[Big Ear Masthead]

SETI: We've Only Just Begun

by Robert S. Dixon
Columbus, Ohio, September 19, 1988

This piece appeared as the Foreword in Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence by Edward Ashpole, Blandford Press, England, 1989. Reproduced here with permission from Dr. Robert S. Dixon.

SETI is a science which has only just begun, in terms of what most involved scientists see as the task before them. Even though a number of searches have taken place for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence, the searchers themselves would agree that the surface is yet to be scratched. The magnitude of the search needed is gigantic, and may require generations of scientific effort. Patience and persistence over the long-term are a prerequisite, since quick success is unlikely to be achieved.

Yet SETI today is poised at just the right moment to take a giant leap forward. Man's electronic ingenuity is providing an accelerating spiral of more powerful yet less expensive capabilities in communications and computing technology - exactly the combination required for SETI. We are indeed fortunate that these tools are coming into existence just at the very time we need them. Even today these advances in computing capability are being exploited in programs such as those in progress at Harvard and those being planned by NASA. The next generation of searches will marry both modern computing and communications technologies to achieve even greater performance.

Every endeavor has its detractors. There are otherwise learned people who scoff in the background, yet have not bothered to read the scientific literature and ignore the relevant activities of prestigious world organisations such as the International Astronomical Union and the International Astronautical Federation. There are those who believe the fledgling past searches are definitive and hence we should give up now. There are also a few sincere researchers who believe that theory alone can solve the problem out of existence, making any actual searching or experimentation unnecessary. Fortunately, our scientific ranks contain many doers who are not content to sit back and do nothing, so they will always press on regardless.

The definition of 'success' for SETI as being the discovery of another civilisation is too superficial. There are deeper and less obvious levels of success. It is almost axiomatic that any kind of new wide-ranging scientific observations will discover hitherto unknown phenomena (eg. pulsars could have been discovered much earlier by both radio and optical astronomers, but nobody thought to look for pulsing signals). Since SETI strains the state of the electronic art, it leads to new technology which is applicable to other brands of astronomy, as well as to other fields. And at its deepest level, SETI provokes and influences the thoughts of Man. Even if no signals are ever found, SETI will always be a source of mental stimulation toward the perception by everyone of their personal and national position in the universe. Man must achieve this perception if he is to put aside his internal squabbles and create his own planet-wide civilisation. If this does not happen, and if this behaviour is universal, then SETI in the superficial sense can never succeed because there may never be two civilisations alive at the same time. If this does happen, then SETI in the deepest sense will be possible.

For the past fifteen [now 23+!] years, a SETI program has been in progress here at The Ohio State University. During that time, many unexplained signals have been received. But 'unexplained' does not necessarily mean 'from another civilisation'. We do not know if they came from another civilisation, or from our own civilisation or from no civilisation. The problem is that the signals last only a short time - too short to tell where they are coming from, in detail. Later experiments to measure them more carefully never find anything. Similar signals have been found by other searchers.

These unexplained signals have led us to supplement the normal search techniques with additional ones that are used only when a signal is detected. This is an adaptive strategy, wherein all signals are investigated in detail immediately after their discovery, while they are still present. The normal search is temporarily suspended for as long as necessary. This new system will likely be in operation [has been in operation for many years!] by the time you read this.

Of longer-range importance, we have begun to design the next generation of SETI programs. An all-electronic telescope (no big steel structures, etc.) will watch the entire sky all at once. This eliminates the need to 'point' a telescope at a specific spot in the sky, and thereby miss anything interesting that might be going on somewhere else. We have dubbed this the Argus telescope, after the mythological being that had a hundred eyes and could look in all directions at once. It is also interesting that Arthur C. Clark, in one of his works, gave the name Argus to a SETI telescope that could look in all directions at once. As of this writing, we have successfully operated a small pilot version of Argus, and are seeking support to build a large one.



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Last modified: August 15, 2005