Anybody Out There?

Anybody Out There?

Ever since childhood I have been fascinated with the idea that there are other intelligent beings living in outer space.

At the age of seven, I heard about the crash of a flying saucer recovered on a ranch near Roswell, New Mexico. While my dad thought the whole thing was a bunch of foolishness, my friends and I had great fun imagining “Martinis” coming from Mars to visit our planet. We later learned they were called Martians.

In the course of my research in radio astronomy, I worked with a graduate student who was so fascinated with the possibility of intelligent life in outer space that he would spend any spare time on the telescopes searching for signals that might have been sent from distant stars. Needless to say, he didn’t discover anything. I suggested to him that whoever he might hear from out there would have been made by the same creator who made us. So, I asked, why doesn’t he also spend some time investigating the existence of this creator? So far as I know, he didn’t follow up on my recommendation. However, he did later become very active in SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) research.

SETI work based at the University of California, Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory has received a boost recently with the upgrade of the 1,000-ft diameter antenna at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. This instrument is the largest single-dish radio telescope in the world, and some of its time has been made available for SETI. With its additional frequency coverage from new and more sensitive receivers, the capability of this system can generate 500 times more data than before in its search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Interestingly, this project makes use of private home computers to do the processing. Referred to as SETI@home, the Berkeley researchers invite anyone who has a home computer attached to the Internet to contribute its unused time to process the data. Those interested can download a screensaver that works on the SETI task when the computer is in screensaver mode. This has little or no impact on the volunteer, but provides huge amounts of computer time for the project. The SETI@home boasts a community that provides as many as 320,000 computers. They are now asking for more in order to process the new level of data-taking.

Researchers in this project mention that despite the fact UC Berkeley has been analyzing radio signals from space since 1978 on various telescopes, no telltale signals from an intelligent civilization have yet been found. However, with the new upgrades they have great hope that the future will vastly improve the possibility of success. While many SETI researchers acknowledge the low probability for discovering an intelligent signal, they are convinced that such a discovery would be so profound that it merits the effort.

Researchers at RTB, on the other hand, have a different view as expressed in their creation model. Essentially, conservative estimates of the probability of another site beyond the Earth having the necessary conditions for advanced life are zero. There are no “others” out there with whom we can communicate. For further discussion of this conclusion, see here for a secular perspective, and here for the RTB perspective.