- As the narrow asphalt drive ascends the
hill, it becomes a forbiddingly rugged gravel road. It passes a "Private
Property" sign on a tree before curving to the left and into a clearing.
- Atop a hill near Roland and Pinnacle
Mountain, a radio tower rises 100 feet into the air. Next to the tower's
base stands a black satellite dish 12 feet in diameter. Next to that is
Steve Carver's house.
- Inside the house, Carver's 15-year-old
stepdaughter watches television, but the program is disrupted by a disembodied
voice intruding on the audio.
- It's Carver talking on his ham radio
again as he sits in the basement at his table of computers, radios and
- Carver doesn't just talk over the airwaves.
He keeps his dish trained on his favorite constellation, Drago, 24 hours
a day, listening for a signal from intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.
- Carver is a volunteer coordinator for
the nonprofit Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence League Inc. Members
around the world operate 57 listening stations.
- Carver's station is the only one he knows
of in Arkansas.
- The group's goal, Carver says, is to
get 5,000 stations running worldwide. Then the Earth would be like a fly's
eye, able to look in all directions at once, he explains.
- The National Aeronautics and Space Administration
engaged in SETI research until Congress cut its funding in 1993, according
to the league's Internet site. Since then, the league has been creating
a network of volunteers to continue the work.
- The league recruits ham radio operators
like Carver to listen for signals. It enlists computer whizzes who analyze
irregularities in the data.
- Carver knows it's unlikely that the computer
in his basement will pick up an alien signal out of the noise his dish
constantly receives. He likens his hobby to playing the lottery.
- "Chances of winning are so low,
you might as well not do it. But if you don't play, you can't win. And
somebody who plays will win."
- Carver believes that if enough amateur
radio operators around the world build listening stations like his, someone
will catch that fateful signal.
- "The odds are just intimidating,
but the answer is force in numbers. Before I die, I want to make contact.
I want to make it happen. That's my only goal right now."
- A patent lawyer, Carver has worked as
an electrical engineer for the Federal Communications Commission and radio
stations. He's been a ham radio operator for 40 years.
- His antenna tower is for communicating
with other people by radio.
- Growing up, Carver lived in 17 different
cities because of his father's job with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Ham radio proved to be a reliable companion, giving him the power to talk
with people in other countries.
- He didn't get into SETI until a couple
years ago when he picked up a faint Morse code message from Romania. It
convinced him he could catch signals that would usually be impossible to
- "It all came to me one day that
this will work. It takes a special interest in radio to do this and a special
background in radio. This is my thing, picking up weak signals."
- He's also convinced it's a mathematical
certainty that intelligent life is out there. He believes humans will first
discover it by hearing signals from an uninhabited space probe that may
pass close enough to Earth for detection.
- Carver raves about the rapid development
of technology that he says makes it increasingly affordable for amateurs
to join the search.
- Standard desktop computers can now handle
the task of receiving data.
- "Signal-to-noise ratio, that's a
concept that has perplexed me all my life. You can hear a signal, but it's
too noisy," he says. "Computers can now instantly divide up a
signal into a million little slices."
- Old satellite dishes made for television
reception cost almost nothing because better models are replacing them,
he says. For now, Carver says, no license is required just to listen for
signals and not transmit any.
- Carver built his four-bedroom house on
the remote hill partly so his equipment won't interfere with neighbors'
- Regardless of that, his wife, Nancy,
says a few neighbors occasionally have a cordless phone conversation invaded
by Carver's ham radio chatting.
- Nancy says she usually ends up helping
Steve install antennas and dishes in the yard. "Oh dear," she
says at the thought of how many more trees he may want to cut so he can
erect more gear.
- "His hobbies become obsessions,"
she says. "He'll be obsessed with one for a couple years. As long
as he has his interests and he's happy, that's good."
- "I'm not sure I believe that we're
going to make contact with people from outer space. But I do think it's
valid to try. For his sake, I hope we will. He would be so excited."
- Carver says people sometimes tell him
their alien abduction stories when they find out he's in SETI. But he hasn't
seen enough evidence to believe aliens have visited this planet.
- "I've never seen a UFO. I've never
been on a UFO. I've never been abducted by aliens," he stresses.
- If a SETI member picks up that first
message, he says, it will be sent up the ranks in SETI for verification.
Then, he says, he doesn't know what SETI or the government may do with
the information and whether it will be possible to decode.
- As he explains SETI's activities, he
occasionally refers to the movie Contact starring Jodie Foster, who played
a scientist involved with a similar project to find alien intelligence.
- "When it happens, it won't be as
dramatic as the movie, not as filmable. It's going to be just a little
blip on a screen."
- "But the most profound message we
will ever see is that we are not alone," he says.
- PCs Help SETI Listen For ET
by Pierre Celerier
LOS ANGELES (AFP) - Thousands of volunteers around the world are putting
their personal computers at the disposition of US researchers hoping to
find signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence.
- Want to join the effort? Learn more at
*the SETI@home website. The cyber-volunteers will help scientists in the
project, known as the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence at Home,
or SETI@home, said Dr. David Anderson of the University of California at
- "We have 115,000 people signed up,"
Anderson said. "I don't have statistics, but I believe a large fraction
are international," with most from Europe.
- "Each participant will have the
slight but captivating possibility that his or her computer will detect
the faint murmur of a civilization beyond Earth," he said.
- The PCs around the world will create
a virtual super computer by using the SETI@home program, a kind of screensaver.
- "Like other screensavers it starts
up when you leave your computer unattended, and it shuts down as soon as
you return to work," the researchers say on their Internet site.
- "What it does in the interim is
unique. While you are getting coffee, or having lunch or sleeping, your
computer will be helping the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence
by analyzing data specially captured by the world's largest radio telescope,"
the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico.
- Existing SETI projects use custom signal
processing hardware, listening to the real-time telescope output on millions
of frequency channels simultaneously.
- But that only skims the surface. Researchers
say volunteers will help the project analyze smaller parts of frequency
spectrums more thoroughly.
- SETI has been functioning for two decades,
financed at a number of US universities through private donations. The
1997 Hollywood film "Contact" starred Jodie Foster as a SETI
researcher who stumbles across a signal from another planet.
- "No one has been able to do a search
this sensitive before because it takes a huge amount of computing power,"
said Dan Werthimer of the Search for Extraterrestrial Radio Emissions from
nearby Developed Intelligent Populations, or SERENDIP.
- From the Arecibo telescope, SERENDIP
instruments listen to 168 million frequencies simultaneously.
- "The signals we are searching for
are likely to be very weak, because they have traveled such long distances,"
said Werthimer. "So we've made SETI@home 10 times more sensitive to
weak signals than our present search."
- "In the last two years, many new
planets have been found, some of these orbit stars similar to our sun,"
Anderson said. "So it now looks like the galaxy is teeming with planets."
- "Some of these planets will have
the required temperature and environment for life."
- Cybernauts can go to http://setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu/
on the Internet to find out how they can join the effort.