A week doesn't go by without the announcement of new planets. "Week Brings Hail of Planets" was just the most recent report. It capped a week of "new findings about worlds beyond our own solar system," according to the Wall Street Journal. The latest marvel, 200 light years distant from Earth, has two suns. The reporter quoted John Knoll of Industrial Light & Magic as saying that this shows "science is stranger than fiction." Actually, science fiction started this whole ball rolling, but that's another story.
The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has gone on for more than 50 years. In 1960 Frank Drake, a Cornell University astronomer, cobbled together the Drake Equation, supposedly quantifying the likelihood that intelligent life started up on its own. Nothing has yet been found and the search is getting harder to fund. Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen put up some money which was used to build the Allen Telescope Array in northern California, but now it is "in hibernation." The University of California was supposed to operate the array, but they're broke too. Government money has dried up. Three years ago I tried to visit the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, and, on a Wednesday, found the place locked up at midday. A night watchman came to the door. "Closed," he said.
What scientists are looking for, of course, is extra-terrestrial life, not rocks orbiting stars. The late novelist Michael Crichton gave an entertaining lecture at Caltech in 2003 saying that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is a religion. And in a way it is. Carl Sagan, one of its leading promoters, "believed in superior beings in space, creatures so intelligent, so powerful, as to resemble gods." He affirmed that a new civilization is formed just in our galaxy every 10 years. "There are a million technical civilizations in the [Milky Way] galaxy," he believed.
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