Ray Norris, 2 April 1996
If you look up at the stars on a clear, dark night, you are seeing just a few of the billions of stars in our Galaxy. Many of these stars are just like the Sun, and many probably have planets just like the Earth. It seems inconceivable that the Earth is the only one of these millions of planets that is inhabited. Surely some of these planets must support life like ours?
But it's not quite so obvious. Over the millennia, wise scholars have advanced ingenious theories as to why there cannot possibly be anyone out there. Other sages have shot gaping holes in these theories, and advanced equally plausible reasons why we cannot possibly be unique. The debate continues, and we still have no evidence one way or the other.
In the last decade or so, we have achieved the level of technology necessary to find the answer. Last year, "Project Phoenix" hooked up the giant CSIRO radio telescope at Parkes, NSW, with some very sophisticated electronics shipped over from the SETI Institute in California. For four months, we eavesdropped on hundreds of nearby stars, trying to hear a whisper from some alien radar or navigation beacon, or perhaps some extra-terrestrial "Four Corners". Sadly, we heard nothing except our own man-made interference.
During this search, we occasionally received letters asking why CSIRO was wasting taxpayers money looking for little green men when we could be doing something useful - like solving the nation's budget deficit. Apart from the fact that the search was funded not by government, but from the donations of private citizens, it raises the question: why do we do basic science?
Some would answer that basic, curiosity-motivated, science is primarily a cultural activity - the mark of a civilised nation. This is undoubtedly true, but it's more than that. The sphere of mankind's knowledge is continually moving slowly outwards. Out there, beyond the horizon of our knowledge, are all sorts of wonderful discoveries waiting to be made, waiting to enlighten us and improve our material lot. Experience has shown that we are notoriously bad at predicting where these discoveries lie. If we want to keep making them, we have to keep expanding our sphere of knowledge. For example, the discovery of the transistor came not from directed research, which was trying to produce a smaller thermionic valve, but from one small, obscure, corner of basic science which was trying to understand how heat and electricity are conducted through metals. While short-term, directed, research produces useful steps in the march of technology, the really big leaps come from basic research
Our search is not without risks. If there really is a civilisation out there which is millions of years more advanced than we are, will our science and arts suffer if we find that all our brightest ideas have already been thought of? How will our culture survive if we find that we're a primitive Palaeolithic tribe compared to our neighbours, and that our supercomputers and gene-sequencing machines are no more than coloured baubles? Can our collective ego cope with this? This might sound far-fetched, but we should be aware of these risks, however remote, and be prepared to pull the plug on our search if necessary.
The search will continue for several years. We don't know what discoveries may come out of it, but within the next decade or two we will either detect something, or we will know that we are, if not alone, at least a very rare and endangered species. In any case, in satisfying our most basic thirst for knowledge about ourselves and the universe which we inhabit, we are pushing humanity just that little bit further along the path which started when we climbed down from the trees.