Communications: Talk Alien to Me

Outside magazine, March 1996

Communications: Talk Alien to Me

An Everyman's plan to mingle with the stars
By Paul Kvinta

"If that call comes and you don't answer, you'll regret it," trumpets astronomer Paul Shuch, in a wobbly impression of Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. "Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow. But soon, and for the rest of your life."

Man your television satellite dish--that call may be on its way. Ever since 1993, when Congress axed a ten-year-old, $50 million science project known as Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, the Penn State electronics professor has worried that messages are arriving from space while nobody is listening. Now he thinks he's found a way to make sure somebody will be. In an inspired attempt at cosmic eavesdropping, Shuch has enlisted 250 owners of garden-variety satellite dishes from around the world into what he calls the SETI League, which next month will aim its rigs at the heavens. "If they have radio technology out there," Shuch says, "their photons are probably landing on our heads."

In theory, it'll work like this: A volunteer in Billings or Budapest will aim his dish at coordinates provided by Shuch. The dish will collect squeaks, clanks, and other cosmic racket, and a personal computer will interpret the information and display it. An "intelligent" signal will trigger an alarm over the Internet, rallying other volunteers to lock onto the coordinates to verify the signal.

Sounds riveting, but Shuch warns that volunteers will most likely see just one thing: a random display of dots. "This isn't for people requiring instant gratification," Shuch says.

Predictably, the League has drawn flak from religious conservatives. But it's also being ripped apart by UFO conspiracy theorists who view SETI as woefully behind the curve. "It's silly," says Stanton Friedman, author of UFOs: The Real Story. "They assume advanced civilizations are stuck at the level of radio."

Bush-league criticism, counters Shuch. The real menace to astronomy, he says, resides on Planet Earth: "Maybe we should look for intelligent life in Washington."

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