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The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

There can be little doubt that civilizations more advanced than the earth's exist elsewhere in the universe. The probabilities involved in locating one of them call for a substantial effort.
Is mankind alone in the universe? Or are there somewhere other intelligent beings looking up into their night sky from very different worlds and asking the same kind of question? Are there civilizations more advanced than ours, civilizations that have achieved interstellar communication and have established a network of linked societies throughout our galaxy? Such questions, bearing on the deepest problems of the nature and destiny of mankind, were long the exclusive province of theology and speculative fiction. Today for the first time in human history they have entered into the realm of experimental science.

From the movements of a number of nearby stars we have now detected unseen companion bodies in orbit around them that are about as massive as large planets. From our knowledge of the processes by which life arose here on the earth we know that similar processes must be fairly common throughout the universe. Since intelligence and technology have a high survival value it seems likely that primitive life forms on the planets of other stars, evolving over many billions of years, would occasionally develop intelligence, civilization and a high technology. Moreover, we on the earth now possess all the technology necessary for communicating with other civilizations in the depths of space. Indeed, we may now be standing on a threshold about to take the momentous step a planetary society takes but once: first contact with another civilization..

In our present ignorance of how common extraterrestrial life may actually be, any attempt to estimate the number of technical civilizations in our galaxy is necessarily unreliable. We do, however, have some relevant facts. There is reason to believe that solar systems are formed fairly easily and that they are abundant in the vicinity of the sun. In our own solar system, for example, there are three miniature "solar systems": the satellite systems of the planets Jupiter (with 13 moons), Saturn (with 10) and Uranus (with five). [EDITORS' NOTE: the number of known satellites has increased greatly since the time that this article was written.] It is plain that however such systems are made, four of them formed in our immediate neighborhood.

The only technique we have at present for detecting the planetary systems of nearby stars is the study of the gravitational perturbations such planets induce in the motion of their parent star. Imagine a nearby star that over a period of decades moves measurably with respect to the background of more distant stars. Suppose it has a nonluminous companion that circles it in an orbit whose plane does not coincide with our line of sight to the star. Both the star and the companion revolve around a common center of mass. The center of mass will trace a straight line against the stellar background and thus the luminous star will trace a sinusoidal path. From the existence of the oscillation we can deduce the existence of the companion. Furthermore, from the period and amplitude of the oscillation we can calculate the period and mass of the companion. The technique is only sensitive enough, however, to detect the perturbations of a massive planet around the nearest stars.

The single star closest to the sun is Barnard's star, a rather dim red dwarf about six light-years away. (Although Alpha Centauri is closer, it is a member of a triple-star system.) Observations made by Peter van de Kamp of the Sproul Observatory at Swarthmore College over a period of 40 years suggest that Barnard's star is accompanied by at least two dark companions, each with about the mass of Jupiter.

There is still some controversy over his conclusion, however, because the observations are very difficult to make. Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that of the dozen or so single stars nearest the sun nearly half appear to have dark companions with a mass between one and 10 times the mass of Jupiter. In addition many theoretical studies of the formation of planetary systems out of contracting clouds of interstellar gas and dust imply that the birth of planets frequently if not inevitably accompanies the birth of stars.

We know that the master molecules of living organisms on the earth are the proteins and the nucleic acids. The proteins are built up of amino acids and the nucleic acids are built up of nucleotides. The earth's primordial atmosphere was, like the rest of the universe, rich in hydrogen and in hydrogen compounds. When molecular hydrogen (H2), methane (CH4), ammonia (NH3) and water (H20) are mixed together in the presence of virtually any intermittent source of energy capable of breaking chemical bonds, the result is a remarkably high yield of amino acids and the sugars and nitrogenous bases that are the chemical constituents of the nucleotides. For example, from laboratory experiments we can determine the amount of amino acids produced per photon of ultraviolet radiation, and from our knowledge of stellar evolution we can calculate the amount of ultraviolet radiation emitted by the sun over the first billion years of the existence of the earth. Those two rates enable us to compute the total amount of amino acids that were formed on the primitive earth. Amino acids also break down spontaneously at a rate that is dependent on the ambient temperature. Hence we can calculate their steady-state abundance at the time of the origin of life. If amino acids in that abundance were mixed into the oceans of today, the result would be a 1 percent solution of amino acids. That is approximately the concentration of amino acids in the better brands of canned chicken bouillon, a solution that is alleged to be capable of sustaining life.

