Ask Dr. SETI ®
by H. Paul Shuch
There are two kinds of people in the world, according to an old joke: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don't.
I recalled that bit of whimsy recently, while attempting to impart some wisdom to one of my stepsons, a young adult who has yet to get his life together. "There are three kinds of people in the world," I told him. "Those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who wait for things to happen."
The former are the movers and shakers, the ones who shape their own destiny, and with it, human history. All parents hope our offspring will fall in this category. We try to teach them by example, modeling for them thoughtful but decisive behavior. Most of them, if properly raised, get the message eventually. Some take longer than others.
But, not everyone is destined to become a world leader, to have a major impact on events. Some choose instead to place themselves near the seat of power, in the company of the movers and shakers. They are able to observe events as they unfold, and often make small, incremental, but crucial contributions to the course of human history. There is no shame in watching things happen, if you take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves -- opportunities to learn, and to contribute as your skills and talents allow.
And then, there are those who just sit back and let life unfold. By waiting for things to happen, they are placing their futures in the hands of fate. When things go their way, they attribute their good fortune to luck. When they don't, they blame their failures on bad breaks. It's very liberating not to have to take responsibility for the direction of your own life, but it seldom leads to desired outcomes.
All of this may (or may not) be very effective counsel for a young adult just choosing his path through life. But, what does it have to do with SETI?
On reflection, it occurred to me that, in the context of humanity's eventual interactions with extraterrestrial beings, the same three categories apply.
The humans who make things happen are those who facilitate contact. Many SETI League members fall in this category. Those of you who are building and operating Project Argus stations, designing microwave receiving equipment, developing signal analysis software, contemplating protocols, and considering the social consequences of contact are making things happen. You may not see the results in your own lifetime, but if you can adopt a broad enough perspective, you will see that you are making a difference, at least for future generations. You are the sons and daughters I had always hoped to raise.
OK, I admit that not everybody has the training and resources to push the state of the art forward. Some of our members choose, of necessity, to stand on the sidelines and watch things unfold. Those of you in this category may not be making the big breakthroughs that will lead to a momentous discovery, but you are doing the next best thing. You are educating yourselves by reading books and articles on SETI and its related science and technologies. You are interacting with those Category 1 folks whose discoveries will impact your lives, and in so doing, putting a face for them on those who their work will influence. You are providing encouragement (and in some cases funding) to push the research forward. You are an essential element in the process of privatized science.
And then, there are those who sit and wait for something to happen. Perhaps they think that nothing they do will make a difference. Maybe they figure that extraterrestrial contact will have no impact on them. Or maybe they are so occupied with simple survival that they have no time or energy left for such esoteric fields of endeavor. It's possible they even think that the odds of SETI success are so low that they're not worth wasting neurons on. Whatever their reasoning, this segment of society has removed itself from the SETI equation. Clearly, they won't be reading this article.
Now, it's not my task to set priorities for others. But as a parent on the one hand, an educator on the other, it is my task to communicate the choices, and to emphasize to those around me that it is a choice. You may choose to take an active role in SETI science, through participation in Project Argus, SETI@home, or a number of other worthy enterprises. You may choose to sit on the sidelines, watching and learning and perhaps contributing an idea or two, but at the very least providing moral support and encouragement to those making things happen. Or, you may choose to sit and wait. If too many humans choose the latter, it may be a very long wait indeed.
How humanity chooses to involve itself in SETI, or not to, will determine our future on a cosmic scale.
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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this page last updated 5 March 2011
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