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So You Want To "Get Into" SETI
Copyright © 1998 by Larry Klaes (
SETI League Northeastern US Regional Coordinator

The Dream

So you have spent your whole life hearing about, reading about, and seeing humanity's numerous interpretations of alien life beyond Earth.

You look up at a clear night sky full of stars and wonder if someone else is also sitting on some alien world around one of those suns, pondering the same thoughts as you.

Eventually, your intellectual curiosity builds to the point where you must do more than just read and think about alien beings: You want to see for yourself if they really are out there, somewhere in our vast Universe.

The Realities

First you discover that, despite everything you see and read about traveling to other star systems in science fiction, in reality we are a long way off from reaching even the nearest of suns with any kind of actual vessel. Besides, with over 400 billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy alone, searching their countless worlds with star probes would take many generations of human lives to accomplish.

One reason for this dramatically slow process -- in addition to the huge number of previously mentioned star systems -- is due, ironically enough, to the fastest achievable velocity in existence: The speed of light and radio waves. The universal speed limit is about 186,000 miles (300,000 kilometers) per second. To go any faster than this would require more energy than exists in the entire Universe, and that just is not feasible.

Granted, light speed is incredibly fast, but even if you had a starship which could achieve 99 percent of that velocity, it would still take you 100,000 years (measured in Earth time, but not allowing for the accelerating and decelerating phases of the trip) just to go from one end of the galaxy to the other. As for the various faster-than-light (FTL) proposals, such as cosmic wormholes and warp drives, they are still very much in the realm of theory.

Conversely, this also means that -- despite the endless reports of alien spaceships landing on Earth with crews of strange beings who slice up our cattle and abduct numerous members of our population for bizarre medical experiments -- the sheer volume of Milky Way star systems and the incredible amounts of space between them make the chances that so many alien races would construct large fleets of starships, find Earth, journey many light years to our planet, and then spend so much time here engaged in the aforementioned activities quite slim and even absurd.

Most often these reports of alien visitors turn out to be hoaxes or misinterpretations of natural and human-made phenomenon. If anything, UFOs and abduction stories tell us far more about human psychology and culture than about anything or anyone from other worlds.

Then you learn that some genuine scientific methods for finding extraterrestrial life actually exist. Some astronomers and engineers are using giant radio telescopes (and in a few cases so far, optical ones) to listen and look for signals from alien civilizations which may be trying to let the galaxy know that they exist and want to make contact with their celestial neighbors. Other scientists hope to find less advanced -- but no less interesting -- life forms on various planets and moons in our own solar system.

You are overjoyed that not everything about the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is either just science fiction or destined for some future era. You might actually be able to personally satisfy your desire to know if We Are Not Alone. Maybe you can even be sitting at the controls of the telescope when that first message from the stars reaches our blue planet, forever changing the course of human history and our place in the Cosmos!

More Realities: Can You "Do" SETI?

In an ideal world, the search for life beyond Earth would be one of the highest priorities for humanity. To know if other beings -- especially intelligent ones -- exist with us in the Cosmos, to contact them and hopefully learn something of their perspectives on reality, and perhaps even more. Large amounts of resources, time, and humanpower would be devoted to this ultimate quest for knowledge.

To anyone who knows how vast the Universe is in terms of its size and quantities of celestial bodies, it should be the goal of every intelligence such as ours to seek out others in space to learn from them and find our true place in existence. To quote from Carl Sagan:

"In a very real sense this search for extraterrestrial intelligence is a search for a cosmic context for mankind, a search for who we are, where we have come from, and what possibilities there are for our future -- in a universe vaster both in extent and duration than our forefathers ever dreamed of."

[ Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence (CETI), Carl Sagan, Editor, 1973, MIT Press, "Introduction", pp. ix-x]

But noble intentions and plans do not always occur as hoped for in reality. The concept of extraterrestrial life and the quest for it has been on a long and obstacle-laden road ever since the idea first appeared among a few brilliant thinkers in ancient Greece over two thousand years ago. For millennia after, however, even thinking that intelligent beings could exist beyond Earth was considered blasphemy! After all, we appeared to be at the Center of the Universe, where everything literally revolved around us. Existence was made just for humanity by the gods: To think that it could be shared by anyone else was considered an absurd idea.

Once we began to enlighten ourselves with science, philosophy, and technology, such attitudes began to shed away in favor of freely thinking about such possibilities. We were no longer the Center of Everything, but rather Earth was just one of several planets orbiting what turns out to be an average yellow star among hundreds of billions of other suns in what turns out to be an average spiral galaxy in a Universe with hundreds of billions of such star islands scattered throughout the vastness.

Of course with this freedom of thought and expression, some people went too far with the idea of extraterrestrial life and intelligence. Percival Lowell stands out as a prime example here. In the 1890s, Lowell considered the straight lines perceived on the planet Mars to be a huge system of canals constructed by an advanced race of Martians to bring water from the planet's polar caps to their great cities along the equator. The only evidence Lowell had for this was his imaginative speculation.

Lowell supported and promoted this idea with great gusto and publicity. Many astronomers, however, felt Lowell was assuming a great deal from such scant and uncertain evidence. When it finally became generally accepted that the "canals" were really just optical illusions created by the human eye and mind trying to make patterns out of the indistinct natural surface features on Mars, professional attitudes towards alien life turned negative.

Add to this the growing popularity of science fiction with its bug-eyed monster portrayals of ravenous, conquering aliens, and then the business of Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) as alien spaceships doing all sorts of strange things to the populace, and astrobiology was given a major setback from which it is still recovering today.

It has taken a long time, but we are finally at a stage where searching for extraterrestrial intelligence is no longer completely considered a crazy or foolish idea. The human race is finally beginning to grow up and expand its mental and physical horizons. SETI is becoming accepted, especially once the scientist pioneers showed that it could be done, even though no definite signal of alien origin has yet been proven.

Your Choices

Now that you are riding in the wake of those who paved the way for you to make even considering doing SETI possible, which route do you want to take? And what do you need to follow your plans?

The Professional Route

Before we go any further here, the first item I want to make clear is that at present, almost no one who is conducting professional SETI started out doing SETI in their careers. Very few places conduct professional SETI -- The SETI Institute being among the most notable exceptions -- and the majority of their employees came from careers in astronomy and engineering. Most other SETI projects, such as BETA and SERENDIP , are run primarily by skilled volunteers with donated funds.

So if you want to hunt for aliens, you have to learn more than just how to sit at a monitor and wait for a needle to jump. And don't expect to get paid as much as other professions in terms of financial rewards, if at all. But usually one does not get into this field just for the material benefits.

Getting a degree in astronomy is my first recommendation. You have to understand the fundamentals of the Universe before you can truly begin to comprehend what life forms might be out there and why. If you don't even have an idea of where to look for them, the search will be essentially a waste of time for you and everyone else. The same applies to my recommendation of studying physics.

Knowledge of computers and radio technology is highly recommended, as conducting SETI takes up massive amounts of computer data crunching power. SETI sifts through literally millions and billions of data bits per second, and trying to find some faint artificial signals in a Universe full of very noisy natural objects is a job for nothing less than advanced computers which can work fast and handle lots of information at once. Knowing how to work with such machines will be a big plus in SETI.

I would also recommend learning biology and chemistry. The beings you hope to pursue may be quite different from anything you might find on Earth, but understanding the fundamentals of how life forms on this planet exist and function will give you a good base to work from.

Since you will be searching for intelligent beings who will have some form of advanced technological civilization (otherwise we won't be able to detect ETI from Earth with our current radio and optical telescopes), I would suggest studying sociology to learn about how cultures develop and function with themselves and others. There certainly are a wide variety of human societies to study which will give you at least some ideas for what alien cultures just might be like and their motivations and methods for reaching out to the galaxy at large.

