I ’ve bet a cup of coffee to any and all that by 2035 we’ll have evidence of E.T. To many of my colleagues, that sounds like a losing proposition. For more than a half-century, a small coterie of scientists has been pursuing the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI. And we haven’t found a thing.
I’m optimistic by nature—as a scientist, you have to be. But my hopeful feeling is not wishful thinking; it is firmly grounded in the logic of SETI. Half a century sounds like a long time, but the search is truly in its early days. Given the current state of SETI efforts and abilities, I feel that we’re on the cusp of learning something truly revolutionary.
Most of our experiments so far have used large radio antennas in an effort to eavesdrop on radio signals transmitted by other societies, an approach that was dramatized by Jodie Foster in the 1997 movie Contact. Unlike other alien potboilers, Contact’s portrayal of how we might search for extraterrestrials was reasonably accurate. Nonetheless, that film reinforced the common belief that SETI practitioners paw through cosmic static looking for unusual patterns, such as a string of prime numbers. The truth is simpler: We have been searching for narrow-band signals. “Narrow-band” means that a large fraction of the transmitter power is squeezed into a tiny part of the radio dial, making the transmission easier to find. This is analogous to the way a laser pointer, despite having only a few milliwatts of power, nonetheless looks bright because the energy is concentrated into a narrow wavelength range.
A modern SETI receiver simultaneously examines tens or even hundreds of millions of channels, each having a cramped 1-hertz bandwidth. That bandwidth is 5 million times narrower than a TV signal and lacks the capacity to carry information—a message. But the idea is to first discover aliens that are on the air, after which a far larger instrument would be built to dig out any modulation.