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If you space folk can read this, honk

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First there was the slightly embarrassed opening day ceremony, starring Carl Sagan, with his four-month-old daughter Sasha in his arms, saying: ''Let the search begin.''

Like a lot of people, astronomers have their problems with rituals.

Then the radio telescope on a hill in the town of Harvard, Mass., tilted its 84-inch concave ear and got down to work, listening for messages from outer space.

''Can it be that the earth is the only inhabited planet? Is that possible?'' Sagan asked.

Paul Horowitz, the Harvard University physicist in charge of project SETI - search for extra-terrestrial intelligence - left the Sagan question carefully rhetorical, putting the chances of success at one in a thousand. But even if the odds were a hundred thousand to one, could the human race - more curious than any cat - resist pointing this great electronic question mark at the galaxy, silently miming the words of a William Saroyan play, ''Hello out there''?

Communication, finally, is not only an act but an intent - a longing. People light signal fires, put notes in bottles, and tap-tap Morse code into the night not just out of immediate necessity but out of primal loneliness. And so, for the next four years, the radio telescope on this hill in laconic New England will monitor 128,000 channels simultaneously, listening for E.T.

The supposition seems to go like this:

It is not intolerable to be the only beings in the universe intelligent enough to receive a message. But if anybody were out there, intelligent enough to send a message, it would be intolerable for us not to know.

Horowitz and his associates are guessing that any message will be transmitted on the frequency of the hydrogen atom since this is the most plentiful element in the universe. There is a sort of assumption that space aliens - if they exist - are more intelligent than we, but kindly disposed toward accommodating to our crude state.

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