THE CUTTING EDGE: COMPUTING / TECHNOLOGY / INNOVATION : Searching for Intelligent Life in the Cosmos

Jill Tarter tries to follow one basic rule whenever she boards a commercial airliner. She never tells the person in the next seat what she does for a living.

Tarter is project scientist for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), an enterprise that has risen from its own ashes so many times that it is now known as Project Phoenix. It seems that everybody has an opinion about whether other intelligent beings live on other planets orbiting other stars, and if her seatmates knew of her peculiar calling she would be a captive audience for endless tales of little green men and alien abductions.

So mum's the word when she travels, but that doesn't mean she has lost any enthusiasm for her calling.

"Nope, I'm not discouraged," she said recently, despite the fact that she found no sign of life during a major study of 200 stars visible only from the Southern Hemisphere. It was the most exhaustive search carried out to date, and after months of monitoring billions of radio frequencies for some signal that could only be produced by another intelligent species, Tarter returned from Australia without a shred of evidence that anyone else is out there.

For most people, that would not only be discouraging; it would be adequate reason to look for another profession. But not Tarter, who has spent most of her professional life looking for some sign of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

"I went into this with my eyes wide open and a fair appreciation of how vast the search parameter really is," she said. "We've just begun to scratch the surface in a way that has a chance of working. I've got champagne on ice, but I'm willing to admit that it may be my granddaughter who opens it."

The project has come full circle. Initially, it was carried out by a handful of scientists who scrounged up funds for radio receivers and computer gear from wherever they could get it. Then a few years ago, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration got interested and invested several million dollars in sophisticated equipment that could be mounted on any radio telescope and monitor 28 million different frequencies simultaneously.

For the first time, the search was to have a comprehensive base that greatly increased the odds of finding other creatures, if indeed there are any. The search is based on the premise that other creatures, like us, would use microwave transmissions, and we might be able to hear them. But just as the NASA program was beginning, Congress killed the funding.

"NASA had done less than one thousandth of the observations they had planned when Congress pulled the plug," says Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. The search has always been plagued by what Tarter calls the "snicker factor," and when Congress began searching for ways to reduce the federal budget, SETI stood out like a beacon from space.

"This is an easy target," Shostak says. There is no widespread economic or political support. Killing SETI doesn't eliminate a lot of jobs in some powerful politician's home district. It was just a bunch of curious scientists looking for what could be the most important discovery of all time.

For awhile it looked like SETI would die, but one of the project's most eloquent spokesmen, Barney Oliver, wasn't about to let that happen. Oliver had encouraged early searchers to concentrate on the radio frequencies absorbed by hydrogen and oxygen. Civilizations had always met at the "watering hole," Oliver reasoned, and so it might make sense for other creatures to broadcast their presence at that frequency.

Good poetry, but not necessarily good science. No one really knows what frequency other cultures might prefer, and the NASA program was designed to get around that problem by searching all frequencies. But just as work was completed on the equipment to do that, NASA was forced by Congress to abandon the effort.

That could have spelled the end to the search, but Oliver went to his old bosses at Hewlett-Packard, where he had served as vice president for research and development. David Packard and William Hewlett pulled out their personal checkbooks. Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, and Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, joined in, and the four agreed to provide nearly all of the $3 million to $4 million needed each year to keep the project alive.

And NASA, now legally barred from the search, turned over its equipment to the nonprofit SETI Institute.

So the search goes on. At least 800 stars similar to our sun will be examined in the Northern Hemisphere during the coming months, looking for some sign that we are not alone.

There are so many millions of candidate-stars that the search could, quite literally, take centuries. It would have moved along much more quickly had NASA been allowed to continue, making its vast resources and tracking stations available. All of which brings me to this:

Why is there such a reluctance to fund a project that was expected to cost one-thousandth of NASA's budget and yet holds such profound implications for our species? The discovery of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe would dramatically change our perception of our role in the cosmos. Perhaps, as astronomer Carl Sagan has mused, there is a galactic encyclopedia available somewhere that would tell us of cures for cancer, and how to live at peace with one another.

The search will go on, but at a greatly reduced pace from what it might have been. For the cost of one flight of the space shuttle, it could have been fully funded for at least 50 years.

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Lee Dye can be reached via e-mail at 72040.3515@compuserve.com.

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