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The Almighty Buck Space Science

Is SETI Worth It? 806

Posted by CowboyNeal
from the lights-are-on-but-no-one's-home dept.
njdube sent in this Space.com story about the money behind SETI that opens, "It's a risky long shot that burns up money and might never, ever pay off. So is searching for intelligent creatures on unseen worlds worth the candle? After all, aren't there better ways to use our monies and technical talents than trying to find something that's only posited to exist: sentient beings in the dark depths of space?"
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Is SETI Worth It?

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  • S.E.T.I (Score:5, Funny)

    by imstanny (722685) on Friday November 09, 2007 @12:16AM (#21290479)
    SETI - The result of having failed to find intelligent life on Earth.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by jamstar7 (694492)
      Obviously, they looked in all the wrong places. Washington DC, Hollywood...
    • Re:S.E.T.I (Score:5, Funny)

      by BadAnalogyGuy (945258) <BadAnalogyGuy@gmail.com> on Friday November 09, 2007 @12:21AM (#21290549)
      OJ is futher along in finding the real killers than SETI is in finding intelligent life.
      • Re:S.E.T.I (Score:5, Insightful)

        by fyngyrz (762201) * on Friday November 09, 2007 @02:43AM (#21291487) Homepage Journal

        This is true, but it's only because it's a binary solution set. Until or unless SETI finds a transmission, it will have made no progress in finding one, only in not finding one.

        However, once it finds one, numerous benefits accrue; some certain, some with varying degrees of probability.

        First of all, we learn that we're not alone, that we're not unique. Numerous modes of thinking posit that we are alone, or not, and those modes will receive solid underpinnings instead of speculation. This has general value for future inferences, even for current inferences where confirmation agrees. Like most of science, where this may lead may not be immediately obvious, but again like most of science, the odds are high that it will lead somewhere productive. And this consequence is certain. For instance, it would mean a great deal to me to have something I consider to be extremely likely but impossible for me to personally confirm, confirmed by objective facts.

        Second, it will have identified one of two things for us: Either we have revealed a civilization that is just going through radio and is feeling pretty confident about itself and others, or it will have revealed a civilization that is much further along, and is interested in contact. The former would be a pretty huge co-incidence, because broadcast radio is inefficient (witness our going to cable to preserve bandwidth, optical to increase it, satellite to ground to bolster reliability and coverage, various beam methods like lasers and tight focus radio to save energy and achieve reliability), so the odds strongly favor the latter - the 100 year or so window we used broadcast radio is closing as we consider this today. So most likely, we'll have found life that is much further along than we are technologically, and looking for other life. It isn't a huge stretch to assume that such a find would come hand in hand with new technology for us. After all, if they want us to hear them, either they want to talk, or they want to get rid of us. It seems like a lot of work to try to get rid of things you don't even know are there, doesn't it? Inefficient. And it doesn't fit the mold... if they're worried about us, then letting us know they are there in such a way that they can't tell if we know or not is imprudent. So again, the odds fall on the side of life that can and is willing to benefit us.

        Third (and we're getting lower on the probability scale here, but still) the transmission itself may contain immediately useful information for us. It could be anything. Make widgets like this. Don't go to the 3rd planet of Beta Centauri. Cut it out with the nukes, assholes. Efficient space drive drive works like so. Your Aishwara Rai, can we buy her? 42.

        Lastly, and least likely, we could be handed a paradigm shift. Antigravity. FTL travel of any flavor. Additional physics. How to clean up our atmosphere. Things we cannot even vaguely imagine.

        All of these things only require reception. If we add transmission back to a known source of an intelligent signal, now we're talking interaction. That could be wild as well.

        There may be gold mines for linguistics; for biology; for physics and all the sciences that are really corners of physics (chem, electronics, nuclear, etc.)

        And in the meantime, SETI does something else for us. It serves as a focal point for a certain type of hope, a bright optimism, that I would really rather not see go away.

        So if you really want to cut funds, I suggest that the place to do it is in funding, oh, I don't know, how about a certain war in the middle east? Maybe quit funding the "drug war" against our own citizens? Either of those would benefit most people (not arms manufacturers or those in the jobs that have sprung up for our most recent go at prohibition, of course, but I guess I don't really give a darn about those particular people for some reason.)

        Sure would be nice that if we did find other life, that we weren't quite so involved in trying to kill and/or re

        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by jimicus (737525)
          After all, if they want us to hear them, either they want to talk, or they want to get rid of us. It seems like a lot of work to try to get rid of things you don't even know are there, doesn't it? Inefficient. And it doesn't fit the mold...

          Dude, haven't you seen Mars Attacks?
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by pipingguy (566974) *
          Hey, some people think that we are only a hyper-realistic, self-aware video game simulation existing in some uber alien kid's computer (no doubt located in a basement somewhere else in the metaverses). Maybe someday he'll reset out of "hell-in-a-handbasket" mode after getting bored of toying with us.

