Planning for a Long Search
By J. Kelly Beatty and Alan M. MacRobert
August 13, 2004
Jodie Foster made it look so easy in the 1997 movie Contact. With giant radio telescopes having scrutinized some 800 of the nearest stars for artificial signals, and with a half million home computers churning through radio data from all across the sky, you might think that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, would be well along by now.
Think again. At an August 6th symposium organized by The Planetary Society, leading SETI experts stressed that we've barely scratched the surface. Guillermo Lemarchand (University of Buenos Aires) put a number on our ignorance about alien signals. A couple decades of radio searches, he described, have probed only a hundred-trillionth (0.00000000000001) of the "cosmic haystack" — the radio channels, sky directions, and other parameters that need to be searched for the "needle" of an artificial signal.
The symposium, held at Harvard University, was titled The Significance of Negative SETI Results. "There is no news," admitted Bruce M. Murray, a Caltech professor emeritus who's been involved in SETI since the 1970s. Murray chairs the board of directors for the Planetary Society, which has fostered and funded various search efforts. So is the Society's money being spent wisely?
The rest of the story can be read here.