The origin of life is not the same as the origin of its constituent building blocks, but laboratory studies on the linking of amino acids into molecules resembling proteins and on the linking of nucleotides into molecules resembling nucleic acids are progressing well. Investigations of how short chains of nucleic acids replicate themselves in vitro have even provided clues to primitive genetic codes for translating nucleic acid information into protein information, systems that could have preceded the elaborate machinery of ribosomes and activating enzymes with which cells now manufacture protein.

The laboratory experiments also yield a large amount of a brownish polymer that seems to consist mainly of long hydrocarbon chains. The spectroscopic properties of the polymer are similar to those of the reddish clouds on Jupiter, Saturn and Titan, the largest satellite of Saturn. Since the atmospheres of these objects are rich in hydrogen and are similar to the atmosphere of the primitive earth, the coincidence is not surprising. It is nonetheless remarkable. Jupiter, Saturn and Titan may be vast planetary laboratories engaged in prebiological organic chemistry.

Other evidence on the origin of life comes from the geological record of the earth. Thin sections of sedimentary rocks between 2.7 and 3.5 billion years old reveal the presence of small inclusions a hundredth of a millimeter in diameter. These inclusions have been identified by Elso S. Barghoorn of Harvard University and J. William Schopf of the University of California at Los Angeles as bacteria and blue-green algae. Bacteria and blue-green algae are evolved organisms and must themselves be the beneficiaries of a long evolutionary history. There are no rocks on the earth or on the moon, however, that are more than four billion years old; before that time the surface of both bodies is believed to have melted in the final stages of their accretion.. Thus the time available for the origin of life seems to have been short: a few hundred million years at the most. Since life originated on the earth in a span much shorter than the present age of the earth, we have additional evidence that the origin of life has a high probability, at least on planets with an abundant supply of hydrogen-rich gases, liquid water and sources of energy. Since those conditions are common throughout the universe, life may also be common.

Until we have discovered at least one example of extraterrestrial life, however, that conclusion cannot be considered secure. Such an investigation is one of the objectives of the Viking mission, which is scheduled to land a vehicle on the surface of Mars in the summer of 1976, a vehicle that will conduct the first rigorous search for life on another planet. The Viking lander carries three separate experiments on the metabolism of hypothetical Martian microorganisms, one experiment on the organic chemistry of the Martian surface material and a camera system that might just conceivably detect macroscopic organisms if they exist.

Intelligence and technology have developed on the earth about halfway through the stable period in the lifetime of the sun. There are obvious selective advantages to intelligence and technology, at least up to the present evolutionary stage when technology also brings the threats of ecological catastrophes, the exhaustion of natural resources and nuclear war. Barring such disasters, the physical environment of the earth will remain stable for many more billions of years. It is possible that the number of individual steps required for the evolution of intelligence and technology is so large and improbable that not all inhabited planets evolve technical civilizations It is also possible-some would say likely-that civilizations tend to destroy themselves at about our level of technological development. On the other hand, if there are 100 billion suitable planets in our galaxy, if the origin of life is highly probable, if there are billions of years of evolution available on each such planet and if even a small fraction of technical civilizations pass safely through the early stages of technological adolescence, the number of technological civilizations in the galaxy today might be very large.

It is obviously a highly uncertain exercise to attempt to estimate the number of such civilizations. The opinions of those who have considered the problem differ significantly. Our best guess is that there are a million civilizations in our galaxy at or beyond the earth's present level of technological development. If they are distributed randomly through space, the distance between us and the nearest civilization should be about 300 light-years. Hence any information conveyed between the nearest civilization and our own will take a minimum of 300 years for a one-way trip and 600 years for a question and a response.

Electromagnetic radiation is the fastest and also by far the cheapest method of establishing such contact. In terms of the foreseeable technological developments on the earth, the cost per photon and the amount of absorption of radiation by interstellar gas and dust, radio waves seem to be the most efficient and economical method of interstellar communication. Interstellar space vehicles cannot be excluded a priori, but in all cases they would be a slower, more expensive and more difficult means of communication.

Since we have achieved the capability for interstellar radio communication only in the past few decades, there is virtually no chance that any civilization we come in contact with will be as backward as we are. There also seems to be no possibility of dialogue except between very long-lived and patient civilizations. In view of these circumstances, which should be common to and deducible by all the civilizations in our galaxy, it seems to us quite possible that one-way radio messages are being beamed at the earth at this moment by radio transmitters on planets in orbit around other stars.