          But why would he? He's probably in fits of giggles watching us do it to our own puny software simulations of reality.
    • Re:S.E.T.I (Score:5, Insightful)

      by wwwrench (464274) on Friday November 09, 2007 @12:44AM (#21290741) Homepage
      Too true.
      I think SETI is really a waste for a completely different reason. And it's basically this: what should we do if we actually did find life out there? And the sensible answer is: hide. Seriously, the chance that contact with space aliens will bring us benifits is tiny. If they have the ability to visit us, then the far more likely scenario is that they will exploit/conquer us. You just have to look at our own history of contact between various cultures to figure that out. And in this case, it would be far worse, because the difference in technology, culture would be far greater than that between say, Europeans and indigenous people in North America/Australia.

      So, is it sensible to spend money looking for creatures which if we find them, we should ignore? Better to spend the money figuring out how to hide!
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by 0xdeadbeef (28836)
        So, is it sensible to spend money looking for creatures which if we find them, we should ignore? Better to spend the money figuring out how to hide!

        Yes, but first you need to prove we need to hide.
      • Re:S.E.T.I (Score:5, Funny)

        by afaik_ianal (918433) on Friday November 09, 2007 @01:09AM (#21290897)
        Haven't you seen any sci fi movies? To be intelligent enough to travel across space, they must be willing to shower us with gifts of love and candy*.

        (*) "Love and candy" in alien worlds usually takes the form of nukes and anti-matter bombs, but that's beside the point.
      • Re:S.E.T.I (Score:5, Funny)

        by bmo (77928) on Friday November 09, 2007 @01:23AM (#21291019)
        "You just have to look at our own history of contact between various cultures to figure that out. "

        I got a +5 funny before for mentioning this, but the only reason why we didn't _eat_ the conquered on a massive scale was that we recognized the conquered as our own species and have taboos about it.

        What's to stop a sufficiently advanced civilization, outside of biochemical compatibility, from viewing us as "the other white meat" with fava beans and a nice chianti.

        "Look. I tell you what. Those who want to can eat Johnson. And you, sir, can have my leg. And we make some stock from the Captain, and then we'll have Johnson cold for supper."

        --
        BMO
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by ArcherB (796902) *
          First, don't misread my post and think that I am some sort of PETA-freak vegan. I love a good rib-eye as much as anyone. The Atkins diet ROX!

          What's to stop a sufficiently advanced civilization, outside of biochemical compatibility, from viewing us as "the other white meat" with fava beans and a nice chianti.

          I would hope that a civilization that is able to travel faster than light, that is possibly thousands to millions of years ahead of us, has grown beyond the need to eat other living things. I would as
          • Re:S.E.T.I (Score:5, Funny)

            by bmo (77928) on Friday November 09, 2007 @01:43AM (#21291151)
            "I would hope that a civilization that is able to travel faster than light, that is possibly thousands to millions of years ahead of us, has grown beyond the need to eat other living things."

            Food (*cough*) for thought:

            If I ate merely because I needed to fill my tummy, I'd be a vegan.

            http://italianfood.about.com/od/beefbracioleetc/r/blr0228.htm [about.com]

            "If I'm wrong, I hope that I'm not very tasty!"

            Start polluting your system with preservatives and chemicals! If they find you tasty, at least you might give them cancer!

            --
            BMO
        • Re:S.E.T.I (Score:5, Insightful)

          by forkazoo (138186) <wrosecrans@gma[ ]com ['il.' in gap]> on Friday November 09, 2007 @02:09AM (#21291311) Homepage

          What's to stop a sufficiently advanced civilization, outside of biochemical compatibility, from viewing us as "the other white meat" with fava beans and a nice chianti.


          Nothing. All the folks who say "a super advanced civilisation will have evolved beyond a need to eat us" are basing that view on absolutely nothing. If we ever find an advanced extra terrestrial civilisation, it will quite possibly be so alien as to boggle the mind, so making declarations about how they couldn't behave in some particular way is pretty dubious. The could literally be so alien that it may be impossible to ever really communicate with them. Aside from eating us, they may turn out to have a fondness for geometry, and decide to reshape our planet into a perfect sphere using quantum high energy death beams for purely aesthetic reasons.

          The good news is that odds are quite good that we won't be both tasty and nutritious for aliens. The biochemistry would likely turn out to be really quite different. It's even possible that exposure to our atmosphere would be instantly toxic to them, making human hunting a bothersome affair which can only be done in a bulky and cumbersome space suit. Of course, being tasty would give them some reason to keep at least some of us around for breeding stock, so as it happens, being tasty might be a best-case scenario for humanity's long term survival!

          But, in my own arbitrary guestimation, I'd expect that a really advanced civilisation would have relatively little interaction with us. There are probably nearer sources of minerals and water and whatnot than flying all the way to the sol system. They'll be so far ahead of us that we won't have any scientific information that intrigues them enough to come and steal it. If they have the sort of inclinations which would result in them wiping us out on contact, they probably would have done it to themselves before becoming so advanced. We'll probably only ever see them in person if they are interested in linguistics and anthropology and literature, etc.

          As for the question of funding SETI, I don't think we'll find anything, but the potential payoff is worth the cost. Continuing with my arbitrary guesses, if there are advanced civilizations out there, they are talking to each other using either very directional signals which won't ever get to us. OR, they have invented some sort of sub space radio which is completely unknown to our understanding of the universe. In either case, we won't hear anything. What's worse, if you plug what I think are plausible guesses into the drake equation, any civilizations that are out there are probably very few, and very far away. But, there is still that chance of the biggest disovery in human history. I think that's worth something.
          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by grumbel (592662)
            ### Nothing. All the folks who say "a super advanced civilisation will have evolved beyond a need to eat us" are basing that view on absolutely nothing.

