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Drake's fascination with Seti began when he was very young
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Saturday, 8 April, 2000, 08:16 GMT 09:16 UK
Search continues for life in space
Telescope Seti-inst
Drake and the Green Bank radio telescope in 1960
By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse

8 April, 1960, near Green Bank, West Virginia, US: Dr Frank Drake first pointed a 25-metre (85-foot) radio telescope at two nearby stars called Epsilon Eridani and Tau Ceti.

His aim was to detect signs of intelligent life beyond Earth. Scientists have been looking ever since.

Drake's Project Ozma - named after a princess in Baum's Wizard of Oz books - started the modern scientific search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, commonly known as Seti.

Project Ozma was the result of a research paper published the year before by Cornell University physicists Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison.

They suggested that radio waves might be the most effective means of communication across interstellar distances, and therefore the best way to detect the existence of an extra-terrestrial civilisation.

New technology

The physicists originally asked Sir Bernard Lovell of the Jodrell Bank radio telescope in the UK to listen for alien signals. Sir Bernard declined thinking that it was too much of a long shot.

But Frank Drake decided to give it a go. "At that time we were building new, large telescopes, and more importantly, several new forms of radio receivers had been invented which gave sensitivities about 10 times better than the vacuum-tube based receivers then in common use," Drake said.

"The combination of the bigger telescopes and the more sensitive receivers allowed us, for the first time, to detect radio signals from the distances of the nearest Sun-like stars of the same strength we were then sending into space.

"To put it another way, we had crossed a threshold where we could detect civilisations like our own across the distances which separate the stars."

False alarm

Drake remembers that it was cold in the early morning of 8 April.

Message Seti
Message sent into space in 1974
Project Ozma commenced observations at about 0600 - and almost immediately picked up a signal.

"We had a big, loud, false alarm the first day," Drake recalled. "Of course, we didn't identify it as such until weeks later, and at the time we were very excited. We couldn't believe our luck."

The false alarm turned out to be a secret military project.

Project Ozma tapped into the heavens for a total of about 200 hours over a period of two months. Even though it didn't detect signals from civilisations beyond Earth, it did prompt the Space Sciences Board of the National Academy of Sciences to organise the first major meeting about the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence.

Seti telescope project

Today, Drake is as active in planning the future of Seti as he was in launching it 40 years ago. Drake is on the steering committee for a new Seti telescope project.

"Our equipment today is 100 trillion times more powerful than the Ozma equipment," marvelled Drake. "Even so, Ozma wasn't a waste - it had a real chance to succeed, even with the technology of the time. And in science, you have to advance by climbing the ladder one step at a time."

Forty years and almost a hundred searches later, ET still has to make an appearance.

Seti advocates say that they have only just begun the search and with increasingly sophisticated electronics and computer power it will only be a matter of time before a detection is made. But is it?

Archaeology of our future

No-one knows how long it will take and it may never happen. All that can be said is that we have spent 40 years looking and found nothing.

This inspires some to look harder and deeper.

Seti is exploration of the cosmos and of ourselves, and hopefully someday we will find others engaged in a similar quest.

"All we can do is search and search and search until one day we look in the right place at the right time," said Drake.

"They could well be literally thousands of millions of years ahead of us in their evolution, in their technological development, and so what we're going to learn is in a way the archaeology of our future."

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