Another thing that’s for sure going to happen is that it will calibrate us. We will know that we’re not that miracle, right, that we’re just another duck in a row, we’re not the only kids on the block, and I think that that’s philosophically a very profound thing to learn. We’re not a miracle, okay?
The third thing that it might tell you is somewhat vague, but I think interesting and important, and that is, if you find a signal coming from a more advanced society, because they will be, that will tell you something about our own possibilities, that we’re not inevitably doomed to self-destruction. Because they survived their technology, we could do it too. Normally when you look out into the universe, you’re looking back in time. All right? That’s interesting to cosmologists. But in this sense, you actually can look into the future, hazily, but you can look into the future. So those are all the sorts of things that would come from a detection.
Now, let me talk a little bit about something that happens even in the meantime, and that is, SETI, I think, is important, because it’s exploration, and it’s not only exploration, it’s comprehensible exploration. Now, I got to tell you, I’m always reading books about explorers. I find exploration very interesting, Arctic exploration, people like Magellan, Amundsen, Shackleton, you see Franklin down there, Scott, all these guys. It’s really nifty, exploration. And they’re just doing it because they want to explore, and you might say, “Oh, that’s kind of a frivolous opportunity,” but that’s not frivolous. That’s not a frivolous activity, because, I mean, think of ants. You know, most ants are programmed to follow one another along in a long line, but there are a couple of ants, maybe one percent of those ants, that are what they call pioneer ants, and they’re the ones that wander off. They’re the ones you find on the kitchen countertop. You got to get them with your thumb before they find the sugar or something. But those ants, even though most of them get wiped out, those ants are the ones that are essential to the survival of the hive. So exploration is important.
I also think that exploration is important in terms of being able to address what I think is a critical lack in our society, and that is the lack of science literacy, the lack of the ability to even understand science. Now, look, a lot has been written about the deplorable state of science literacy in this country. You’ve heard about it. Well, here’s one example, in fact. Polls taken, this poll was taken 10 years ago. It shows like roughly one third of the public thinks that aliens are not only out there, we’re looking for them out there, but they’re here, right? Sailing the skies in their saucers and occasionally abducting people for experiments their parents wouldn’t approve of. Well, that would be interesting if it was true, and job security for me, but I don’t think the evidence is very good. That’s more, you know, sad than significant.
But there are other things that people believe that are significant, like the efficacy of homeopathy, or that evolution is just, sort of a crazy idea by scientists without any legs, or, evolution, all that sort of thing, or global warming. These sorts of ideas don’t really have any validity, that you can’t trust the scientists.
Now, we’ve got to solve that problem, because that’s a critically important problem, and you might say, “Well, okay, how are we going to solve that problem with SETI?” Well, let me suggest to you that SETI obviously can’t solve the problem, but it can address the problem. It can address the problem by getting young people interested in science. Look, science is hard, it has a reputation of being hard, and the facts are, it is hard, and that’s the result of 400 years of science, right?
I mean, in the 18th century, in the 18th century you could become an expert on any field of science in an afternoon by going to a library, if you could find the library, right? In the 19th century, if you had a basement lab, you could make major scientific discoveries in your own home. Right? Because there was all this science just lying around waiting for somebody to pick it up. Now, that’s not true anymore. Today, you’ve got to spend years in grad school and post-doc positions just to figure out what the important questions are. It’s hard. There’s no doubt about it.
And in fact, here’s an example: the Higgs boson, finding the Higgs boson. Ask the next 10 people you see on the streets, “Hey, do you think it’s worthwhile to spend billions of Swiss francs looking for the Higgs boson?” And I bet the answer you’re going to get, is, “Well, I don’t know what the Higgs boson is, and I don’t know if it’s important.” And probably most of the people wouldn’t even know the value of a Swiss franc, okay? And yet we’re spending billions of Swiss francs on this problem. Okay? So that doesn’t get people interested in science because they can’t comprehend what it’s about.
SETI, on the other hand, is really simple. We’re going to use these big antennas and we’re going to try to eavesdrop on signals. Everybody can understand that. Yes, technologically, it’s very sophisticated, but everybody gets the idea. So that’s one thing.
The other thing is, it’s exciting science. It’s exciting because we’re naturally interested in other intelligent beings, and I think that’s part of our hardwiring. I mean, we’re hardwired to be interested in beings that might be, if you will, competitors, or if you’re the romantic sort, possibly even mates. Okay? I mean, this is analogous to our interest in things that have big teeth. Right? We’re interested in things that have big teeth, and you can see the evolutionary value of that, and you can also see the practical consequences by watching Animal Planet. You notice they make very few programs about gerbils. It’s mostly about things that have big teeth.