A Giant Step in the Search For Intelligence in Space

Here's a far-out proposition. Harvard University physicist Paul Horowitz is so dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) that he says ''I'd bet my life'' there are alien civilizations out there. Furthermore, he offers to jump off his radio telescope if anyone can prove him wrong.

For his part, radio astronomer Frank Drake, who ran the original SETI project 35 years ago, says he too is convinced these civilizations are ''there to be found.'' He adds, ''I think we can guarantee you that.'' He also admits no one knows how hard it will be to find them.

Dr. Drake, president of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., was on hand last week to cheer on Dr. Horowitz as the latter's new SETI equipment went on line at Harvard University's Oak Ridge Observatory in Harvard, Mass.

This is a giant step forward in SETI capability. Hooked up to Harvard's 84-foot-diameter radio-telescope antenna, this equipment can survey 640 million microwave radio channels every 20 seconds, covering a frequency range of 1400 to 1700 megahertz. That's a frequency range in which radio signals zip through the galaxy with little interference - a range many SETI scientists think galactic communicators would favor.

The new equipment can discard spurious earth-based signals and concentrate on what's coming from the sky. It can do this automatically 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, except for maintenance down time. In the course of a year, it can cover every part of the sky visible from Harvard, Mass. If anyone is beaming signals our way from one or more of the hundreds of sun-like star systems within 150 light-years of Earth that are within the observatory's view, this new equipment will get the message.

Meanwhile, the dazzling technological virtuosity raises a larger question. Why is it that scientists such as Drake and Horowitz and their SETI colleagues and supporters persist in what might seem to be a thankless quest?

Their work is so easily ridiculed by politicians that Congress canceled all funding for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) SETI program search even before the current Republican drive to slash federal spending. Moreover, even the most enthusiastic searcher admits that the quest is more difficult than finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. Thirty five years of listening by a variety of projects has yielded only false alarms.

The answer seems to lie partly in the fact that the issue of whether or not we are alone in the universe is one of the most awesome questions humanity faces. It also lies partly in the fact that the possibility of resolving that question, while slim, is not zero.

Moreover, the needed technology is evolving rapidly. Drake says it is doubling its search capacity every year.

That is why SETI is not quixotic. Even a slim possibility of finding fellow intelligent beings in the galaxy catches the attention of many knowledgeable people who believe the search is worth supporting. And that is why SETI lives on in spite of the loss of government funding in the United States and Russia - the two leading centers of the work in the past.

The technology developed for NASA's aborted program now is at work in improved form in Project Phoenix run by the SETI Institute thanks to private funding covering the next five years. Horowitz's equipment and operation is underwritten by the Planetary Society, which easily raised money to match the $100,000 worth of memory chips donated by Micron Technology Corporation of Boise, Idaho.

Planetary Society executive director Louis Friedman says he believes that, at base, SETI ''is about ourselves.'' It is about ''understanding our relationship to our environment, to the planets, [and] to the universe,'' he explains.

That's a powerful incentive. Horowitz won't have to jump off his radio telescope even if no alien message is received in his lifetime. There will be successors to carry on the search and interested bystanders to fund the effort.

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