SETI – An Act of Imagination: A Clip

I know you enjoy seeing clips of A Life’s Work, and this post has one, but first this.

The Los Angeles Times recently ran an Op-Ed by Christopher Cokinos about the SETI Institute’s financial woes. These two paragraphs jumped out at me.

Certainly we don’t cotton to the idea of being alone. We yearn for the big signal from the stars, the cosmic hail. When Stephen Hawking warns us against contacting E.T. because we might end up invaded by Klingons, we argue about it around the water cooler. We thrill to Contact and District 9 and play video games featuring tentacled aliens. We tune in when Carl Sagan and Timothy Ferris explain outer space on TV.

Yet we’re surprisingly unwilling to put our money where our imaginations want to roam.

Why are we unwilling to put our money where our imaginations want to roam? I don’t have an answer to this. Do you?

SETI requires something like five million dollars to keep the Allen Telescope Array functioning for a couple of years. You can’t make the cheapest, cheesiest straight to VOD science fiction film for that amount. And how much real imagination would go into making such a film? Probably not much.

The people at the SETI Institute are scientists. They are not UFO-ologists or some fringe group that believe in alien abduction, Roswell, ancient astronauts or any of that Erich von Däniken stuff. (I am surprised how often I have to tell people this.)

But they are also people of great imagination. For some reason, we don’t usually think of science and imagination together, but we should. SETI’s search involves cutting edge science and great imagination, and the ATA is an example of this. How to search? How to search better tomorrow than yesterday? Where to search? Heck, just asking the question, “Are we alone?” and considering the answer is a giant imaginative act, one that humans have been engaged with since the dawn of self-awareness.

Which brings me to the clip.

This is from the first four minutes of A Life’s Work, what I call the “Overture” section. In it, the subjects speak about why their venture matters, in a big picture way. Here’s Jill Tarter talking about why SETI matters.


Does SETI’s search matter? Is it a waste of time, money, or resources? You know my answer. What do you think?

(Note: some footage in this clip is acting as a placeholder.)

4 Replies to “SETI – An Act of Imagination: A Clip”

  1. I’ll start by saying that I am a member and supporter of SETI, and have a background in applied physics. However, I have also been very interested in the UFO phenomena for many years. I understand that most in the scientific community do not wish to align themselves with UFO-ologists for fear of being branded “pseudo-scientists,” but in recent years, particularly after the so-called Phoenix Lights incident and former Gov. Fife Symington’s statement to the press, I think it’s time to take a closer look at the claims. A lot of money and interest is poured into UFO networks and a Stanford scientist has even been involved in some of the UFO Hunter TV series investigations. I wonder if SETI would gain greater support if it seriously addressed questions about UFO’s and extraterrestrial visitation – working WITH some of these groups, rather than making every effort to distinguish themselves from them. There are many scientists who contend that UFO phenomena and ancient astronauts were/are very real and operate outside our current understanding of science and technology. Many government and military witnesses have come forth with testimony on this topic. So, why not have a group of serious scientists take a closer look at all the evidence and give us their informed opinions once and for all?

    1. Hi Noura!

      First and foremost, thanks for visiting the blog and taking the time to leave such a thoughtful comment.

      I cannot speak for the SETI Institute–I support their work but I don’t work for them. But Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute has addressed this frequently. Here’s a link to his article, The Great UFO Debate:

      I’m not so sure the SETI Institute would have more support (certainly not more financial support) if it aligned itself with, or spent its time investigating the claims of, some of these groups. And if, as you say, “there are many scientists who contend that UFO phenomena and ancient astronauts were/are very real and operate outside our current understanding of science and technology,” then they don’t need the “serious scientists” of the SETI Institute to join them.

      And personally, I’m fine with that. Science advances because some one presents scientific data, findings, and evidence and peers review that. Here’s SETI’s answer to the question, “Do you have any pictures of UFO’s or aliens?” on the SETI Institute FAQ.

      “No. At this time, there is no compelling scientific evidence to support the idea that extraterrestrials are here or on their way. The reasons for this are detailed in our document entitled ‘Why the SETI Institute does no UFO Research’. However, you may wish to reflect on the fact that if there were interesting, verifiable evidence that extraterrestrials were visiting our planet, tens of thousands of university scientists would be busy investigating this idea. They’re not.”

  2. Sadly, funding seems to be more and more tied to immediate and tangible benefits. Which is unfortunate, especially in the long run. It was theoretical physics in the early part of the last century (about as immediate and tangible as those pesky UFOs) that made such things as the internet, GPS, and smart phones, possible in the latter part of the century. The long term benefits of putting money where our imaginations want to go are incalculable. But then long term thinking requires some imagination to begin with. As you well know!

    1. Damn, David, you just summed up in 75 words what it takes me about 20 five-hundred word posts to say.

      Thanks for the comment. I look forward to more in the future.

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