To intercept such signals we must guess or deduce the frequency at which the signal is being sent, the width of the frequency band, the type of modulation and the star transmitting the message. Although the correct guesses are not easy to make, they are not as hard as they might seem.

Most of the astronomical radio spectrum is quite noisy. There are contributions from interstellar matter, from the three-degree-Kelvin background radiation left over from the early history of the universe, from noise that is fundamentally associated with the operation of any detector and from the absorption of radiation by the earth's atmosphere. This last source of noise can be avoided by placing a radio telescope in space. The other sources we must live with and so must any other civilization..

There is, however, a pronounced minimum in the radio-noise spectrum. Lying at the minimum or near it are several natural frequencies that should be discernible by all scientifically advanced societies. They are the resonant frequencies emitted by the more abundant molecules and free radicals m interstellar space. Perhaps the most obvious of these resonances is the frequency of 1,420 megahertz (millions of cycles per second). That frequency is emitted when the spinning electron in an atom of hydrogen spontaneously flips over so that its direction of spin is opposite to that of the proton comprising the nucleus of the hydrogen atom. The frequency of the spin-flip transition of hydrogen at 1,420 megahertz was first suggested as a channel for interstellar communication in 1959 by Philip Morrison and Giuseppe Cocconi. Such a channel may be too noisy for communication precisely because hydrogen, the most abundant interstellar gas, absorbs and emits radiation at that frequency. The number of other plausible and available communication channels is not large, so that determining the right one should not be too difficult.

We cannot use a similar logic to guess the bandwidth that might be used in interstellar communication. The narrower the bandwidth is, the farther a signal can be transmitted before it becomes too weak for detection.. On the other hand, the narrower the bandwidth is, the less information the signal can carry. A compromise is therefore required between the desire to send a signal the maximum distance and the desire to communicate the maximum amount of information. Perhaps simple signals with narrow bandwidths are sent to enhance the probability of the signals' being received. Perhaps information-rich signals with broad bandwidths are sent in order to achieve rapid and extensive communication. The broad-bandwidth signals would be intended for those enlightened civilizations that have in vested major resources in large receiving systems.

When we actually search for signals it is not necessary to guess the exact bandwidth, only to guess the minimum bandwidth. It is possible to communicate on many adjacent narrow bands al once. Each such channel can be studies individually, and the data from several adjacent channels can be combined to yield the equivalent of a wider channel without any loss of information or sensitivity. The procedure is relatively easy with the aid of a computer; it is in fact routinely employed in studies of pulsars. In any event we should observe the maximum number of channels because of the possibility that the transmitting civilization is not broadcasting on one of the "natural" frequencies such as 1,420 megahertz.

We do not, of course, know now which star we should listen to. The most conservative approach is to turn our receivers to stars that are rather similar to the sun, beginning with the nearest. Two nearby stars, Epsilon Eridani and Tau Ceti, both about 12 light-years away, were the candidates for Project Ozma, the first search with a radio telescope for extraterrestrial intelligence, conducted by one of us (Drake) in 1960. Project Ozma, named after the ruler of Oz in L. Frank Baum's children's stories, was "on the air" for four weeks at 1,420 megahertz. The results were negative. Since then there have been a number of other studies. In spite of some false alarms to the contrary, none has seen successful. The lack of success is lot unexpected. If there are a million technical civilizations m a galaxy of some 200 billion stars, we must turn our receivers to 200,000 stars before we have a fair statistical chance of detecting a single extraterrestrial message. So or we have listened to only a few more than 200 stars. In other words, we have mounted only .1 percent of the required effort.

Our present technology is entirely adequate for both transmitting and receiving messages across immense interstellar distances. For example, if the ,000-foot radio telescope at the Arecibo observatory in Puerto Rico were to transmit information at the rate of one it (binary digit) per second with a bandwidth of one hertz, the signal could be received by an identical radio telescope anywhere in the galaxy. By the same token, the Arecibo telescope could detect a similar signal transmitted from a distance hundreds of times greater than our estimate of 300 light-years to the nearest extraterrestrial civilization..

