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Is anyone out there?

Almost every human, staring up the stars, whether on the plains of central Africa 3,000 years ago or on my back porch in Stafford last night, has pondered the question, is there anyone else out there?  The numbers say there should be. Quoting the late Carl Sagan, our galaxy, the Milky Way, has “billions and billions of stars.” And until just a few years ago, we had no conclusive proof that were other planets.  But, now, thanks to some magnificent scientific wizardry, we do, and so far, have detected about 1,800 planets. A handful meet the basic criteria for supporting life. Given these numbers, it seems a statistical certainty that somewhere out there in the cosmos, there are civilizations.  Maybe millions of them.  But, still, until we know for sure, that’s conjecture.

One of the most tantalizing prospects is the notion that maybe one of these distant civilizations might have used radio. And that maybe we could catch one of these transmissions. I don’t know if they have any “greatest country hits” stations, but there is general agreement, that a technical society would, in the course of its development, have discovered and used radio. So, why not just tune in and see who’s out there. It’s not a new idea. Perceval Lowell, the founder of the famous observatory, and Nicholai Tesla, both conducted experiments hoping to receive an alien transmission. But, it never happened.  And it hasn’t happened yet, but the notion is a powerful one, and the lure of receiving that first transmission from ET has prompted one off the largest science projects in human history.

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, SETI, has been at it for years. Their goal, using radio telescopes the world over, is to find a signal.  And it’s not easy. The amount of data that comes in every night, and in 30 years they have only looked at a fraction of the sky, is staggering and the computing power required to analyze it is immense. But, SETI, a private organization, came up with the idea of digitizing all this radio traffic and then farming it out to average folks to process on their laptops and PCs. It’s easy enough to participate, and this volunteer science project has a staggering 3 million active participants.    

There have been a few intriguing signals, but nothing that meets the criteria of being an alien transmission. And it’s a rigorous test; the signal has to have some sort of pattern, can’t be traced to a naturally occurring signal like background radiation, has to be proven to have positively been generated from outside our solar system, and it has to repeat itself. In the world of galactic communications, that’s a tall order.  Also, there is the matter of timing. This may prove hard to beat. Signals could have been generated hundreds of years or ten years ago, and only be reaching us now. Being there, and having the radio on, and the antenna pointed in the right direction, at the right time, may be an impossible task. But, a lot of people, myself included, and my old laptop is processing away, want to be part of answering that age old question, “is anyone there?”

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