The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Turns 40

Article excerpt

Forty years ago this Saturday, Frank Drake cocked an electronic ear skyward and launched humanity's quest for interstellar companions. He heard nothing but what he calls "a big, loud false alarm."

We still have no interstellar pen pals. But Dr. Drake's Project Ozma foreshadowed more than 60 subsequent programs in the ongoing Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

Carried on largely by the United States and the former Soviet Union with some other nations participating, SETI has advanced the art of detecting and processing faint radio signals. It has provided a unifying theme for K-12 and college-level studies that explore the astronomy, biology, chemistry, and physics underlying organic life.

It also has pioneered the use of personal computers to process floods of data. Something like a million volunteers have joined the SETI@home program of the University of California at Berkeley. Free software receives raw data from Project Serendip - a receiver at the Arecibo Radio Observatory in Puerto Rico - and sends back results.

These are practical achievements that Drake and other SETI enthusiasts can celebrate April 8, International Astronomy Day. Their work is focused as much on accomplishments on Earth as on detecting alien civilizations. …