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
decades following Frank Drake's first modern SETI experiment in 1960, the American
efforts had a strong and fertile counterpart in the
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
So what's the story? Why is SETI nearly exclusively an American game?
of this was brought home to me a few years ago when I held a colloquium on SETI
research at the Dutch university in
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?
na?ve thought was that this was the legacy of
least some support for this inexpert speculation. Professor Geert Hofstede
(who, rather coincidentally, received his doctorate in
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?
the social scientists can come up with the answer. Meanwhile, I note that both
- Video Player: Reflections on Fermi's Paradox
- Video Player: Extreme Living: On Earth and Other Worlds
- SETI at SPACE.com