            How about basing it on humanity? We don't catch free animals in the nature, by far most of our food comes from farms and not even from normally evolved animals, but animals breed over centuries to fit human needs. Natural animals just aren't good enough and any reasonably advanced civilization will be able to produce better food then they can catch in the so
      • Re:S.E.T.I (Score:4, Insightful)

        by rekenner (849871) on Friday November 09, 2007 @01:38AM (#21291121) Homepage

        If they have the ability to visit us, then the far more likely scenario is that they will exploit/conquer us. You just have to look at our own history of contact between various cultures to figure that out.
        And aliens would have the same psychology as we do?
        • Re:S.E.T.I (Score:5, Insightful)

          by Capt'n Hector (650760) on Friday November 09, 2007 @03:59AM (#21291861)
          If they succeeded in becoming the dominant species on their respective planet, they're probably just as ruthless as we are.
        • Re:S.E.T.I (Score:5, Interesting)

          by ultranova (717540) on Friday November 09, 2007 @04:02AM (#21291871)

          And aliens would have the same psychology as we do?

          Actually, in all likelyhood... yes.

          Any advanced alien race must be a pack-forming species. The reason is simple: a race of loners would never manage to get culture going, since that requires communication between individuals. It would never reach the stars; in fact it would never even reach metal-working.

          Living in a pack puts certain demands on psychology. Pack members can't just pursuse their own interests, but must take each other into account, if the pack is to function. In other words, pack-forming animals have an evolutive pressure towards morality. This pressure is made ever stronger the higher technology rises, because any misbehavior is likely to result in far direr consequences when the misbehaving person has access to bombs than if he only had access to stone clubs. That is the real reason why the current society is nicer than, say, the Roman Empire: we aren't nicer people, we simply don't have a choice.

          People always go on about how aliens can be totally incomprehensible to us, but that is just plain untrue. They operate on the same reality, under the same laws of physics and logic, as we do. If they are succesfull enough to reach the stars, then their psychology must conform to those laws; and that makes it similar to ours. Self-preservation, reproduction, social interaction: those are the things any succesfull intelligent species must base their psyche on. There may be more, of course, but these are the absolute minimum concepts all alien minds must have.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by Epistax (544591)
            err.. what? Can't get your imagination going?

            What about a race of loner sentients where the only interaction ever is to mate, and the parents (or parent) to teach, and that's it period. Maybe their biology makes them forget language at all times except while offspring is around to pass it on. Sure, it'd take a considerable amount of time to develop, but it could. I don't see as a giant leap to think about a race who do not directly intercommunicate, but still assist each other by chance/coincidence. G
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Atriqus (826899)
        I think that the actual aim of SETI is lost on a lot of people. They're not looking for signals on with the intent that we'll ever meet anyone they find (not primarily anyway), they're just trying to find some sort of evidence that intelligent life exists somewhere aside from Earth. Odds are, any signal they discover will probably be a few thousand years old. By comparison of our own civilizations, the group that broadcasted that signal probably won't be around to pick up our answer when our response rea
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by cheater512 (783349)
        Depends on how intelligent they are.

        If they are around our intelligence (+ or - 30 IQ points) then god help us.
        If they are smarter then they would realize that they have a entire uninhabited galaxy to rape and pillage.

        You've been watching far too many movies.
      • Re:S.E.T.I (Score:4, Interesting)

        by Pseudonym (62607) on Friday November 09, 2007 @02:52AM (#21291525)

        And it's basically this: what should we do if we actually did find life out there?

        Essentially nothing for a few million years, since they can't get to us and we can't get to them.

        In the mean time, we'd rid the world of xenophobia practically overnight. "Well, they may be darkies, but at least they're human..."

      • Hide Schmide (Score:3, Insightful)

        by xstonedogx (814876)
        The resources of our solar system are up for grabs. Our fledgling civilization which has not yet reached the moon can already detect water on planets around other stars. It seems likely that any civilization capable of interstellar travel is much more skilled at detecting resources across these distances. They will need this information to figure out where to go and what to expect when they get there. If they want our resources, they are coming here regardless of whether we send out a signal.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by bluephone (200451)
        Actually, when you think of everything a race has to overcome to travel the vastness of interstellar space, once you hjave thos eresoures there's little benefit to smashing puny humans. Water? Plenty of it in comets, etc, and you don't haev to pull it out of a gravity well. Ditto for metals and anything else you'd mine. Food? Well, assuming you biochemistry is compatible (a HUGE assumption), why would you expend insane amounts of energy traversing the stars to get here for food? Expend that on growing it cl
    • FTA

      Since 1993, when Congress killed the NASA SETI program, the search for signals from other societies has been funded by private donations.
      Of course if Dennis Kucinich got a tin foil hat maybe they could get there funding back.
    • by phunctor (964194) on Friday November 09, 2007 @01:02AM (#21290855)

      I'm depressed that nobody is challenging the paradigm that "we" should decide whether SETI or anything else for that matter is "worthwhile". The mere effort presumes the existence of one true value system that trumps all others. Jihad, anybody?

