“A fascinating perspective on humankind’s obsession for knowing if there is anyone else out there.”–Gerrit L. Verschuur, author of The Invisible Universe: The Story of Radio Astronomy
“Squeri has written what will likely be the definitive history of the early days of SETI that includes profiles of some of its leading characters.”–Ben Zuckerman, coeditor of Extraterrestrials: Where Are They?
“An insightful history that explores the scientific foundations of the modern-day search for our place in the cosmos. Waiting for Contact delivers unparalleled access to the inner history of SETI and invites us to ride along on the journey to answer one of science’s ultimate questions: Are we alone?”–Douglas Vakoch, president, METI International
“Waiting for Contact is a balanced account, telling the tale of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence without the overpromise usually trumpeted by enthusiastic proponents and the hyperventilation so commonly added by UFO enthusiasts. If you are simply interested in the history, unvarnished by an agenda, you’ll enjoy this book.”–Don Lincoln, author of Alien Universe: Extraterrestrial Life in Our Minds and in the Cosmos
Imagine a network of extraterrestrials in radio contact with each other across the universe, superior beings who hail from advanced civilizations quadrillions of miles away, just waiting for Earth to tune in. Some people believe it’s only a matter of time before we discover the right “station.” Waiting for Contact: The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence by Lawrence Squeri tells the story of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) movement, which emerged in 1959 as astronomers began using radio telescopes to listen for messages from space. New technological developments turned what once was speculation into science. Boosted by support from Frank Drake, Philip Morrison, Carl Sagan, and the genre of science fiction, the SETI movement gained followers and continues to capture imaginations today.
In this one-of-a-kind history, Squeri looks at the people, reasons, goals, and mindsets behind SETI. He shows how it started as an expression of the times, a way out of Cold War angst with hope for a better world. SETI’s early advocates thought that with guidance from technically and ethically advanced outsiders, humanity might learn how to avoid horrors like nuclear annihilation and societal collapse from overpopulation. Some hoped that good news from outer space might reveal a cure for cancer or even the secret of immortality.
Squeri also describes the challenges SETI has faced over the years: the struggle to be taken seriously by the scientific community and by NASA, competition for access to radio telescopes, perpetual lack of funding, and opposition from influential politicians. He covers the rise and fall of Soviet SETI and the few rare meetings between Soviet and American astronomers. Despite many setbacks, the movement pressed forward with the aid of private donations and developed outreach programs. Volunteers can now help search for new civilizations on their personal computers by joining the SETI@Home project.
Today, SETI researchers continue to see themselves as explorers. They often identify with Columbus, and just as Columbus never realized the full implications of his discovery, we cannot predict what will happen if contact is made. This book points out that if, against all expectations, the embattled SETI movement finally succeeds, the long-awaited first signal picked up by its radio antennas will usher the greatest shift in human history. A new adventure will begin.
Lawrence Squeri is professor emeritus of history at East Stroudsburg University.
Check out our exclusive Q&A with Lawrence Squeri as he discusses
his perceptions of extraterrestrial life and science fiction:
If intelligent extraterrestrial life contacted us, and we could understand them, what do you think their first message would be?
If we understand exactly what the extraterrestrials are saying, it means they have transcended the vast differences between our cultures. This would mean they would have been observing us and that would make me worry—regardless of the message’s contents.
Do you believe we have reason to fear contact from another planet?
Very advanced extraterrestrials would see us as puny and would not fear us. On the other hand, extraterrestrials whose technology is close to ours may see us as a potential threat. During the Cold War, the USA did not fear Honduras; it did fear the Soviet Union.
Have your perceptions of science and science fiction changed since you began this book?
I never realized how much science fiction can influence science. Among the examples in the book, I note Freeman Dyson’s admission that he got the idea for his so-called Dyson Spheres from a science fiction novel by Olaf Stapledon.
Most fictional depictions of aliens have been more or less humanoid, when modern scientific thought suggests that such aliens would be unlikely. What do you think they would look like?
The features of the extraterrestrial’s planet—its size, temperature, and atmosphere—will determine its physical form. If one were to visit us, it would probably need a “space suit” to survive what, for its race, would be Earth’s deadly environment.
You mention monster movies as one way you became interested in SETI. Which is your favorite and why?
Them is about giant ants, mutated by radioactivity from atomic bomb testing in New Mexico. The movie is both scary and cautionary, showing how science can have unintended consequences. Independence Day, although very implausible, was a great feel-good movie with humanity uniting to fight evil aliens.
Do you have a favorite science fiction book?
I love H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds. I also love Arthur C. Clarke’s works Childhood’s End, about aliens who create a utopia on Earth to prepare humanity for its next evolutionary step, and Rendezvous With Rama, which focuses on a spaceship that enters our solar system, completely ignores us, and then goes on its way. These three novels present evil, good, and indifferent aliens. Contact will most probably follow one of these scenarios.
What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
I make the point in the book that the future is unpredictable. No matter how much we plan and prepare, the future never works out exactly as expected and often it veers in a totally unexpected direction. We should look at contact with this idea in mind.
How well do you know science fiction movies and TV series?
Take this quiz to match the alien to the movie!