In 1896, Nikola Tesla wondered whether the radio system he was developing might help us contact Mars. Three years later, he thought he'd picked up a signal from Mars. We've never stopped looking. When Mars got close to us in August, 1924, the United States set up a National Radio Silence Day that ran 36 hours long, during which all radios went silent for a five minute period at the top of every hour. We sent a receiver up in a dirigible to listen for signals. But of course nothing came of it.
In 1960, Frank Drake aimed a telescope at Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani. I recall getting pretty excited at the time. It seemed likely that, even if those two stars produced no results, we would eventually find something somewhere. Of course that was an era during which a lot of us were still holding out hope for Mars. (There'd even been a brief period when Venus had potential. After all, it had clouds, and Edgar Rice Burroughs had produced the Carson Napier novels.)
Drake launched SETI a few years later. And they continued the search. But years passed, and the silence remained adamant. One signal thought to be artificial was picked up in 1977, but was never acquired again. Similar instances occurred in the early years of the 21st century. But no one took any of it seriously. The universe was quiet and that was the way it would remain. Intelligent life was probably an extreme anomaly. I began thinking about a story based on the discovery that we were unique, but I could never put it together. I mean, how can you possibly find out that we are alone in the universe?
There are reports now of new signals detected by Australians, incredibly powerful bursts of energy. Professor Matthew Bailes, an astronomer at Swinburne University, is directing the Australian effort. He concedes the possibility that there is an artificial source, but he maintains they don't really know what they have: "The difficulty is to know what sort of signal we are looking for," he said. "There is no manual on how to find aliens. We'll have to imagine the sort of transmissions an alien race might send."
He adds a warning: We might be prudent to avoid any efforts to make contact with an advanced civilization. Even if they were to prove friendly, the results could be catastrophic. During our own history, primitive cultures have never done well when they connected with someone wielding serious technology.
I can't help thinking how we'd react if we discovered that our next door neighbors (say, in the Centauri system) had life spans of several thousand years. Or had average IQ's of about 170. Or wanted to tell us how we should do everything. And they began to look at us as a tourist center.
Stephen Hawking agrees. As do numerous other scientists. They are saying we should keep our heads down. That tells me we may be getting closer to making contact than we realize. And the odd thing about it: I've lost that 1960 enthusiasm about seeing it happen.
The Ebook edition of the Microsoft anthology Future Visions, with stories by Robert Sawyer, Nancy Kress, Ann Leckie, David Brin, Greg Bear, SeananMcGuire, Elizabeth Bear, myself, and a graphic novelette by Blue Delliquanti and Michele Rosenthal, is now available free of charge: http://microsoft.com/FutureVisions