      How about Bob and Carol spend their money on SETI, Ted spends his on protein folding, and Alice spends hers on beer? Because it's their money and their choice.

      "Should" expresses a moral judgement. When collectivists use it they are advocating, in the end, unlimited social violence against those who will not comply. Pol Pot wan't bugfuck crazy, he was just consistent.

      --
      phunctor
      • "Should" expresses a moral judgement. When collectivists use it they are advocating, in the end, unlimited social violence against those who will not comply.

        Making a moral judgment about how someone spends money is perfectly fine. We make moral judgments about government spending all the time.

        Nobody here or anywhere else has advocated the use of force, or anything else, to STOP someone from doing so. If something is a horrible waste, publicly shaming them usually works just fine, and if not, oh well, move

  • Madlibs! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Silverlancer (786390) on Friday November 09, 2007 @12:16AM (#21290481)
    Isn't _______ (space program, particle physics, string theory, insert science program that isn't directly applicable to everyday life here) totally useless and a huge waste of money? This money could be better used elsewhere!
    • by barista (587936)
      That would make a great /. survey...or a MatchGame question.

      Congress, Paris Hilton, British Royalty, Red Lobster, etc
    • Re:Madlibs! (Score:4, Insightful)

      by diamondmagic (877411) on Friday November 09, 2007 @12:27AM (#21290589) Homepage
      Space programs are what have given us many daily-use things, and even if they were not invented for space, they were improved by space research. Stuff like space blankets, radio transmission, insulation, solar power, energy use, ect.

      We study space because usually (I hope) the same physics laws that apply to space apply to everything on the Earth, too. Knowing how particles collide out there could help us figure out a safe source of energy here.

      Not to mention, artificial satellites drive television syndication, GPS, monitor ground conditions, and other things (secret government projects). Stop and think about the number of slashdot articles that have been posted about a new use for space technology.
    • by davetd02 (212006)
      Obviously SETI isn't limited to SETI@Home, but there is the point that the distributed computing power being applied to SETI@Home could be applied to projects like Stanford's Folding@home [stanford.edu] which promises to yield much more directly applicable knowledge about protein synthesis.

      Many of the distributed projects via BOINC [berkeley.edu] have more directly applicable results than SETI@Home.

      That said, any basic research is defined by its lack of direct results. Early research into the atom looked like it had very little use unt
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by scottv67 (731709)
        Saying "why is Benjamin Franklin bothering to fly that kite, what good is this 'electricity' he talks about?"...but it's good folklore that makes the point.

        Lightning bolts I have observed over the course of forty years: 1000+
        Aliens/alien spacecraft/alien civilizations I have observed over the course of forty years: 0

  • by hlomas (1010351) on Friday November 09, 2007 @12:16AM (#21290503)
    Three million dollars a year is a small price to pay for the chance at discovering another sentient race in the galaxy, even if it is a longshot. It is one cent per year per individual.
    • by MobileTatsu-NJG (946591) on Friday November 09, 2007 @01:05AM (#21290873)
      "Three million dollars a year is a small price to pay for the chance at discovering another sentient race in the galaxy, even if it is a longshot. It is one cent per year per individual."

      I have a similar opinion. I'm a big fan of diversity when it comes to programs like this. Challenges bring innovation, right? They didn't have a lot of money, SETI@Home is born. It becomes popular, we start seeing more distributed computing apps like Folding@Home. Would that have come about anyway? That's possible. Heck, I may not even be correct about Folding@Home's origins. But I do wonder how many people picked up Folding@Home after playing around with SETI@Home. If I'm right that one influenced the other, then it stands to reason that investment in SETI also indirectly supported cancer and disease research. You never know when an advancement in one field will cause an advancement in another.

      So I say yes, it is worthwhile. Money can always be 'better spent', but hindsight is 20/20. Never know until you try.
    • 3 million dollars? Compare that to the Iraq war. If we'd directed that money towards, SETI, we could have discovered 100,000 times as many alien civilizations as we have.
  • by athdemo (1153305) on Friday November 09, 2007 @12:17AM (#21290515)
    If you're willing to look at it as an investment of sorts, and that the potential "payout" is absolutely enormous, I'd say it's a fair deal. Not something at the top of the list to keep in a depression or anything, though.
  • News at 11. Who cares if some money is spent searching for intelligent life. We learned at least one major breakthrough by doing this that was already previously theorized that P2P Internet can be used like a supercomputer.
  • Couriosity is a good thing. Most investigations never lead to anytging, but those that do often pay off incredibly well. So this SETI stuff may or may not have results, but as long as it is basically free (or very low cost), it is certainly worth doing.

    On the economic side, an answer is impossible. It is completely unclear what actually finding alien Signals could be worth. If it is just generic greetings, probably not much. But if it is, sort of, Open Source knowledge of things we do not know yet, it could
    • by mcg1969 (237263)
      It is completely unclear what actually finding alien Signals could be worth. If it is just generic greetings, probably not much. But if it is, sort of, Open Source knowledge of things we do not know yet, it could be incredibly valuable.

