if it's just us... seems like an awful waste of space.
Posted 2012.10.29
I received this message in an email yesterday:

We need your help to continue the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence!

It came fresh on the heels of donation campaigns for Wikipedia and public radio, so I was familiar with the pitch language. For some reason, though, I felt it was out of place, or weird, for an intergalactic search for life to do this very Earthly thing.

I should back up a bit: As I mentioned in a previous short, I installed a distributed computing app on my laptop called BOINC. It runs in the background, using my excess computing power to help figure out the best way to build a protein, develop clean energy sources, or find out whether there's any final solution to the Collatz Conjecture. One of the projects that I chose to run through the app is SETI@home, which analyzes the noise picked up by the Arecibo Observatory and other sources to find out if any frequencies are carrying intelligent messages from another world. I assume that since I signed up for a SETI@home team, I was put on their email list, thus the pledge pitch to support SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence).

You may ask yourself, "Isn't fighting malaria more important than looking for signals from little green men?" In many ways, yes it is; if we can't get our act together on Earth when it comes to disease or energy consumption, we can't hope to confront the life-shaking realization that we may not be alone in the universe. I would grant you that. But I would also ask you to consider what such a discovery would do for our collective identity, and how much of a benefit it might be to find out that we're not the only intelligence out there. It would just be another step in making our self-image less pompous and more true to life.

Where we've been:

  1. In the beginning, we humans thought we were pretty damn special. God had anointed us as the greatest creatures in his creation (He saved the best for last!), with dominion over the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. We were perfect, a spitting image of God. When we looked up at the sky, we saw the sun, moon, and stars rise and set around us, and without further evidence, the ancients (Aristarchus and Seleucus excepted) concluded that everything revolved around us.
  2. In stunning blows, Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler looked up, used some calculus, and said, "Wait a minute. This isn't right. We CAN'T be in the middle of all this!" Successive observations had shown that the planets' orbits didn't jive with the geocentric model of the Earth in the center. Galileo's perfected telescope found objects (i.e. the moons of Jupiter) that appeared to not give a crap at all about where the Earth was. So, then we said, "Maybe the sun, not the Earth, is in the middle of this planetary system, but our SYSTEM must be in the middle of everything else! It MUST!"
  3. Once we discovered that the cloudy band dissecting the night sky was a galaxy (keeping the traditional name the Milky Way), people like William Herschel assumed that we were at the center of this galaxy. Various models followed, one of which came from Harlow Shapley, who posited a sun far away from the galaxy's center. After the rigorous work of Robert Julius Trumpler, the end result was closer to Shapley's work than to most others, relegating our solar system to an arm two-thirds of the way out from the very bright middle. We circle the galaxy's center once every 200 million years, a far cry from any feeling of central importance. (Not to mention our sun is only one of 200-400 billion stars in the galaxy.)
  4. After this, we (or at least the scientists among us) hesitated to declare ourselves the center of anything, and we were right in doing so. Sure, it turns out our galaxy is in the middle of a few satellite galaxies, and it's estimated to be almost as old as the Universe; but in our Local Group of galaxies, we share the gravitational center with the Andromeda Galaxy, and the group is a not-so-special one of many in the Virgo Supercluster.

So, we slowly went from the center of the universe to a small bit of seemingly little consequence. Carl Sagan masterfully captured this smallness when he convinced NASA to turn Voyager 1 around to take a picture of our Pale Blue Dot as the satellite exited the solar system. (Charles Darwin also captured this in a biological sense with his theory of evolution by natural selection, but that's for another day.)

...This is getting a bit long to be a short, so let's stop for now. Tomorrow, we'll get back to SETI, and I'll bring up the Drake equation and one of my favorite movies: Contact. Here's a primer for those of you okay with watching the movie's climax. The really meaty part starts at about 4 minutes.

(If you ever want to get me engrossed in a conversation, mention this scene. I could talk about it for hours.)

If you ever feel moved to donate to SETI@home, you can do so here. I'm sure they would appreciate it.

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