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Otherworldly Overtures : A Kid With a Computer Could Make the First Contact With E.T.

MY LIFE HAS been landmarked by events that I hoped I would live long enough to see: the four-minute mile, the defeat of the Axis, the flight to the moon, the threshold of the 21st Century.

Now I hope to live long enough to hear our first message from some other civilization in space. I don’t think much of my chances. Scientists aren’t sure that we will ever make contact with extraterrestrials. Maybe the distances between populated planets are too great for even a more advanced people (if people is the right word) to cover.

That doesn’t keep us from trying. Thomas R. McDonough, author of “The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence,” has hope of being the first to make the acquaintance of E.T.

“If a flying saucer landed outside the door right now,” he says, “I’d get right into it, regardless of risk. The idea of seeing another world completely different from anything I’ve ever known is overwhelmingly my greatest desire.”

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McDonough lectures on engineering at Caltech and is coordinator of the Pasadena-based Planetary Society’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

Through three radio-frequency scanners, SETI is listening for intelligent signals from space. But our own civilization is so noisy that trying to separate an alien signal from our own sounds is like finding a particular grain of sand on a beach.

Also, an exchange of messages could take centuries. “For all we know,” McDonough says, “they could be broadcasting an entire encyclopedia to us right now.”

Meanwhile, NASA is trying to produce computer chips designed to search millions of channels. “It may be,” McDonough says, “that in a couple of years, you’ll be able to go to Radio Shack and buy a chip specifically for this purpose. Some kid who is a computer hacker sitting in his bedroom, listening for E.T., could conceivably have the first contact.”

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I had this in mind recently when my wife and I watched a movie called “Starman” on TV. Jeff Bridges plays an alien whose spaceship is shot down in northern Wisconsin by U.S. Air Force missiles. He turns up--as an infant--in the home of Karen Allen, whose husband has been dead two years.

Bridges finds a lock of her husband’s hair in a photo album, and, presto, he not only grows into full manhood before her eyes, but (evidently using a cell from the hair) turns out to be the image of her dead husband.

Allen is frightened of him, as you and I would be. He has a tendency to stare. He moves in jerks like a robot. He forces her to drive him to Arizona, where, in one week, he must rendezvous with a spaceship from home or die.

They have the same kind of adventures that couples usually have in these romantic cross-continent movies, but meanwhile the Air Force is stalking them. At one point Bridges sees a dead deer thrown across the hood of a hunter’s car and brings it back to life, thus demonstrating his compassion.

Inevitably, the alien and the earth woman fall in love. They clinch in a motel. Afterwards, Bridges tells her she is going to have his baby. That seems rather irresponsible of him, since he is either going to die or go back to his own planet without her. He tells her she can’t go because she would die there.

They outwit the Air Force and make it to the great asteroid pit in Arizona, where the rendezvous is to take place. She says: “I love you.” He says: “I love you.” Then the spaceship, which happens to be a sphere, appears, and Bridges soars away.

I doubt that aliens would walk like robots unless they are robots. I doubt that they could reproduce a man from one cell of his hair. I doubt that they could mate with humans. I disclose this plot only to suggest that anything is possible and that we don’t really know.

Biologists say the chances that space aliens would resemble us are about the same as your chances of winning a $20-million lottery. They would be the products of an evolutionary chain quite different from ours.

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I doubt that McDonough will ever board a spaceship. Unlike him, though, I wouldn’t go if they offered me a ride. It’s about 100 million to 1 that any alien planet would have movies, champagne and baseball.


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