      I doubt they are transmitting their own version of Wikipedia just for the sake of it---like our communications, theirs are likely to be purposeful and limited. So if we seek an answer to a particular question, we will most likely have to ask it first... and then wait for an
  • SETI is cheap (Score:4, Informative)

    by dlleigh (313922) on Friday November 09, 2007 @12:19AM (#21290533)
    The press spends more money covering SETI than the scientists spend actually doing it.
    Just because something involves "space" doesn't mean that it has a NASA-like budget.
  • by danbert8 (1024253) on Friday November 09, 2007 @12:21AM (#21290545)
    Didn't you see First Contact? As soon as we find aliens, world peace occurs. Can't you please think of the children?
  • by ackthpt (218170) * on Friday November 09, 2007 @12:27AM (#21290585) Homepage Journal

    Of course it's worth it. Just think of all that alien anime we're missing out on!

  • by ducomputergeek (595742) on Friday November 09, 2007 @12:28AM (#21290593)
    It's written by Seth Shostak, who has been one of the people involved with SETI for a number of years and is in favor of continuing the research. Last time I checked SETI is now a non-profit that uses donations to fund their research. If that's what people want to donate their money to and think it is worth while, then let it continue.

  • "Does SETI provide value?"

    The money spent on it pays for scientists and new systems. The real question revolves around value for the money spent. If not SETI, then what else? I would expect that there lots of things of more immediate value and potential that could be studied.

    That said, what's the value of finding that there really is someone else out there? I think that a very few of my tax dollars working to find out is something I'm happy with.
    • I think the real problem is:

      HALT(``Will we find aliens via SETI?'')

      If we could somehow compute that one, we'd know if it's all worth it.
  • Summary (Score:2, Funny)

    by boron boy (858013)
    Yeah it's not practical, yeah it's expensive, but damn, if it pays off, it pays off big time. Besides, it's not like we're asking you to pay for it, SETI runs off private money.

    Personally I think they'll have more of a chance in the fledgling field of optical seti, where they're looking for aliens pointing laser beams at us... yes really.
  • Worth it... depends (Score:4, Interesting)

    by ArcherB (796902) * on Friday November 09, 2007 @12:31AM (#21290631) Journal
    Is SETI worth it?

    That single part question requires a multipart answer.

    First, SETI is extremely worth it, without a doubt. It seeks to answer the biggest question in history, "Are we alone?" While SETI will never prove that ET life does NOT exist, it might prove that it does. That will be the largest discovery in the history of man... BY FAR!

    However, that said, we could be talking about civilizations that are millions of years ahead of us. Think about that, one million years. How far have we come in a million years? Do you think that if primate-pre-man were looking for us a million years ago, he'd know to look for radio waves? Of course not! Hell, we didn't know about radio a mere 200 years ago. So, do you really think that a civilization that advanced uses radio? I'm going to guess that they don't. I'm sure they would have perfected something else by now. Something like quantum entanglement or something (has anyone clocked the speed on that?) that we would never think to look for. Well, not for another several hundred thousand years anyway.

    So, I think SETI is wasting their time looking for radio waves. Not only is a long shot to find ET life, but multiply that by finding ET life that happened to be using radio at a time that matches how far they are away (if they are 1000 light years away, they would have had to be using radio 1000 years ago). If such a civilization is 950 years ahead of us, we still would not be able to detect them. (That's still a long time in technical evolutionary terms. Think of where we were around 1050!)

    First I think that SETI should broaden the search. They should be the Search for Extra Terrestrial Life... or SETL (pronounced Settle... fitting isn't it?) I feel that SETI's money could be better spent looking for any life at all, not just intelligent life. Once that is found, branch out and look for the smart stuff. They could start by looking for planets that could support life, starting right here in our own solar system. I want to see a mission to Europa and Titan that look for signs of microbial life. Europa's ice is supposed to be churning. Could we just look for some that has been churned up to the surface? Why wait for a grand ice burrowing submarine mission that cuts through miles of ice and hopes to find water. Why not put the money toward some kind of mission to land there and look around. Move from there to try to bring back a sample. (Sorry to get OT, but that's just an example.) Yes, I know that SETI is not NASA, but some of that radio renting money could be spent on lobbying and public service campaigns that could do much more that trying to see if a star in Orion is listening to BobFM (more music, less talk!)

    Well, that's my $0.02, since you asked and all.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Alascom (95042)
      The whole point of SETI is that they are listening for INTELLIGENT life, not any life. How would you detect an amoeba 1000 light years away? If its intelligent, no matter how advanced beyond us, they almost certainly use electromagnetic transmissions for something, even if its not communication. The 'signal' we might detect might be radiated from any number of types of devices that an advanced race may have. The whole point is radio emissions ARE detectable over long distance, whereas life in general is
      • by ArcherB (796902) * on Friday November 09, 2007 @02:16AM (#21291345) Journal
        How would you detect an amoeba 1000 light years away?

        The same way you detect an intelligent civilization that does NOT use radio. You literally look for them. What if you took... I don't know, say 50% of the resources that SETI uses and invest that into planet finding telescopes. Eventually, provided more discoveries lead to more funding, we will be able to actually SEE planets from other solar systems. We can see the signs of life on earth from space. Given the technology, why couldn't we see if life exists elsewhere. I think we have a much better chance at finding a planet with oceans of green algae than one that watches TV.

        Or, like I said, we travel in our own solar system and check here. There is much more life in the universe than intelligent life.

        How long ago did Humans discover fire? When do you expect us to stop using it because we are "too advanced" ??

