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In Defence of SETI

I was surprised recently when I looked back through my records and realised that I have participated in the SETI at Home project for about 15 years now. If you haven’t heard of this project, let me explain: SETI stands for the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, and the project uses many ordinary computers to analyse enormous amounts of radio telescope data looking for signals of intelligent life.

It becomes quite competitive and some people use large numbers of computers to try to analyse more data (or “blocks” of data) than anyone else. I have used varying numbers with varying power to process data in the past but am currently just running a few.

I have been criticised on occasions because people see this project as a waste of time, internet bandwidth, or computer power; or as a frivolous extravagance; or even as a pseudoscientific pursuit with no basis in reality.

I disagree, and this blog entry is primarily to defend the SETI project and maybe the more controversial and quirky scientific projects in general.

For a start, this is a real science project and many other real science projects are being conducted this way today. Volunteers like me make our computers available to analyse data which would normally require expensive supercomputers. The data is generated as a side-effect of other science projects and is managed by Berkeley University, so any claim that this is pseudo-scientific is definitely untrue.

What about the claim of frivolity? Is it silly to look for “little green men” or other intelligent alien life? Unfortunately the real science has been confused with the pseudo-science of UFOlogy and other claims and conspiracies in this case. But the two aren’t the same. SETI projects are a genuine attempt to look for intelligence using techniques which might get negative or positive results. There is no initial assumption that aliens exist. Most pseudo-scientific UFO “researchers” already “know” that aliens exist and pick and choose their evidence accordingly.

Finally, is this a waste of time, bandwidth, or computing power? In most cases these resources weren’t originally purchased to run distributed experiments like SETI but there is very little loss involved and the potential gain is significant. Would the discovery of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe not be the greatest discovery of all time? How cool would it be if it was one of my computers which discovered the signal!

I have commented in the past how puzzling the lack of signs of intelligent life is, for example in a post titled “Science and Fiction” from 2013-01-15 where I discussed the Fermi Paradox: the fact that informal estimates indicate there should be plenty of life elsewhere in the universe, yet we see none.

This is surely one of the great mysteries of the universe. If we are the only intelligent life (and maybe the only life of any type) in the whole universe that would be totally astonishing, yet the opposite idea, that life is everywhere, is equally amazing.

Surely supporting the SETI projects by doing something as simple as installing the SETI at Home software and paying for a little bit of extra electricity and internet bandwidth is worth it. This is arguably the most awesome experiment the human race has ever attempted, and a lot of it is being performed on a bunch of ordinary computers around the world, including mine. The only criticism should be of those who don’t participate!

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