As long as I've been aware of anything beyond the street where I lived, I've been aware of SETI. In the 1960s and early 1970s there were many small-scale, independent observing programs, mostly targeting nearby stars. Since no one had ever tried to look before, it seemed plausible that success could come quickly and easily. I first became conscious of SETI during this hopeful period, when the search was young and anything was possible. With my impressionable mind warped by science fiction and rock 'n' roll radio, and with some of the SETI pioneers in my family's social circle, searching for alien signals seemed like a perfectly respectable and smart thing to do.
I remember going to the Boston premiere of 2001: A Space Odyssey in the spring of 1968 with my family and the Sagans. It was the single most influential, moving, exhilarating, and terrifying moviegoing experience of my life (at least up to now). That night, I couldn't sleep. I kept opening my eyes, half expecting to see a large, black, humming monolith standing sentinel in my bedroom. The movie was powerful, exciting, and frightening because it seemed completely realistic. That all these smart adults took it seriously heightened the aura.* There was nothing
*I remember my dad and Carl on the way home discussing all the scientific flaws they had noticed in the film: stuff like dust swirling on the moon, which it wouldn't do in a vacuum, and Dr. Heywood Floyd's head resting in the wrong position when he was sleeping in weightlessness. But 2001 is one of the few movies that even attempts to be scientifically realistic and everyone gave it high marks.
in it that couldn't happen in my lifetime. By century's end, we'd be sending humans to the far corners of the solar system. Maybe I'd even go myself. Radio contact with extraterrestrials was bound to happen before too long. Lying awake, I felt that I was rushing through a Stargate, with the future approaching fast.
Iosif Shklovskii later referred to this early period of SETI as the time of "adolescent optimism," a time when we imagined creatures not too different from ourselves pointing their dishes right back at us from planets around nearly every star. This hopeful attitude was reflected in that, back then, it was not called SETI but CETI, for "communication with extraterrestrial intelligence." Shklovskii became much more pessimistic about the prospects for contact in his later years. He came to believe that L (the average lifetime of a civilization) was small, because most technological civilizations were destined to destroy themselves before long. As Shklovskii put it, in his 1991 memoir, published six years after his death at age sixty-nine, this adolescent optimism was "based on faith in human society's unbounded progress and places exaggerated emphasis on the radio-technological prospects for extraterrestrial communication, while ignoring both the humanities and biological aspects." Gradually the term SETI (the search for ETI) replaced CETI. With the adoption of this more humble acronym, we admit that we are only playing a game of solitaire until someone else shows up at the table. If and when SETI is successful, then CETI may begin.
In the seventies, NASA started supporting small observing programs to the tune of a few million dollars per year (a couple of pennies from each American). Whereas Ozma had listened in on two stars, the new plan called for the world's largest radio dishes to sample radio waves from a thousand promising suns.
What was it Einstein said about great spirits always receiving violent opposition from mediocre minds? NASA's SETI program was easy prey for politicians who wanted to pose as fiscally responsible. A SETI program might not succeed for decades or centuries or millennia, so it was easy to ridicule and portray as wasteful. In 1978, famously anti-intellectual Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin awarded one of his notorious Golden Fleece awards for stupid government spending to the NASA SETI program, and in 1981 he succeeded in deleting all funding for radio searches. Frank Drake retaliated by nominating the senator for membership in the Flat Earth Society, and supporters rallied to the SETI cause. The National Science Foundation and the International
Astronomical Union called upon Congress to restore funding. Sagan visited with Senator Proxmire for an hour and reasoned with him. A year after the shutdown, funding was restored and SETI was saved, for the time being. But, in 1993, Nevada senator Richard Bryan introduced a successful amendment to the 1994 NASA appropriations bill that eliminated all funding for SETI. That was it. NASA SETI was DOA.
