At a recent conference in Glasgow, I had the honor (no, make that honour) of sharing the podium with one Martyn Fogg, a gentleman previously known to me only by reputation. And reputation can be deceiving. I had rather expected Fogg, a preeminent authority on terraforming and author of the first college textbook on the subject [Terraforming - Engineering Planetary Environments, 1995, SAE, ISBN 1-56091-609-5] to be a bent and graying, stodgy and stuffy Cambridge don. Instead, I found myself greeted by a young, witty, dynamic (though somewhat shy) and nerdy enthusiast. But that wasn't the only surprise. Martyn, it turns out, is not an astronomer, astrophysicist or engineer by trade. Rather, he is . . . a dentist!
How does someone with no advanced degrees in the physical sciences establish himself at the forefront of SETI research? How can a dentist survive the peer review process, his articles gracing the pages of such respected, juried publications as the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society? If I had the answers to those questions, I'd bottle and sell them. Instead, I can only observe, somewhat incredulously, that it can and does happen.
Every few days I receive letters, or email, from enthusiastic SETI supporters wishing to make a technical contribution. Often they say "I'd like to take part in your sky survey, but I have no formal background in astronomy" (or microwave, or physics, or whatever). "Can I still participate?" My stock answer has been, "they also serve who merely pay their dues." After meeting Martyn Fogg, I'm reassessing that answer.
The SETI enterprise is, by its very nature, highly interdisciplinary. The seven factors of the Drake equation encompass knowledge (or ignorance) of astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, philosophy, psychology, and sociology. Although those of us with background in a particular discipline tend to believe that ours are the specific skills crucial to SETI success, in truth the specific requirements of the search are no more precisely known than is the solution to Drake's equation. The crucial element may well be described as a sense of wonder. While some of us will continue to trod the known path, we seek others, newcomers, who will approach problems from the novel perspective of the knowledgeable layman.
SETI will succeed or fail on the strength of its support base. This is true economically, but also intellectually. We need participants from a wide variety of disciplines. The next major breakthrough, whatever it may encompass, will likely be made not by the radioastronomer, but rather by the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. Or even the knowledgeable dentist.
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this page last updated 4 January 2003
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