Plus all of this is good for you to know for your own intellectual benefit and personal growth. Yes, this is my "it builds character" statement.

All Creatures Great and Small: Becoming an Exobiologist

Of course the alien life you can search for does not necessarily have to be intelligent, at least on the technological civilization level. NASA and many universities are developing very nice programs on searching for extraterrestrials of the much simpler kind. Our latest journeys into the solar system with planetary probes have shown that some of our neighboring worlds might not be as hostile as once thought to microbes and other hardy and relatively unsophisticated creatures.

For example, NASA is quite interested in finding either fossils of Mars life that lived there several billion years ago, or microbial life that still thrives on the Red Planet, perhaps dwelling under the surface where conditions are a bit wetter, warmer, and safer than above ground. Jupiter's smallest Galilean moon, Europa, appears to have a liquid ocean underneath its incredible ice crust. Some scientists are speculating that conditions in those alien seas might be just right for harboring some aquatic Europans.

These are just two possibilities you could end up researching if you decide to become an exobiologist -- a career that didn't even exist in any true form until well after the advent of the Space Age. Much of the learning tools which applied to professional SETI also apply here, though with added emphasis on biology and chemistry.

You may initially think that finding an alien microbe won't be as thrilling as detecting a whole civilization of very intelligent beings: But just look at the wonder and excitement generated by the possible microfossils found in Martian meteorite ALH84001 when their discovery was announced in 1996.

It is most important to realize that finding any kind of life form that did not originate on planet Earth will be the key evidence humanity needs to let us know that we are not alone in the Universe. And finding organisms in our solar system could happen long before we come upon beings from other planetary systems.

The Amateur Route

While you probably won't make a living at doing SETI the amateur way, the wonderful thing about living in this era is that the search technology has reached the point where any serious amateur astronomer (non-Ph.D.) with a few hundred to a few thousand dollars (or equivalent currency) for the right equipment can actually conduct a serious search for other galactic civilizations. You can actually possess the technological ability to scan the skies with devices that would have been the envy of most professional institutions just a decade or two ago.

The extra beauty of doing your own SETI project is that you can essentially be your own boss as to how things are run. SETI does not have to belong only to the "big" boys and girls.

Naturally, to conduct amateur SETI, it will help to have a more than casual interest in astronomy, a working knowledge of telescopes -- radio and optical, depending on which type of amateur SETI you want to pursue (more on that later) -- a working knowledge of computers, a good place to set up your observatory, plenty of free time, and some extra spending cash. Yes, if you want to do serious astronomy and/or SETI, it can't be done properly as a weekend hobby.

Of course you can do this any way you want, but since we do not know who may be sending signals from out there by what methods, when, or where, a near-constant vigilance is the only way to be sure of catching their call when it comes. And since it is likely that such signals will not be very powerful, especially to amateur equipment, it will also make a major difference as to how "serious" your equipment is as well.

Amateur SETI Organizations: The Microwave Approach

Another nice thing in this era of computers and the Internet is that you don't have to be alone in pursuing your personal SETI dream. There are some actual amateur SETI organizations which can help you with all aspects of your search plans.

If you want to find alien intelligences in the microwave (radio) realm, the most common pursuit at present, check in with The SETI League. The SETI League, Inc. was founded by Richard Factor in 1994, in response to the United States' Government cutting all funds for NASA's SETI program, called the High Resolution Microwave Survey (HRMS), and the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) in October, 1993.

Executive Director Dr. H. Paul Shuch felt that between the advancements in computer technology and the vast numbers of actual and potential radio astronomers around the world, a serious amateur effort could be mounted to have a constant global coverage of the sky, free from the budget-cutting politicians and scant time on the professionals' giant radio telescopes.

The SETI League's Web site contains just about everything you need to know about setting up your own radio telescope for the search. They can also postal mail you the same information if need be. There is also loads of information on SETI in general.

