As I grow older and more protective of my time and those I keep company with, I ran across a story that astronomers at the cash-strapped Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence Institute in northern California are poised to resume the quest for life elsewhere in the universe, after raising more than $200,000 from private sources to restart a key array of telescopes.
According to news reports, the institute was forced to put the hunt on hold in April, after cash-strapped governments decided they could “no longer afford to pay the interstellar phone bill.”
The 42 radio dishes that make it up had scanned deep space since 2007 for signals from alien civilizations while also conducting research into the structure and origin of the universe. The $50 million array was built by SETI and UC Berkeley with the help of a $30 million donation from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The SETI Institute was founded in 1984 and has received funding from NASA, the National Science Foundation and several other federal programs and private foundations.
The story got me thinking about the whole concept of “communication” and what we mean by it, what its value is, and how good news can bring us happiness, relief, satisfaction, and even exhilaration, while bad news can really spoil our day. It’s the in-between kind of communication, though, that leaves me baffled, confused, and sometimes downright peeved.
It’s the one-way communication, the kind that doesn’t come back to you in any form at all, that really annoys me.
After all, what’s with the guy who just doesn’t acknowledge your heartfelt good morning as you pass one another on the sidewalk, the seemingly dumb clerk who simply hands you change without verbal acknowledgement after your warm thank you, the impassive member of the audience who just stares back after your charged and impassioned speech.
As a free-lancer, I love the venue offered by Like the Dew. The editors are professional and generous with their time and offer you page space whenever you deliver the goods. What is really good with our modern formats is the opportunity for instant comment. No more waiting several days to see if the hard copy newspaper has had the space or temperament to print your letter to the editor.
The mystery is why this portal is not used more often. Silence may be golden, but not always. No reason to float in a drift of wordless indifference. Communication should be more than a limited number of characters your thumb can punch into a miniature keyboard. It’s a sharing of time and love, not just an occasional joke or YouTube of animals doing funny things. In these trying times, we all need a form of dialog that’s more than single-syllable grunts.
So I don’t know whether or not it’s good policy to give money to SETI to further the great cause of improving communication, even with life forms that are alien to us. One site pokes some light-hearted fun at advocates for the program, saying things like “I want proof that life exists here on Earth first,” “A couple million to possibly pick up an alien signal broadcasting their version of Jersey Shore, American Idol or even worse a Senate Hearing. The Horror!!!,” or “How about something really hard like finding intelligent life in DC?”
Despite all the effort and hoopla, most don’t hold out much hope that we’re going to “make contact.” From what I know, radio waves don’t propagate through free space forever. With distance, their strength dies exponentially. And since the distance is so great, the return radio waves would probably never reach us in any case. And, hypothetically, even if they did, they would be indistinguishable from background noise. Bummer….
But I would like to think we can all do better in making contact with one another. So I’m focusing on the life I know here on our battle-scarred Earth, trying my best to keep the meaningful chatter going. And we don’t really need those expensive radio dishes for what we’re doing.
But we all need dance partners, if we’re going to boogie on down the road in harmony. Sometimes communication can also pop up as the petulant devil, but most of the time talk is good. We don’t want people to just read and nod off or, even worse, quickly reach out to delete before even reading the many articles presented to them.
I’ve had a good time this summer writing about things I’ve done, places I’ve gone, classes I’ve taken, things I’ve learned, and neat people I know or have met, even people who have passed on but who have made an indelible impression on me.
I’ve even ventured into philosophical issues like death, remorse, rebirth, hope, joy, sadness, disillusion, betrayal, politics, religion, and the mythology of most of them. Guess I’ve also included ennui, but let’s not get boring.
In so doing, I’m just astonished to be so alive and eager to share with others. I shout out to them, begging to get their attention, wishing they could have been there with me when it happened, to taste how delicious it melted in my mouth, and how uplifting the moment was. Although praise is always welcome, we also don’t mind a few boos, cat calls, heckles, yawns, or even snores when the twist of the pretzel has fallen short of its promise.
Since every moment counts as the ever diminishing sand slips through our hour glasses, we should sometimes stop and just be grateful for the opportunity to read what others have written, since they have put their all into trying to to be amusing, informative, didactic, reminiscent, chatty…whatever.
So in the end, who knows whether donating scarce and precious funding to SETI to send their signals out there into the great unknown is worthwhile. All I know is that communication takes many forms and we hacks always wonder if anyone is reading or listening to what we’ve written or said.