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The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) in the

Optical Spectrum


Clive Goodall (Floor): I was inspired by some of your opening remarks to ask a question a few minutes ago, so this goes back to what I had intended to ask then. It arises because it has occurred to me that it's been quite an event here in the past couple of days. We have quite a distinguished panel of experts. Since this is being recorded, no better time than to conduct a tiny thought experiment here and ask a simple question. We might take, as an audience so to speak, a poll of the panel and say to you; "Just imagine that by the end of the century we do have a successful detection". Let's leave the decoding debates and problems and controversy aside and quickly poll the panel, if you wish, for your opinions on whether you think there will be a significant impact. I have in mind the following possibility. I have come across a number of people in the past who thought that the discovery of the existence of ETI will be rather like the moon landings - a sort of "five-minute wonder". It will capture the imagination of the Earth's population for a short time, and then it will fade. I personally don't think that will be the case. My question is what do the panel think? Is that OK? I think for the record, given the nature of this event, it would be useful.

Charles Townes: It might be worthwhile to poll the whole audience. It's an easy thing to do if people don't mind voting in public.

Clive Goodall (Floor): Do it both ways. Have expert opinion.

Charles Townes: We can simply say "Those people who think that this will have an important and lasting impact?" versus "Those who think it'll be interesting but not all that important in the long run?". Is that the question you want to ask?

Clive Goodall (Floor): I personally would especially like to hear a quick comment from each member of the panel. I think it could be done in a minute or two. But sure - have an opinion from the masses out here.

Charles Townes: You want a comment from the panel. Would anyone like to comment?

Barney Oliver: If you want to poll the audience, then you'd better do it now, before the panel speaks. [laughter]

Charles Townes: Let's try that. Let's see. Among the audience, I will ask you to hold up your hand if you think that this will really have an permanent impact on our thinking versus the fact that it will hit the headlines, then after a while it won't make any difference to anybody. So those who think it will have an impact, please hold up your hands? OK, and those who think that it won't have that much of an impact? Well it's a high ratio that people think it will have an impact. In between? Well, of course, there are all gradations. [laughter] I don't think we can play it that finely. Do you have a particular comment to make?

Floor: Obviously, to answer a question like this is simply a guess. Certainly, it depends on the nature of what this contact or discovery of contact is, how close it might be and a bunch of other parameters. On one hand people will hear such a thing and there will be an immediate impact. It will go through the press, and people will then go back to their daily business. But there will be a slow gradation of effect that works its way through society. So there can be a lasting impact that would take a long time depending on just how imminent such a contact would be. If it is clear that something is going to happen real fast - we made contact - something is going to be coming real fast - whatever it might be, then there is going to be a very fast diffusion through society. If it is just a contact that occurs - we say "For five minutes we had a contact, and it hasn't happened since for 10 years.", people will forget it.

Charles Townes: Let's take time to go quickly through the panel up here to see who would like to make a comment about how they see this. Barney?

Barney Oliver: I think that the discovery would produce an immediate flash of sensation first of all, that would die away quickly, in my estimate that would be a matter of a few weeks. Then the NFL would take over again on Monday night. [laughter] On the other hand, I think there would be in addition to that a slow infiltration of the deeper levels of the structure of our society with the information that accrues over a long time scale. I mean by that centuries.

The mails may be slow but the integrated effect of continuing transmission and learning about life on a broader scale will necessarily have an immense philosophic impact upon the human race. But that is not going to be something that happens in my life time or yours. It's going to be something that would happen as our species matures.

Charles Townes: Anyone else like to make a comment?

Mike Klein: I would like to harken back to what Arthur C. Clarke said this morning: When Columbus went back home, was there a big hoop-la? Probably not, but he certainly had an impact on the thinking of the civilized world - that's essentially saying what Barney said. But I like that little image of Columbus going back home and - "Hooray, it's all over. So what!". [laughter]

Fred Johnson: I am afraid that television has done a disservice by desensitizing the public as Star Trek is so popular. If this were to come out, there would be a big yawn, "Ha-ha, well, we knew all this, you know". I'm afraid that kind of impact I get from some of my students. Even if I read them correctly, there's too much of this on television, and I think they've done a disservice. Will it have an impact? I think it will be very controversial because no one wants to let somebody else get away with a big discovery like this. The scientists would say "Why, this isn't it. This is spurious. . ." and so forth. I put myself on record here: There will be a controversy for a long time.

Charles Townes: Anyone else?


Copyright , 1993, SPIE

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