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Hardly a Waste of Time
by Philip J. Hughes
pjhughes @

Many years ago, as a student at university, a math professor told me that I "lacked focus" (to use a current rubric; back then, I think it was ambition that I lacked). Having been wandering about for some years -- this was in the days of beatniks, before a flood of hippies came flowering out of the suburbs -- I was classified as a mature student. (My mother could not understand this. She knew better.) I was sent to a very pretty young counselor to get my world-view straightened up. (I would not call her pretty today -- it isn't done -- and I'm sure I would have been more descriptive then.) When she asked what I was interested in, I replied that there were many things that interested me, but none to the exclusion of the others.

Before he died, my father took me to science-fiction movies, which I think he enjoyed. And he showed me the stars, so I became interested in astronomy. He had been a prospector in his youth, so I became interested in geology too. At some point I learned about Darwin and became interested in biology. (What 12-year-old boy is not interested in dinosaurs?) And by 1955 I was corresponding with Wernher von Braun and dreaming (night and day) with visions derived largely from Chesley Bonestell's paintings. Then, as time passed, I was attracted to questions involving foundations and the history and philosophy of science. It was only much later that I came to terms with myth and religion. I did not know then that the path that I was following was just that: a path, a way followed by others. I was an only child, and there were none then with whom I could share the experience.

The first books about SETI that I recall began appearing in the early 'sixties: Sullivan, a collection of reprints edited by A. G. W. Cameron, and, by the time I was in university, the book by Sagan & Shklovskii. The dean of science at my university suggested that I read a little book by Loren Eisely, and I found a kindred spirit. But by the time I saw the counselor, my interests were broadening -- not, alas, deepening.

As we talked, the counselor took notes, and after we had fininshed, she looked these over. Then, after a few moments, she exclaimed: "Oh! I see what you are interested in!"

"Eh?," I replied. This is a uniquely Canadian expression. It can mean just about anything.

"Your are interested in Time!," she said. "And Story!," she added, smiling brightly. And then she carefully explained how all my interests were centered about the narrative history of the world and my place in it.

To this day, I don't know if she was unusually perceptive, or if I just read something into what she said. (Maybe I should have asked her out. Maybe we could have gotten married. Instead, I married a fellow student, a mathematician.) Perhaps she simply provided a trigger for a coalescence of ideas that would have happened anyway. In any event, from then on my interests no longer seemed so unrelated.

That was thirty years ago. I was never able to make a career out of my "interests". I became a meteorological technician. But how does a man define himself? By his job? My job -- my "career", if you like -- served only to support my family. I was reasonably good at it, but it was in a sense incidental. It was for my interests (and, of course, my family) that I lived. At least the job took us to some interesting places: the Canadian Arctic, the middle of the Aleutian Gulf, and finally the West Coast. And it provided the solitude to pursue my "hobby" and the money to buy books, both for myself and my wife. What it did not provide, and what I now know is essential, is a means of discourse with others.

At least I have managed to survive Flying Saucers, Positivism, Elvis, Creationism, National Destiny, and all the other ideological diseases (I like to call them oncomemes, but that is a conceit) that plague wayfarers in the world of ideas. (I think that it was Chesterton who observed that when we give up believing in something, we end up believing in anything and everything.) When others asked me what I did, I learned to answer: "Weatherman." And when they asked me what I was interested in, what my "hobby" was, I would usually say "Astronomy". It has never occured to me to say "SETI", any more than I might answer "Evolution" or "Time". Or "The Meaning of Life".

But I'm not really an amateur astronomer. I do have a telescope, but it is short-focus refractor (a TeleVue 101), intended for pretty views of the sky. I don't do serious observing, any more than I do serious number-crunching or serious programming. I guess I could describe myself as an arm-chair astronomer. Again, "SETI hobbyist" doesn't really come to mind, and I wince at being called a dilettante -- too close to home, I guess.

I'm retired now. That is, I have retired from my job; I still have my "hobby". We live on a small island with dark night skies, so I spend more time star-gazing than in the past. And I have my books. And this ridiculous computer with which I have wasted far more time than I might ever have done on my old job. (Which, of course, was not a waste at all, since it provided money.) I suppose that I have learned a little more about the "universe story" and the "Grand Analogy". But, once again, productive learning needs discourse; my wife and I share many intellectual interests, but that isn't enough. This surely is part of the reason why cranks become cranks: they are removed from a community of discourse. And I know nothing as to how the orbit of the self's journey intersects the larger narrative of the world in which it is embedded.

The self, at least, perceives other selves. We have a sense of "Otherness" -- I don't mean God, just the observation that there are other folks more-or-less like us, other humans: a community of people with something in common, something that invariably issues from their history. Similarly, we can talk about other communities, other cultures, and even other species. But the farther we get from the self, the more "otherly" the Other becomes. We can talk about the world-view of scientists, Kalahari Bushmen, and accountants. But what about the world-view of dolphins? And if we view the evolving autogenic imagery of the human mind as a species trait, with what shall we compare it? There are no "others". Not on Earth. Selves and cultures and species are unique, but there are others somehow like them. (And 'somehow like' here involves an appeal to history, or at least to some separation between what is seen as necessary and what is seen as contingent.) But what of the larger community of discourse that comprises human knowledge and values? Unquestionably, it is unique. But how unique? And are there precedents?

Perhaps that is why I am interested in SETI. All of what we have learned or can learn has a bearing on that question, "Are we alone?": cosmology, astrophysics, geology, biology, history, etc. And not science alone. Art, myth, religion, philosophy, all are relevant and somehow subsumed by Fermi's Paradox. But, here as elsewhere, I suspect that it is the question that is important, not the answer.

Heck of a hobby, eh? Well, I don't really think of SETI as a hobby, any more (or less) than astronomy is. I run SETI@home on a couple of computers, but that requires no effort and I doubt that anything will come of it. (But it is after all empirical, and I think that that is important.) I don't have any equipment for actually "listening". An Argus station would be nice. I could put a big dish up on the roof, and process the signal with a Linux box, and get a pair of head-phones to listen to the hiss...

But, no. The mathematician would never go for it. She is a gardener now, and a giant antenna looming over her lovely garden would not be welcome.

Even so, it's hardly been a waste of time.

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