[The following text is partly based on an August 6, 1997 Reuters story by Adrian Croft and an August 10 Associated Press story by Ron Harris.]
By mainstream standards, this summer's hit film "Contact," based on a novel by the late Carl Sagan, is about as realistic a scenario of contact with alien intelligence as you're likely to see. And in many ways, it is a direct reflection of the real SETI -- Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence -- the on-again, off-again, on-again 38 year effort (so far) to discover intelligent radio signals from deep space.
An ordinary-looking office building in Mountain View, California -- the heart of Silicon Valley -- is the headquarters of the SETI Institute, a privately funded organization that uses radio telescopes to scour the universe in search of that one anomalous signal that, SETI folks believe, will change everything.
SETI Institute President Frank Drake, widely considered the founding father of SETI, is confident they will eventually find the magic signal, and his enthusiasm for the work is boundless.
"Discovering another civilization in space is the last great adventure left for humans to do," Drake told reporters recently. "It's an adventure which can guide us philosophically as to what we might become. It drives us all."
As recently as 1995, Drake stated publicly that he expected the discovery to occur before the year 2000. Now, he's more cautious. "Just don't ask me when. It may be a long, long time," he said.
The SETI Institute's current efforts, under the name Project Phoenix, are said to be "the world's most sensitive and comprehensive search for extraterrestrial intelligence." Project Phoenix is focusing on 1,000 nearby Sun-like stars, hoping that some of them have orbiting planets with advanced civilisations.
As in the movie "Contact," the director of Project Phoenix is a woman. Astronomer Jill Tarter, 53, is passionate about her work, calling SETI "absolutely the best job in the whole world."
But she says she was not the model for the character played by Jodie Foster in the movie.
Of her late friend and colleague Carl Sagan, Tarter says, "Carl wrote a book about a woman who does what I do.... He didn't really write a book about me." But she sounds more than a little like the Foster character when describing her approach to the question, Are we alone?
"We used to ask priests and philosophers. But this generation, for the first time, scientists and engineers have an opportunity to do an experiment that could answer the question on the basis of fact. I just couldn't imagine anything more important," Tarter said.
Important or not, since the end of 1993 SETI has needed private donations to stay afloat. Formerly part of NASA with government support, its public funds were cut after Nevada Senator Richard Bryan derisively declared SETI "the great Martian chase" and called for the budget ax.
Although major corporate sponsors soon came to the rescue, SETI has plenty of other critics, including space scientists who think the SETI approach is hopelessly narrow or misdirected.
One of those critics is James Deardorff, who worked for 10 years as a senior scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research and for eight years as a professor at Oregon State University. Deardorff thinks SETI has missed the boat altogether, because aliens are already here.
"I think they are and have been here since 1947, implementing their strategy of gradually letting us know," Deardorff says.
In 1986, Deardorff published a paper about his alien contact theory in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society. Titled "Possible Extraterrestrial Strategy for Earth," Deardorff's paper hypothesized that aliens can regulate whether or not their signals will be discernible to earth-based listeners -- and they might not want to be discovered quite yet.
Deardorff thinks aliens are likely to have a long-term plan to circumvent the scientific and political communities, and to make their presence known through sporadic human abductions and UFO sightings over time.
"A UFO witness would have a better idea of what's going on than Frank Drake would," Deardorff said.
Another critic of SETI's reasoning is Ben Zuckerman, a professor of physics and astronomy at UCLA. If aliens exist, they wouldn't sit back and send radio waves, they'd be here, Zuckerman maintains.
"We've had life here for billions of years. If they were studying the Earth, anybody with a modicum of curiosity is going to come," Zuckerman said.
But SETI scientists like Drake are impervious to such criticism. Drake believes the chance of other intelligent life in the universe is "100 percent," and there are just enough close calls at Project Phoenix to keep the excitement level up.
"A few weeks ago we had a real exciting episode where we had two signals about one megahertz in frequency apart which had all the earmarks... of a true extraterrestrial signal. Everybody got very excited," Drake said. But the signal turned out to be emanating from a human spacecraft.
Asked how people might react if or when the signal is found, Drake said, "Would people be frightened? Maybe, yes. The optimists such as me think that people will be elated because it will open the window to a vast new body of knowledge, which will enrich our civilisation."
Drake's optimism is shared by fellow SETI scientist Paul Horowitz, a professor of physics at Harvard University and director of BETA, the Billion-Channel Extra-Terrestrial Assay, a sister project to Project Phoenix. Like Drake, Horowitz puts the odds of other intelligent life at "absolutely 100 percent."
"SETI is bound to succeed sooner or later," Horowitz said.
Original file name: CNI - SETI update
This file was converted with TextToHTML - (c) Logic n.v.