Ask Dr. SETI ®
by H. Paul Shuch
I recall becoming aware of SETI science in the summer of 1960, around the same time I started reading science fiction. My exposure to the former came through media coverage of Frank Drake's Project Ozma experiment at Green Bank, just a year after the Cocconi and Morrison article Searching for Interstellar Communications appeared in the journal Nature (though I will confess that I never actually read that article until decades later). SF had been on my radar for as long as I can remember (my mother was a reader, and subscribed to Amazing Stories during my formative years), but I didn't really start reading the genre until High School, when my sister Robin handed me her copy of Clarke's Childhood's End. At the time, I regarded the two (SETI and SF) as equally implausible, and equally entertaining.
When I earned my ham radio ticket the following year, SETI science began to seem no longer so science-fictional. If I could communicate around the entire globe using a five-watt homebrew CW transmitter, I reasoned, how difficult could it be to reach out to the planets that just had to be orbiting distant stars? I even penned a short story for my local ham club newsletter, about making contact with a distant radio amateur whom I called Marsconi. Not my best literary effort, to be sure, but well within the realm of possibility to my adolescent mind.
By the time my friend Richard Factor (also a ham, and an SF reader) founded The SETI League three and a half decades later, the two areas of interest had both merged and diverged. Most of the SETI scientists I had met were indeed strongly influenced by the SF literature (a few of them even contributed to it), yet we all had begun to realize that observational science was more difficult than simple storytelling. Which is not to say that we didn't all continue to appreciate Forward's Law: "never let the facts get in the way of a good story."
Over the years, I came to learn that the SF and amateur radio communities were each a cohesive group, with their own family reunions. The World Science Fiction Convention was in many ways reminiscent of the Dayton Hamvention. Participants in each had their own specialized language, wore funny hats or costumes, and spent far more on their hobbies than prudence would dictate.
I also began to notice an intriguing overlap between the two. Which is why The SETI League was able to attract a host of members with whom I felt an affinity. I mean, radio hams who reached out toward the stars -- what's not to love?
Which brings me to last month's WorldCon 76 gathering in San Jose CA (my old stomping grounds). For a week, I was surrounded by fellow nerds -- all readers, many radio hams, quite a few SETI League members, and a sizeable handful of serious scientists who, like Richard and I, had early been inspired by SF's Grand Masters. Few of whom are still among us, but whose literary contributions are immortal.
The SETI League website, and our FaceBook pages, and the latest issue of SearchLites, your League's quarterly newsletter, are chock full of photos I took at this year's WorldCon, featuring quite a few friends of, and contributors to, SETI science. They serve to remind us all that SETI, no longer fiction, is indeed real science.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in editorials are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The SETI League, Inc., its Trustees, officers, Advisory Board, members, donors, or commercial sponsors.
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this page last updated 1 September 2018
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