Seth Shostak laments:
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 Atlantic. The fundamental concepts for radio SETI were first incubated and hatched in America.
For three decades following Frank Drake’s first modern SETI experiment in 1960, the American efforts had a strong and fertile counterpart in the Soviet Union. The Soviet SETI work was frequently brilliant, occasionally nutty, and pursued by researchers who were active and enthused.
That all 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 U.S. Yes, there have been commendable experiments in Australia, Argentina, India, and Italy. But only the Italians are active today.
So what’s the story? Why is SETI nearly exclusively an American game?
Actually, ol’ Uncle Seth has a point, why is SETI almost purely an American venture?
It could be because of our Puritan and ‘Lewis and Clark’ heritage, the push to find our own ‘space’ to do what we what without interference. Maybe if we contact aliens, we could gain insight on how we can get by our ‘times of troubles’ (messianic rescue us complex) and survive to once more ‘find our own individual freedom and space’.
At the other end of the SETI spectrum, author and Fortean Mac Tonnies puts forward the theory that UFOs (as related to SETI) is tied to our cultural (American) archetypes and consciousness:
…If the UFO phenomenon has a purpose, perhaps it’s to challenge entrenched ideas about our role as sentient observers. The ever-colorful “space visitors” encountered since 1947 could be the vanguards of an unknown manifestation of consciousness. (Far from invalidating the UFO inquiry, such a discovery would likely propel a new era of scientific understanding. If so, would our collective unconscious adopt some new disguise and cease to provide us with novel visitors and resplendent “craft”?)
Harvard psychiatrist Dr. John Mack once described alien abductions as an example of “reified metaphor.” While he believed his patients’ accounts of sexually charged encounters with apparent aliens were sincere, he was reluctant to accept them literally. In “Passport to the Cosmos,” he mused that activities endured during “abductions” might herald a sort of cosmic wake-up call–real enough, but only as real as scenes in a stage play. Like self-professed abductee Whitley Strieber, Mack seemed intrigued by the idea that the mind, subjected to a sufficiently foreign stimulus, could produce imagery culled from myth or even pop culture. (Extraterrestrials, big-headed and bug-eyed, seem like suitable candidates for a population weaned on science fiction.)
Of course, that begs the question of where the archetypal “Gray” originated in the first place. British researcher Albert Budden, a strident critic of the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH), suggests that the minimal physique ascribed to the Grays of abduction infamy might have a basis in neuro-anatomy. If he’s right, that still leaves us to sort out cases with physical effects…
The common thread between Shostak and Tonnies’ opinions is how we, as a culture, perform the function of being observers and the effects thereof.
Is SETI and the possible contact of alien intelligence a manifestation of American culture and will?
Or are we just being delusional about the true nature of the Universe?