This I Believe

Tom - Pennsylvania
Entered on March 6, 2008
Age Group: 18 - 30
Themes: science
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I believe in extraterrestrial intelligence – and, no, I don’t mean UFOs.

“So, Doc, do you believe in extraterrestrials?” I get this question all the time . . . from family and friends, students and strangers. The reason people ask is that I’ve invested a significant fraction of my life in the pursuit of SETI, the scientific Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

Do I believe in extraterrestrials? My usual answer is that the search isn’t so much about “What I believe” as it is about “What is the truth?” Scientists must always separate faith from fact. But that answer, I realize, is a cop-out.

Thanks to recent astronomical discoveries, we now know for certain that we live in a universe capable of supporting life. The skies are filled with stars. Around a sizeable fraction of those stars, we have now detected previously unseen companion planets. Among the hundreds of observed planets are a fair number with conditions favorable for life as we know it.

Intelligence confers survival value. So does the ability to communicate. So, it’s not a big stretch to envision countless communicative civilizations calling to us across the cosmic void. Recent advances in science and technology have brought us to the brink of contact, and yes, I do believe we have the capacity to cross that brink. But, do we have the will?

SETI is a multigenerational enterprise. After a half-century of dedicated research, we are no closer to the definitive, verifiable signal we seek as proof than we were at the outset. I believe that the journey upon which I have embarked will be completed by my distant descendants. That thought is humbling, but also motivating.

For perhaps the first time in human history, we live in a universe in which the notion of extraterrestrial life has become a testable hypothesis. Today as never before, we possess the tools, the technology, the tenacity to embark upon a journey to answer that fundamental question which has haunted humankind since first we realized that the points of light in the night are other suns: are we alone?

“So, Doc,” asked a shock jock recently on non-public radio, “do you believe in extra testicles?”

“No,” I played along, “I believe two should be enough for any man. Now, let’s talk about SETI.”

SETI involves searching the unknown, seeking the familiar. If we do the search, and we do it right, some generations from now our offspring will have arrived at one of two possible outcomes. Either they will have detected incontrovertible evidence of our cosmic companions, or they will not. If it’s the former, the implications for human life are self-evident. But what if it’s the other? What if, after centuries of searching, we come up dry? Might this lead, in the long term, to a widespread belief in the sanctity of life, and the precious place our home world holds in the heavens? Perhaps a lack of SETI success will return us to a pre-Copernican perspective. Maybe it will encourage us to treat our planet with renewed reverence.

The Search will, in time, show us either that we are not alone, or that we are. Either outcome, I believe, will change forever humanity’s place in the cosmos.