The Search for E.T.
The Bay Area is a hotbed in the search for intelligent life. But is anybody out there?
By Scott DeVaney
In the next few weeks, space aliens will begin soaring through the earth’s atmosphere. They will fly over every city in America most nights of the week, although they’ll be invisible until the moment they enter your homes. The creatures’ mode of transportation won’t be flying saucers, however, but television airwaves.

No less than six new TV shows based on extraterrestrial visitors premiere this fall. Of course, aliens are nothing new in Hollywood, but six new shows in one season is more than just a fad – it’s a phenomenon. So what’s driving our growing fascination with celestial neighbors who may or may not want to destroy, enlighten, or simply probe us?

“We’re lonely,” says Andrew Fraknoi, head of the astronomy department at Foothill College and board member of the Mountain View-based SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute.

“I think SETI is an expression of our cosmic loneliness. Although we have plenty of our own cousins right here on earth – perhaps way too many – we are the only intelligent species on earth. We look out into the universe and say, ‘Could we have companionship?’”

Loneliness, however, means different things to different people. Is it possible that our obsession with finding E.T. is nothing more than a symptom of spiritual crisis in America? Have aliens become modernized, inflected archetypes of religious mythology, on which all of mankind’s hopes and fears may be unduly pinned?

“The hope of some UFO believers can be very similar to those who in ancient days believed in guardian angels that were looking out for us, or people who believed in fairies and pixies that were on the fringes of the visible world, waiting to help us when we get into trouble,” states Fraknoi. “This is a very natural human desire, right? It’s just like when you’re a kid, if you screw up, you kind of hope your parents will step in to save you. So, as a species, we worry that if we really screw up, is there somebody else who can come along and straighten things out?”


Despite public perception, the 20-year-old SETI program is much more than just a big eye in the sky, aimlessly looking for long-lost radio signals from alien civilizations. SETI is an international collection of more than 100 distinguished scientists working on a plethora of projects associated with exploring and fostering life in the cosmos.

No single topic gets SETI folks more excited than their new pet project, the Allen Telescope Array (ATA). Named after its primary benefactor, Paul “Microsoft” Allen, the ATA is a network of 350 small radio dishes in Northern California that will cast a wide gaze into the sky to offer an unprecedented view of the heavens. Once completed, the ATA will help us map our Milky Way galaxy with extraordinary precision and enable a better understanding of interstellar science. But the grand hope, of course, is that it will capture a distant radio signal from a technologically advanced alien civilization.

“Once the ATA gets built, it turns out that depending on how many civilizations you think are in our galaxy that have [radio] transmitters turned on, then we should find a signal within 20 years,” says Dr. Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at SETI. “Maybe it won’t happen that way, but that’s the estimate that people in the SETI community say are the right numbers. So, this is a project that is not for the generations. It will succeed in one generation. I think this is an important point for Joe Six-Pack, because it’s not something that’s hypothetical.”

Naturally, you’re wondering how a scientist could make such a precise prediction. Contact within 20 years? Shostak’s estimate is based on a formula called “The Drake Equation,” which was crafted by Frank Drake, emeritus professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC-Santa Cruz and current director of SETI’s Center for the Study of Life in the Universe. In simplest terms, The Drake Equation looks at the 200 billion stars in the universe, then attempts to estimate how many intelligent civilizations exist through a process of eliminating stars with no planets, then stars with planets but no planets like ours, etc. By the time Drake’s Equation gets down to estimating the number of planets with life but not intelligent life, then narrowing those down to planets with intelligent life that are willing or able to communicate, the number of intelligent civilizations is theorized to be roughly 10,000. That’s significantly less than the millions of alien societies Carl Sagan envisioned, or even the hundreds of thousands of intergalactic cultures pictured by Isaac Asimov, but still a significant population. And Shostak is convinced one of these 10,000 civilizations can be discovered by ATA within two decades.

Beyond SETI’s pursuit of galactic voyeurism, they’re also blazing the trail in a relatively young scientific field called astrobiology – the study of not only how life came to exist in the universe, but how humans may one day adapt to live on other planets.

