The existence of life beyond Earth is an ancient human concern. Over the years, however, attempts to understand humanity’s place in the cosmos through science often got hijacked by wishful thinking or fabricated tales. Of particular note, the New York Sun hoaxed its eager readers in 1835 with stories about a splendid civilization of moon-men that had supposedly been revealed by observations made with a 20-foot optical telescope in South Africa. Percival Lowell opened the 20th century with a popular, but false, interpretation of canals built by thirsty Martians to save their planet.
But things got more serious in 1959, with the publication of a paper in the journal Nature marking the beginning of the modern era of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI. The paper’s authors, Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison, recognized that the new science of radio astronomy offered tools — radio telescopes developed from World War II-era radars — with which these old human questions could be explored.
This is what hooked me on SETI.
As I was leaving graduate school in 1974, I was recruited to join a fledgling SETI project at the Hat Creek Observatory in California, mainly because I knew how to program an ancient PDP8/S computer that had been donated to the project. I was alive at just the right time, with just the right skills.
In 1960, the pioneering astronomer Frank Drake, working at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, W.Va., pointed the Tatel telescope at two nearby, sun-like stars, seeking to detect any radio signals that extraterrestrials might be transmitting, whether for their own purposes or to attract our attention. Drake’s Project Ozma failed to find any engineered signals coming from the vicinity of those stars, but it did detect unanticipated emissions coming from our own technology. To this day, telling the difference between signals that might be “theirs” and those that are ours remains a major challenge.
In his book “Is Anyone Out There?,” written with Dava Sobel, Drake describes an adrenaline-charged episode when he thought he might have found what he was looking for. The SETI research community is small, but almost all of us have shared that incredible experience. As our hardware and software have evolved in sophistication, we’ve built in safeguards that filter out most human-engineered sources of interference. Most, but not all.