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 Stories for April 22, 1998

Looking for Life in the Cosmos
Astronomers Detail Their Searches for Lawrence Hall Audience

by D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs
posted Apr. 22, 1998

In the not-so-distant past, people who claimed life existed on other planets were burned at the stake. Conditions have improved considerably for modern scientists, many of whom believe that extra-terrestrials not only exist but may be sending us signals at this very moment.

Because new planets are being created and discovered all the time, Seth Shostak of SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) Institute believes there may be as many as 10 billion earth-like planets in the universe. Thus the odds of intelligent life existing elsewhere in the cosmos are high, he feels.

“It’s obvious we’re not the only game in town,” said Shostak.

Shostak and other prominent researchers presented the latest on efforts to find extra-terrestrial life during a day-long conference April 11 at the Lawrence Hall of Science. Knowing other extra-terrestrial civilizations exist is one thing; finding them is quite another. So scientists are creating increasingly larger radio telescopes to listen for transmissions from inhabited, orbiting planets.

One such instrument is Berkeley’s SERENDIP IV, the world’s largest radio telescope, installed last year at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

With a dish measuring 1,000 feet in diameter, SERENDIP IV is like a giant ear using more than 167 million channels to hear faint extra-terrestrial signals.

Even with this powerful instrument, Dan Werthimer, co-director and principal designer of SERENDIP IV, compared the search for signals to looking for a needle in a cosmic haystack.

“So far, less than 1 percent of the sky has been surveyed. We need more computer power and bigger telescopes that are sensitive enough to pick up signals from alien civilizations,” said Werthimer.

Because monitoring signals from throughout the universe is such a big job, Werthimer and other scientists at the conference encouraged average citizens to get involved in the search.

The Seti@Home program allows volunteers to help analyze SERENDIP IV data using their home computers. So far, 190,000 people world-wide have watched and listened as SERENDIP IV scans the sky.

Jill Tarter, director of the SETI Institute’s Project Phoenix, encouraged participation in Argus, a program that helps amateur astronomers build make-shift radio telescopes using their backyard satellite dishes and home computers.

“With 5,000 people involved, we could look at the entire sky 24 hours a day, greatly increasing the chances of discovering an extra-terrestrial signal,” said Tarter.

Between lectures, the Comet Players entertained the conference audience of more than 150 with their talk-show parody “Scientifically Incorrect.”

After showing clips from old “Star Trek” episodes, a panel of experts voted on the likelihood that the various aliens in the show – such as furry, palm-sized tribbles or glowing, pulsing brains on podiums that imprison the Enterprise crew – could actually exist. The group also used audience volunteers to conduct a live demonstration of Drake’s Equation, which calculates the number of civilizations in our galaxy currently able to communicate with earth.

Using the formula, the participants estimated four million inter-galactic civilizations have the ability to talk to us.

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