reviewed by H. Paul Shuch, Ph.D.
Executive Director, The SETI League Inc.
(n6tx @ setileague.org)
What a difference a decade makes. When the initial version of this book (then titled First Contact) appeared in 1990, NASA was in the SETI business bigtime. Their proposed two-pronged project, budgeted at a modest $12 million annually (about 5¢ per US citizen per year), included a sensitive targeted search of the nearest 1000 sun-like stars, as well as a systematic all-sky survey of the entire cosmos for intelligently generated microwave emissions.
But how swift blow the winds of change! After having endured Sen. William Proxmire's notorious Golden Fleece Award, the searchers at NASA came to realize that SETI, at least in government circles, had become a four-letter word. Their ambitious search actually did go online in October of 1992, under the new designation HRMS (for High Resolution Microwave Survey.) The subterfuge fooled no one in Washington. SETI by any acronym remained political suicide, and just one year later Congress pulled the funding plug on NASA's "hunt for little green men."
And had the story ended here, there would have been little reason for Bova, Prof. Alschuler and their colleagues to come up with Are We Alone In The Cosmos? Fortunately for its fans, SETI is the science that refused to die.
Are We Alone is a collection of eighteen essays, articles, and short stories dealing with the search for life in space. This revision retains some of the content of First Contact intact. Others of the original contributions appear in expanded and updated form. And a few new submissions grace the pages of this edition, which bears the timely subtitle "the search for alien contact in the new millennium."
Many of the authors contributing to this collection are well known to SETI enthusiasts. David Latham, Thomas McDonough, Frank Drake, Michael Klein, Tom Van Horne, Michael Papagiannis, Kent Cullers, Paul Horowitz, Michael Michaud and Philip Morrison are all household names within the very small family of radio astronomers. Other contributors, such as Ben Bova, Isaac Asimov, Hal Clement, David Bryn, Gregory Benford and Arthur C. Clarke, are icons in the world of science fiction. That no fewer than eight of the contribuors belong to The SETI League should in itself make this book mandatory reading for fellow members.
Are We Alone shares with its predecessor the obligatory coverage of cosmology, planetology, the Drake Equation, and the Fermi Paradox. New this time around are discussions of such timely topics as the privatization of SETI, Optical SETI, Project Phoenix, the SETI@home experiment, and (most notably for readers of this review) The SETI League. Though by no means exhaustive (this is, after all, a collection of short essays), the additions add a sense of immediacy to what might otherwise be a sterile history.
Speaking of which, history will record that it was the original edition of this work that led to the formation of The SETI League. In their chapter "Individual Involvement," Kent Cullers and Bill Alschuler told of how amateur radio astronomers might contribute to SETI, and how coordination of amateur efforts would be needed to promote quality and standardization. "No such organization currently exists," they wrote in First Contact. Four years later The SETI League was cast from the mold they crafted in 1990. In reporting the emergence of The SETI League, the updated "Individual Involvement" chapter rightly claims its fair share of the blame for our existence.
Appendix A to First Contact, titled "Amateur Equipment for SETI," outlined the basics for pulling together an effective amateur radio telescope. That book recommended that interested amateurs employ the then-new Icom 7000 receiver. If that particular designation rings familiar to SETI League members, it is because the Icom 7000 was the receiver of choice for the first half-dozen Project Argus stations. In fact, it would be fair to say that Appendix A formed the basis for the SETI League Technical Manual. His many other accomplishments notwithstanding, this fact alone qualified Cullers for the very first Giordano Bruno Award, which he received from The SETI League in 1996 .
It is worth noting that Appendix A to Are We Alone also discusses amateur SETI gear, from the contemporary perspective. I am pleased that in this version, Cullers and Alschuler refer readers to The SETI League website for information on selecting their required hardware and software. So it seems we've come full circle.
What a difference a decade makes!
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this page last updated 28 December 2002
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