Emma Bakes and Steve Walch are Silicon Valley-based SETI astrobiologists whose work is enhancing our basic understanding about the origins of life. Bakes and Walch used quantum mechanical techniques to prove that amino acids can form on the surface of icy, interstellar dust. This finding shows that one of the primary building blocks of life may be formed between stars, and not just on earth. Bakes and Walch are currently researching the possibility that interstellar debris, which rained down on the earth billions of years ago, may have been the catalyst that created DNA.

Astrobiologists have also proven that iron molecules in the hemoglobin were originally cooked up in stars billions of years ago and sent scattering about the universe after supernovae explosions. “This is why we say that we are literally made out of stardust,” explains Dr. Jill Tarter, research director at SETI and the woman whose personality and passion for SETI were used to shape Jodie Foster’s character in the movie Contact. “Life [on earth] is deeply tied to the cosmos and the folks at [the SETI] Institute study that connection and try to understand it.”


Outside of SETI’s distinctly rational approach to the search for alien intelligence, there exist other sects of searchers – or rather, alien believers – who claim we’ve already made contact. And not all E.T.-believers fit the standard profile of a foaming-at-the-mouth crazy picketing for the apocalypse; there are adamant alien believers who possess the most impressive of credentials.

One such person is Alfred Webre, a former senior policy analyst for the Stanford Research Institute and a Fulbright Scholar who received a law degree from Yale prior to becoming an economics professor there. Webre is currently the director for the Institute for Cooperation in Space (, a group of impassioned outer space peace activists who believe we’ve already made contact with numerous alien civilizations.

While at Stanford in the ’70s, Webre was associated with a Defense Department-funded project on “remote viewing” – that is, using psychics as Cold War spies. According to Webre, remote viewing proved to be not only scientifically verifiable, but an effective espionage tool (details of these experiments are documented in many books, such as Remote Viewing: The Science and Theory of Nonphysical Perception by Courtney Brown and Limitless Mind by Russell Targ). Before long, remote viewing researchers began wondering if they could use the same techniques to observe distant reaches of the universe and possibly make contact with alien civilizations. “The big breakthrough happened in the ’90s,” says Webre. “We were able to achieve communication and observation of intelligent civilizations.”

Webre further claims that not only have mediums made contact with multiple alien civilizations, but that the U.S. and German governments had contact with them during World War II, when one particularly nasty alien culture “entered into private, confidential treaties with first the Nazi government and then the U.S. [to provide advanced warfare technologies]. Those were deals negotiated by the Henry Kissinger wing, back in the Eisenhower era with Nelson Rockefeller as a kind of behind-the-scenes figure.”

Webre assures us that those Nazi-sympathizing alien days are over and that most alien cultures currently live in an advanced state of intergalactic accord and desire to usher humans into their utopian fold, but are weary of our self-destructive ways. Via remote viewing, Webre says alien governments have expressed concern that we humans are on the verge of “species suicide,” either through nuclear war or ecological catastrophe. “So [aliens] are working assiduously to try and help the forces of transformation on our planet, so that we transform from a primitive warfare economy to a more sustainable, cooperative peaceful economy.”


Then, of course, there are the unabashed non-believers, those who regard the search for alien life – whether it be the sober variety at SETI or the psychic slant at Stanford – as nothing more than a colossal squandering of resources. “To those who might think of [the search for space aliens] as a total waste of time and energy, well, by that thinking we shouldn’t have any music,” says SETI’s Dr. Fraknoi. “Why spend any money on any kind of music? What good is jazz, or the symphony or a terrific new song you hear on the radio? What a waste of effort. It’s not helping the tremendous needs we have on this planet. We don’t need another song from Bruce Springsteen. Everybody should be out feeding the poor… and that’s all true, but what would life be without music? You need some things beyond the bare necessities to think about, enjoy, get your juices flowing, and you’ve got to admit, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is one of those things.”

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