Taking the Sci-Fi Out of SETI
SETI might well stand for “Sci-Fi of Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence” with its ROI (return on investment) of zero in 50 years of searching (12/31/2009). In his latest piece for Space.com Seth Shostak did the best he could to distinguish SETI as science, not science fiction, though plenty of the latter will be evident at a conference in Santa Clara this weekend called SETIcon (SETI Conference), sponsored by the SETI Institute. Shostak, erstwhile Director, preferred in this article to call himself by his new scientific title, “Senior Astronomer.”
The conference will feature a who’s who of SETI glitterati, including Frank Drake, Jill Tarter, and Seth Shostak himself, who has tried to make the scientific case for SETI for years (01/05/2005, 04/22/2009). They will be accompanied by Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweikart, planet hunter Mike Brown, Alex Filippenko and other astronomers. Mixed in with the “science” category are plenty of “science fiction” people, like Robyn Asimov (the daughter of noted atheist science fiction writer Isaac Asimov), sci-if screenwriters, actors from sci-if movies, and book authors, making this a blend of views “all dealing with the science and science-fiction of extraterrestrial life.”
What did Shostak offer up as the science of SETI? Without a subject (02/20/2004, 07/25/2006), is it really right to call it science (08/13/2004)? Without doubt, there has been plenty of progress in astrophysical theories about the lifetimes of various star types, the conditions for habitable environments, and a growing roster of extrasolar planets. The search tools have become much better, with the Allen Telescope Array coming online (08/17/2007, 10/12/2007). But much of his material is in future tense – what scientists can expect is possible, given the constraints of physics (12/07/2007). Scientists help inform overactive screenwriters’ imaginations with a dose of realism. The dinner in honor of Frank Drake is more a celebrity toast than a science presentation, since Drake never found anything.
Shostak insisted that “there’s never been a time when the search for life beyond Earth – a staple of the [science fiction] genre – was more informed by real science.” But the only scientific achievements he listed deal with stars, planets, radio waves, and the like – the usual astronomy – not matters of sentient beings.
Would it be science if you published many articles on scientific constraints for the survival of gnomes and leprechauns? Shostak knows a lot of astronomy, but his reason for being in his current post is SETI, for which there is no scientific evidence. He loves to mingle with the sci-if crowd (05/31/2005), but when the legitimacy of SETI is at stake, he can easily point to Filippenko and Brown and the other legit astronomers, and say, “I’m with them.” Note: they haven’t found ET, either.