I know that most people think of the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence as the stuff of movies and science-fiction, but it is quite real.


The largest single-dish radio telescope in the world is in the jungles of Puerto Rico. Arecibo Observatory is operated by Cornell University for the National Science Foundation. It came into operation in 1963. Among other things it has been used by SETI and features in the film Contact by Carl Sagan.

The SETI Institute has had a mission to explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe. The  Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is actually the collective name for a number of activities to detect intelligent extraterrestrial life.

Even the ancients wondered about extraterrestrial life. SETI is listed as getting started in 1959 when Cornell physicists Giuseppi Cocconi and Philip Morrison published an article in Nature in which they pointed out the potential for using microwave radio to communicate between the stars. SETI still surveys the sky to detect the existence of transmissions from out there.

In the mid-1980s, the United States government contributed to SETI, but recent work has been primarily funded by donations.  The Institute comprises 3 centers, the Center for SETI Research, the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe and the Center for Education and Public Outreach.  They employ over 150 scientists, educators and support staff.


The Wow! signal. The original printout with the handwritten Wow! by Ehman (Big Ear Radio Observatory and North American AstroPhysical Observatory

I can still recall hearing news reports back in August 1977 when the Wow! signal was detected.  It was a strong, narrowband radio signal detected by Dr. Jerry R. Ehman on August 15, 1977, while working on a SETI project at the Big Ear radio telescope of Ohio State University. It lasted for 72 seconds, and it had the hallmarks of a potential non-terrestrial and non-solar system origin. Ehman was so amazed at how closely the signal matched the expected signature of an interstellar signal, that when he saw it he circled the signal on the computer printout and wrote the comment “Wow!” on its side. This comment became the name of the signal.

As far as I could find, no one has yet conclusively explained what the Wow! Signal is all about.

SETI doesn’t only listen – they transmit. Active SETI (also known as METI = “Messaging to Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence”) consists of sending signals into space in the hope that they will be picked up by an alien intelligence.

Not everyone believes that extraterrestrial civilizations will be as benign as the lovable E.T.

Stephen Hawking wrote in A Brief History of Time that we should “lay low” and not alert extraterrestrial intelligences of our existence. The science fiction author David Brin has also expressed similar concerns.

If you’re not afraid to make contact, SETI@home is a scientific experiment that uses Internet-connected computers like yours in the search.  You can participate by running a free program that downloads and analyzes radio telescope data on your home computer when you’re not using it.