In 1959, two ingenious physicists from Cornell University, Giuseppi Cocconi and Philip Morrison, proposed the possibility that microwave radio transmissions could be used to communicate with civilizations beyond our solar system. At about the same time, Frank Drake, a radio astronomer, reached the same conclusion. A year later, Drake conducted the first microwave radio search for evidence of intelligent extraterrestrial communication. Together, these three scientists gave rise to the era of SETI—the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
Drake, in particular, was intrigued with the possibilities of extraterrestrial intelligence. In the spring of 1960, he aimed an 85-foot antenna in the direction of a pair of stars located some twelve light years away from Earth. For two months, Drake listened to the hum of the background noise of our expanding universe, waiting for a signal that would prove we were not alone. In the end, he heard nothing. The possibilities for missing a whispered message from another world were simply too great, and Drake was left with many unanswered questions. Where should he look for life in the universe? Where should he listen? Even if a signal was heard, how would he know that it was the real thing? How could he be sure there was life elsewhere in the universe?
Drake answered this last question with an equation that came to bear his name—Drake’s Equation. In an elegant and profound mathematical statement, Drake demonstrated that the number of civilizations capable of interstellar communications could be very large—or, it could be very small. However, it most probably would not be zero.
In 1977, Jerry Ehman volunteered his services to a SETI project for the Big Ear Radio Observatory at Ohio State University. SETI searchers had been scanning the cosmos for nearly two decades before Ehman witnessed what may have been our first encounter with an extraterrestrial civilization. On August 15, 1977, Big Ear received an unidentified signal that literally knocked its recording device off the chart. Stunned at what he had just witnessed, Ehman scribbled an excited note on the computer printout next to the inexplicable signal: “Wow!” For the next two decades, the “Wow! Signal” was acclaimed as our best evidence that SETI searchers were hot on the trail of intelligent life beyond the Earth. It was the era of hope and possibilities, filled with events that drew the attention of those who dreamt of the possibilities and those who recognized the potential of the technology that made SETI work.
In 1993, darkness settled on the aging SETI searchers when the United States Congress withdrew all funding from ongoing public projects, just twelve months after they had reaffirmed their commitment to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Despite its modest need for funding, key congressional leaders reversed their earlier support for SETI and abandoned all scientific efforts, publicly claiming a need for fiscal restraint. It seemed that Drake’s Equation had come up zero after all.
However, SETI did not die in 1993. It simply disappeared from public view. The SETI project and its funding went underground. It was swallowed into the belly of an unnamed, classified operation, controlled from an unacknowledged government office in Bethesda, Maryland. This organization, fronted by a quasi-public working group euphemistically named the Committee on Intergalactic Research, had decided that SETI must never be a public venture, particularly if it’s efforts could, one day, prove successful. Deeply funded by covert sources and wielding significant fiscal power among key members of Congress, the CIR was the true driving force behind the withdrawal of funding for all public SETI projects.
The CIR’s Director had a clear and sweeping purpose for his organization—to gather the technology and possibilities promised by early SETI research into a single, controlled, and covert project. By his mandate, the honored SETI protocols were quickly abandoned and SETI was made blind to its original purpose, perverse and aggressive in its new incarnation. Between 1993 and 1996, SETI was driven almost completely from the hands of the old searchers and transformed into the unwilling instrument of its dark masters.
In 1996, SETI entered its final era, its transformation nearly complete. Like Kali, in the Bhagavad Gita, it threatened to become the fearsome, multi-armed destroyer of worlds.
Rick Stevenson embodied the essence of the Single Man Theory. Aloof, unattached, and uncommitted, Stevenson cared for theories and facts, not people. He had made it his lifelong business to be unknown and unapproachable. It was those qualities that made Stevenson invaluable to a few in our government, and an enigma to the rest of the world.
In 1986, Stevenson received a Ph. D. in electrical engineering from Ohio State University, graduating second in his class. At forty-one, the new Dr. Stevenson was considered somewhat of an aging anomaly by his fellow students, who were generally twenty years his junior. His reputation on campus was musty and mysterious—a solitary, misanthropic man who seldom spoke but who had an obvious and keen eye for detail. Still, there was nothing about this questionable public persona that bothered the new doctor. In fact, he secretly enjoyed his obvious maturity and impenetrable, onionskin mystique—a legend that he wove with great care to surround his comings and goings on campus. In truth, none of his colleagues knew Stevenson very well and he, in turn, made no effort to know them.
Stevenson’s doctoral dissertation was a mind-bending affair of esoterica that challenged the most worthy of ivory-tower academicians at OSU: “False Parabolic Imaging of Over-Horizon Doppler Systems.” Still, it must have made sense to someone because it received second honors at OSU for the Thompsen Award of Innovation and Scientific Contribution. Named after General Ronald Z. Thompsen, who had been the driving force behind electromagnetic ground wave armament systems in the 1960s, the TASIC award was a coveted treasure for any graduate student whose vision was focused on a future of federally-funded research. To be nominated for the award was a guarantee that someone in the Pentagon would pass the dissertation through a maze of assessments and evaluations that might result in an offer to work in the pure research end of America’s defense empire. For those few graduates who excelled in high-energy physics, electrical engineering, mathematics, or mechanics, a place on the TASIC roster of nominees was akin to a sip from the Holy Grail. It was known to open closed doors and create instant reputations; it promised to compensate for years of psychological torture that traditionally left a graduate with only a six-dollar certificate standing between him and the minimum wage. But, for Stevenson, none of this mattered. For him, TASIC was an afterthought that held no meaning. In fact, the dissertation that had so enthralled the TASIC nomination panel was worse than useless—it was inaccurate, and Stevenson knew it.
The academicians had been easily fooled. They lived in a theoretical world of possibilities, probabilities, and assumptions. So did Rick Stevenson. In fact, he had long sat on a higher panel of theory and possibilities than even those who judged the worth of his work. False parabolic imaging was a marvelous theory that could wrap any ivory tower scientist in a cocoon of probabilities and assumptions, but it had no meaning—offered no practical value.
Still, Stevenson’s work had purpose. It was meant to be read, studied, and pondered by those few men who could always open the closed doors. It just wasn’t meant to be read by anyone in the Pentagon. In fact, it wasn’t meant to be read by any American, but only by those who coveted what they believed the American military had to offer. It was a brilliant piece of work, designed as a red herring, wrapped in an enigma, packaged in a mystery, validated by a worthy and unquestioned panel of academicians, and eventually leaked to unnamed places far east of Ohio State University. The trick had not been in the construction of the theory or its presentation, it had been to ensure that Stevenson’s work would not receive enough votes for a TASIC first place honor. That would have been too obvious.
Dr. Stevenson never attended his own graduation ceremonies. His duly executed, six-dollar diploma was mailed to a post office box in Bethesda, Maryland, pursuant to the written instructions he had left behind. The odd, middle-aged graduate simply disappeared from OSU and was never heard from again. In over three years on campus, he left no mark or memory of his stay. No one on the faculty missed him or even gave him a second thought. It was a natural end to the saga of a man who always seemed just beyond the horizon of those around him. Like the false parabolic images that he had so delicately created in the minds of the academicians, he never really existed. Stevenson was what he wanted most from life—a theory and a possibility, untouched, unremarkable, and quickly forgotten.
Rick Stevenson had done his job well. He had earned the sweet reward of anonymity, and then he simply vanished. Yes, he had done his job well—and his masters were pleased.