small logo Guest Editorial

by Kathryn Denning and Elisabeth Piotelat

In planning for an upcoming SETI conference in Paris, members of the International Academy of Astronautics have recently sought sponsorship and sanction from UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation. The logical question raised is, how does SETI fit within UNESCO's charter and worldview?

Given that UNESCO's ultimate purpose is "to build peace in the minds of men" via education, science, culture, and communication, and that it is concerned with global thinking, and "the universal heritage of humanity":

UNESCO's constitution supports "the unrestricted pursuit of objective truth" and "the free exchange of ideas and knowledge." Any proposed SETI conference would certainly pursue similar goals.

A few years ago, the SETI@home distributed computing experiment proved itself a good tool "to build peace in the minds of men." The early adopters who installed SETI@home on their personal computers in May, 1999 were mostly young boys who downloaded it as a game. Their main objective was to get a higher peak, or to appear in the listings. They saw strange words such as "fast Fourier transform" and "Gaussian," but few of them wondered about their meanings. On SETI League email lists, the typical questions posted were "how can I increase the speed of my computer?" and "I have found such a peak; is it the signal?"

After a few months, those discussions began to take on a different tone. SETI@home users spoke about philosophy, science, and so on. Users began inquiring who Gauss and Fourier were. We were treated to some "café des sciences" about life in the universe, and some SETI@home users began to attend scientific lectures.

Today, SETI@home software has been replaced by an expanded version, BOINC, the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Networked Computing. BOINC users can choose the project to which they care to donate computer cycles. SETI@home remains a favourite among French speaking people, but many of them have also downloaded the MalariaControl software, primarily because they saw it as a "French speaking" project, having been developed by people in Switzerland, Cameroon, Mali, etc. Thus, international cooperation, SETI-inspired!

Even if SETI@home finds no signal, it's great to see that, indirectly, it is helping humanity to fight malaria.

UNESCO, like the United Nations itself, was born in the wake of the Second World War, to facilitate understanding between nations through the best of human culture (including science). SETI is a logical extension of that mission.

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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