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Where Is Everybody?
by H. Paul Shuch

No, I'm not reiterating the well-known Fermi Paradox, articulated six decades ago in the context of the assumed extaterrestrials, whose lack of visibility was, and remains, a mystery. Rather, I'm referring to the thousands of SETI League members who have somehow failed to materialize over the past fifteen years. Were we overly optimistic? Or, perhaps, do such supporters not actually exist?

The question became evident during last month's SETI League Annual Meeting in Little Ferry, NJ. Through the magic of telecommunications, the three participating members constituted a quorum. And that in itself is disturbing.

Our bylaws require that no fewer than one percent of our Members in Good Standing be present, either physically or virtually, for the conduct of SETI League business. The fact that three members satisfied this rigorous requirement correctly suggests that our current, dues-paid membership stands at or below 300 individuals. This is in marked contrast to our heyday of a decade back, when we boasted a membership of 1500 and growing. So, where is everybody?

I'm willing to allow that at least a few former members inadvertently let their memberships lapse. I myself sometimes simply forget to send in the occasional timely dues payment, to various organizations that I normally support. But this possibility hardly accounts for the hundreds of former supporters who, for whatever reason, no longer see fit to count themselves as SETI League members. Did we do something wrong? Frighten them away? Ask too much of them? Or did they simply fade into the aether, like weak signals traversing the interstellar medium?

Like the Fermi Paradox, this question probably has as many possible answers as The SETI League once had members. Here's my favorite, speculative one: we humans are an impatient lot. After years of searching and coming up dry, we've begun to lose interest in the quest for contact.

I hope I'm wrong about this. After all, when SETI science was born a half-century ago, most of its pioneers (though optimistically hoping for immediate success) realistically recognized that this was likely to be a long-term endeavor. Human society, after all, spans tens of thousands of years -- and yet, it is only within the past century that we have begun to develop the kinds of technology likely to yield SETI success. How could we possibly have succeeded so soon?

And yet, like the ADHD schoolchild, we tend to have very short attention spans. We bore easily, become readily distracted, and quickly move on to new challenges. I include myself in this generalization: a decade ago, I was devoting twelve hours a day, seven days a week to The SETI League and its various activities. Today, I've taken on other responsibilities (tried to retire, started a business, accepted a Visiting Professorship, and most recently opened a flight school). True, I still help out as I'm able, but there's only so much energy to devote to what sometimes seems a fruitless endeavor. If I still count myself among those few hundred SETIzens whose membership is still in good standing, it's only because my Life Membership has (thankfully) yet to expire.

And, when it does, who will be left out there to carry the torch? I'd like to believe that the next generation will embrace SETI with the same verve that we graybeards once exhibited. I can imagine that the thousands of students with whom I have come in contact, while giving hundreds of SETI lectures at dozens of campuses on five continents, will graduate to become an enthusiastic and active cadre of SETI practitioners. Maybe some of them will even join The SETI League.

I certainly hope so. Otherwise, it will be even easier to achieve a lonely quorum for next year's Annual Meeting.

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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