Seti: The hunt for ET

2. If intelligent aliens are out there, Dr Seth Shostak, the Seti
Institute’s senior astronomer, believes they will be “thinking machines”.
He believes a highly advanced species will be several centuries ahead of us
in technological development.

3. Professor Duncan Forgan, an astronomer from Edinburgh University,
estimates that between 360 and 38,000 life forms capable of interstellar
communications have evolved at some point in the history of our galaxy.

4. In April 2006, Dr Shostak predicted we would find evidence of
extraterrestrial life between 2020 and 2025. He believes the best way of
bringing them up to speed with the human race is to send them the contents
of the internet.

5. So far, no alien signals have been heard, however.

6. It was a September 1959 article in the journal Nature that
persuaded the scientific community that, despite the unlikely aliens found
in the era’s Cold War-inspired UFO films, alien intelligence was more likely
than not, so kick-starting the Seti project.

7. The search proper began in 1960, however, with “Project Ozma”
at the Green Bank radio telescope in West Virginia, America, directed by a
Harvard graduate, Frank Drake.

8. Project Ozma was named after the queen of L Frank Baum’s fictional
land of Oz, a place which is “very far away, difficult to reach, and
populated by strange and exotic beings”.

9. The Microsoft founder Paul Allen is funding 42 radio antennae ? the
Allen Telescope Array in California ? at a cost of £16m for the Seti
project. It powered up this month.

10. When complete, the Allen Telescope Array will have 350 antenna
dishes, each six metres in diameter.

11. At the moment, scientists scavenge time on the world’s biggest
telescopes to hunt for signals. One of the most significant is the Arecibo
Observatory radio telescope in Puerto Rico, made famous by Pierce Brosnan in
the final sequence of the James Bond film Golden Eye. It’s the
world’s biggest with a 305m diameter.

12. The most promising radio signal found to date, SHGb02+14a, was
detected in 2003 at Arecibo. It was found on three occasions but emanates
from between the constellations of Pisces and Aries where there are no
stars. It is also a very weak signal. Scientists think it may have been due
to an astrological phenomenon or a computer glitch.

13. A set of quickly pulsing signals known as LGM1 (Little Green Men)
caused great excitement in 1967. It turned out that they were from a
previously unknown class of super-dense rotating neutron stars now known as
pulsars. The discovery won Tony Hewish, emeritus professor of radio
astronomy at Cambridge University, a Nobel prize.

14. While radio telescopes on Earth are tuned into frequencies that
scientists believe are the most likely to be used by intelligent life, there
have been many attempts to contact aliens by sending signals and objects
from Earth to likely-looking stars.

15. In 1974, astronomers sent crude pictures of humans, our DNA and our
solar system to the star cluster M13, which is 21,000 light years away and
contains a third of a million stars.

16. In 2001 a “reply” to the 1974 message was found in
Hampshire in the form of a crop circle, featuring crude pictures of an
alien, modified DNA and an improbable solar system. It is believed to be a

17. Nasa’s attempt to communicate with aliens by playing a Beatles
track in February 2008 caused consternation. Some scientists pointed out
that making a highly advanced race, which might have exhausted all the
resources on their planet, aware of our existence might not be the most
sensible thing to do.

18. Now an international agreement is in place preventing any reply to
an extraterrestrial signal unless there is agreement that it’s a good idea.

19. However, if Einstein’s theory is correct that it is impossible to
travel faster than the speed of light, there is no need to worry. It would
take extraterrestrial life-forms millennia to reach us, unless they had the
technology to cut corners in space by travelling through highly theoretical
tunnels called wormholes. “You’re not going to see them in person, I
think,” Dr Shostak said. “To go from here to the nearest star is a
project requiring a 100,000-year trip. And that’s longer than you’re going
to want to sit there eating airline food.”

20. But maybe they do have wormhole technology. See No 2.

21. The nearest stars likely to have planets are three parsecs away
(one parsec equals 3.26 light years, or 19 million million miles) so even if
a common language were found, it would take a century to communicate.

22. Seti hit the headlines in 1977 when a volunteer found a strong
signal and wrote “Wow!” in the margin of a printout. The “Wow!
Signal”, as it came to be known, was never found again despite repeated

23. Frank Drake’s Ozma project was originally kept secret as the
observatory was government-funded and nobody wanted to let Congress know
they were looking for aliens.

24. Nevertheless, Congress pulled the plug in 1993. The project is now
funded by private donations.

25. Five million people have joined a scheme organised by the
University of California in 1999 in which home computers help sift the
millions of Seti readings during their “downtime” after a special
screensaver is downloaded. SETI@home is the world’s largest supercomputer.

