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Published:October 20th, 2008 17:00 EST
Project SETI: Nearing its Fifty Year Anniversary

Project SETI: Nearing its Fifty Year Anniversary

By Clinton Van Inman



            As Project SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) nears its 50th

anniversary, and despite fifty years of futility, countless lingering doubts and criticisms, and, more importantly,  lack of funding, astronomers are still optimistic that sooner or later we will make contact with alien, intelligent life forms. Frank Drake, the project`s creator, Director of the Carl Sagan center, and creator of the famous Drake equation, like many astronomers, has never lost his fervor in his belief that sooner or later we will detect intelligent life forms somewhere in the universe.  Astronomers still maintain that their initial assumptions should be valid:  if intelligent life arose here naturally, then it should arise in other places as well.  There is nothing unique or special about us.


Realistically, however, we are not one step closer to answering the initial question posed by SETI: are we alone in the universe? " than we were fifty years ago.  The project designers, Carl Sagan was one of them, were generally romantic in their beliefs of alien life forms.  Back in the 50`s and 60`s most everyone believed that there was life in our own solar system, especially on Mars and Venus besides most of the nearby stars.  Sagan believed that intelligence life forms are so abundant in our galaxy that there is an intergalactic dialogue, a cosmic fugue " as he called it.  But of the thousands of stars we have scanned during those fifty years of listening to the crackle of receivers in hopes of detecting the first signals, we have detected absolutely nothing.  Why?  We should have found something by now.


Most anthropologists do not share the wide spread optimism of finding intelligence spread across the universe.  Intelligence " is not an inexorable product of evolution.  Intelligence was once believed to be the goal and the crowning achievement of evolution as if intelligence were inexorably driven as an end product.  We now know that this view is too anthropocentric. Intelligence arose as a mere byproduct, a functional tool for adaptation and survival and, more importantly, arose from pure luck. The divine tape player holds a million scenarios, " said Stephen Jay Gould.  Play the sequence again and something else besides man would arise. 


Intelligence defined by astronomers and physicists means being able to understand the basic laws of nature in order to use them to transmit radio signals.  I will not bring up the philosophical disputes that question that much of our science and math is mere human projection, merely our way of looking at things, and is not as objective as we deem.  Our intelligence " sprang as an adaptive measure designed for survival, initially for finding berries in trees.  It does seem a little pretentious to me when physicists claim that they are on the verge of finding a theory of everything or that intelligence is widespread throughout the universe.


My argument is that there are millions, perhaps billions of species that have lived on this planet, and that only one arose to a level of consciousness that can be defined by our terms as being intelligent. When this ratio, one out of a billion, is added to the Drake equation, intelligence becomes a very rare phenomenon. Also, if we have not communicated with any of these species on Earth, why do we think he can communicate with alien life forms?  One out of a billion throws a monkey wrench into the entire optimistic enterprise.  If intelligence is merely biological, some have called it just a freak, " then any optimistic equations for finding intelligent life must be altered.  If intelligence is a rare commodity instead of a universal one throughout the universe, there is a possibility that intelligence is so unique in the universe and that we might not find something as intelligent as ourselves that we are left with the dreaded consequence: that we are alone in the universe.


This pessimism goes against the grain of astronomical belief, besides being non- conclusive.  But if life is teeming in the universe where is the evidence to support it?  Intelligence may not be as widespread as we once believed, and we may be alone in our neck of the woods.  But this should not be a cause for despair but gives us a cosmic responsibility that we must spread our intelligence to other places in the universe.  Perhaps one day we humans will become the cosmic invaders.


But like diehard Chicago Cub fans, astronomers are not resigned to throw in the towel and maintain the attitude of keep looking! "  When we do receive a message from outer space this will be the most celebrated event in all of human history, and this alone is the main reason why we must continue our efforts.


Project SETI has been given a shot in the arm and has expanded its enterprise with SETI@home.  Now any one can download into their personal computers and tune into the cosmic dialogue.  Currently there are almost two million home computers utilizing this SETI program.  You, too, can join in the search by simply clicking into the program.  Perhaps you will be the first one to receive the message in a bottle from outer space?  Project SETI is 500 times more powerful " says Dan Werthimer, Project Director.  Some of the greatest advances in science have been made by amateurs, and after all, it was an amateur, Weber, who discovered the radio telescope.  Start looking!


Now you can participate in the research at home, SETI needs YOU!