As Earth speaks, will anyone ever hear us?
April 12, 2010
by Mark Ollig

The modern Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, got its official start in 1959, when two Cornell physicists published an article in Nature magazine.

This article illustrated the possibility for using microwave radio to communicate between stars in outer space.

Nature magazine published an article called “Searching for Interstellar Communication” written by Philip Morrison and Giuseppi Cocconi, Sept. 19, 1959.

The article was published in Nature’s volume 184, number 4690 on pages 844-846.

Being curious, I started my research for this article on the Nature magazine web site and found a link for it.

My curiosity almost came to an abrupt ending when Nature wanted me to pay $32 in order to obtain the complete article, which I thought was asking a bit too much of this penny-wise columnist.

I thought there must be a better (inexpensive) way to find this article.

There was.

After rummaging around the Internet, I found a blurred, but somewhat readable scanned image from the magazine someone had saved. Here is the link for you: www.coseti.org/morris_0.htm

The first sentence of the 1959 article “Searching for Interstellar Communication” reads “No theories yet exist which enable a reliable estimate of the probabilities of (1) planet formation; (2) origin of life; (3) evolution of societies possessing advanced scientific capabilities.”

The third statement is where it takes a SETI turn, as Morrison and Cocconi, both New York Cornell physicists, will go into further detail on a proposal of how to search for intelligence beyond the Earth.

The following year 1960, began humanity’s first attempt at detecting interstellar radio transmissions from deep space. This was carried out by Dr. Frank Drake, who was a radio astronomer for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Bank, WV and is currently an astronomer and astrophysicist.

According to the every-now-and-then-accurate Wikipedia, Drake “. . . reports he considered the possibility of life existing on other planets as an 8-year-old, but never discussed the idea with his family or teachers due to the prevalent religious ideology.”

SETI’s first project was called Project Ozma (after the far-away Land of Oz).

The two stars selected by Drake for this SETI search were the Tau Ceti in the Constellation Cetus, and the Epsilon Eridani in the Constellation Eridanus.

Both of these stars are as old as our sun. They are 11 light years, or 66 trillion miles away from Earth.

For six hours each day from April to July of 1960, the NRAO radio telescope listened at 1420 MHz for any consistent patterns of pulses or signals which would suggest an intelligent message.

Anxiety must have run high at one point when a secret military experiment set off a false extraterrestrial message reception alert. With this single exception, by the end of July, the only thing heard from the speaker was static.

In 1974, Dr. Drake came up with the Arecibo message.

The Arecibo message was only transmitted once into the M13 Global Star Cluster, which is 25,000 light years away from Earth, on a frequency of 2380 MHz, using the Arecibo radio telescope and transmitting antenna dish.

This message consisted of 210 bytes of information broken down into seven separate references.

The references included the digits one to 10, the formula making up deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, an illustrative stick figure outline of a human, Earth’s population in 1974, and the basic elements of life on Earth.

The Arecibo message also included a graphic of our solar system and the outline and physical dimensions for the Arecibo radio telescope and transmitting antenna dish.

According to the Cornell University news page, the Arecibo message forms a symbolic picture 23 characters wide by 73 long.

The Cornell University Arecibo message web page is: tinyurl.com/ybufqfl.

Other greeting messages have been sent, including a small plaque attached to the Pioneer 10 spacecraft launched March 2, 1972. This plaque contains messages intended to be deciphered by any alien civilization finding it.

One of the most famous interstellar greeting messages was launched in 1977, aboard two Voyager spacecraft. A gold-covered phonograph record, etched with humankind’s messages to whatever intelligence finds it, is attached to each Voyager.

A new SETI Institute web site is called Earth Speaks.

The Earth Speaks web site theme asks the question, “If we do detect an extraterrestrial civilization, one of the most pressing issues facing humankind will be ‘Should we reply and if so, what should we say?’”

I say we reply (quickly) in order to prevent the extraterrestrial civilization from becoming upset with us. This has nothing to do with the fact I have watched the movie, "Independence Day" countless times.

In order for your humble columnist to add his own personal reply message, he needed to register before logging on to Earth Speaks.

After logging on, I went to their “Submit a Message” link.

This is where I typed out my well thought-out reply message to the extraterrestrial civilization, “Greetings and Salutations from the Bitsblogger!”

Earth Speaks also allows for a submission of a picture file, so I uploaded my prized Bitsblogger photo from the Web Site of The Week.

Submitted examples of what Earthlings would say to a new interstellar neighbor can be found at: http://earthspeaks.seti.org/messages.

Earth Speaks home page is: http://earthspeaks.seti.org/pages.

The history of SETI Institute can be found at: tinyurl.com/ydsuvlr.