IF E.T. IS OUT THERE, TRYING TO GET IN touch with us, his message may well be received first in a quiet rural setting 30 miles northwest of Boston. There, atop a hill overlooking a snow-covered apple orchard and the frozen remnants of a pumpkin patch, a dish-shaped antenna, 84 ft. across, faces skyward, attuned to the murmurings of the cosmos.

That antenna is a Harvard-Smithsonian radio telescope, the Brobdingnagian ear of the newly dedicated project BETA, the latest and most ambitious effort yet in the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI). The search has been doggedly conducted over 31/2 decades by...

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