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Santhosh Mathew, PhD Headshot

"Sorry Aliens," We Have a Big Deficit

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Our longstanding desire to become part of a galactic empire by establishing contact with alien kingdoms received a setback. The reason is, as one might expect, not the lack of aliens or their potential habitats in the universe but the cash crunch.

With all due respect, I choose to say that we must avoid broadcasting the news about our budget shortfall (print is fine but no radio telecasting).The extraterrestrials might pick up these signals and would lose any interest on this planet. Who on the universe would come to a planet that has no money for even intergalactic communication and whose resources are being depleted by the members of the same primary gene pool?

Last April,the SETI Institute (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), announced "Federal and state funding cutbacks for operations of U.C. Berkeley's Hat Creek Radio Observatory (HCRO) force hibernation of Allen Telescope Array."

The Allen Telescope Array
(ATA) opened in 2007, which is named after the Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen for his donations to the project has been a dream come true for the SETI researchers. The Hat Creek facility needs 1.5 million a year for its operations and another million for other costs. The radio telescopes at this facility scan the signals from potential alien civilizations.

Two of my friends had an informal chat over coffee on the same topic. One of them, a social democrat, grumbled that this amount is not even a small fraction of the money we spent every year for pet pampering in this country. The other one, a Biologist, retorted by paraphrasing Charles Darwin, "The alien hunters are like blind men in the dark room looking for a black cat which is not there." (Originally, this was Darwin's comment on Mathematicians)

Why, when it comes to SETI, everyone has either simple solutions or serious criticism,though this research has some ardent supporters? SETI astronomers had to do lot of public relations work in the past to keep going with their investigation. Even the U.S. congress has slashed all the funding for SETI back in 1993, though it was lifted recently.

The goal of SETI is not to look for any primitive life forms, which might be plenty even in our galactic neighborhood. SETI looks for developed civilizations, at least comparable to us or further advanced, that can communicate with radio signals the way we do.

In contrast to other branches of scientific researches, alien hunt is subjected to a lot of scrutiny and ridiculous comments. Some cynics even say we should accelerate the alien hunt, not for scientific reasons, to begin a tie-up simply for financial reasons. The aliens might be a better credit-rated crowd than the earthlings, and probably, we could borrow at a lower rate and increase our debt ceiling, all assuming they are recession proof.

Generally, people tempt to think research efforts such as the particle hunt, definitely much more expensive, is something we cannot ignore and must be continued. However, one must admit that most of these experiments pursue particles that may not even exist, including the God particle (Higgs Boson). While these scientific pursuits are easily accepted and admired, the SETI, strangely, has a lower ranking in public perception.

Whether it is alien hunt or particle hunt, I have no doubt in my mind that serious science is generated in these efforts, and the spin-off benefits from these experiments fine-tune the technology we use now and would enable us to master new science.

A section of our populace, it appears, has developed some sort of resistance to any basic science research. Too many alien movies and popular UFOlogists have, perhaps, contributed to this indifferent attitude, and these folks, possibly, are doing their best to discredit the serious scientific pursuits. It is time to reach out to other countries ,and engage them on collaborative large-scale alien search experiments similar to LHC (Large Hadrons Collidern) experiment, for economic and other reasons. This might ease our financial responsibility for such ventures.

Searching extraterrestrial beings is, perhaps, just the culmination of human imagination and ingenuity. But, as the late Carl Sagan, a strong advocate of this scientific search said, "Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere."

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