI's search and ET's search for us is another question I wonder about. By calculating the possibility of there being ETs in the billions on planets everywhere in the universe, why haven't we been contacted already? Certainly, sighting of UFOs have not turned up any true contacts but just stories. The so called Goldylocks zones of planets may be so numerous that we can't imagine how many there may be. If there are ETs on those planets who have highly evolved as we have and even beyond us, why have they not contacted us already. Why must we be the first to contact them? Wouldn't they be thinking the same thing?

  • 1

    Tim_Fox

    Maybe Jack, there are aliens, but they happen to be in the equivalent of the dark age right now.

  • 2

    Frank Vaughn

    Extraterrestrial intelligence: The search gets harder... To be honest, finding terrestrial intelligence is hard enough...

    I was thinking the same thing as I read the article.

  • -7

    gaijinfo

    It is extremely worrisome to see politicians refusing to invest in science and technology when we need it the most

    No it's not, it's fantastic. If you think there's a genuine need to find out whether or not we are alone, then make a proposal and pitch it to private business. If there's not enough interest in the general public to fund research, then it's not important to society. Don't expect government to spend taxes to fund your private projects that most people have no more than a passing interest in, and doesn't provide any immediate benefits.

  • 3

    cleo

    If there are ETs on those planets who have highly evolved as we have and even beyond us, why have they not contacted us already

    Because they have evolved beyond us and have more sense than to want to disturb the hornets' nest that is the infestation on Sol3? Maybe they have the wherewithal to watch the goings-on here and want nothing to do with us. Can't say I'd blame them. I'd be more worried if they did want to talk to us.

    Wouldn't they be thinking the same thing?

    Not if they're really intelligent.

  • -2

    Robert Roo

    Maybe us sending probes at the least is colonising those planets and Star Trek is becoming a reality ...after all we grew from O2 plus what in the beginning ??

  • -1

    almxx

    All governments probably have been contacted by aliens....like all important information, they are just not telling us.

  • 1

    Ranger_Miffy2

    Jill, why be so coy? NAME the senator who derailed your program. Is the senator still in office?

  • -3

    Herve Nmn L'Eisa

    I wholeheartedly support space exploration, but only as a privately funded enterprise. If individuals such as Warren Buffett or others actually supported such activities, the organizations would be awash with funding.

  • -4

    snackswithbeer

    so jill, your entire professional life has been dedicated to the most futile cause since alchemy, but you want more money? good luck with that.

  • 2

    USNinJapan2

    For all of you who say that space exploration and research shouldn't be funded by our governments: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3_F3pw5F_Pc

  • 3

    Tom Webb

    Why would intelligent life forms contact Earth?

  • 1

    Seawolf

    As some brilliant scientist once said, if there is intelligent life out there, the chance is that they will come to conquer our planet, because that is what humans have done for ages. Makes you really start thinking a bit different.

  • 4

    cleo

    As some brilliant scientist once said, if there is intelligent life out there, the chance is that they will come to conquer our planet, because that is what humans have done for ages.

    The brilliant scientist is suggesting/assuming that what humans have is intelligence, and that any extraterrestrial beings will have the same kind of 'intelligence'. I hope for all our sakes that they don't.

  • 2

    timeon

    As a scientist my self, I couldn't agree more with the author. He exemplifies the funding problem with his research, but it's the same for all areas. Human-made problems abound, and only humans, perfecting the science that brought these problems in the first place, can solve them. Failing to see this and put utmost efforts into solving these problems is catastrophic in the long run. Securing clean energy, protecting the environment, alternative resources, disease control, securing food and so on. US has been the leader in science, but it's policies and the weakened economy decreased funding sharply. Europe has an even bigger problem. Japan has not significantly decreased science funding yet, but things don't look good. The only country in the world that increases its science funding is China (about 20% increase every year for the last 5 years!). So probably the first aliens that will contact us will greet us with "Ni hau ma"

  • 2

    caffeinebuzz

    It's worth keeping in mind that any intelligent life out there has had to rise up through the food chain like humans on earth, and is probably just as bad as us, unless they've had a LOT longer to progress to enlightenment.

  • 0

    caffeinebuzz

    Why "absolutely no reason"? It's been shown that throughout the multitude of cataclysmic events on our own planet, that a wide-variety of life has sprung up again and again in countless forms. I agree that there would be other planets out there with more limited ecosystems (for whatever reason), but I'm inclined to believe that having an innate predatory/territorial nature is inherent to most forms of advanced life.

  • -2

    kurisupisu

    Yes, it is true,it is becoming more difficult! And the reason for that? Those in control of society see and understand the threat and seek to avoid it.

    That threat is the perceived loss of power to those that control and dominate society on this earth.

    At present humans believe that society has brought them to the pinnacle of success and prosperity-what more could there possibly be?

    The technologies to manufacture and control massive hyper velocity craft,generate crop circles of intricate geometric patterns and portentous information and the ability to render nuclear weapons inoperable have and are being demonstrated to mankind right now.

    Witnesses to these events and more are known to include politicians,pilots,policeman and military personnel. The general public have seen craft over London,Beijing,Moscow and many other cities and many instances these have been recorded by the mass media.

    Any farmer in the UK will know that the its air force regularly send helicopters over farmland in the summer to record and document crop circle formations.I personally was witness to this too.

    However, the orbs that create the crop circles are too fast to be caught!

    The time when this will be explained is coming but those in power won't be the ones explaining it as they well know..........

  • 0

    FightingViking

    To be honest, finding terrestrial intelligence is hard enough...

    My own thoughts exactly! (But you got there first!)

  • 0

    omicron

    There are extraterrestrial life out there, no doubt about it but the thing is, those aliens could be not intelligent, Just look at Earth, despite the thousands species of plants and animals, there is only ONE species who are really intelligent, and that's us. For billions of years, the Earth has created only humans as the most intelligent to create civilizations and technologies. This means that there is a very low chance that intelligent beings are there in other planets. And even if they are, it will depend on the state of their evolution and their societies.

  • 0

    Alan

    When we question why we have never so far found any trace of extraterrestrial intelligence, we need to remember not only the vastness of the universe, but also the vast depth of time. Our technological civilization has existed for about a century out of the several billion years since the Big Bang. The odds are good that there have been other civilizations in our galaxy, but the odds are much lower that they exist at the same time as us.

    That said, if politicians have to spend our money, I would rather see it spent on science for science's sake than on weapons and war. NASA and SETI gave us all a vision for the future. The Pentagon gives us glimpses of hell.

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