small logo Guest Editorial

What Hath God Wrought?
by H. Paul Shuch, Executive Director Emeritus, The SETI League, Inc.

Morse, the digital communications code first demonstrated to a waiting world by Samuel F.B. Morse in 1844, is now officially obsolete. And so, I imagine, are many of us who still employ it.

First used to cross continents, and then (half a century later) to cross oceans, Morse Code (and its successors) wrought the communications revolution, shrinking and linking our globe, and ultimately facilitating collaborative science, as is practiced by The SETI League. For the past century, it has been the primary means by which amateur radio operators (to which fraternity many SETI League members belong) communicated with their counterparts in distant lands.

Ah, but no more. Several years ago, the International Telecommunications Union deemed Morse Code skills optional. Prior to that time, member states issuing ham radio licenses were required to compel applicants to demonstrate proficiency in that archaic artform. When the Morse Code requirement was abandoned by the ITU, individual nations were free to drop the code test from their licensing procedures. Many did -- but not the United States, the tail that wags the telecom dog.

But, in 2006, the USA's Federal Communications Commission dropped the other dit, and subtracted Morse proficiency from the price of admission into the ham radio fraternity. The resulting controversy pitted US against THEM, with US being those already skilled in this particular digital communications mode, and THEM being those who preferred more modern means of sharing ones and zeroes.

What has all this to do with SETI? On the surface, it would seem to involve us only peripherally. Many (but certainly not all) SETI League members happen to be licensed by our respective governments to engage in amateur radio communications. The grass-roots SETI League is an amateur as well as a professional organization. And our Search certainly involves electromagnetic communications. So, by syllogism, Morse Code proficiency is relevant to at least some engaged in the SETI endeavor.

In a broader sense, it can be argued, Morse Code is irrelevant to the theory or practice of SETI. For, in the Search phase, we are operating our telescopes as sensitive interstellar receivers, trying to detect radio or optical evidence of our cosmic companions. Unless we choose to transmit (and, in fact, even if we choose to transmit), any skills in radio telegraphy are entirely secondary to our stated mission. So, who cares what the ITU, the FCC, or any other regulating body may dictate?

On the third hand (and there's no telling how many hands ETI might possess), it is reasonable to assume that, with the elimination of a Morse Code requirement, the barriers to entry into the ranks of the radio amateurs have been reduced. Whether you are a Morsophile or a Morsophobe, you will have to admit that this could result in the world coining more licensed hams. And since The SETI League draws its membership base, at least in part, from among the ranks of the world's radio amateurs, might this not result in more potential SETI League members? I think this is at least an arguable conclusion.

In which case, I thank you, Mr. ITU (and you, Ms. FCC), for opening the doors to greater SETI participation. Here we have a chance to attract wider participation in the SETI enterprise. This can have nothing but positive results.

Unless ETI chooses to communicate solely in Morse Code.

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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