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Barbara Ehrenreich
(1941 - )

American writer who studied theoretical physics but changed interest to cell biology, started teaching, then turned to full-time writing. She has been a frequent contributor to a number of magazines, and published many books.

Barbara Ehrenreich - The big 800 number in the sky does not return calls

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“SETI … has so far only proved that no matter what you beam up—the Pythagorean theorem, pictures of attractive nude people, etc.—the big 800 number in the sky does not return calls.”
— Barbara Ehrenreich
From article in Mother Jones Magazine (1986)

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Barbara Ehrenreich is now best known for her longtime output of articles contributed to, for example, the New York Times, Harpers, Progressive, and Time magazine. She is the author of thirteen books, including a New York Times bestseller, Nickel and Dimed. Although now writing in the role of a political activist, she began with a science training in theoretical physics and cell biology, and with this background she was qualified to write about the search for knowlege about the universe, including whether there is intelligent life elsewhere.

This quote comes from a light-hearted article in Mother Jones Magazine in 1986, at which time President Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” defense pipe-dream (announced 23 Mar 1983) was still topical. After some satirical jabs at that initiative, she reflected on science fiction, alien life forms, the solar system, black holes and more.

In her opening paragraph, Ehrenreich recalls her early life, when “still young enough to be dissatisfied with the limited information available,” and continued, “the night sky meant a lot more than a connect-the-dots lesson in ancient Roman mythology. It was a threshold leading to better worlds, where, according to my monthly Galaxymagazine, humanoids of great strength and surpassing intelligence drove about purposefully from star to star. In sci-fi convention, life-forms that hadn’t developed space travel were mere prehistory—the horseshoe crabs of the cosmic scene—and something of the humiliation of being stuck on a provincial planet in a galactic backwater has stayed with me ever since.”

This led her to comment on the current radio telecope program to broadcast to possible other life forms in the universe, while also listening, which so far has not discovered any intelligible incoming signals:

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI, to us insiders) has so far only proved that no matter what you beam up—the Pythagorean theorem, pictures of attractive nude people, etc.—the big 800 number in the sky does not return calls.

In her concluding sentences, Ehrenreich returned to her opening remark about her childhood thoughts, writing about her then present day when above the atmosphere, orbitting space weaponry had been proposed:

I’d still like to know, still like to meet whoever’s out there, still like to think my descendants won’t be stuck here forever, toiling away on a large rock near a small-sized star. And for the time being, when I look up at night, I want to sense the huge, untidy humor of infinity—not a grave-stone of our own making pressing down on us.

From essay 'First Person Secular: Blocking the Gates to Heaven', Mother Jones Magazine (Jun 1986), 48. Collected in The Worst Years of our Lives: Irreverent Notes from a Decade of Greed (1995), 267. (source)

See also:
  • Science Quotes by Barbara Ehrenreich.
  • Barbara Ehrenreich - context of quote “The big 800 number in the sky does not return calls” - Medium image (500 x 350 px)

Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

Richard Feynman: It is the facts that matter, not the proofs. Physics can progress without the proofs, but we can't go on without the facts ... if the facts are right, then the proofs are a matter of playing around with the algebra correctly. ...(more by Feynman)
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