A search of hundreds of thousands of stars in the hope of detecting one message would require remarkable dedication and would probably take several decades. It seems unlikely that any existing major radio telescope would be given over to such an intensive program to the exclusion of its usual work. The construction of one radio telescope or more that would be devoted perhaps half-time to the search seems to be the only practical method of seeking out extraterrestrial intelligence in a serious way. The cost would be some tens of millions of dollars.

So far we have been discussing the reception of messages that a civilization would intentionally transmit to the earth. An alternative possibility is that we might try to "eavesdrop" on the radio traffic an extraterrestrial civilization employs for its own purposes. Such radio traffic could be readily apparent On the earth, for example, a new radar system employed with the telescope at the Arecibo Observatory for planetary studies emits a narrow-bandwidth signal that, if it were detected from another star, would be between a million and 10 billion times brighter than the sun at the same frequency. In addition, because of radio and television transmission, the earth is extremely bright at wavelengths of about a meter. If the planets of other civilizations have a radio brightness comparable to the earth's from television transmission alone, they should be detectable. Because of the complexity of the signals and the fact that they are not beamed specifically at the earth, however, the receiver we would need in order to eavesdrop would have to be much more elaborate and sensitive than any radio-telescope system we now possess.

One such system has been devised in a preliminary way by Bernard M. Oliver of the Hewlett-Packard Company, who directed a study sponsored by the Ames Research Center of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.. The system, known as Cyclops, would consist of an enormous radio telescope connected to a complex computer system. The computer system would be designed particularly to search through the data from the telescope for signals bearing the mark of intelligence, to combine numerous adjacent channels in order to construct signals of various effective bandwidths and to present the results of the automatic analyses for all conceivable forms of interstellar radio communication in a way that would be intelligible to the project scientists.

To construct a radio telescope of enormous aperture as a single antenna would be prohibitively expensive. The Cyclops system would instead capitalize on our ability to connect many individual antennas to act in unison. This concept is already the basis of the Very Large Array now under construction in New Mexico. The Very Large Array consists of 27 antennas, each 82 feet in diameter, arranged in a Y-shaped pattern whose three arms are each 10 miles long. The Cyclops system would be much larger. Its current design calls for 1,500 antennas each 100 meters in diameter, all electronically connected to one another and to the computer system. The array would be as compact as possible but would cover perhaps 25 square miles.

The effective signal-collecting area of the system would be hundreds of times the area of any existing radio telescope, and it would be capable of detecting even relatively weak signals such as television transmissions from civilizations several hundred light-years away. Moreover, it would be the instrument par excellence for receiving signals specifically directed at the earth. One of the greatest virtues of the Cyclops system is that no technological advances would be required m order to build it. The necessary electronic and computer techniques re already well developed. We would need only to build a vast number of items we already build well. The Cyclops system not only would have enormous power for searching for extraterrestrial intelligence but also would be In extraordinary tool for radar studies If the bodies in the solar system, for traditional radio astronomy outside the solar system and for the tracking of pace vehicles to distances beyond the each of present receivers.

The estimated cost of the Cyclops system, ranging up to $10 billion, may make it prohibitively expensive for the time being. Moreover, the argument in favor of eavesdropping is not completely persuasive. Half a century ago, before radio transmissions were commonplace, the earth was quiet at radio wavelengths. Half a century from now, because of the development of cable television and communication satellites that relay signals in a narrow beam, the earth lay again be quiet. Thus perhaps for only a century out of billions of years do planets such as the earth appear remarkably bright at radio wavelengths. The odds of our discovering a civilization during that short period in its history lay not be good enough to justify the construction of a system such as Cyclops. It may well be that throughout the universe beings usually detect evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence with more traditional radio telescopes. It nonetheless seems clear that our own dances of finding extraterrestrial intelligence will improve if we consciously attempt to find it.

How could we be sure that a particular radio signal was deliberately sent by an intelligent being? It is easy to design a message that is unambiguously artificial. The first 30 prime numbers, for example, would be difficult to ascribe to some natural astrophysical phenomenon. A simple message of this kind might be a beacon or announcement signal. A subsequent informative message could have many forms and could consist of an enormous number of bits. One method of transmitting information, beginning simply and progressing to more elaborate concepts, is pictures.

