Alan Boyle over at his Cosmic Log (one of the best space/science blogs on the ‘net) has a good write-up on the newly christened Allen Telescope Array. The ATA will give SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) its first dedicated radio telescope for sky scanning, and once fully grown will be one of the most powerful astronomical tools on the planet.
I have somewhat of a love/hate relationship with SETI – I love the science behind it all, and the ethos of looking into the unknown. However, I also take issue with the likely anthropomorphic flaw in SETI’s strategies (best summarised by Terence McKenna, who said “to search expectantly for a radio signal from an extraterrestrial source is probably as culture bound a presumption as to search the galaxy for a good Italian restaurant.”) I should note though that SETI pioneers Cocconi and Morrison once provided a fair answer which is hard to argue with: “The probability of success is difficult to estimate; but if we never search, the chance of success is zero.”
I also have taken issue in the past with both Seth Shostak and Jill Tarter’s embracing of pseudo-skeptical groups such as CSICOP, instead of engaging with the other main group of researchers involved in searching for extraterrestrial intelligence: ufology. Instead, at nearly every turn, they appear to have been at pains to distance themselves in order to avoid comparisons (and risk their reputation). Contrast that approach with someone like theoretical physicist Michio Kaku – who has never been afraid to state his opinion that the UFO question should be addressed by scientists – and SETI look a little like the schoolkids at the back of the class who are afraid of being bullied by the big science (and ‘skeptic’) kids.
That said, I’ll watch with interest how the ATA and SETI progress from this point – they have certainly been hamstrung in the past, having to fight for every hour of access to radio telescopes, so the ATA is a huge step forward. For anyone interested in the history of SETI, I actually wrote quite a detailed piece about it a few years back, which I think is a very handy primer, titled “Explaining SETI” (which I hope isn’t too out of date!).