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Why Don't They Do SETI?

A widespreadand popular impression of SETI is that it's a worldwide enterprise. Well, it'snot, and there's something modestly puzzling in that.

The idea ofcommunicating between worlds is at least 150 years old. Victorian scientistsKarl Friedrich Gauss and Joseph von Littrow are both reputed to have concoctedschemes to establish rapport with Moon-men or Martians by signaling them withlight. 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 thewestern side of the Atlantic. The fundamentalconcepts for radio SETI were first incubated and hatched in America.

For threedecades following Frank Drake's first modern SETI experiment in 1960, the Americanefforts had a strong and fertile counterpart in the Soviet Union. The Soviet SETI work was frequently brilliant, occasionallynutty, and pursued by researchers who were active and enthused.

That allended with the SovietUnion's collapse. And for the last two decades, the large majority of allSETI effort has taken place in the U.S. Yes, there have beencommendable experiments in Australia,Argentina, India, and Italy. But only the Italians areactive today.

So what'sthe story? Why is SETI nearly exclusively an American game?

The oddityof this was brought home to me a few years ago when I held a colloquium on SETIresearch at the Dutch university in Groningenwhere I was once employed. The room was full — overfull actually, with studentsand faculty braced against the walls. My first question was, "How many ofyou think it's likely there are intelligent extraterrestrials out there in theGalaxy?" Virtually every hand went up.

I followedwith "and how many of you are willing to spend one guilder a year to lookfor it?" (That's the cost of one cup of subsidized university coffee. Onecup per year.) The hands all went down.

I wasstunned. When, after my talk, I inquired of a faculty member why the Dutch werereluctant to mount a SETI program, his answer was, "We're too sober forthat." I didn't understand his comment, especially given the concordantopinion that there could be something to find.

Let's beclear: it's not that the Dutch don't have the radio telescopes or technicalsmarts. They do. It's not because they don't have the money. They do.

And so dothe British, French, Germans, Canadians, Japanese and lots and lots of others.

So, asGertrude Stein asked, "What's the answer?" What's so singular about Americansthat only they are willing to spend a small (very small) amount of moneyand a bit of time to try and answer a truly important question about life, theuniverse, and everything?

My first,na?ve thought was that this was the legacy of America's frontier history.Innovation and the occasional gamble on a long shot were necessary andsometimes essential in an unsettled environment. So perhaps SETI sat morecomfortably on American shoulders than on others.

There's atleast some support for this inexpert speculation. Professor Geert Hofstede(who, rather coincidentally, received his doctorate in Groningen) has researched global culturaldifferences, and among his investigated traits is something he calls"uncertainty avoidance." This is an index of a society's tolerancefor uncertainty and ambiguity, and its willingness to search for new truths.

Looking atHofstede's data, you'll find that when it comes to uncertainty avoidance,Americans score 15 percent lower than the Dutch. In other words, they trulyseem to be more disposed to take on ambiguous projects. Actually, the Dutch arecloser to the Americans in this regard then many of their European neighbors.The Greeks, French, Belgians, Italians, and Germans are even more inclined toavoid uncertainty then residents of The Netherlands. (Only the British dosubstantially better: In fact, their score is lower than the Americans'.)

Could thisgreater reluctance to take risks play a role in the fact that NASA's budget isthree times that of the EuropeanSpace Agency's, despite the comparable populations of the U.S. and Europe?Does it help explain why venture capital investment in the former is roughlytwice that in the latter?

No doubtthe social scientists can come up with the answer. Meanwhile, I note that both India and Chinascore lower than the U.S.on Hofstede's index. Maybe they'll join the search. SETI, after all, is one ofthe most provocative and exciting explorations of all time. We could use somecompany in scouting out the final frontier.

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Seth Shostak is an astronomer at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Mountain View, California, who places a high priority on communicating science to the public. In addition to his many academic papers, Seth has published hundreds of popular science articles, and not just for; he makes regular contributions to NBC News MACH, for example. Seth has also co-authored a college textbook on astrobiology and written three popular science books on SETI, including "Confessions of an Alien Hunter" (National Geographic, 2009). In addition, Seth ahosts the SETI Institute's weekly radio show, "Big Picture Science."