One final approach in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence deserves mention. If there are indeed civilizations thousands or millions of years more advanced than ours, it is entirely possible that they could beam radio communications over immense distances, perhaps even over the distances of intergalactic space. We do not know how many advanced civilizations there might be compared with the number of more primitive earthlike civilizations, but many of these older civilizations are bound to be in galaxies older than our own. For this reason the most readily detectable radio signals from another civilization may come from outside our galaxy. The relatively small number of such extragalactic transmitters might be more than compensated for by the greater strength of their signals. At the appropriate frequency they could even be the brightest radio signals in the sky. Therefore an alternative to examining the nearest stars of the same spectral type as the sun is to examine the nearest galaxies. Spiral galaxies such as the Great Nebula in Andromeda are obvious candidates, but the elliptical galaxies are much older and more highly evolved and could conceivably harbor a large number of extremely advanced civilizations.

There might be a kind of biological law decreeing that there are many paths to intelligence and high technology, and that every inhabited planet, if it is given enough time and it does not destroy itself, will arrive at a similar result. The biology on other planets is of course expected to be different from our own because of the statistical nature of the evolutionary process and the adaptability of life. The science and engineering, however, may be quite similar to ours, because any civilization engaged in interstellar radio communication, no matter where it exists, must contend with the same laws of physics, astronomy and radio technology that we do.

Should we be sending messages ourselves? It is obvious that we do not yet know where we might best direct them. One message has already been transmitted to the Great Cluster in Hercules by the Arecibo radio telescope, but only as a kind of symbol of the capabilities of our existing radio technology. Any radio signal we send would be detectable over interstellar distances if it is more than about 1 percent as bright as the sun at the same frequency. Actually something close to 1,000 such signals from our everyday internal communications have left the earth every second for the past two decades. This electromagnetic frontier of mankind is now some 20 light-years away, and it is moving outward at the speed of light. Its spherical wave front, expanding like a ripple from a disturbance in a pool of water and inadvertently carrying the news that human beings have achieved the capacity for interstellar discourse, envelops about 20 new stars each year.

We have also sent another kind of message: two engraved plaques that ride aboard Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11. These spacecraft, the first artifacts of mankind that will escape from the solar system, will voyage forever through our galaxy at a speed of some 10 miles per second. Pioneer 10 was accelerated to the velocity of escape from the solar system by the gravitational field of Jupiter on December 3, 1973. Pioneer 11 swung past Jupiter on December 4, 1974, and will travel on to Saturn before it is accelerated on a course to the far side of the galaxy.

Identical plaques for each vehicle were designed by us and Linda Salzman Sagan. Each plaque measures six by nine inches and is made of gold-anodized aluminum. These engraved cosmic greeting cards bear the location of the earth and the time the spacecraft was built and launched. The sun is located with respect to 14 pulsars. The precise periods of the pulsars are specified in binary code to allow them to be identified. Since pulsars are cosmic clocks that are running down at a largely constant rate, the difference in the pulsar periods at the time one of the spacecraft is recovered and the periods indicated on the plaque will enable any technically sophisticated civilization to deduce the year the vehicle was sent on its epic journey. Units of time and distance are specified in terms of the frequency of the hydrogen spin-flip at 1,420 megahertz.

In order to identify thethe exact location of the spacecraft's launch a diagram of the solar system is given The trajectory of the spacecraft is shown as it leaves the third planet, the earth, and swings by the fifth planet, Jupiter. (The diversion of Pioneer 11 past Saturn had not been planned when the plaques were prepared.) Last, the plaques show images of a man and a woman of the earth in 1973. An attempt vas made to give the images panracial characteristics. Their heights are shown with respect to the spacecraft and are also given by a binary number stated in terms of the wavelength of the spectral line at 1,420 megahertz (21 centimeters).

These plaques are destined to be the longest-lived works of mankind. They will survive virtually unchanged for hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of years in space. When plate tectonics has completely rearranged the continents, when all the present landforms on the earth have been ground down, when civilization has been profoundly transformed and when human beings may have evolved into some other kind of organism, these plaques will still exist. They will show that in the year we called 1913 there were organisms, portrayed on the plaques, that cared enough about their place in the hierarchy of all intelligent beings to share knowledge about themselves with others.

How much do we care? Enough to devote an appreciable effort with existing telescopes to search for life elsewhere in the universe? Enough to take a major step such as Project Cyclops that offers a greater chance of carrying us across the threshold, to finally communicate with a variety of extraterrestrial beings who, if they exist, would inevitably enrich mankind beyond imagination? The real question is not how, because we know how; the question is when. If enough of the beings of the earth cared, the threshold might be crossed within the lifetime of most of those alive today.

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