LITTLE FERRY, NJ.., 19 September 2009 -- Exactly fifty years ago, on 19 September 1959, there appeared in the British science journal Nature a brief article by two scholars, which marked the birth of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) as a scientific discipline. Searching for Interstellar Communications laid out the fundamental precepts of SETI as an observational science. Today, in 62 countries around the world, more than 1500 members of the non-profit SETI League look back on this seminal article, and ponder how far we've come in the past half-century.
The article's authors, Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison, were then professors at Cornell University in New York. Morrison went on to distinguish himself as a prominent physics and astronomy professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), while Cocconi became a central figure in the emerging field of particle physics at CERN, the European Centre for Nuclear Research. Morrison passed away in April 2005, and Cocconi in November 2008. This brief five-page paper is counted today among their most significant accomplishments, and contributes to their lasting legacy.
Unbeknownst to Cocconi and Morrison, at the time of their landmark publication Frank Drake, a young radio astronomer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in West Virginia, USA, was setting up equipment to perform the very experiment which the two professors were proposing in print. Drake's Project Ozma surveyed two nearby sun-like stars, for just a few weeks, at but a single frequency, for electromagnetic evidence of other technological civilizations. He found none.
Subsequent SETI projects have expanded the search space to billions of channels and thousands of stars. Still, we have detected no definitive, repeatable evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations. Yet our technology and search strategies continue to improve, just as public acceptance of (and enthusiasm for) SETI science continues to increase. So, The SETI League and other organizations continue the research born just fifty years ago today.
The concluding words of the famous Cocconi and Morrison article are just as valid today as they were a half century ago: "The probability of success is difficult to estimate; but if we never search the chance of success is zero."
Largely using radio telescopes and optical telescopes, SETI scientists seek to determine whether humankind is alone in the universe. Since Congress terminated NASA's SETI funding in 1993, The SETI League and other scientific groups have privatized the research. Amateur and professional scientists interested in participating in the search for intelligent alien life, and citizens wishing to help support it, should email join_at_setileague_dot_org, check the SETI League Web site at http://www.setileague.org/, send a fax to +1 (201) 641-1771, or contact The SETI League, Inc. membership hotline at +1 (800) TAU-SETI. Be sure to provide us with a postal address to which we will mail further information. The SETI League, Inc. is a membership-supported, non-profit [501(c)(3)], educational and scientific corporation dedicated to the scientific Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.
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this page last updated 19 September 2009
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