Sunday, August 3, 2008

The ATA, Jesus, and New Age Paranoia

An interesting little tidbit of paranoia surfaced this weekend at the New Age conspiracy conference in Crestone, Colorado. I only mention it, here, because it may not be so paranoid. It concerns the ATA, which stands for Allen Telescope Array. Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen has spent part of his considerable fortune to build an array of twenty-foot radio dish antennas (there will eventually be 350 in all) at Hat Creek, California. This location is the reason why New Age conference attendees are paranoid. Everybody (at least everybody familiar with the project) seems to wish that Allen had chosen to build this telescope array in the middle of the CERN supercollider ring on the French-Swiss border, completely beyond the authority of the U.S. Government. France and Switzerland support and appreciate science, and many astute people believe that the only reason that the Internet grew to unstoppable proportions before government control could shut it down was the fact that the Internet was invented and started at CERN. But I digress.

New Agers are more into astrology than astronomy, so you might ask why they have an interest in celestial telescopes. It’s because of the ATA primary mission, which is to detect radio transmissions from intelligent extraterrestrial advanced civilizations. The ATA is part of SETI. The paranoid scenario goes like this. A few years from now (the exact number of years doesn’t matter), the ATA hits the Holy Grail and finds a radio signal which cannot come from anything but an intelligent source. The finding is announced to the world. And, with time, we learn to decode, or read, or understand what is being said to us across the light years of space. Then, as the interstellar messages accumulate, interested parties with religious tunnel-vision, maybe James Dobson or John Hagee, begin to wonder what happens if nothing indicates that the intelligent beings sending the signal know anything about Jesus, or Mohammed, or the entire concept of supernatural Salvation. What if Jesus begins to look like nothing more than a local boy? The celestial astro-communication will not be two-way, of course, so all we can do is listen. We can’t ask the bombshell question. But the stakes are profound. It doesn’t take too much imagination to visualize the U.S. Government, pressured by the religious Right, shutting down the ATA by claiming it compromises our satellite intelligence capability, or some other nonsensical phoniness tied to our so-called national security.

Sure it’s paranoid. But if your argument against this happening relies on faith in good American government, then consider The Patriot Act. And if you believe that Americans still appreciate scientific discovery, then consider the public response to global warming evidence. Finally think about this. Rush Limbaugh just signed a deal for 400 million dollars, justified on the grounds that he can sway an audience of 30 million right-wing listeners. Limbaugh believes that the new CERN supercollider can produce a black hole which might threaten the earth, and he doesn’t believe that subterranean oil deposits are the result of decayed prehistoric plant life. When you live in a country where that kind of scientific ignorance earns 400 million dollars, then any absurdity is possible.

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