Searching for lives in other galaxies

May 21, 2008 7:36:52 PM PDT
For as long as people have contemplated their existence, they have looked at the stars and wondered: is there anyone else out there?

If so, are they trying to contact us?

For radio reception, it's perfect. It is a volcanic valley near the Lassen National Forest. It is a black hole that most signals cannot penetrate -- at least, not terrestrial ones.

"We humans are wired to be interested in other intelligent beings," said Seth Shostak, Ph.D. from the SETI Institute.

While a young student, at Cal Tech, Dr. Shostak used to wonder if man is alone in the universe.

Now as a senior astronomer with the SETI Institute, he has the tools to find out like 42 ultra-sensitive telescopes at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory.

"All the radio energy picked up by this array since we turned it on six months ago, it's a heck of a lot less energy than an ant lifting its leg," said Dr. Shostak.

SETI is an acronym that means the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Whatever excitement you anticipate about the discovery based on Hollywood, roll it back a bit.

Whoever finds E.T. won't be a crackpot, more like a Ph.D.

It will arrive as rows and rows of numbers, first interpreted by a guy like Dr. Rick. Forster, who runs the Hat Creek Observatory for UC Berkeley.

He shares telescope and computer time with the SETI Institute, which has spent millions for the dishes and this search.

"The sort of signal we expect to see is a very narrow band radio beacon," said Dr. Forster.

It would stand out as one line of order against a back-drop of chaos, one clear frequency among 56 million coming from one point in the sky.

Computers would already have filtered out false alarms from airplanes, satellites and the pulsar.

It would be the most philosophically significant scientific discovery in human history -- a long distance message that might also contain a quantum leap of information.

"If you wrote somebody once in a lifetime, somebody you don't know, you are not just going to say 'Hi'," Dr. Shostak.

An inadvertent signal from when humanity first went 'on line' is early television. Today, we might be more sophisticated.

"Personally, I would send the Google servers, I would send the Internet, just send the entire Internet," said Dr. Shostak.

The scale of radio astronomy is enormous. A broadcast is being sent to space. In five years it will reach the first star system, in 10 years, maybe one dozen, in 100 years, perhaps 1,000. The odds of contact increase with time.

"The meat is the fact that you learn we're not it. We're not the crown of creation," said Dr. Shostak.

"That would upset a lot of people," said ABC7's Wayne Freedman.

"Copernicus upset a lot of people, Darwin upset a lot of people. We go through these things periodically," said Dr. Shostak.

Astronomers say that there are more planets in the visible universe, than grains of sand on all of earth's beaches.

Given the laws of probability, one must ask could all the rest really, really be wasted space?

"No. Given enough time, I feel there is a technological civilization out there that is broadcasting their presence," said Dr. Forster.

It is just a matter of us finding them, or maybe the other way around. If not today, maybe it will happen tomorrow.

"That's okay. We only need to succeed once," said Dr. Shostak.


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