Contact is one of my favorite films, based on Carl Sagan’s book of that name, in which a great cast searches for and (thanks to scientist Jodie Foster) finds proof of alien life. There’s lots of cool RF stuff in that movie, and in many respects it pretty accurately depicts technology in action. You may have to forgive the formulaic “true believer bests the bureaucracy” element of the film. Of course, neither before nor since the film’s 1997 release has the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) found anything approaching “proof” of alien life.
A radio telescope at The National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia.
Not that it’s for a lack of trying; SETI is not some group of poorly-funded dreamers but a global effort that has spent billions of dollars trying to find the best way to reach out to possible cohabitants of the universe. If anything, SETI is stronger than ever and has, to a considerable degree, quashed its reputation as the domain of lunatics, conspiracy theorists, and fans of hallucinogens. The debate today appears not to be whether the effort will ever produce results, or even whether there is indeed other life out there somewhere, but if it’s wise to be sending messages that may or may not be received as friendly, whether it’s even ethical to do so, and frankly, whether we really want to know. Stephen Hawking, for one, thinks that owing to the nature of humanity, we might be better off just keeping quiet.
From an ethical point of view, there’s the $100 million Breakthrough Initiatives program created by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner that consists of Breakthrough Listen (a 10-year effort to find extraterrestrial life by scanning the universe for RF and light wave signals) and Breakthrough Message, in which a $1 million prize will be awarded to the person who creates a digital message that’s "representative of humanity and planet Earth" and promises “not to transmit any message until there has been a global debate at high levels of science and politics on the risks and rewards of contacting advanced civilizations.”
Radio astronomer Frank Drake, who arguably began the SETI debate, still thinks it makes sense to try. Drake probably did the most to bring the search for alien life to the masses, beginning in 1960 through his work at the National Radio Astronomy Laboratory in Green Bank, West Virginia; Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, and many other places. Now 85, Drake remains a controversial figure for his “Drake equation” which attempts to estimate the number of civilizations in the Milky Way with whom we might communicate. Regardless, Drake has formidable credentials that are hard to dismiss.
If you’re interested in learning more about SETI or the various programs including some in the U.S. (many of which were defunded by Congress as frivolous), the extraordinary technology being employed to search the universe, and other related topics, I recommend the following for starters, seti.org is a good place to start.
Barry Manz is president of Manz Communications, Inc., a technical media relations agency he founded in 1987. He has since worked with more than 100 companies in the RF and microwave, defense, test and measurement, semiconductor, embedded systems, lightwave, and other markets. Barry writes articles for print and online trade publications, as well as white papers, application notes, symposium papers, technical references guides, and Web content. He is also a contributing editor for the Journal of Electronic Defense, editor of Military Microwave Digest, co-founder of MilCOTS Digest magazine, and was editor in chief of Microwaves & RF magazine.
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