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Alan Alda in Scientific American Frontiers

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Scanning the Dial (continued)

Dr. Laurence Doyle is planning ahead, preparing for the day when humans will need to interpret that long hoped-for message. Working at the SETI Institute, founded by Frank Drake in Mountain View, California, Doyle studies seemingly random animal signals, including dolphin whistles, squirrel monkey chatter and bee dances. Employing the same mathematics used to determine the amount of data that can be sent through a computer line, Doyle's team has detected levels of organization in each of these forms of animal communication. The scientists don't know what the animals are "saying," but Doyle says the same mathematics could be used to sort a message from intelligent aliens from the meaningless background noise of space.

Other projects underway at the SETI Institute include research on the evolution of stars and planets, the organic chemistry of meteorites and Martian geology and climatology.

"These projects sound like they're all over the map," says Doyle. "But in the context of Drake's Equation, it all makes sense."


Though it may be centuries or millennia before this work pays off, the search for extraterrestrial life is teaching us about our Universe, our solar system and even ourselves. By answering little questions along the way, humanity might one day learn the answer to one of our biggest questions, "Are we alone?"

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