UC Berkeley scientists seek signs of extraterrestrial intelligence

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Nikki Dance/Senior Staff

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In a cozy, simply decorated room in the basement floor of Evans Hall, UC Berkeley professor Geoffrey Marcy operates the Keck telescope, which is located more than 2,000 miles away.

One night, Marcy, a renowned “planet hunter” credited with finding the first system of planets around another star, was searching not only for Earth-sized planets that might be orbiting nearby stars but also for something else he has yet to find: concentrated laser light in the universe transmitted by technological civilizations that might be living on distant planets or in a spacecraft nearby.

In other words, Marcy was searching for aliens.

“Think about humanity 300 hundred years from now,” he said. “Suppose we set up a colony on another planet … the most likely way we will communicate with (humans on those planets) is with radio signals or light beams.” Marcy believes that there may be other civilizations in the universe that are years ahead of human society and might currently be communicating with radio signals in a network he calls a “galactic Internet.”

Marcy uses advanced telescopes to detect concentrated signals in space. He believes these signals may indicate the existence of another advanced civilization, because nothing in the universe is known to emit such signals. The Templeton Foundation recently granted him $200,000 for his proposal.

Marcy leads a team that specializes in searching for laser light for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, program at UC Berkeley, a program that uses advanced telescopes to detect strong signals in an attempt to find technological civilizations in the universe.

His work is only a section of the collective effort of the organization. UC Berkeley has established a reputation as the world’s largest organization — since NASA’s 1993 SETI program — for exploring advanced life in the universe.

As more and more Earthlike planets are being discovered, some scientists feel that there is no longer anything “particularly special about Earth” that makes it uniquely conducive to life, according to Andrew Siemion, a project scientist in the UC Berkeley SETI group.

Every year, the program gathers approximately $1 million in funding, which is spread over 10 unique projects, according to Dan Werthimer, director of the UC Berkeley group. Distinct categories each concern a certain range of the electromagnetic wave spectrum, because the researchers cannot be sure at which wavelength other civilizations may be emitting their signals.

Werthimer says that the research is significant whether or not signs of extraterrestrial life are found.

“If we do not find life elsewhere in the universe, then that means we are one in trillions and should take incredibly good care of life on this planet,” Werthimer said.

Like Marcy, all of the researchers involved are respected scientists in their field who work simultaneously on other research projects in campus departments such as astronomy and electrical engineering. Werthimer and his colleagues, for example, made the first images of the black hole at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy.

“You have to know we are not searching for crop circles or flying saucers,” Marcy said with a smile.

So far, the only achievements of SETI at Berkeley are advancements in technology, as researchers have yet to find direct clues of other advanced civilizations. Nevertheless, Marcy says that these advancements are benefiting astronomy and science in general.

“I am not an optimist,” Marcy said, describing the likelihood of finding intelligent extraterrestrial life.  “I would bet on my house that we would fail … But this is such an important question, the question of ‘Are we alone?’, and the only way to find out is to risk it.”

Contact Mark Tan at [email protected]

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