        Not all at once, no. Currently, we use fire to heat water that turns turbines and produces electricity. It is inefficient and dirty. It is slowly being replaced by wind, solar and nuclear. So, eventually, we won't use fire to generate electricity.
        We currently use fire to drive the internal combustion engine. Eventually, we'll all have electric cars (or something) that doesn't use fire to make it go.
        Many years ago, we used fire to heat our homes. Many homes today use electric heat. GWBush's house uses geothermal heat to heat and cool his house.

        So yeah, eventually fire will be replaced, one use at a time, and be seen and a naturally occurring menace.
  • by the_skywise (189793) on Friday November 09, 2007 @12:31AM (#21290633)
    Let's say we not only find intelligent life but that we can communicate with them and they have the answers to all our problems...

    Would it be worth it then for the relatively small amount of resources we're putting into this now...

    But don't answer just yet!

    What if they they give us the ability to travel in space, thus increasing our resources greatly so we can solve even MORE problems we didn't know we had!?!

    How much would you pay for that? Would that be worth all the effort and dreaming we do now?

    Or will you take what's in the magic box?
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by scottv67 (731709)
      Let's say we not only find intelligent life but that we can communicate with them and they have the answers to all our problems...

      What if that "intelligent life" looks at us the same way we look at cows grazing in a grassy field ("Beef...it's what's for dinner!")?

  • The search for extraterrestrial intelligence? Worth it. Funding isn't binary (it isn't a choice between SETI and curing cancer, we can fund several things in differing amounts), obviously we will spread funding with some thought to how much funding each thing is worth. And finding extraterrestrial intelligence deserves a bit of money.

    Now, pointing a radio telescope at the sky and listening is pretty much pointless. I can't imagine any advanced civilization continuing to broadcast radio waves in a streng
  • It depends upon your theory of HOW intelligent life develops. I, personally, believe in the Singularity and the law of accelerating returns. Any idiot can look at the overall rate of technological progress over the last 100 years (which is not nearly as fast as the progress in computers, but it still FAST), look at the century before that, and figure out that the rate of change is accelerating exponentially. It'll presumably continue until progress can't be made due to hard laws of physics...

    A society th
  • Excellent logic (Score:2, Insightful)

    by mohjlir (553108)
    If Christopher Columbus followed the same reasoning (don't look for something that might not exist), where would you live today? The most rewarding of all discoveries are found by exploring the unknown, with no guarantee of reward.
  • It depends upon your theory of HOW intelligent life develops. I, personally, believe in the Singularity and the law of accelerating returns. Any idiot can look at the overall rate of technological progress over the last 100 years (which is not nearly as fast as the progress in computers, but it still FAST), look at the century before that, and figure out that the rate of change is accelerating exponentially. It'll presumably continue until progress can't be made due to hard laws of physics...

    A society th
  • by An Ominous Cow Erred (28892) on Friday November 09, 2007 @12:40AM (#21290703)
    The truth of the matter is that we have no serious SETI effort.

    All current SETI activity is built on the assumption that someone is trying to talk to us. Our detection capability is pretty much limited to an alien civilization already knowing we exist and directing extremely powerful, focused broadcasts directly at Earth.

    Basically, given our current SETI programs, we couldn't detect Earth's civilization even if we were in the next star system over. We leak a lot of signals, but over vast interstellar distances these signals are weak, can be lost in background noise, and would require a huge antenna or array of antennas to receive. In other words, the we depend on aliens having their own SETI that is vastly more advanced than our own.

    A real SETI project would cost many orders of magnitude more, and would require radio telescopes many orders of magnitude more sensitive than we have now. We're talking something on the level of making a crater miles across and making it into a radio dish. Arecibo is puny in comparison to what we need.

    Blanketing an area the size of Rhode Island with a dish array might also work (though it would have to be very, very precisely controlled).

    Any serious SETI effort that hopes to find someone that doesn't know we're here already and wants to talk to us will cost many many billions of dollars.
  • That's what they said to Columbus.
  • by justsomecomputerguy (545196) on Friday November 09, 2007 @12:44AM (#21290739) Homepage
    There are soooo.... MANY other things we could could spend three million a year on.

    And in fact WE DO!

    HUNDREDS of Millions a year on Video Games, Movies, Sporting events

    HUNDREDS of Millions a year on "Gourmet" Coffee.

    Not to mention how much is spent on Drugs, Sex and Rock and Roll.

    Instead of that we could be spending that on medical research, feeding the poor, funding education, etc...

    BUT we don't. So, as long as we're "letting" truly HUGE amounts of money be spent by society on "mindless pursuits", why not let a small section of society spend a RELATIVELY SMALL amount of money on a totally useless, wasteful, studid, wonderful, amazing search for life on other planets.

    So, unless and until the majority of society is willing to de-fund ALL the sports, entertainment, gourmet coffee, (keep inserting names of more "non-essentials" here) hands off SETI!

  • After all, aren't there better ways to use our monies and technical talents than trying to find something that's only posited to exist: sentient beings in the dark depths of space?"

