IAN KIRKWOOD: Search for intelligence

CRITICS of the national broadband network are sometimes heard to say that we don't need all of that expensive technology just so people can look at movies of things that earlier generations bought in brown paper bags from under the newsagent's counter.

This, of course, is an outrageous simplification.

Much of the internet is a porn-free zone.

This is the area given over to aliens and conspiracy theories about JFK, Roswell and Pine Gap, and why climate change has more to do with the shifting of the earth's magnetic poles and tiny pin-prick holes in the atmosphere than with the combustion of vast amounts of fossil fuels.

I was moved to think about this after reading the obituary of NASA scientist John Billingham, who has died at the age of 83 in California. Dr Billingham, an Englishman with an Oxford medical degree, was one of the people in the 1970s who helped convince the United States government to spend money on scouring the universe for signs of intelligent life.

Conventional wisdom holds that Dr Billingham's quest - the "search for extraterrestrial intelligence" or SETI - was a failure. Today, more than half a century after flying saucer fever gripped the world in the 1950s and 1960s, the subject is almost never mentioned in the mainstream media or in general conversation.

To believe in UFOs - or to claim to have seen one, as I believe I have done - is to invite ridicule. To say I have seen four - one as a child, three as an adult - is to invite the nodding smiles and the knowing winks.

Sure you have, Ian.

Yet despite this public turning away from UFOs as a topic of polite conversation, the internet is very much alive with UFOlogy, showing that plenty of people remain interested in the skies around them, regardless of the lack of mainstream recognition.

But back to SETI.

According to an obituary of Dr Billingham in the New York Times, the US government stopped directly funding SETI soon after it started operating in 1992.

Instead, it has relied largely on money from universities and rich individuals including a co-founder of Microsoft, Paul Allen, whose donation of $25 million resulted in the creation of the Allen Telescopic Array of radar telescopes. SETI uses radio telescopes to search for radio signals that could have been emitted by an intergalactic civilisation.

The Times quoted another radio astronomer, Fred Drake, as saying: "The whole picture is that we are the newcomers on the block, that they're out there, other civilisations that are much older than we are."

The biggest stumbling block in accepting the existence of UFOs has generally been the vast distances that space ships would have to travel to reach Earth from another galaxy.

But the more that scientists learn about the universe and its physical laws, the more we realise what it is that we don't know. Such unimaginable distances to us may not be any particular barrier to a species around longer than us in a universe that is generally believed to be nearly 14,000 million years old.

Personally, I think it's extremely egotistical to believe that humans are the only "intelligent" life forms in a universe so big that the Milky Way alone could have 400 billion stars and that it is only one of 100 billion or more galaxies in the universe.

According to the Times review, the US government is still putting money into the search for extra-terrestrial life, except that it's doing it nowadays through "the rapidly expanding field of astrobiology, which includes searching for extraterrestrial life at the most microbial level, not just forms that might transmit radio signals".

Sooner or later, I imagine the search will bear fruit. Whether the President has someone - or something - beside him as he tells the world, or whether he holds up a glass jar . . .

Only time will tell.

Tomorrow: my UFO experiences

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