E.T., phone Earth -- scientists are listening harder

Alien beings trying to contact Earth should take heart. There is new hope for earthlings who would like to receive their message.

A group of leading scientists from 12 nations - both East and West - has launched a campaign for an international Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) that ''would be a million times more thorough than all the previous searches . . . put together.''

This comes shortly after Congress approved funding (about $1 million) for SETI in the 1983 US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) budget.

The congressional action, in turn, follows after the creation of a SETI commission within the International Astronomical Union. The IAU is the body that sets basic standards for astronomy and coordinates many international projects.

Thus it is that, within the past two months, a far-out research field that had seemed to be losing favor has been revitalized.

It is only a year since Congress dropped all SETI funds (running about $1 million annually) from the NASA budget. Previous small-scale SETI projects carried out primarily by US and Soviet radio astronomers had turned up nothing. Noting that ''there is not a scintilla of evidence that intelligent life exists beyond our solar system,'' Sen. William Proxmire (D) of Wisconsin had successfully argued to ax SETI funding.

However, SETI supporters have tried hard to explain their case to skeptics such as Senator Proxmire. They point out, among other things, that SETI research will yield much new astronomical knowledge whether or not it turns up the radio equivalent of a note in a bottle. They also point out that, in a few decades, there will be so much interference from human radio uses, it will be impossible to conduct SETI with ground-based radio telescopes. A much more costly space-based setup would be required.

Many of the skeptics exist within the scientific community. Some astronomers and biologists have argued that, if aliens exist, they should have already spread across the galaxy and colonized the Solar System.

Prof. Michael D. Papagiannis of Boston University has been prominent among such skeptics. Yet he signed the SETI petition and is president of the new IAU commission.

He explains that the question of whether alien beings exist or not should be settled by research - not by philosophical discussion. Thus, he says, skeptics and enthusiasts can join in supporting SETI research. He notes that the IAU endorsement, which was a unanimous action, shows that the world astronomical community considers SETI an important scientific undertaking. It is not merely a quixotic hobby.

The petition calling for an international SETI program, which appears in the current issue of Science, is signed by 68 scientists, including seven Nobel laureates.

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