    Yes, we should instead use our monies and technical talents to engage in devotional activities that venerate something else that is only posited to exist: our magical sky grandpa. Then, we should use our monies and technical talents to build weapons to kill the people whose understanding of the magical sky grandpa differs in
  • Reminds me of.... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by edwardpickman (965122) on Friday November 09, 2007 @12:45AM (#21290751)
    This reminds me of a running argument I have with my retired father. He complains about NASA being a waste of his tax dollars while he sits in front of a satelite TV. Refuses to see the irony.
  • by Swift Kick (240510) on Friday November 09, 2007 @12:48AM (#21290765)
    The article is a nice attempt at arguing that 'investing in SETI' can prove to be useful 'down the road' by using some examples of how the curious and inquisitive minds of the past yielded immense discoveries and scientific progress that benefit us all, but it's akin to comparing apples to oranges.

    The pragmatist in me says that SETI is a curious way for a few people to spend their time looking for signs of life 'somewhere out there' in the Universe, but it has no practical use.
    I mean, honestly, let's assume that tomorrow, we capture a signal from an alien civilization. Finally, the answer to 'Are we alone in the Universe?' is answered, great. Then what? Chances are that the transmission is (by the time we received it) hundreds or thousands of years old. During that time, the civilization that sent it could have vanished for a number of reasons, of which we'd have no clue about.

    If anything, such a discovery would only lead to more problems, since in one single swoop, a number of major religious beliefs would be shattered, therefore leaving a bunch of pissed-off fundamentalists in a tizzy. The best and brightest would be infinitely pleased with such a discovery, but unfortunately, they're a nearly insignificant minority compared to the idiot masses.

    The bottom line is that if the SETI folks want to spend their time listening to space static or looking up at the stars, let them. It's their project, and if they can find the people to fund them, more power to them. If someday they find messages from 'little green/alien men', great. I'd be willing to wager that none of us will be around to congratulate them.
  • It hasn't found ET but surely there are there other interesting astronomical things that are spotted as it scans the skies?
  • by Animats (122034) on Friday November 09, 2007 @12:53AM (#21290793) Homepage

    One serious problem with SETI is that it looks only for obsolete forms of modulation. Almost all the SETI efforts are looking for "carriers", signals that are mostly wasted energy. AM and FM broadcast radio, and analog TV, have strong carriers. Almost nothing else does any more. There are more efficient ways to synch up the receiver. The strong-carrier systems are being phased out. In a few decades, nobody on Earth will be sending out strong carriers.

    SETI is thus looking for civilizations in their first century of radio. The odds of finding an intelligent signal with current approaches is low.

    The problem with looking for complex signals, like digital TV, is that they look like noise. Imagine some alien civilization receiving a DTV signal. It's quite possible that some of a a DTV signal might make it to a nearby star; terrestrial DTV is broadcast with megawatt power. But it will probably get there below the noise threshold. You can find a dumb carrier well below the noise threshold, because it's so repetitive. You may not be able to read the modulated information, but you can tell there's a carrier. But an encoded digital signal below the noise threshold just looks like noise.

    There are digital signals designed for reception below the noise threshold; GPS is encoded for that. But the data rate is low and the redundancy is high. That's not true of DTV.

    One can imagine an alien civilization finally figuring out they're getting something from Earth, building a big receiving antenna in their outer system to get a clean signal, and then trying to figure out how to decompress the thing. At least they don't have to crack DRM encryption first.

    • by mbessey (304651) on Friday November 09, 2007 @04:06AM (#21291889) Homepage Journal
      SETI is looking for a signal from an advanced civilization that is deliberately using archaic methods to transmit. What I mean is that they're looking for a beacon signal that's designed to be easy to interpret, and that's transmitted at an extremely high power level.

      On a practical level, that's the best they can do. Using the best receivers that we currently have, it'd just barely be possible to detect a megawatt-level signal from a few light years away, if it was aimed right at us. Detecting the equivalent of leakage from a TV transmission is a complete fantasy. Unless there's someone out there that's really desperate to be heard, we'll never find them.

      And of course, we're not about to start a program of sending similar signals to all the nearest stars - that'd take real money. If we detect a signal, then we might respond back.

      Unfortunately, the same argument holds in the other direction, too. Any alien civilizations out there would be foolish to waste the resources to send a signal we could detect, before they were sure we were there to hear it. When I think about SETI, I sometimes imagine thousands of intelligent species out there, all monitoring their antenna arrays, waiting for a signal that none of them have the funding to send...
  • money and logic (Score:3, Insightful)

    by drDugan (219551) on Friday November 09, 2007 @01:00AM (#21290839) Homepage
    Logical arguements have almost no effect on how money is distributed: federal money, internal funds in a company, or personal wealth spread broadly across society.
  • Compare the costs. (Score:3, Informative)

    by Dukaso (1128185) <[ ] ['~' in gap]> on Friday November 09, 2007 @01:35AM (#21291105)
    Let me put it like this: SETI costs us, at most, $5,000,000 a year to fund. The war against Boogiemen, in Iraq alone, is costing us ~$116,750,000,000 a year to fund. SETI's lifetime cost thus far has been 115,000,000 (assuming 5million/year. 5mil is the most it costs per year, 4 million the least) Mathtime! 115,000,000 / 116,750,000,000 = 0.000985010707 Yes, the lifetime cost of SETI has been but 0.000985010707% of the cost of ONE YEAR in Iraq. .001% of the cost of one year of a bullshit war to fund a search for proof that we're not alone in the universe? Hell yes. Hell Yes Hell Fucking Yes Sources: http://www.space.com/searchforlife/seti_faq.html [space.com] http://www.nationalpriorities.org/Cost-of-War/Cost-of-War-3.html [nationalpriorities.org]
  • by Dukaso (1128185) <[ ] ['~' in gap]> on Friday November 09, 2007 @01:37AM (#21291117)
    Let me put it like this:

