The Secret Origins of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

Aliens are serious science. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, constitutes major research projects at radio telescopes the world over, and it is championed by the non-profit institute that shares its name. Multiple experiments on the subject, and citizen science projects like SETI@home, have been going strong for decades. Every year, papers, conferences and initiatives discuss how best to seek out — and maybe even talk to — E.T.

But it wasn’t always that way.

While UFO sightings and depictions in movies and comics spiked during the 1950s, the topic of aliens was considered unprofessional among scientists. Only a handful of professionals would speculate on the possibility of alien life, and even they made sure it was only a small part of their research. So when a group of science luminaries from a variety of disciplines met at a rural observatory in West Virginia to talk about little green men, they did so in secret.