SETI at 50
We haven’t heard from ET. Is it time to rethink the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence?
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Are we alone in the universe? That’s the big question the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) seeks to answer, and so far the answer appears to be yes. In the half-century since Frank Drake first used a radio telescope to begin searching for alien radio signals, there has been no message from ET—indeed no artificial radio traffic of any description.
SETI researchers argue that SETI has not been a failure, emphasizing that they have searched just a tiny fraction of the available space in the galaxy, and that the project is just getting started. To be sure, the computer revolution has enormously enhanced our ability to 1) search simultaneously over many different wavelengths, and 2) to filter out man-made signals, which theoretically increases the odds of a successful detection event.
But in the forthcoming book “The Eerie Silence” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), British-born physicist/cosmologist Paul Davies—director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science, co-director of the Cosmology Initiative (both at Arizona State University), and chairman of the SETI Post-Detection Taskgroup—argues that SETI scientists ought to broaden their search beyond “traditional SETI” (i.e., radio messages) to include a “search for general signatures of intelligence, wherever they may be imprinted in the physical universe. And that requires the resources of all the sciences, not just radio astronomy,” he writes.
I ventured to the Beyond Center in Tempe, Arizona, to meet with Davies and discuss the themes he explores in “The Eerie Silence.” In the following exchange—the first installment of a two-part Failure Interview—we covered issues like: What has SETI accomplished in 50 years? And what are some of the ways Davies suggests expanding the search?
In the meantime, the folks at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, continue to keep champagne on ice round-the-clock, in anticipation of the day scientists discover ET.