Monday, April 19, 2010

Expanding the Search

Fifty years ago this month the search for extraterrestrial intelligence began with Project Ozma. Frank Drake started by listening in the 21 cm radio wave range, primarily because he thought the hydrogen gas frequency might be a universally understood frequency. In following years the search expanded to new band widths and other selected stars. Thus far: nothing. And this fuels the skeptics that say the entire field of research is a waste of time. The reply is simple. The search, even expanded and utilizing powerful computers, has covered a relatively small section of space. The range of electromagnetic frequencies has also been relatively small considering the possibilities. All of this comes as a time when astronomers are finding an astonishing number of new planets in star systems across the galaxy.

So, should we give up the search? Scientists have realized that perhaps it needs to be readjusted. Look at the history of electromagnetic signals from Earth. Television produced signals that are still traveling to distant stars and yet with digital TV that era is ending. Researchers point out that we are going quiet in an electromagnetic signal sense. If our period of electromagnetic radiation lasted only a few decades how do we hope to find another civilization in the same technological era? If there is extraterrestrial life it probably would be communicating in entirely different ways.

This seems to be where SETI is headed. Frank Drake set the path and the course needs to be constantly adjusted. Astrophysicists are considering all sorts of new ways to search for alien signals. Hopefully SETI can remain strong with newly developing technologies, so the search can continue for another 50 years.

And why? CBS News Sunday Morning did a story about the SETI anniversary and quoted numbers from a CBS poll:

“…almost half of us believe there IS intelligent life somewhere else in the universe. Even more of us believe there's NON-intelligent life out there, just waiting to be found.”

We do believe and slowly, very slowly, we are starting to take action.

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