Heavenly Secrets

How the NASA researchers who inspired the film Contact outfoxed Congress and continued the search for intelligent aliens

Billingham is the world's most prominent advocate for the creation of an international protocol for communication with extraterrestrial life. He chairs the SETI committee of the International Academy of Astronautics, a pseudo-academic body that concerns itself with space-related topics. Billingham is now seeking to convince the nations of the world to sign an agreement to limit communications with aliens to officially approved messages.

His determination to create an Earth-to-space communications protocol has had some odd effects. A Berkeley public television production company hoped to end a documentary it was preparing with a segment in which digitally reformulated e-mails from viewers would be broadcast live via radio telescope to the nearest star known to have planets.

"It was very cool. I was excited by the possibility of doing this," says Steve Most, a producer who worked on the documentary.

The producers arranged to use Stanford University's radio telescope to send a transmission. They would pay the university for staff time and use of the instrument, according to the plan.

Then they ran into Billingham's protocol.
"There was a strong response that under no circumstance should you do such a thing," says Ivan Linscott, the Stanford research associate who runs the school's radio telescope. Linscott contacted acquaintances in the SETI field, who told him it is the institute's policy to oppose unauthorized communications directed at space aliens. "It turns out that there is this protocol which fundamentally says that no individual should represent the Earth in an unauthorized voice," Linscott says.

The Drake Equation
Protocol or no, whether or not you believe it is possible for aliens to listen to earthly broadcasts -- or vice versa -- is not, at this point, a fact issue. It is entirely a matter of faith.

In the SETI field, this faith is quantified with a mathematical equation formulated by astrophysicist Frank Drake, who conducted the first U.S. SETI search during the 1960s.

The equation -- expressed as N=R**fp*ne*fl*fi*fc*L -- essentially says that by knowing the rate of formation of sunlike stars; the fraction of those stars with planets; the number of "Earths" per planetary system; the fraction of those planets where life exists; the fraction of planets where intelligence and technology develops; and the typical lifetime of technological civilizations -- then we would know the number of alien civilizations able to communicate with us.

The SETI faithful say that the recent discovery of extrasolar planets -- some of which are estimated to be near the size and temperature of Earth -- has moved us a step closer to the discovery of extraterrestrial life.

SETI skeptics point out that extrasolar planetary research has led to the discovery of a heretofore unpredicted type of planet -- a huge, Jupiter-like orb spinning impossibly close to its sun. Ergo, skeptics say, Earth-like planets may be rarer than the Project Cyclops report predicted they would be.

To predict the fraction of planets where life exists, SETI adherents cite experiments showing that when chemical mixtures similar to the primordial atmosphere of Earth are zapped with ionizing radiation, amino acids and sugars -- the building blocks of proteins and life -- are created.

But proteins are not life. And scientists, try as they might -- even with the advantage of evolutionary hindsight -- have not managed to produce so much as a fungus.

To SETI supporters, because intelligence has improved man's evolutionary fitness, intelligent life must have prevailed elsewhere as well. But modern anthropologists don't unanimously support the claim that brains equal evolutionary brawn. Man's intelligent earthly brethren -- dolphins and apes -- are endangered. Grasses and insects, meanwhile, thrive.

So all the scientific arguments that exist fail to obscure the fact that the rationale for SETI can be summed up in the central premise of Carl Sagan's novel Contact. Life on Earth is common, and the universe is vast; therefore we cannot possibly be alone.

The Faith
When intergalactic historians sift through the detritus of end-of-the-millennium America, they may find their age's faithful hero in Dr. Kent Cullers.

The producers of Contact were so inspired by the blind signal-processing engineer that they wrote a part into the movie specifically based on his character. And while the NASA inspector general implicated the entire agency in denouncing efforts to circumvent the congressional ban on SETI funding, Cullers was the one man the report mentioned by name.

Cullers disputes the report's claims, saying the purchase of a data recorder criticized by the inspector general was perfectly valid, because the recorder had a wide range of uses that went beyond SETI work. The report is not evidence of scandal, he says, but a ritualistic act of hand-wringing by NASA officials who were terrified that criticisms of the SETI program could jeopardize other agency programs.

"We certainly didn't do anything illegal," Cullers says.
And Dr. Cullers is no delinquent. Successor to John Billingham as the SETI Institute's senior scientist, Cullers may bring a new age of sobriety and respectability to SETI research. A brilliant mathematician, Cullers has developed radio-signal processing algorithms useful to other areas of astrophysics, and even medicine. Rather than alarm -- and disappoint -- observers with claims that his project will find aliens within the decade, he concedes that SETI will be lucky to find results within the next 100 years -- despite advances in computers and other technology that will make the search astronomically more powerful during coming years.

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