BY MICHAEL LEMONICK
For 50 years a devoted group of scientists has
been listening for signals from intelligent aliens.
Despite all the dead air, the true believers say the
odds of success are now better than ever.
For the uninitiated, the name “SETI Institute” may conjure up sleek glass
buildings, mammoth radio dishes, and creased-brow researchers rushing
about waving enigmatic printouts. After all, SETI—the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence—is one of the most far-reaching and controversial projects in science. The idea that the universe might contain civilizations other
than our own probably helped get Giordano Bruno burned at the stake in
1600. It sparked a famous 19th-century newspaper hoax in which astronomers were said to have found a society of “man-bats” on the moon. It
motivated Percival Lowell’s writings about canals on Mars at the turn of the
last century, and it inspired Orson Welles’s infamous “War of the Worlds”
radio broadcast in 1938, which sent hundreds of thousands of listeners into
a panic over a fictional Martian invasion they thought was real.
As the culmination of that grand history, the SETI Institute deserves an
equally grand location, but the reality is quite a bit more modest. The insti-
tute occupies a single floor in an office park across the street from a resi-
dential district in suburban Mountain View, California, not far from a printing
company and a shop called Fun House Theatrical Costumes. “This is the
biggest such operation in the world,” says Seth Shostak, a senior scientist
with the institute, “and there are just 10 or 12 of us here doing SETI. It’s not
legions of lab-coated scientists with clipboards. I wish it were.”
At first blush, the organization’s results might seem equally disap-
pointing. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first modern SETI
search: It was in April 1960 that astronomer Frank Drake pointed a radio
telescope at the nearby star Tau Ceti and began listening for the telltale
ping of an alien communication. Instead he just heard static, and in the
half-century since, the silence has been complete.