The search for signs of intelligent company

Since I’m sure we’re all friends here, I’ll admit something to you. I’m a tidier person when I’m living with someone. I’m looking at my kitchen table as I type. It is a kind of wounded battlefield of Post-its, notebooks and slips of paper covered in a familiar hand. I will spare you the description of my kitchen. It is fair to say that, while it’s not posing an actual health hazard, it would hardly make my grandmother proud.

When I am sharing a roof with someone I’m more diligent. I don’t really want to see their mess and I assume they don’t really want to see mine.

Does company make us better roommates? Does living around people make us more considerate? I’d love to see some studies that unravel this behavior. (I’d wager a bottle of champagne that it does.) I’ll return to this idea later.

After a late breakfast this morning — which, rather delightfully, did involve some champagne — I attended the TeamSETI Ice Cream Social. It’s an annual appreciation party for supporters of the institute.

The SETI Institute, standing for the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, is a non-profit organization that investigates the origin and extent of life in the universe. The search was begun by the father of one of this year’s Scicom students.

The search is based on a set of pretty simple assumptions. To start with, we know the universe is an awfully big place — much bigger than you can comfortably wrap your head around. Within all that space there will be a few planets with the right conditions for chemically-based life. Within those planets, a few will have given birth to life. Some of those life forms will have progressed to the point where they do things like have Sunday brunches or read Dave Barry columns. Some of those eaters and readers will send signals out in to space. Some of those signals we, earthlings, might be able to see.

All you could ever want to know about this and more is available for you at seti.org. Audiologically inclined? Check out their awesome weekly radio show, “Are We Alone?” at radio.seti.org.

The institute is launching a new project called setiQuest. It will be a global community of people who are interested in searching for intelligent life. At the moment setiQuest is recruiting open-source-loving software developers, people who like to do digital signal processing and citizen scientists.

The founders of setiQuest hope people around the world will become engaged in the idea that other life might be “out there,” beyond the confines of our little watery blue ball. The director of SETI’s research center, Jill Tartar said that this shift in perspective changes how we engage with our own world. Tartar won a TED Prize in 2009. Winners get to make a wish that will change the world, setiQuest is hers.

If a vertiable intergalactic neighborhood of civilizations exists, or could exist, wouldn’t the difference between one human and another be trivial? To return to my roomate analogy, might we not evaluate our behavior more closely if we believe we’re not alone? How would we treat our planet? How would we treat one another? These questions force us to reflect beyond our narrow sphere. The answers, though, don’t come as signals from the sky. They are what we make them.

Ice cream and inspiration all in one afternoon? That’s what I call a productive day.

Danielle (going-to-clean-the-kitchen) Venton

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