"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
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
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).
SETI at Home:
Drake's Equation, explained and computed:
SERENDIP (Search for Extraterrestrial Radio Emissions from
Nearby Developed Intelligent Populations):
SPACE.COM's SETI Channel:
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
1999: SETI@home -- uses screensavers to link home PCs
into computing resource to analyze radiotelescope data: decentralized
Allen Array online?
Other optical SETI?