Recently, the notion that we share our universe with countless sentient species has emerged out of the realm of fiction, into the scientific mainstream. Over the past forty years, dozens of organizations have conducted scores of experiments in the emerging discipline of SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. As executive director of the grass-roots nonprofit SETI League, I am privileged to head up one of those searches. But I do not speak for SETI!
Perhaps the most highly visible of the various scientific organizations seeking our cosmic companions is the prestigious SETI Institute in California. Spun off from a onetime NASA SETI effort, SETI Institute scientists conduct numerous Life in the Universe studies, as well as one of the most comprehensive surveys ever for artificial radio emissions from space. It was their expertise that informed the technical content of the popular film Contact, and their efforts that keep SETI high in the public consciousness. They are among the most highly respected of my colleagues, and I am proud to practice SETI in such august company.
But SETI is a science, not a single search. I frequently read glowing press accounts of my colleagues' accomplishments, which are invariably attributed to some monolithic organization referred to as 'SETI.' "SETI has received a grant..." I read in the paper, or "SETI's chief scientist is lecturing at..." or "the director of SETI says that..."
Certainly, this generalization of SETI Institute into simply SETI is not the doing of my modest Institute colleagues, but rather represents a tendency of the media to lump together all related efforts under a common banner. But to call the SETI Institute (or any one organization) 'SETI' is equivalent to referring to the National Science Foundation as simply 'science', or to NASA as 'space.' It implies a level of homogeneity which, if it indeed existed, would rob our discipline of its broad diversity, and stifle creative science.
Each of the various SETI organizations around the world tackles a complex problem from a unique perspective. Since we cannot yet say which approach is the right one, we certainly cannot say that any is wrong. The efforts of hundreds of scientists now working on several independent searches may some day gain us entry into the cosmic community. Collectively, one might call them SETI. Individually, each is but a piece of the puzzle.
The other day I was preaching SETI to a group of students, one of whom said, "we already know all about it. We use your screen-saver." She was referring to SETI@home, a highly successful initiative out of the University of California, Berkeley. That famous experiment in distributed computer processing is also a piece of the puzzle. But shouldn't we, educators and media alike, try to show the world the big picture?
Dr. Shuch, executive director of the nonprofit, membership-supported SETI League, Inc., does not speak for SETI.
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this page last updated 4 January 2003
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