ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
That effort is now running short of money, as Amy Standen of member station KQED reports.
AMY STANDEN: It takes a certain type of person to devote an entire career to chasing something she'll probably never find. One such person is Jill Tarter.
STANDEN: I'm the director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California.
STANDEN: In this scene, Ellie Arroway, Foster's character, hears the unmistakable signature of extraterrestrial intelligence over her headphones.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CONTACT")
STANDEN: (as Ellie Arroway) Is anybody awake in there? I'm moving the array. Confirm.
STANDEN: (As Fisher) Boss has a bogey.
STANDEN: In real life, of course, the search has been a lot quieter. Tarter is in her 60s now. She wears her gray hair in a short, no-nonsense cut. She's been working on this for more than 40 years.
STANDEN: I don't know whether anyone ever will find a signal. I certainly don't know whether I will.
STANDEN: Thanks to this Allen Telescope Array, which is jointly managed with the University of California-Berkeley, SETI scientists could scan the skies full-time, hoping a clear, telltale radio signal would stand out from the universe's background hiss.
STANDEN: We're looking for signals that are compressed in frequency, because nature doesn't do that. Technology does.
STANDEN: Now, to understand SETI, you have to understand this: that we humans are a very young species on a very young planet, and we've only had modern technology for the last couple hundred years. Tarter says it's a cosmic blip.
STANDEN: Our galaxy is 10 billion years old. And most of the stars in our region of the galaxy are about a billion years older than our sun.
STANDEN: In this broader scope of cosmic time, we humans are practically newborns.
STANDEN: We don't know if there are any other technologies out there. But if there are, we can be pretty sure they're older and more capable than we are.
STANDEN: Capable, she hopes, of beaming high-power radio waves that our telescopes could eventually pick up. But this is a long shot, perhaps the longest long shot in science, says Caleb Scharf, director of Astrobiology at Columbia University.
P: All of those arguments ultimately rest on big assumptions that tend to be very human-centric.
STANDEN: For instance, that another civilization would use radio signals at all or would have any interest in finding us. And then there's there problem of timing.
P: Even if there were many, many technological civilizations in our galaxy, the chances of one of them being radio loud...
STANDEN: Prof. SCHARF ...right at this instant, right at the time that we have the right technology to listen for it, the odds seem to shrink a lot.
STANDEN: But recently, something happened that gave those odds a modest boost.
U: Engines start. One, zero and liftoff of the Delta-2 Rocket with Kepler on a search for planets in some way like our own.
STANDEN: NASA's Kepler Telescope found signs of what it was looking for, dozens of possible planets that might be similar to Earth, orbiting distant stars like our sun.
P: Some of these are potentially habitable planets.
STANDEN: Dimitar Sasselov is on the Kepler team. He also directs Harvard's Origins of Life Initiative.
P: This is where we should be looking for the signals coming from other civilizations to start with. SETI is already in possession of that list.
STANDEN: Jill Tarter says she's frustrated by the holdup.
STANDEN: Never before have we known such good potential targets at which to point our telescopes. And that's what we want to do.
STANDEN: Tarter wants to raise $5 million in private money to search the Kepler planets. Caleb Scharf, the Columbia astrobiologist we heard from earlier, says he thinks that's a bargain. Sure, SETI is a long shot, but science needs long shots.
P: Too often in modern science, we kind of narrow down our vision. We narrow down what we want to look at a little too much.
STANDEN: SETI, on the other hand, swings for the fences. The money may never pay off, says Scharf, but we'll never know unless we try.
P: I think the best argument for SETI is simply that we do not know. The only real solution is to look and to look in as broad a way as you can.
STANDEN: For NPR News, I'm Amy Standen in San Francisco.
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