Historical Reviews of SETI

From the first theoretical paper on a strategy for interstellar communication by Coconni and Morrison (1959), to the present-day programs supported or promoted by the SETI Institute (1993), some two dozen search programs have been discussed, proposed, funded, de-funded, and carried out to a greater or lesser degree.

Several historical reviews of these programs or proposals have been published. See, for example, Heilbron (1994) and Dick (1993), as well as Tarter's tabulation of observing programs (1991).

The literature does not need yet another review of SETI's history at this time. However, a few brief observations will help to create a perspective for discussing the future of SETI and Open SETI.

SETI observing programs - those proposed as well as those actually carried out - range in scale from the parsimonious Project SERENDIP (Bowyer et al., 1983) to the gargantuan (though modular) Project Cyclops (Oliver and Billingham, 1972) (never funded by Congress but a very useful design study nevertheless). Except for Cyclops, SETI programs used existing radiotelescopes and receiving systems. Usually some special-purpose post-acquisition signal-processing hardware and/or software were employed. In other words, SETI since its inception has been carried out in the manner of other astronomical observing programs, and has represented only a very minor use of research budgets and facilities. Many of the world's radio observatories have done some SETI for very brief periods.

However, a greatly-expanded SETI program appeared to have gotten underway in 1988 when NASA formally adopted a dual-mode, large-scale project. NASA Ames Research Center, with a project known as the High Resolution Microwave Survey (HRMS), would examine the nearest 1000 Sun-like stars, while the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) would sweep all directions in the sky.7

Observations began in 1992 but Congress terminated funding within one year (SETI Institute, 1993). That terminated the JPL survey, but the principal SETI scientists from Ames left to form The SETI Institute under private funding. The targeted search is now being performed by The SETI Institute as part of its Project Phoenix.

Thus, in the context of scientific research, SETI has been a very modest program - especially so, in view of its potential value to, and impact on, society if a positive detection should ever take place. It also has had great symbolic impact, as even without successful detections, the image of these great observing instruments scanning the heavens, seeking to learn something of human society's role in the cosmos, has been an ennobling one.

Nevertheless, problems with the research paradigm itself, the cosmic view on which it is based, and its strong bias against considering alternative bodies of data, limit the prospects for eventually achieving the goals of SETI. Even modest research programs need to be properly conceived and designed, and require more than symbolic functions to justify their cost.


With nothing but terabytes of negadata and a tenaciously-held idea, the SETI enterprise rolls on.

Carl Sagan left and took with him his agenda, whatever it was, but his novel about SETI (Sagan, 1997) was turned into the hit movie Contact. The public found great sympathy for the dreamer-scientist, Dr. Ellie Arroway, and other images of real-life members of the SETI community.

The SETI Institute in collaboration with U.C. Berkeley's PROJECT SERENDIP has enlisted one million souls and their computers in a gigantic distributed computing program (SETI@home) to perform the "Fast Fourier Transform", the classic SETI calculation, on what is supposed to be live raw data (but may not be).18

With SETI@home, SETI has moved from a highly dubious "scientific" enterprise to something more like a sporting event, where "teams" of enthusiasts compete to collect the most Negadata (my term for the absence of scientific data that SETI has collected over a period of several decades). And it has come to pass that the SETI teams, in their avid competition, have resorted to cheating. It would appear that the distributed SETI@home software is rather unprotected against tampering, and all manner of abuse has taken place. SETI@home's director, UC Berkeley Professor David Anderson, now admits that the SETI@home system has been hacked in several ways, and that faked results have become a serious problem. For the complete story, see Cheaters Bow to Peer Pressure, and Game Seti match for fame seeking hackers, a report on a SETI@home virus that takes over a host, converting it into a SETI@home processor for the benefit of the account of the virus writers. Separately, a theft of some 50000 SETI@home user e-mail addresses has resulted in major spam attacks on these users.

In 2000 the Paul Allen Foundation financed the Allen Telescope Array, a $12.5 million high-tech interferometric radiotelescope for SETI to be constructed at U.C. Berkeley's Hat Creek Radio Observatory.

A grand alliance was created between Ann Druyan (Carl Sagan's widow), Silicon Valley multi-millionaire Joe Firmage, The SETI Institute, the newly-formed United Devices, and U.C. Berkeley with the intention of creating a major media presence for SETI. But the grand alliance led to a great silence; financial backing melted away along with the bull market toward the end of 2000.

If entertainment has lagged, science has forged ahead with encouraging new data from space probes suggesting that conditions for life as we commonly understand it may be present on other planets and their satellites in our solar system. Dozens of planets have been found near other stars. Organic molecules and even what may be fossilized bacteria have been found in rocks with putative origins not of this planet.13

As for narrowly-defined SETI, the astronomical community and the SETI community in particular still do not acknowledge reception of any evidence of signals from extraterrestrials, and the core SETI community continues to believe that its search methodology is the only way to locate extraterrestrial civilizations.

In other words, while the SETI enterprise seemed at least for a short time to have caught a wave, the state of SETI research is exactly as I predicted it would be in 1994. But ironically it now appears that strong electromagnetic evidence has indeed been found, and has been in our hands for decades, though no one has acknowledged it for what it is.

Open SETI Quest for Negadata! SETI's Achievements