In a press release celebrating his victory, the senator from Nevada sneered that even after several years of searching, NASA "had failed to bag a single little green fellow." Yet, two years later, his own state government proudly christened state highway 375 "the Extraterrestrial Highway."* Apparently Nevada politicians are not against aliens as long as they generate tourist revenue. In any case, Senator Bryan's amendment dealt a fatal blow to government-supported SETI in the United States. Meanwhile, Soviet SETI had collapsed along with the Soviet Union. So, who on Earth would listen for the whispering of the sky?
Fortunately, a couple of billionaires, as well as many ordinary folks, came to the rescue, and American SETI was privatized and run out of the nonprofit SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. SETI benefited from the 1990s information technology bubble in Silicon Valley, when rich, altruistic visionaries were swarming the South Bay. Much of the funding to privatize SETI was provided by Bill Hewlett, Dave Packard, Gordon Moore (cofounder of Intel), and Paul Allen (cofounder of Microsoft). Each kicked in a million bucks of his pocket change.
The new project, risen from the ashes of government SETI, was appropriately named Project Phoenix. Its director is astrophysicist and SETI veteran Jill Tarter (the field, along with the rest of science, has progressed and is no longer completely male-dominated). Phoenix began observations in February 1995. At present, Phoenix receives 5 percent of the observing time at the world's largest radio telescope—the thousand-foot dish built into a giant natural crater in Arecibo, Puerto Rico.f Phoenix has scanned more than half of its initial target list of a thousand stars, all within two hundred light-years of Earth.
*This road passes near "Area 51," where, surely you've heard, the government is hiding and experimenting on the bodies and wrecked saucer of aliens who crashed in 1947 outside Roswell, New Mexico. More on this later, if I'm not silenced by government black ops agents.
+Bizarrely, the enormous size of the Arecibo dish is the result of a large mathematical error. The designers calculated that they needed a thousand foot dish to detect radar reflections from the Earth's ionosphere. A hundred-foot dish would have sufficed. But, as
To date, the longest-running continuous SETI search was the Big Ear project at Ohio State University. It scanned large areas of the sky near the hydrogen channel for twenty-five years until it was scrapped in 1998 to make room for a golf course.* On the evening of August 15, 1977, Big Ear detected a strong signal from a point within the constellation of Sagittarius. The astronomer on duty, Jerry Ehman, circled the signal on the readout and wrote, in the margin, "Wow!" The signal only lasted for seventy-two seconds. Everything about it is consistent with an alien technological source.
The "Wow!" signal has entered the lore of science, and science fiction, as the best candidate yet for an actual alien signal. It is a favorite topic among those who are convinced that aliens have contacted us and the government is suppressing this information^
The Wow! signal winked out quickly and has never reappeared, though hundreds of attempts have been made to find it. In 2001, astronomers used the multiple dishes of the Very Large Array in New Mexico to conduct the most powerful hunt ever for a signal in the Wow! direction. Not a peep. Obviously, Wow! was not a continuous radio beacon, but it might have been a real signal, perhaps a snippet of internal communication between some alien ships. This tantalizing hint has helped SETI scientists maintain their enthusiasm over recent decades.
Today, there are about a dozen active radio search programs. In addition, there is a growing amateur SETI movement, led by electrical engineer (and jovial singer of geeky folk songs) Paul Shuch. His SETI League enlists enthusiasts who want to set up a dish in their backyard. Although the sensitivity of amateur instruments is much lower, there is strength in numbers. Together they can look in more directions at once, so they could detect a strong signal that comes in when the big dishes are pointing elsewhere. The SETI League's Project Argus is trying to link up five thousand radio dishes around the world to continuously monitor the entire sky. As of this writing, they are up to 120.
The power and sensitivity of searches has improved by a factor of
Drake wrote, "Fortunately for the history of astronomy, no one discovered the error until construction was well under way and it was too late to change the size." Drake once calculated that the giant Arecibo dish could hold 357 million boxes of cornflakes.
+The Wow! signal was even mentioned in an episode of The X-Files in 1994, which means that anyone within nine light-years knows about it by now, if they get the Fox network.
more than 100 trillion since the days of Project Ozma. Still, the stars remain silent.
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