Last weekend I had the great fortune to attend SETIcon II, probably the world’s foremost conference on space exploration. I met more astronauts than you can shake a stick at, top aerospace journalists, space entrepreneurs, astrobiologists and exobiologists doing cutting edge stuff, got all the latest news from the Kepler planet-finding satellite, slapped five with Bill Nye and Robert Picardo, and find out straight from the horse’s mouth what’s coming up next from the private sector that’s about to put people into orbit and onto Mars faster than any government space program. It was rocking. The panelists were terrific, and every single one of them had something new to share.
My overall impression of the conference? SETI has a branding problem.
In all the decades that we’ve been listening for E.T. to send us a signal from outer space, how many have we heard? Zero. While there is, in reality, a lot of really neat stuff under the hood, the public’s impression of SETI is pretty dull. I sent numerous tweets and Facebook posts from SETIcon, and nearly all of the replies were humdrum. Despite the amazing stuff I described that I was actually doing at SETIcon, people tended to reply instead to the #seticon hashtag that I used. Replies were things like “Not much new at SETI” or “A big waste of time and money” or “Skeptical of listening for E.T.?”
This unspeakably awesome conference was hidden under a cloak of “listening for E.T.” In all the sessions I attended, I don’t recall a single mention of the SETI program, although it is still alive and well. The vast, vast majority of the work done by scientists at the SETI Institute is not about listening for E.T. It’s about the latest, newest planetary science. It’s about what we’ll find in the oceans of Europa. It’s about how soon Elon Musk plans to land people on Mars. It’s about the newest discovered planets residing in the habitable zone. It’s wild, wild, stuff; it’s real; it’s here now. And it’s brought to you by THE people who are doing it.
My own podcast Skeptoid suffers from a similar branding problem. People hear “skeptic” and they respond “Oh, you’re the people who think 9/11 was an inside job, and who think global warming is a big hoax.” Not so much; as anyone who listens to Skeptoid knows, the content is incredibly rich and deserves a much larger audience. In the same manner, SETIcon (and perhaps to some degree, the SETI Institute as well) fails to capture the public mindshare that it deserves because it is misperceived as being primarily about listening for E.T. If Skeptoid was called something more blatantly descriptive like “The Urban Legends Show” I’ve no doubt that it would have a larger audience; and if SETIcon had been called something similarly obvious like SPACEcon the hotel probably would have been overrun with space geeks, as it should have been.
When Mike Melville first rode SpaceShipOne into space, I was there with a VIP press pass. I had access to a comfortable lounge, food, drink, and front-row seating for one of the greatest space achievements of our day. I’ll always remember how startlingly spectacular was that airborne drop and launch. The funny thing is that I’d been given two press passes so I could bring a friend. I invited everyone I knew, and nobody would go with me. Nobody knew what it was; nobody cared what it was. Of course, today they all want to kick themselves in the pants. Don’t make the same mistake. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and make sure you’re on the mailing list for the next conference. Don’t miss it.