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Why Are Only Americans Interested in the Hunt for Extraterrestrials?

Why Are Only Americans Interested in the Hunt for Extraterrestrials?

Are other countries "too sober" for SETI?

Allen Telescope Array
Allen Telescope Array credit: Seth Shostak

Years ago, during a brief visit to the Dutch university where I once worked, I gave a colloquium about the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Perhaps surprising to some, Holland ranks high in the quality of its scientific research. This small country produces more than beer and cheese; it also exports physicists and astronomers, some of the world's best.

Knowing this, I was hardly surprised to see that the lecture hall for my talk was laded with professors, students, and local townspeople.

For 45 minutes, I discoursed on our hunt for radio signals coming from other inhabitants of the galaxy. The crowd seemed attentive. Finally, I asked two quick questions. First, how many thought it likely that intelligence was common in the cosmos?

Everyone — I mean everyone — stuck their hands in the air.

"OK," I followed up, "so how many of you are willing to spend one guilder a year to fund a search?" A guilder was about 50 cents, the price of a cafeteria coffee.

All the hands went down.

I was gobsmacked. They weren't willing to spring for one cup of java per year? Stumbling out of the room, I asked one of the professors what that was all about?

"Oh, we're too sober for SETI."

I'm still not sure what he meant, but it occurred to me that the Dutch have a reputation for being cheap, a characterization that at least offered a quick-and-dirty understanding. But being honest about it, I thought this rap was bum. The miserly Dutchman was a stereotype, and in my experience not an accurate one.

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