small logo Editorial

I Wanna Hold Your Hand
by Dr. H. Paul Shuch, Executive Director

Participants in our Project Argus all-sky survey seem to be divided into two distinct camps: the dedicated experimenters who are anxious to do exactly what we ask of them, no more, no less; and those rugged individualists who refuse to be constrained by any organization or structure. Trying to strike a balance between these two factions is occupying more than a little of your director's time.

For the individualist, I have nothing but the highest regard. From the beginning, the SETI scientist has been the iconoclast, working in a virtual vacuum, fiercely guarding the secret of his or her involvement so as not to compromise scientific credibility. It wasn't until Morrison and Cocconi published their pivotal short paper in Nature in 1959, for example, that Frank Drake had any indication that there were others who would regard his work as anything but a wasteful folly. Drake had been preparing his Project Ozma targeted search in relative secrecy, knowing how readily he might become the subject of ridicule by his peers.

Drake was, of course, a man ahead of his time. Today, with SETI finally accepted into the scientific mainstream, we need not hide our involvement or apologize for our beliefs. But decades of doubts have left their mark. There are those of our members who want to be left alone to pursue their passion, unconstrained by frequency recommendations, search strategies or organizational structure. And I certainly understand their fear that bureaucracy might stifle the creative spirit. I guard against the kind of heavy-handed management which would leave promising stones unturned, and emphasize that there are no wrong frequencies or directions to point. I merely ask that our individualists keep us well-informed. Coordinate with your fellows so that should another Wow! be detected, we will be in a position to have other members confirm its reception, to verify it beyond reasonable doubt.

At the other extreme are those who want to be told exactly what hardware and software to acquire, how to put it all together, where to point their dish and what frequencies to scan, at what rate, to what resolution. I would like to offer these participants as much hand-holding as they desire, because their dedication and regimentation may well be the key to SETI success. But in offering guidance, I risk offending the individualists. So I strive for balance and risk disappointing those at both extremes.

Right now, it is probably a moot point. With only 24 active stations, we have hardly achieved critical mass. We are, after all, still in the development phase. Since we have too few stations to either achieve significant sky coverage or risk excessive overlap, I have adopted a laissez-faire approach to coordination. For now, I ask our pioneers to build as they see fit, point where they please, tune whatever spectrum strikes their fancy.

The Participant Survey forms and Anomaly Logs found on the Web (and available by mail upon request) are sufficient coordination for the moment. This is the phase of the project in which we can give the individualists free reign, asking only that they document and share their thoughts and efforts.

In a couple of years, as more stations come on line, we will need to impose more structure to keep our search focused. At some point it will become necessary to assign aiming coordinates, frequencies, and time schedules. The fully deployed, operational phase of any search becomes somewhat boring, but is the phase most likely to yield verifiable results.

Meanwhile, I wanna hold your hand (yeah, yeah, yeah). But only if you ask.

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