Why Don't They Do SETI?
May 08, 2008
by Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer
A widespread and popular impression of SETI is that it's a worldwide enterprise. Well, it's not, and there's something modestly puzzling in that.
The idea of communicating between worlds is at least 150 years old. Victorian scientists Karl Friedrich Gauss and Joseph von Littrow are both reputed to have concocted schemes to establish rapport with Moon-men or Martians by signaling them with light. Gauss was a German, and von Littrow was Austrian. But within a century, the important ideas about getting in touch with aliens were coming from the western side of the Atlantic. The fundamental concepts for radio SETI were first incubated and hatched in America.
For three decades following Frank Drake's first modern SETI experiment in 1960, the American efforts had a strong and fertile counterpart in the Soviet Union. The Soviet SETI work was frequently brilliant, occasionally nutty, and pursued by researchers who were active and enthused.
That all ended with the Soviet Union's collapse. And for the last two decades, the large majority of all SETI effort has taken place in the U.S. Yes, there have been commendable experiments in Australia, Argentina, India, and Italy. But only the Italians are active today.
So what's the story? Why is SETI nearly exclusively an American game?
The oddity of this was brought home to me a few years ago when I held a colloquium on SETI research at the Dutch university in Groningen where I was once employed. The room was full - overfull actually, with students and faculty braced against the walls. My first question was: "how many of you think it's likely there are intelligent extraterrestrials out there in the Galaxy?" Virtually every hand went up.
I followed with "and how many of you are willing to spend one guilder a year to look for it?" (That's the cost of one cup of subsidized university coffee. One cup per year.) The hands all went down.
I was stunned. When, after my talk, I inquired of a faculty member why the Dutch were reluctant to mount a SETI program, his answer was "we're too sober for that." I didn't understand his comment, especially given the concordant opinion that there could be something to find.
Let's be clear: it's not that the Dutch don't have the radio telescopes or technical smarts. They do. It's not because they don't have the money. They do.
And so do the British, French, Germans, Canadians, Japanese, and lots and lots of others.
So, as Gertrude Stein asked, what's the answer? What's so singular about Americans that only they are willing to spend a small (very small) amount of money and a bit of time to try and answer a truly important question about life, the universe, and everything?
My first, naive thought was that this was the legacy of America's frontier history. Innovation and the occasional gamble on a long shot were necessary and sometimes essential in an unsettled environment. So perhaps SETI sat more comfortably on American shoulders than on others.
There's at least some support for this inexpert speculation. Professor Geert Hofstede (who, rather coincidentally, received his doctorate in Groningen) has researched global cultural differences, and among his investigated traits is something he calls "uncertainty avoidance." This is an index of a society's tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity, and its willingness to search for new truths.
Looking at Hofstede's data, you'll find that when it comes to uncertainty avoidance, Americans score 15 percent lower than the Dutch. In other words, they truly seem to be more disposed to take on ambiguous projects. Actually, the Dutch are closer to the Americans in this regard then many of their European neighbors. The Greeks, French, Belgians, Italians, and Germans are even more inclined to avoid uncertainty then residents of The Netherlands. (Only the British do substantially better: in fact, their score is lower than the Americans'.)
Could this greater reluctance to take risks play a role in the fact that NASA's budget is three times that of the European Space Agency's, despite the comparable populations of the U.S. and Europe? Does it help explain why venture capital investment in the former is roughly twice that in the latter?
No doubt the social scientists can come up with the answer. Meanwhile, I note that both India and China score lower than the U.S. on Hofstede's index. Maybe they'll join the search. SETI, after all, is one of the most provocative and exciting explorations of all time. We could use some company in scouting out the final frontier.