The Sciences

22 Years Ago in Discover: Listening for ET


By Elise KleemanSep 9, 2005 5:00 AM


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Few people make it onto the cover of Discover. Over the years the magazine’s editors have preferred to illustrate covers with science rather than with scientists. One exception was famed astronomer Carl Sagan, who appeared on the March 1983 cover for our special report “Life in Space: The Search Begins.” The magazine dedicated the bulk of the issue—five features, including one by Sagan—to the world’s first large-scale search for extraterrestrial intelligence, a project known as SETI.

Sagan, who died in 1996, was an impassioned supporter of the program, which uses radio telescopes to listen for extraterrestrial communications. “It is, I suppose, perfectly possible that extraterrestrial intelligence is rare or even absent,” he wrote in his article, titled “We Are Nothing Special.” “But the history of science urges on us great caution in accepting such a contention: we have a deep vested interest in this ultimate anthropocentrism—the notion that we are alone in the cosmos.”

The issue also profiled Frank Drake, generally acknowledged to be the father of SETI. Then an astronomy professor at Cornell University, Drake confidently predicted we would find intelligent life by 2000. “I’m an optimist,” he told writer Bruce Schechter, adding that extraterrestrials would speed up the human learning curve. “We will almost certainly learn things like how to achieve useful nuclear fusion.”

Today Drake, a director at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, is disappointed that his dreams have not materialized. The disappearance of government funding in 1993, he says, slowed progress, but he still holds out hope for the future. “The idea that there is life to be found, including intelligent life, has been greatly supported since 1983 with the detection of other planetary systems, an ocean on Europa, and clear evidence that there were once bodies of liquid on Mars,” he says. Any idea how long it will take? No, says Drake. These days he is “a little gun-shy about making predictions.”

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