[ISCNI*Flash thanks Brian Zeiler for sending this story, which appeared in the Financial Times on February 12, 1996.]
By Clive Cookson
BALTIMORE -- We are still alone. The recent discovery of three planets orbiting distant stars has given new impetus to the scientific search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, known as Seti to its devotees, but no clear signals have yet been detected.
The leaders of the world's four main SETI projects, all based in the US, met at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Baltimore [Feb 11] to review progress -- or the lack of it. All the participants said they remained optimistic that their strategy -- to search the sky systematically for microwave radio signals from alien civilisations -- would pay off eventually.
And they hoped that publicity over the discovery of new planetary systems would bring in private research funds to support SETI.
The US Congress cut off public funding through the space agency NASA in 1993 as some politicians portrayed the scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence as being little different from the unscientific investigations of UFOs and alien abductions.
In fact, said Prof. Lori Marino of Emory University, one of the conference organisers, "SETI is pursued using the scientific method. It is as different from the pseudoscience of UFOs as any college course in physics or chemistry would be."
None of the four groups has found clear evidence of intelligent signals from outer space, despite occasional claims to the contrary in the media. Hundreds of stars, including those recently discovered to have planets, have been scanned without success.
"Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence of extra-terrestrial civilisations," said Prof. Dan Werthimer, head of the Serendip search at the University of California, Berkeley. "Our civilisation is just beginning to develop the techniques, and our capabilities for search are doubling every year."
Perhaps the most puzzling signal detected so far was recorded in 1977 at Ohio State University's radio telescope. This so-called "Wow" signal -- named after the scientists' initial reaction to it -- was an "astoundingly strong" burst of microwave radiation in an extremely narrow band, said Professor Robert Dixon of Ohio State.
The Wow signal could not have originated from any known natural process, but unfortunately it lasted only for a minute and, despite many searches over the years at the same frequency, has not been heard again.
Prof. Dixon said yesterday that he was about to re-analyse recordings of the signal, with a grant from the Planetary Society, in an attempt to solve the mystery.
Meanwhile, radio signals from Earth radiate out through the cosmos. "Early television broadcasts such as 'I Love Lucy' have gone past several thousand stars so far," said Prof. Werthimer. "Perhaps we will one day intercept another civilisation's unintentional leakage or even an intentional message beamed our way."
Original file name: .CNI - SETI draws blank
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