26. SETI@home can do tens to hundreds of billions of operations per

27. There are now lots of group-computing projects using the same
software as SETI@home, from decoding enigma messages sent in the Second
World War to predicting future climates or helping to find a cure for Aids.

28. Searches for other-worldly intelligence also involve looking for
signals aliens may have sent us using light waves or infrared as well as
radio waves.

29. The Drake equation (N = N* fp ne fl fi fc fL) was created by Frank
Drake in 1961 to work out how many intelligent civilisations there may be in
our galaxy. The values stand for things such as the number of stars and
estimated number of planets. The answer varies from 2.31 to 1,000, as many
of the values rely on guesswork.

30. Gene Roddenberry used the equation to justify the number of
inhabited planets discovered by the crew of the Starship Enterprise in Star

31. Scientists admit, however, that aliens may already have tried to
contact us with a form of communication completely unknown to us ? a bit
like trying to make contact with a lost tribe in Borneo using TV signals.

32. In 1950, Italian Nobel laureate and nuclear scientist Enrico Fermi
stated the Fermi paradox: there’s a high probability of alien life but we
haven’t detected any yet.

33. In the mid-1990s, Seti scientists thought they were on to something
when they picked up a signal every evening at 7pm. It turned out to be from
a microwave oven used by technicians in the cellar at the Parkes Observatory
in Australia. There is now a note on the microwave asking people not to use
it while Seti is active.

34. Other false calls have included signals from electronic garage
doors, jet airliners, radios, televisions and even the Pioneer space craft. “We
found intelligent life,” said Richard Davis, a radio astronomer at
Jodrell Bank in Cheshire, “but it was us.”

35. The privately funded Seti Institute in California has an annual
budget of $7m. It employs 130 staff and was founded 25 years ago in November.

36. The MoD recorded 394 UFO sightings in the UK in the first eight
months of this year.

37. In 1996 only six exoplanets ? those outside our solar system ? had
been found. Now nearly 400 have been discovered. Although none are
Earth-like, scientists believe it is just a matter of time before one shows

38. Which is why Nasa launched the Kepler telescope in March. It will
survey 100,000 Sun-like stars over the next four years, looking for
Earth-like planets in the “Goldilocks Zone” ? a distance from the
Sun that is not too hot and not too cold.

39. Some think early flying saucer stories originated from spottings of
experimental Nazi aircraft.

40. In June this year, Seti upgraded its Serendip (Search for
Extraterrestrial Radio Emissions from Nearby Developed Intelligent
Populations) programme at Arecibo. The first programme listened to 100
channels simultaneously, the new programme can track more than two billion.

41. ET and Close Encounters director Steven Spielberg has
been obsessed with the search for life outside our planet since childhood
and donates money to Seti.

42. llie Arroway, Jodie Foster’s character in the film Contact,
finds aliens using the same methods as a Seti radio-wave analysing programme
Project Phoenix based in Australia.

43. Those hopeful of so-called “exo-biology” have been
encouraged by recent discoveries of the building blocks of life floating
around in space. Radio telescopes have picked up the chemical signatures of
150 molecules in interstellar space, including sugar, alcohol and amino

44. The twin Voyager space probes, launched in 1977, carried
gold discs containing information about Earth, including recordings of
greetings in 54 different human languages, humpback whale song, 117 pictures
of Earth and a collection of sounds including music from Mozart to Louis
Armstrong. The discs were put together by the Seti advocate Carl Sagan at
the request of Nasa. It will be 40,000 years before the discs get anywhere
near another planetary system.

45. If aliens do find them, they will need to locate an old vinyl
record player. Fortunately, there are instructions and a stylus on the

46. In the 1820s the German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, below,
tried to contact aliens by reflecting sunlight towards planets. He also
wanted to cut a giant triangle into the Siberian forest and plant wheat
inside to show a geometric object visible from the Moon.

47. Around the same time, the Austrian mathematician Joseph Johann von
Littrow proposed digging a circular canal in the Sahara 20 miles in
diameter, filling it with paraffin and setting it on fire, thus alerting
alien species to our existence.

48. Charles Cros, a French poet and inventor, thought spots of light on
Mars and Venus were indicators of civilisations. He tried to convince the
French government to build a giant mirror to communicate with the aliens.
The lights he saw were probably noctilucent clouds (clouds so high they
reflect sunlight at night); the mirror was almost certainly impossible to

49. Japan has prepared guidelines on how to handle aliens if they land
and a strategy to defend the country from alien attack.

50. Early alien hunters at the 1960 conference at Green Bank, West
Virginia, which established Seti as a scientific discipline, called
themselves the Order of the Dolphin in honour of John Lilly, who had
recently concluded that dolphins were intelligent and pioneered attempts to
communicate with them.

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