What is SETI - the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence? Perhaps
it is best to start by saying what SETI is not. It is also not an investigation
of UFOs or alien abductions. It is not a religion, or worse, a cult. And, perhaps unexpectedly, it is not
actually a way of directly detecting intelligent life elsewhere in the
universe. More about that later.
What is SETI? SETI is a suite of scientific
explorations that attempt to answer the question, Are we alone? in the
universe by doing experiments. It is the product of our anthropocentric experience
and our limited understanding of the universe that we inhabit. It is an
endeavor practiced by very pragmatic people. It is potentially a
multi-generational exploration. It is not possible to predict when or if SETI
will be successful. But, most of all, SETI is very important.
As an experimental exploration, what are the
appropriate experiments? One
possibility is active experiments, physically going to places where life might
be found and then looking. We have visited the Moon and will likely visit Mars
in this century. Such physical exploration is fine for the solar system, but
the stars are too far away. This situation leads to passive experiments, remote
sensing of distant environments. This is what SETI is really all about.
At the same time SETI investigators try to keep
an eye out for unexpected things. There could be little nanoprobes in our local
environment or other extraterrestrial artifacts. More likely there could be the
sorts of anomalies in our astronomical data that could turn out to be as
fruitful as those little bits of scruff that Jocelyn Bell found when she
discovered the first pulsars.
Contributed by: Dr. Jill Tarter and Jim Miller