The PI Confluence
In 1959, two ingenious physicists from Cornell University, Giuseppi Cocconi and Philip Morrison, proposed the possibility that microwave radio
transmissions could be used to communicate with civilizations beyond our solar system. At about the same time, Frank Drake, a radio astronomer,
reached the same conclusion. A year later, Drake conducted the first microwave radio search for evidence of intelligent extraterrestrial communication.
Together, these three scientists gave rise to the era of SETI—the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
Drake, in particular, was intrigued with the possibilities of extraterrestrial intelligence. In the spring of 1960, he aimed an 85-foot antenna in the
direction of a pair of stars located some twelve light years away from Earth. For two months, Drake listened to the hum of the background noise of
our expanding universe, waiting for a signal that would prove we were not alone. In the end, he heard nothing. The possibilities for missing a
whispered message from another world were simply too great and Drake was left with many unanswered questions. Where should he look for life in
the universe? Where should he listen? Even if a signal was heard, how would he know that it was the real thing? How could he be sure there was life
elsewhere in the universe?
Drake answered the final question with an equation that came to bear his name—Drake’s Equation. In an elegant and profound mathematical
statement, Drake demonstrated that the number of civilizations capable of interstellar communications could be very large—or, it could be very small.
However, it most probably would not be zero.
In 1977, Jerry Ehman volunteered his services to a SETI project for the Big Ear Radio Observatory at Ohio State University. SETI searchers had been
scanning the cosmos for nearly two decades before Ehman witnessed what may have been our first encounter with an extraterrestrial civilization. On
August 15, 1977, Big Ear received an unidentified signal that literally knocked its recording device off the chart. Stunned at what he had just
witnessed, Ehman scribbled an excited note on the computer printout next to the inexplicable signal: “Wow!” For the next two decades, the “Wow!
Signal” was acclaimed as our best evidence that SETI searchers were hot on the trail of intelligent life beyond the Earth. It was the era of hope and
possibilities, filled with events that drew the attention of those who dreamt of the possibilities and those who recognized the potential of the
technology that made SETI work.
In 1993, darkness settled on the aging SETI searchers when the United States Congress withdrew all funding from ongoing public projects, just
twelve months after they had reaffirmed their commitment to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Despite its modest need for funding, key
congressional leaders reversed their earlier support for SETI and abandoned all scientific efforts, publicly claiming a need for fiscal restraint. It
seemed that Drake’s Equation had come up zero after all. However, SETI did not die in 1993—it simply disappeared from public view. The SETI
project and its funding went underground; it was swallowed into the belly of an unnamed, classified operation, controlled from an unacknowledged
government office in Bethesda, Maryland.
This organization, fronted by a quasi-public working group euphemistically named the Committee on Intergalactic Research, had decided that SETI
must never be a public venture, particularly if it’s efforts could, one day, prove successful. Deeply funded by covert sources and wielding significant
fiscal power among key members of Congress, the CIR was the true driving force behind the withdrawal of funding for all public SETI projects. The
CIR’s Director had a clear and sweeping purpose for his organization: to gather the technology and possibilities promised by early SETI research
into a single, controlled, and covert project. By his mandate, the honored SETI protocols were quickly abandoned and SETI was made blind to its
original purpose, perverse and aggressive in its new incarnation. Between 1993 and 1996, SETI was driven almost completely from the hands of the
old searchers and transformed into the unwilling instrument of its dark masters.
In 1996, SETI entered its final era, its transformation nearly complete. Like Kali, in the Bhagavad Gita, it threatened to become the fearsome,
multi-armed destroyer of worlds.