What exactly is SETI? The acronym stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, and it is a pseudo-organization composed of various projects, which do indeed perform searches for otherworldly civilizations. At one point, in it’s early years it was government funded, but as of late is primarily subsidized by private sources.
I will first address the pooled resources that comprise SETI it’s methods, experiments and their results. Also addressed will be the various criticisms, many presented by the top minds in the scientific community, including the esteemed Stephan Hawking.
Most of the investigations by the collective consist of listening for electromagnetic radio transmissions, optical experiments, paper experiments, sending radio transmissions to stars and even the possibility of launching an interstellar probe.
The first SETI conference was held in Green Bank, West Virginia in 1961. The USSR was immediately interested in the subject, even performing a mass array of searches for radio signals from outside our Solar System. It was another chance for the Soviets to put their foot forward in the cosmos during the Cold War. Later on that decade the American astronomer, Carl Sagan wrote the book Intelligent Life in the Universe along with Soviet astronomer Iosif Shklovskii in 1966.
When the radio telescope known as Big Ear was constructed at Ohio State University, it became the very first telescope to run a continuous scan of the night sky for the SETI program, calling itself the Ohio State University Program.
NASA even funded a SETI study in 1971 involving several authorities from Hewlett-Packard the end result was the proposal of a radio telescope assortment consisting of 1,500 dishes. The idea was known as ‘Project Cyclops’ and had a price of $10 billion (remember this is in the 1970s) subsequently the idea was scraped, but led to most of SETI’s later work.
In 1977 Jerry Ehman caught an enormously strong radio signal by the telescope. He promptly printed it out, even circling the markings with the word ‘WOW!’ which is what the signal became known as. There is, of course, much more to that story, which I will address later on in another article. However, this event fueled the search of otherworldly life and a long list of concocted projects and other programs. These include the 1992 U.S. Government funded SETI program known as the NASA Microwave Observing Program, which was later mocked by Congress and cancelled in 1993. This began the era of SETI without any funding whatsoever, and in 1995 SETI advocates privately paid for the resurrection of the MOP project. The SETI League was founded in 1994 after Congress cancelled NASA’s SETI program.
Early on SETI had come to realize the need for interstellar radio signal projects. This is because radio frequencies are the easiest signals to pick up, penetrating our atmosphere effortlessly. As the term suggests, radios, TVs, and other common electronics emit these signals in common patterns due to the fact they are produced artificially. For this reason, astronomers and SETI often focus on scanning the cosmos for radio signals as the first step in searching for extraterrestrial life. As you may have guessed, this is rather easy to do (finding a viable signal isn’t!) as determining a signal’s pattern and a narrow enough bandwidth would most likely suggest intelligent life, assuming the pattern repeated itself enough. In 1974 SETI did indeed send a message from the Arecibo Observatory toward the star cluster M13 around 25,000 light years from Earth.
Paper projects are also a vital part of the collective’s objectives, because in order to send a message that extraterrestrials could understand would need to be something easy enough to decipher, but complex enough to show sentient intelligence. In reverse, code breakers are constantly honing their skills so if we were to ever receive a transmission from alien life they would be able to interpret the message.
Optical searches for extraterrestrial life was suggested early on in SETI projects, but was dismissed with the Cyclops project as being too expensive, and mankind lacked the sufficient technology to create a worth while array of telescopes. Other SETI advocates later on denounced that earlier thought, including Frank Drake (of Drake’s Equation), who said no matter how technologically advanced man is there may always be the ‘chance’ a sentient life was attempting to communicate outside the range of our technology.
In the 1980s two Soviet astronomers in the SETI program performed a short optical scan of the sky, but nothing was found. Through the next two decades, hope was kept alive for an optical SETI program and in 1998 a survey of about 2,500 stars was performed again with no findings. Experiments are still taking place, including at Princeton University’s 36-inch telescope. A Harvard-Smithsonian group is also building a survey system as of right now, which will include a 72-inch telescope.
University of California at Berkeley also houses two SETI programs, which are conducting optical searches as we speak. These two programs include SERENDIP and SETI@home.
SETI researchers and advocates have long suggested probes or satellites are the best means of communication, because they could be sent out into interstellar space and if they were to ever come in contact with sentient life outside our solar system, either the future generation of SETI researchers would know or the extraterrestrials would make contact, if possible.
All of SETI’s programs and projects both in reality and in theory have been criticized and ridiculed by many in the scientific community. SETI is often cited as being too ‘euphoric’ or ‘hopeful’. Even previous SETI advocates have said that with more recent findings, it’s suggested that any chance of finding advanced or intelligent civilizations outside our Solar System I extremely unlikely.
SETI has even been accused of being pseudoscience and in the realm of UfOlogy. For this reason, the collective has made immense efforts to distance itself from UFO mythology. SETI has gone as far to say that though the organization is searching for intelligent life it does not insist that there is any.
Some astronomers, such as Stephan Hawking, believe there is extraterrestrial life and intelligence somewhere in the cosmos, but that SETI should not even be looking them. Hawking has suggested that if we were to ever make contact with a more advanced civilization that by nature they would destroy us, whether by force or assimilation. He points to Columbus and the Natives as a main example.
I know what I think, but I wonder what you, my fellow astronomy enthusiasts think? But, always remember to keep your eyes to the sky!