August 17, 2007 | David F. Coppedge

SETI Camp Promotes Make Believe

“Every kid loves to play make believe,” wrote Lisa Grossman for Space.com’s “SETI Thursday” feature.  How did Lisa spend her summer?  Playing make believe with 16 undergraduates at a NSF- and NASA-funded SETI camp.  “For many of us, the experience was nothing short of fantasy fulfillment,” she cheerfully said in her report entitled, “How I Spent My Summer at SETI.”  The SETI Institute organized the event.
    Her report, in fact, seemed long on make-believe and short on evidence.  For Grossman, fantasizing began in third grade and carried through non-stop to SETI Camp (or, more formally, the Summer Research Experience for Undergraduates).

I imagined a universe full of tiny, hardy life.  Why not?  Microbes can live comfortably in the most absurdly unfriendly reaches of the planet.  If these little creatures can survive in volcanoes, at the bottom of the ocean, embedded in glacial ice, and even in countless human guts, then they must be able to exist on other planets!  Life must be absolutely everywhere!
    I didn’t know then that there was an entire community of scientists who felt exactly the same way.  I certainly didn’t expect that before I’d even graduated from college, I’d be working with them.

(Cf. 03/29/2007 entry.)  She mentions what some fellow campers worked on: searching for extrasolar planets, studying the geology of Europa, working on a Mars lander instrument, watching meteors, and other projects.  Nothing Grossman mentioned, though, provided any direct evidence for life beyond Earth.  What the projects did do was to harness youthful euphoria for otherwise mundane research:

Another student spent her days studying the geology of Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons.  Scientists believe that it has a vast liquid water ocean beneath a layer of ice at the surface.  She analyzed images of Europa from the Galileo mission, looking for areas of the surface whose appearance changed over time and trying to determine if those changes are what you would expect if there were a liquid ocean.  She thinks the possibilities for life on Europa are especially exciting.  ’As soon as I heard about Europa, I thought, ‘Oh, awesome.  Let’s look for lobsters!‘’ she said.  So far, she hasn’t discovered any Europan crustaceans, but she’s enjoyed learning more about geology and approaching biology and chemistry from an astronomy perspective.

Grossman discussed all the fun the others were having with their experiments – not one of which found any evidence for life out there.  Just the possibility that might play some role in the hunt was enough to make their scientific work a thrill of lifetime.  Why, it’s just like in the movies:

All of us got to take a week-long field trip to the Hat Creek Radio Observatory, home of the Allen Telescope Array, where Jill Tarter, SETI’s director of research and the inspiration for Carl Sagan’s novel Contact, explained how the telescopes work and what research they’ll be used for.  Several of us even camped overnight in tents under the array.  It wasn’t very scientifically useful, but it was definitely something to write home about.

So the hunting came up entirely empty; “Nevertheless, whether we continue on in astrobiology or not, this summer of playing alien hunters will stay with us.”  Thanks for the memories; sorry about the data.    She ended on a missionary appeal, encouraging readers to spread the word about next year’s SETI Camp.

Here’s a suggestion for them.  The name “Summer Research Experience for Undergraduates” is way dullsville and has no catchy acronym.  Nor does it convey what the SETI Camp is all about.  It fails to encapsulate the experience of being there.  They need something that connotes vivid imagery and action, where anything can become vibrant and moving and animated, where even stars, bubbles and volcanos can spring to life.  Maybe they should call it Fantasia.
    Should you awaken someone who is enjoying a fun dream?  What’s the harm of a blissful fantasy?  Even if life is never found, and if the evidence continues to go against them (read Michael Egnor’s comments and see the 07/27/2007 and 02/15/2007 entries), why spoil someone’s party? (read Larry Caldwell’s comments).  After all, lots of internet gamers and denizens of Second Life take their fantasies very seriously.  Maybe SETI Camp keeps them away from a life of idleness and crime.  Maybe something good will come from it, like chemistry did from alchemy, even if the hoped-for dream never materializes.  Their youthful zeal will advance our knowledge of extrasolar planets, the geology of planetary moons, the adaptations of extremophiles, and mineral content of meteors, with or without mythical lobsters under Europa’s ice.  And the Intelligent Design community can continue to harvest the irony of Contact (12/03/2005) whether or not the dreamers catch on.  What’s the matter, isn’t this all worth a little taxpayer money?  Still, it’s kind of sad….

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