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Unformatted text preview: half-million-dollar tab at Tiffany's, we're deferring an attempt to answer one of our
most enduring (and least inexpensive to answer) questions: Are we alone in the universe? Certainly we don't
cotton to the idea of being alone. We yearn for the big signal from the stars, the cosmic hail. When Stephen
Hawking warns us against contacting E.T. because we might end up invaded by Klingons, we argue about it
around the water cooler. We thrill to "Contact" and "District 9" and play video games featuring tentacled
aliens. We tune in when Carl Sagan and Timothy Ferris explain outer space on TV. Yet we're surprisingly
unwilling to put our money where our imaginations want to roam. News that the Allen Telescope Array is
"hibernating" -- a curiously biological term for shutting down 42 radio telescopes designed to listen for signs
of life from other worlds -- raises questions about our true commitment to the search for extraterrestrial
intelligence. The National Science Foundation recently slashed the University of California's budgets for
the Allen array by 90%. This, along with state cuts, has left UC Berkeley, which operates the Hat Creek
array in the Cascade Mountains, and the private SETI Institute, which conducts searches, in the lurch. For
now, the phone is off the hook -- as it was in 1994 when Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev., derided NASA's
"Martian chase" and successfully shut down its SETI -- "Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence" -program. It would cost each U.S. taxpayer just 3 cents a year to fund the Allen array, according to SETI
Institute Senior Astronomer Seth Shostak. But in this political environment, direct taxpayer support is
unlikely, so the SETI Institute is trying to raise $5 million to reboot the array. Donors such as Microsoft's
Paul Allen stepped up after NASA's project died; it's for him that the array is named. In fact, SETI's best
hope may be the private sector. Privately financed astronomy is nothing new. In the 18th and 19th centuries
-- the heyday of private observatory building -- such work was in part spurred by interest in alien life. It's an
interest that, despite present budget tribulations, runs deep. As scholars Steven Dick and Michael Crowe have
shown, we can trace the idea of an infinite universe full of other worlds to pre-Socratics like Democritus.
This view was marginalized by more famous philosophers, such as Aristotle, and later, by a church fearful of
anything that threatened the notion of a unique God-Earth relationship. But by the Victorian era, there were
serious discussions not only about a lively universe -- which was widely assumed -- but about whether Christ
might have to be endlessly reincarnated on a "plurality of worlds." That thorny issue eventually faded from
view and new takes on the question of cosmic life emerged, such as whether there were canals on Mars.
Arguably, the first organized SETI took place in the 1920s when astronomer David Todd persuaded the U.S.
military to observe radio silence across North America while he and others listened to the R...
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This note was uploaded on 01/14/2013 for the course POL 090 taught by Professor Framer during the Spring '13 term at Shimer.
- Spring '13