The Optical Approach

There is another way one can look for ETI transmissions that briefly gained prominence in the early 1960s, only to be overshadowed by the microwave field until just recently: The optical spectrum.

While not as popular or well known to those with a casual knowledge of SETI due to microwave's dominance for the past three decades, optical SETI seeks to detect pulsed and continuous wave laser beacons signals in the visible and infrared spectrum. To truly advanced societies, laser communications offer a way to transmit large amounts of audiovisual information over vast distances. Seeing as we do not exactly know how ETI might communicate, looking for them in both the microwave and optical spectrums seems the only logical way to cover all the bases.

For the past several years, Dr. Stuart Kingsley of Ohio, who has often referred to himself as a "frustrated astronaut", has led the effort to promote optical SETI for both amateurs and professionals. He has designed his own system called the Columbus Optical SETI Observatory. At first glance, it looks like the typical kind of observatory you would find in a serious amateur astronomer's back yard. But Dr. Kingsley's choice of targets goes beyond planets and stars to the very beings which may dwell in other star systems.

Seeing as more amateurs have optical telescopes than radio ones, it can be relatively easy to adapt your system to conduct this kind of SETI. Dr. Kingsley has provided a great deal of information on how to do this in his Web site.

As with microwave, while you won't need a large radio dish, you will still require a dedication and seriousness to astronomy, a working knowledge of telescopes and computers, a good place to set up your observatory, plenty of free time, and some extra spending cash.

Beyond Radio and Lasers

Of course ETI might be sending messages through the Milky Way using techniques which are neither radio nor optical, but most of these methods are far beyond current amateur -- and in some cases professional -- capabilities. Thus they will remain out of the main scope of this article.

You can read about these alternate signaling methods for your own intellectual curiosity by following this link to an interesting article from SETIQuest.

Beyond the Observatory

If you prefer or decide not to become an active SETI scientist, but still want to make some kind of a living in the field, you can always pursue other avenues that while they may not allow you to find ETI in person, they can go a long way towards making those discoveries possible.

One avenue is to write about extraterrestrial life for periodicals and Web sites. Though it sometimes helps, you do not have to be a professional exobiologist to get published on the subject matter in the popular science magazines. Your research into alien life and its possible ways of being could go far in making breakthroughs in a field that still has so many unknowns to answer.

You can also write about astrobiology and SETI to explain its intricacies to the general public, a valuable service in its own right. Just think, your works could inspire others to become scientists in the SETI field and elsewhere, just as you were probably once inspired by similar circumstances.

Most importantly, don't ever forget in your pursuit of alien life to enjoy what you are doing. SETI and its related fields should always retain at least some of the wonder and excitement which drew you to it in the first place. Never forget to keep reading, thinking, and speculating about life out there, whether you pursue this as a profession or just an "armchair" enthusiast. You will do yourself and the field a great deal of good with this one basic point.

The Choice is Yours

Despite how it might seem at first glance, my goal with this article is not to discourage you from "doing" SETI. Rather, I am presenting to you up front the realities of what is involved as the field stands now. It would be worse for you to get all worked up and make elaborate plans about SETI, only to be shot down in midstream. If exploring the stars is your dream, learn how to do it realistically, rather than be defeated out of lack of knowledge on the subject.

If you discover that you do not really want to pursue SETI beyond reading and thinking about it, then at least I hope I saved you some time and energy on the matter so that you can still enjoy the subject. Remember, you do not have to make your own SETI station to participate in this great endeavor. Thoughtful speculation can be just as helpful with so many unknown factors out there which have yet to be found.

However, if everything I have said has made you still determined to pursue either a professional career or serious amateur goal to do SETI, then more power to you! At the very least, you will be well rewarded in terms of what you will discover about yourself and the Universe as a whole.

And who knows, maybe someday you will be the one sitting at the observatory controls when the signal of a lifetime comes drifting in from deep space.

With a Cosmos as large as ours, the possibilities are truly astronomical.

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