`E.T. - email home', say cosmologists

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THE SCIENTIFIC search for extraterrestrial intelligence has entered a new era. If ET is out there all he has to do is log on to a special internet website created by leading astronomers.

A series of searching questions will weed out hoax calls but scientists believe a website dedicated to making contact with extraterrestrials is as logical as searching the skies for signs of intelligent radio signals.

Paul Davies, the British cosmologist and award-winning science author, is one of those who has lent his name to the attempt to contact ET through the internet. Like the other scientists involved he believes it possible that an intelligent civilisation from deep space has already put a small, super-intelligent probe in orbit around Earth.

"When you think about it, it is no more crazy than using radio telescopes to search for signals. The idea of a probe has a certain logic to it," said Dr Davies, a winner of the prestigious $1m Templeton Prize for his contributions to scientific and religious understanding.

A number of scientists believe a highly advanced alien intelligence could have sent probes to monitor distant solar systems, in the way that humans have sent relatively crude spacecraft to analyse our neighbouring planets.

Allen Tough, an astronomer at the University of Toronto, believes the possibility is strong enough to warrant setting up a special website to encourage the probe to communicate in any way it can.

"How would they learn about us? They would tune into radio, TV and the World Wide Web," Dr Tough said.

The website has 10 questions for ET to answer, such as "where are you from?", "How did you travel here?" and "Who lives in our galaxy?" ET also has the opportunity to engage in a more philosophical dialogue with questions such as "what can individual human beings contribute to the universe?"

Dr Davies said the idea of an intelligent probe monitoring human development cannot be dismissed. "It's probably not beyond the bounds of a 500 million- year-old technology to monitor the internet from a probe orbiting the Earth. So if we create a website saying `we know you're listening and would you like to log on', we might get a response," he said.

Dr Davies, who left Britain in 1990 to take up a post at Adelaide University in Australia, admitted the chances of getting ET to log on are small. "It is not a very expensive thing to do. Obviously it is largely a symbolic gesture."