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Questions and Answers on SETI

Questions About SETI
Answered by Big Ear Volunteers

What benefits, either in technology or other areas, has society gained from SETI?

Bob Dixon

People's minds are broadened by becoming more aware of the universe around us. This is true not just of SETI but all of Astronomy and the space program. One should not look only for short-term goals and advantages.

The megachannel spectrum analyzers developed for SETI have been used in geological explorations of the Earth, and in other branches of Astronomy. Future SETI programs will discover new natural objects and facts about the universe that would not have been discovered otherwise.

Herb Johnson

SETI research is actually the conjunction of several areas of research and development: cryptography (and anticryptography, the art of making messages EASIER to decode); low-noise radio electronics; antenna design and construction; automated, long-term facility operation; long-term or rapid access data archives; signal processing; and so on.

Why do you consider SETI an important and beneficial project?

Bob Dixon

Mankind must always explore the unknown and push the frontiers of knowledge. Without new quests, we lose an important part of being human, and our society starts to decay. Discovery of other civilizations would profoundly change the way we think and act here on Earth, and probably for the better. There could be the Encyclopedia Galactica to teach us many things. The mere fact that one other civilization exists would tell us that not all civilizations destroy themselves during their developmental stages.

Herb Johnson

The "planetary side" of SETI is research into how life, intelligent or otherwise, could occur elsewhere: what conditions, what state of development, and so on. The direct impact on society is not like Teflon or Tang, but more philosophical, like the discovery that the Earth is not the center of all things. Some of these questions come back "home" when we have discovered life deep in rocks, or in hot vents in the ocean, or even in Mars meteorites!

What separates the Ohio research from Project Pheonix?

Bob Dixon

There are many SETI programs, of which Ohio and Phoenix are only two. The only continuous programs are Ohio, Harvard, Argentina and the parasitic SERENDIP program in Puerto Rico.

The Ohio SETI program is the longest-running one on Earth, having started in the early 1970s and run continuously ever since. Phoenix started in the last few years, and does not run continuously. The Ohio search strategy is an all-sky survey, with immediate tracking followup of any unusual detections. Phoenix uses a targeted strategy to look at a list of selected nearby stars. Phoenix uses larger telescopes than the Ohio telescope, and has a more powerful spectrum analyzer. Phoenix is funded by large private contributions and has paid staff. The Ohio SETI program is run by volunteers.

The Ohio program is now designing a new type of radio telescope (called "Argus") that will look in all directions at once, making routine detection of transient signals possible for the first time.

Herb Johnson

There is more in common than the particulars that separate these programs. Our program is to date a long-term series of surveys across the sky; our upcoming program will be an all-sky-at-once survey, a "radio video camera". The Phoenix project is as I understand it a series of surveys of specific places in the sky, "likely targets".

Is there any chance that a message from an extraterrestrial civilization would be hostile in nature?

Cindy Brooman

We believe that a message from an extraterrestrial civilization would most likely be nonthreatening in content. Beings capable of composing and sending a message to another world would probably be highly intelligent, and would be interested in the exchange of information (i.e., cultural and scientific). Most highly intelligent people are nonviolent. Think about the way this works on the Earth. The people that are the most intelligent -- i.e., writing articles for Scientific American magazine and winning Nobel Prizes -- are not the same people who are having gun fights in bars. Besides, who would build a spaceship to travel for millions of light years just to pick a fight with somebody? This would be an extreme waste of energy. If the creatures were that stupid, they wouldn't have the smarts to build a ship capable of interstellar travel.

If a message from an extraterrestrial civilization were received, would radio astronomers inform the public about it?

Cindy Brooman

There are procedures in place to inform the world if a message from an extraterrestrial civilization were to be received. Radio astronomers would first confirm the signal among themselves, and then inform the public. The sequence of events in the movie "Contact" is probably very similar to what would happen in the event of receipt of an actual message.



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Last modified: August 15, 2005.