    SETI costs us, at most, $5,000,000 a year to fund.
    The war against Boogiemen, in Iraq alone, is costing us ~$116,750,000,000 a year to fund.
    SETI's lifetime cost thus far has been 115,000,000 (assuming 5million/year. 5mil is the most it costs per year, 4 million the least)

    Mathtime! 115,000,000 / 116,750,000,000 = 0.000985010707

    Yes, the lifetime cost of SETI has been but 0.000985010707% of the cost of ONE YEAR in Iraq.

    .001% of the cost of one year of a bullshit war to fund a search for proof that we're not alone in the universe?
    Hell yes.

    Hell
    Yes

    Hell
    Fucking
    Yes

    Sources:
    http://www.space.com/searchforlife/seti_faq.html [space.com]
    http://www.nationalpriorities.org/Cost-of-War/Cost-of-War-3.html [nationalpriorities.org]
  • by Joce640k (829181) on Friday November 09, 2007 @03:10AM (#21291627) Homepage
    The SETI program probably costs less than the harm done to the world economy by people reading slashdot every morning.
  • by SETIGuy (33768) on Friday November 09, 2007 @03:16AM (#21291663) Homepage
    I'm trying to figure out why Seth wrote this... Or a least what he chose that title... Is he looking to piss people off? Is he assuming that SETI is only worth it if we find something? I think my contributions to signal processing and public resource distributed computing far exceed the pittance I have been paid for it.

    SETI is not taxpayer funded, it's funded by donations. If you don't want to donate don't. If you want to donate, please do. (See link below)

    Bitching about SETI seems to be the new Slashdot hobby. If you just want to bitch, then bitch about something that costs real money and returns nothing. Like, for example, the Iraq war. One week in Iraq costs more than all of the money ever spent on SETI. Feel like you're getting your money's worth?

    For that matter the final two seasons of Frasier cost more than the Allen Telescope Array has. Do you think that was a bargain? Maybe that money should have got to medical research...

  • Why not when... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by IkeTo (27776) on Friday November 09, 2007 @09:03AM (#21293373)
    SETI did successfully find something [slashdot.org] already!
  • by LordZardoz (155141) on Friday November 09, 2007 @09:22AM (#21293501)
    With respect to SETI, it is very much like a lottery with extraordinarily poor odds of winnning, and what amounts to an infinite payout.

      - We only need to find signs of extra terrestrial intelligence once to prove many assumptions wrong.
      - If we do discover something we can either choose to contact it on our terms, or try to prepare ourselves for contact.
      - If we do find evidence of a spacefaring civilization, it will let us know that certain technologies are possible and worth pursuing

    And lastly:
      - Proof of extra terrestrial intelligence will at the very least force most organized religions to rewrite much of their material, if not cause them to fall apart entirely.

    END COMMUNICATION
  • by unity100 (970058) on Friday November 09, 2007 @10:41AM (#21294199) Homepage Journal
    Why is it so certain that you can find other civilizations by listening to radio frequencies ? As we now the development of life forms entirely depends on the factors they evolve in, it is also probable that their technology would also be much more different in line with their evolution.

    it is highly probable, for example,say, a civilization to directly go in developing technology based on various uses of light, and base their communication, computerization, and even transportation on such an infrastructure. we are just starting to use light concept on computing, testing crystalline storages instead of magnetic disks, on transportation, testing out beaming power with laser to a vehicle from ground, so that heated air on the capsule can be used to propel the craft upwards (nasa's famous tests with that thing on a string), testing out ion engine concept, and testing out usage of laser links in datalinks.

    what if, such a civilization using such technology just remains an odd and awkward twinkle of various red light emanations in hubble ?

    in short, arent we too arrogant with the concept of everyone has to use mathematics and radio waves to broadcast a signal throughout the universe, OR somehow they will use them in their tech and some odd coincidence resulting from a use of a technology will create a wave strong enough to make it here ?
  • by btempleton (149110) on Friday November 09, 2007 @02:12PM (#21297853) Homepage
    The SETI assumption has a flaw. There are two kinds of transmissions we could receive. Accidental ones, not aimed at us, and deliberate attempts to contact other races.

    Even our own example shows that the more advanced your communications gets, the less wasteful it gets in transmitting where it isn't meant to go, and the more and more it looks like noise or is simply undetectable to the technology of just a few decades ago. And the more compressed and encrypted it is, the more it looks like noise even if you can intercept it. It's really unlikely we'll do an accidental wiretap on advanced beings.

    But if they are trying to reach us, well, they're very advanced. Way more advanced than we are. If they wanted people at our level to see their signals, they could do it.

    So looking harder and into the noise with current tech won't do it. Each time we invent a new technology of communication, we should look, but when we hit the right one, it will be blaring and clear, not subtle.

Numeric stability is probably not all that important when you're guessing.

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