Ask Dr. SETI ®
by H. Paul Shuch
There he goes, making those bold predictions again. During a recent talk at the 2014 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) symposium at Stanford University, our friend and colleague Seth Shosak stated:
"Astronomers will have scanned enough star systems by 2040 that we'll have discovered alien-produced electromagnetic signals."
If you're experiencing a sense of deja vu, you're not exactly alone. Seth has been predicting imminent SETI success for about the past twenty years. At first, his prediction event horizon was ... about twenty years. Notice how he keeps moving the goalpost?
I find two factors significant about these predictions. First, SETI success is now framed in terms of not "if," but "when." The general consensus within the scientific community is that the eventual detection of clearly artificial extraterrestrial electromagnetic emissions is a certainty; it's just a matter of time.
How much time? That's the second epiphamy we've reached. Unlike Frank Drake's naive enthusiasm when, in 1960, he witnessed his first tantalizing Project Ozma false alarm ("I couldn't believe it was going to be this easy!") we have now come to accept the multi-generational aspect of the SETI effort. Nobody, not even Seth, is holding his or her breath for an immediate detection. This is going to take a long-term, concerted effort (at least out to 2040).
Okay, what's wrong with Seth's predictions? Nothing, actually -- what we humans do best is speculate. We speculate about the nature of the Universe, and life within it, and what kinds of technology the Other may employ, and whether or not we have the means to recognize it when we see it.
One thing about which we need not speculate is the vastness of the time-space we occupy. Though it may take nearly infinite time to explore the infinite, how can we not continue, while there is so much left to learn?
So, I encourage Seth to continue speculating -- and searching -- for as long as the search may take us. Only, he should take greater care as to his predictions. After all, he wouldn't want to jeopardize the SETI Institute's non-prophet status.
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this page last updated 1 March 2014
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