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No. 3194:
The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence

by Andy Boyd

Today, whatever happened to SETI? The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

It seems all but impossible to escape the intrusion of aliens from outer space - at least at the box office. They come to take over our planet - think Independence Day - or to benevolently befriend us - here the film Arrival comes to mind. But of course, the reality is quite different.

SETI - an acronym for Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence - is an idea that's been around for decades. But it came into sharp focus in the U.S. in the mid-1980s. In 1985 the SETI Institute opened its doors and, more notably for the public at large, the famed scientist Carl Sagan had his best-selling novel Contact released.

Contact novel
Contact novel   Photo Credit: pxhere

SETI efforts aren't nearly as exciting as portrayed in books and movies. Scientists point radio telescopes into the sky and listen. And listen some more. The goal is to hear signs of intelligent life. An alien television broadcast would be nice, but not realistic. Instead, we're looking for signals that are too regular to be random. All in all, the process is less exciting than watching grass grow - that is, right up till the moment a signal is found and humankind's place in the universe forever changes.

Radio telescopes
Radio telescopes   Photo Credit: pxhere

Two themes are prevalent in much of the discussion surrounding SETI. One is the Drake equation, proposed by Frank Drake in 1961. It's basically a common-sense effort to estimate the number of civilizations in our galaxy that we might be able to hear from. Depending on the numbers you plug into the equation, the answer ranges from tens of millions of civilizations to none at all. Still, the formula's long proved useful for framing the discussion.

Frank Drake
Frank Drake   Photo Credit: Flickr

The other persistent SETI theme is known as the Fermi Paradox, pointed out by Nobel Prize winner Enrico Fermi in 1950. Fermi noted that if an advanced civilization set out to colonize the galaxy, it could do so in relatively short order - at least when compared to the age of the galaxy. So if even one early civilization had set it's sites on colonization, they'd in all likelihood be here by now. I'll leave you to think that one through, but it continues to rattle through the SETI community to this day.

So whatever happened to SETI efforts? They don't make the headlines like they did in the eighties, but they're still alive and well. When NASA, through the actions of congress, stopped funding SETI research in 1993, private donors stepped up. Foreign governments and government coalitions have stepped up, too - South Africa, Australia, and China to name a few. And in 2015, Russian tech billionaire Yuri Milner committed to spending one hundred million dollars on a project he labelled Breakthrough Listen. The latest SETI efforts are projected to generate so much data each day that the amount will rival daily internet traffic. Now that's big data, all analyzed in a quest to see if we're not alone. And we're sure of only one thing. So far, we haven't heard anything.

Milky Way on horizon
Milky Way on horizon   Photo Credit: Wikimedia

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


The largest ongoing SETI activity is the development of the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), which at the time this essay first aired was supported by an alliance consisting of the following countries: Australia, Canada, China, France, India, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

Breakthrough Listen. From the Breakthrough Initiatives website: Accessed October 30, 2018.

Drake Equation. From the Wikipedia website: Accessed October 30, 2018.

Finding Artificial Signals. From the Berkeley SETI Research Center website: Accessed October 30, 2018.

Stephen Garber. "Searching for Good Science: The Cancellation of NASA's SETI Program." Journal of The British Interplanetary Society 52 (1999): 3-12.

History of the SETI Institute. From the SETI Institute website: Accessed October 30, 2018.