Thursday, June 12, 2014

"Werthimer's Catchphrases on UFOs Were Right Out of the Discount Bin"

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Seth Shostak & Dan Werthimer at Congressional Hearing 5-21-14

They're not all dingbats

By Billy Cox
De Void

     For the most part, largely because they had to, SETI astronomers Seth Shostak and Dan Werthimer managed to keep straight faces on May 21 as they made a pitch for federal funding before the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. After all, Congress hasn't dropped a dime on the radiotelescopic search for ET since 1995. And in more than 50 years of scanning the stars for evidence of an intelligent signal, radioastronomy has nothing to show for it but theories. But not to worry - the two attempted to reassure the pols how, given the confirmation of exoplanets in exponential numbers, the targeting era has barely begun. If only they had more money . . .

With several clearly outmatched House reps spewing baffling nonsequiturs and another asking Shostak if he'd ever seen "Ancient Aliens" on the History Channel, you could almost see the thought-balloon storm clouds raining over the heads of the distinguished guests. But Shostak and Werthimer soldiered on, reciting the familiar litany, the way they always do, when queried about The Great Taboo. Werthimer's catchphrases on UFOs were right out of the discount bin: "nothing to do with extraterrestrials," "people's imaginations," "deliberate hoaxes," "making money," etc.

Rep. Donna Edwards, D-MD
Next time they stage a congressional SETI hearing, let's hear a little more from Rep. Donna Edwards, D-MD (Credit:
But then there was Maryland congresswoman Donna Edwards, a former Lockheed employee at Goddard Space Flight Center and self-confessed "Contact" movie fan who didn’t have to pretend she was new to the SETI spiel. In fact, she actually provided a moment of clarity. "What's intriguing about this conversation," Edwards said, "is the idea that - and it's a little bit of hubris, right? - somehow we're waiting to find them as opposed to them finding us. And maybe that's just the nature of homo sapiens because that's kinda what we do." It was a brief interjection, one that quickly dissipated into the sort of stale discourse Edwards had apparently heard before. "OK, I'm done," she said as her allotted time in the one-whole-hour-long hearing expired. "I think I'll just go back to watching my movies."

Edwards, of course, had touched upon something essential. Because even as Shostak and Werthimer decried the history of stubborn anthropocentrism resisting every scientific discovery that dares to sweep humanity farther and farther from the center of the universe, their own conceits were on display. Both rejected the possibility that some technologically advanced off-world civilization might initiate its own modes of exploration that fall outside the inflexible boundaries of radiotelescopes. In fact, Edwards’ reasoning was something that MUFON research director Robert Powell hung on the line last month as well — and in a science journal to boot. But only because he knew the rules of the game. “I don’t think it would’ve gotten accepted,” he says, “if I’d used the word ‘UFO.’”

In a new e-zine, The Journal of Astrobiology, Powell addressed the same exoplanet explosion currently fueling the funding ambitions of the SETI fraternity. But unlike the Werthimer/Shostak paradigm that short-sells the technological prowess of hypothesized ET civilizations by assuming we’re all on equal footing, Powell’s essay, “Something Intelligent This Way Comes,” gives whatever’s out there a lot more credit. He acknowledges that extrasolar planetary scientists may have even employed the same methods planet-hunters use today — and discovered our atmospheric isotopes hundreds or thousands or millions of years ago.

“It would be close minded of us to assume that such a civilization is not capable of rapid interstellar travel,” he writes. “Yes, the laws of physics are real boundaries. What has changed and will continue to change is not the laws of physics but our knowledge and understanding of those laws.”

For now, to our own disadvantage, we are unable to conceive of an intelligence above and beyond our own frame of reference, with its convoluted hierarchies and linear thinking and organizational logic thousands of years in the making. Powell concludes with a series of questions that only the products of such evolutionary forces could ask:

“So why haven’t these civilizations contacted us? As Enrico Fermi once asked, where are they? Why have they not sent us a radio signal across the cosmos? Surely they know the value of making contact with us, but no one has landed on the White House lawn or the door step of the Kremlin. We feel certain that if they are out there, they would want to let us know about themselves. After all, ‘It’s all about us.’”

Oh, and here’s an irony. Lately, one of the major analytical tools Powell and others employ to study UFOs — a certain class of radar records — is being yanked from the public domain by the FAA and the military. Disappointing news from an administration initially advertised as the transparency presidency. More on that next time.

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