Finding Support in the Search for E.T.

With Stronger Telescope and Renewed Vigor, Scientists Scan the Sky

May 30, 2005
By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Staff Writer

Photo: An artist's rendering of the Allen Telescope Array of more than 350 silver aluminum dishes spread over 90 acres in a randomized pattern. Scientists hope to study more than 1 million stars with the array over the next two decades. (By Isaac Gary/ata Project)

HAT CREEK, Calif. -- Astronomer Michael M. Davis checked his computer. One of the antennas on the state-of-the-art radio telescope being built in the valley outside his office was picking up an unusual pulse from beyond the Earth. A signal from another intelligent civilization? Not today. It was the Rosetta Satellite, en route to study a comet.

Hopeful moments followed by disappointments like this are par for the course for researchers at the SETI Institute, the privately funded successor to the now defunct government project dedicated to searching for alien life. They have been searching the heavens for decades, but they have not been able to gather enough data to conclude, or even guess, whether we are alone in the universe.

This time, however, the scientists hope things might be different. This month, the first telescope designed specifically for such a search began scanning the skies. It is still in its early stage of development, but when it is completed the telescope will be so powerful that it will be able to look at more stars in a year or two than we have in the past 45 years.

"The absence of a signal so far is not particularly compelling," said Davis, an adjunct professor emeritus at Cornell University who recently joined SETI to oversee the telescope project. "We could have a billion intelligent cultures with radio waves buzzing around them . . ., but we haven't had the capability to detect them."

Denounced a decade ago as a misguided effort to find "little green men" and cut off from government funding, SETI, which stands for search for extraterrestrial intelligence, has found a new following among Silicon Valley titans and techies elsewhere who are interested in space. They have infused the institute with money and unconventional technical ideas, bringing a new respect and energy to the organization. Some argue that being cast away by the federal government was the best thing that could have happened to SETI, that it has become stronger and more innovative in the private sector than it ever could have as part of a public bureaucracy.

Its scientists now regularly publish in some of astronomy's most prestigious journals and the National Science Foundation recently announced it would be eligible for grants once again. Its financiers represent the founders of some of the world's top technology companies: Microsoft Corp.'s Paul Allen, Intel Corp.'s Gordon Moore and Cisco Systems Inc.'s Sandy Lerner. Sun Microsystems Inc. has donated top-of-the-line computer servers and other equipment to SETI projects, and current and former executives of Hewlett-Packard Co. have provided their expertise.

The high-tech industry has always been a place for dreamers, people who believe in the power of science to solve any problem. Building the ultimate alien-search machine is the challenge of a lifetime for many techies, most of whom spent their childhoods immersed in "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" and reading comic books about extraterrestrial superheroes.

"To use hardware and software to find the meaning of life, it's interesting to them philosophically and technically," said Seth Shostak, a California Institute of Technology-trained senior astronomer at SETI, which is based in Mountain View, Calif., in the heart of Silicon Valley.

Allen said in an interview that when he was young he would go every week to the library with his mother and pick up a stack of science fiction books that would make him dream of "crazy ideas." Allen, who has helped fund the Experience Science Fiction Museum in Seattle and SpaceShipOne, the first privately financed manned spacecraft, said it was man's first walk on the moon in 1969 that made him believe that technology could turn his ideas into reality.

"The sheer knowledge that another civilization exists -- that would be an amazing thing," Allen said.

Backers hardly regard their project as some frivolous exercise. Alan Bagley, who spent nearly 40 years as an engineer at Hewlett-Packard and was most recently the head of the company's frequency and time division, said he joined SETI's board because "the real long shot is that there's no one else out there." Mathematician Linda Bernardi, chief executive and president of ConnecTerra Inc. got involved because SETI is about "what is possible."

"The odds that we are the only life in existence seems very unreal," she said.

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