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What Is SETI?

SETI stands for Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. The acronym was coined in the early 1960's to describe the activities of a handful of radio astronomers who were seeking evidence of the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe. SETI exists as a specialized sub-discipline within the field of Radio Astronomy.

The question "Are we alone?" has haunted humankind since first we realized that the points of light in the night sky are other suns. It was only within the late twentieth century, however, that our technology began to advance to the point where we could begin to seek scientific evidence to help answer this age-old question. The origin of modern SETI can be traced to the publication of Cocconi and Morrison's article "Searching for Interstellar Communications," in the September 19, 1959 issue of the British science periodical Nature. In that article, a strategy was discussed for scanning nearby sun-like stars for microwave radiation which could not be explained by natural causes.

Unbeknownst to Morrison and Cocconi, as they were writing their article, radio astronomer Frank Drake was preparing to perform the very experiment which they outlined, at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Green Bank WV. Drake's Project Ozma, conducted in 1960, must be considered the very first SETI study. It surveyed two nearby sun-like stars, for just a few weeks, at just one frequency, and detected no extra-terrestrial intelligent signals. Nevertheless, Ozma served as a model for dozens of later SETI projects.

The world's first SETI meeting was convened at Green Bank by Drake in 1961. As the agenda for that conference, Drake drafted an equation for estimating the number of possible communicative technologies in the cosmos. The Drake Equation is today the primary probabilistic tool whereby SETI scientists assess their prospects of success. Drake himself considers it a way of quantifying our ignorance. Its seven factors encompass cosmology, planetology, atmospheric science, evolutionary biology, psychology, technology, and sociology. Thus SETI is possibly the most interdisciplinary of the sciences.

In the past half century, attempts to answer the question "Are we alone?" have emerged out of the realm of science fiction, into the scientific mainstream. Today, although Government funding for SETI is virtually nonexistent, there are more concurrent SETI projects being conducted, with more powerful hardware and software, than ever before in human history. One of them, Project Argus, is the principle scientific project of the membership-supported, nonprofit SETI League.

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