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Forget "I Love Lucy"! Ignore Ed Sullivan! Listen to this!

We are a social species, and die without congenial contact. So as we extend our reach out of Earth's gravity well via Voyager, the Arecibo Radio Telescope, Hubble, and other tools, we also extend the hand of friendship ­ and wonder what will emerge to clasp it.

I hear beyond the range of sound,
I see beyond the range of sight,
New earths and skies and seas around
Henry David Thoreau, Inspiration.

The truth is not only stranger than you think, it is stranger than you can think.
Lord Bertrand Russell [?ACCKK!! I can't find a source for this quote! ]
Graphics on this page courtesy SETI unless otherwise bookmarked.

Tired of the alien-of-the-week as depicted by Star Trek? Jar-Jar Binks bugging you? Are you wondering where the real space sentients are, and if they are wierder than we can even imagine? You are not alone ­ and in all probability, we are not alone either. At least, that's what the folks at SETI ­ the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence ­ are betting.

If you were Jimmy the Greek, would you take the bet? If you knew as much about the universe as bookies know about horse racing, you could figure the odds. First, how many stars does our galaxy have? Of those, how many have planets? Of the stars with planets, how many include planets with thermal activity and water (characteristics enabling the evolution of organic life)? Where life emerged, how often did signal-generating intelligence evolve? Frank Drake, an eminent astronomer, neatly bundled the applicable assumptions into an equation which calculates how many stars might have detectable intelligent life. Unfortunately, the answer depends entirely upon your assumptions and the values you enter into Drake's equation: the answer could be a million ­ or none. (Calculate the odds.)

So we are propelled from Drake's Equation to Fermi's Paradox: surely our situation is not unique; assuming other intelligent lifeforms evolved, why haven't we heard from them? Maybe they evolved ­ and self-destructed once they reached the nuclear age. Or perhaps they moved quickly through their radio and TV eras, and are now using laser-based communication systems, or quantum broadcasting, or technologies as yet unimagined by us. Given that a billion-year age gap could potentially exist between their evolution and ours, their use of "magic" communication technologies is not at all unlikely ("any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic;" Arthur C. Clarke).

Thus we need to be clever in scanning stars. Our strategies include focusing on wavelengths which the universe leaves "quiet," making it easier to hear artificial signals; wide-field surveys which scan big sections of sky; targeted searches which focus only on 1,000 nearby "sun-like" stars; and "piggyback" searches of data collected from ordinary radio astronomy ­ which borrow processing power from thousands of volunteers' desktop pcs via the SETI@home screensaver. In the next decade, our search will expand in two dimensions. First, the new Allen Telescope Array in northern California will provide 24/7/365 SETI radio scans via 350 linked 6-meter dishes. Second, projects like COSETI (Columbus Optical SETI) will re-invigorate the search for optical messages beamed at Earth via high-energy, pulse lasers.

On August 15th, 1977, Dr. Jerry Ehrman looked through a stack of printouts from Ohio State University's Big Ear Radio Observatory and printed "WOW!" next to a strong signal spike. (see graphic) Unfortunately, that signal never recurred. If it had, what would have happened? Think the movie "Contact" rather than "The X-Files:" any potential "hits" are double-checked against a data-base of potential Earth-based signal sources, and then referred to other radio telescope observatories for independent confirmation. If confirmation occurs, international protocols for next steps ­ and possible responses ­ are being jointly devised by astronomers, diplomats, and space lawyers.

Once we receive an interstellar message, we must interpret it, and respond. In both deciphering alien messages, and designing our own for transmission, we need a clearly understandable reference point. For example, the Rosetta Stone gave us Greek and Egyptian script alongside Egyptian hieroglyphs; Mayan glyphs were understood first in reference to numerals and their calendar. In sending greetings via Voyager and the 1974 transmission from Arecibo, we included numerals, chemical formulae, and stick figures depicting the human body. But starting with math and the elements of the universe does not ensure cross-cultural understanding.

Doug Vakoch, the SETI Institute's "Interstellar Message Group Leader," has been working with scientists, artists, and schoolchildren to create messages conveying human intention as well. In an article for the BBC, Maggie Shiels notes, "Dr Vakoch has already devised some basic messages that ET would easily understand. They include things like the periodic table written in a universal language using binary numbers and also a picture of two human beings, one holding the other to represent 'support and caring'." And every year participants at CONTACT explore different protocols for human communication with alien cultures.

But let's be honest with ourselves. While we find us endlessly fascinating, that could just be Terran narcissism. What's to say a billion-year-old, highly evolved, intelligent species would find us any more interesting than we find the average earthworm? Or, culturally, any more understandable or admirable? Our home definitions of progress might not be shared by the galaxy. Yet whatever the communication difficulties and cultural barriers involved, the effort alone transforms us.


Organic life, we are told, has developed gradually from the protozoon to the philosopher, and this development, we are assured, is indubitably an advance. Unfortunately it is the philosopher, not the protozoon, who gives us this assurance.
Lord Bertrand Russell (1872­1970), British philosopher, mathematician. Mysticism and Logic, ch. 6 (1917).

Want more?
The SETI Institute
SETI at Home:
Drake's Equation, explained and computed:
SERENDIP (Search for Extraterrestrial Radio Emissions from Nearby Developed Intelligent Populations):
How Stuff Works, on SETI:
Astrobiology at NASA:

1960: "Project Ozma" ­ Dr. Frank Drake, radio astronomer, uses the 85-foot antenna at Green Bank, W. Virginia, in attempts to detect interstellar radio signals.
1964: SETI searches begun by astronomers in the Soviet Union.
1971: "Project Cyclops," a detailed SETI search plan, proposed by a group of astronomers and engineers led by Bernard Oliver, then a vice president of Hewlett-Packard; congressional outrage at the idea eventually led to legislative ban on SETI funding.
1974: Arecibo Observatory used to transmit a 1,679-bit message towards globular star cluster M14. Any extra-terrestrials who weren't paying attention for those three minutes missed a pixellated representation of numbers, people as stick figures, chemical formulas, and Arecibo itself. (see illustration graphic)
1977: "Wow!" ­ Dr. Jerry Ehman finds a strong signal spike among printouts from the SETI search project at Ohio State University's Big Ear Radio Observatory on August 15th, but continued observations produce no confirmation. Project shut down in 1997 for golf course. (see illustration graphic)
1984: Founding of non-profit SETI Institute.
1988: NASA proposes two-pronged approach to SETI search: a wide-field radio survey backed up by a targeted search of 1,000 "sunlike" stars.
1990: COSETI ­ Columbus Optical SETI ­ initiated; first SETI search for laser signals from alien civilizations.
1992: NASA begins "High Resolution Microwave Survey."
1993: Congress kills funding for the High Resolution Microwave Survey one year after its start, at the instigation of Senator Richard Bryan, D-Nevada.
1995: Project Phoenix continues the targeted search strategy begun by the HRMS, using private funds administered by the SETI Institute. (see SETI telescope photo).
1996: SETI League starts Project Argus, an all-sky survey project.
1999: SETI@home -- uses screensavers to link home PCs into computing resource to analyze radiotelescope data: decentralized SETI.
Allen Array online?
Other optical SETI?

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>> Catalog of Tomorrow Rough Drafts: Deep Sea | SETI | Deep Space

15 February 2003. Email IF.
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