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Jewish World Review April 19, 2002 / 8 Iyar 5762

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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Our life force's search for fellow life forces | Something about life -- something almost magnetic -- moves it toward other life. That is, something in the nature of life seems lonely and, in response, seems drawn toward finding and being in relationship with others.

This goes beyond birds of a feather flocking together, beyond Kiwanis clubs, alumni associations and family reunions, beyond zoos and botanical gardens, where human life goes to observe other varieties. It even goes beyond explaining why guests always gather in the kitchen.

It goes, rather, to our relentless search for life elsewhere in the mysterious cosmos.

We have been engaged for more than 40 years now in what's called SETI - the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. One of the organizations leading that search, the Planetary Society of Pasadena, Calif., recently marked its own 20-year search anniversary, and its executive director, Louis Friedman, noted that the work "is just beginning."

SETI today is a global effort. Others engaged in it are the SETI Institute, the University of California at Berkeley and SETI Australia Centre. In addition, a screen-saver program called SETI@home now is installed on more than 3 million computers around the world. The program automatically downloads raw data to be analyzed and returns the processed information to a team in Berkeley.

SETI researchers don't send signals into the vastness of space, hoping life out there will pick them up and respond. Rather, they simply listen for radio signals that may be coming from elsewhere.

The scope of the task is almost beyond imagining. There are, after all, tens of billions of suns just in our own galaxy. And, beyond that, tens of billions of galaxies in the cosmos. All of this is additionally complicated by the recent realization that not only is the universe expanding, it seems to be expanding at an accelerating rate.

If we're alone in the universe, of course, we'll never pick up any signals at all. If we're not alone, the chances of finding company in the cosmos seem dim --- although not as dim as when this search began 42 years ago.

The roots of all this yearning for contact go back, no doubt, to the first human who looked at the night sky and wondered whether anyone else was out there. But it wasn't until 1960 that a combination of technology and interest allowed the SETI work to begin.

That year, Frank Drake at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in West Virginia launched Project Ozma, the first SETI search. There have been dozens of other projects since then.

One was started by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1982, but Congress eliminated its funding in 1993. It used to be that humans could scan just one radio channel at a time for signals from extraterrestrial intelligence. Today, many millions of channels can be searched at once.

But still the question is why. What moves us to seek others in deep space? Why are we so restless, so uncomfortable thinking we may be unique? Or is it simply monstrous arrogance for us to imagine that in the unspeakably vast cosmos, sentient life exists only on Earth?

I think we seek other life in space for the same reason that we seek to be with others on Earth. We are built for relationship. Somehow we are wired to function best only when we are in partnership with others.

If you isolate children, they turn sullen and unresponsive. But boys and girls in groups are lively (sometimes too much so) and energized. This need for each other is why we stay together as families, why we organize into clubs and teams, why we date, why we marry.

It's not that we don't need occasional solitude. Indeed, without it we lose our perspective, our balance. But in the end we are not built for perpetual isolation. When playwright Philip Barry wrote that "most men lead lives of quiet desperation," he could have been describing the fierce and inexhaustible longing all of us feel when we have been cut off from contact with others for too long.

SETI, thus, is a monument to our recognition that we cannot -- and will not -- live alone, no matter how badly we do with the relationships in which we find ourselves. There's no reason to imagine we'll get along any better with extraterrestrials than we do now with each other, but our search for them is unavoidable.

JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' latest book is "A Gift of Meaning." To order it, please click on title. To comment on his column, please click here.

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Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2002. All rights reserved