SCIENCE JOUNAL, February 13, 2009
Long Beach, Calif.
Radio astronomer Jill Tarter has her ear at the keyhole of the cosmos, listening for a signal from life beyond Earth. For decades, she and her colleagues have surveyed the sky in vain. The recent discovery of so many worlds around other suns, though, has renewed her resolve -- and so has the prospect of greater public support.
In a display of private sector science, her cause -- the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) -- has been embraced by a geek-chic collective of technocrats, info-moguls, activists and wishful thinkers, from Bill Gates to Cameron Diaz, who gathered in Long Beach, Calif., last week at the conclave of an influential enterprise called TED. The acronym stands for "Technology, Entertainment, Design."
Now in its 25th year, its invitation-only conference is the nexus of a global talk circuit whose video essays on science, culture, design and economics have been viewed via the web more than 100 million times and translated into 25 languages. It's grown adept at raising the venture capital of idealism.
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Newly found planets, such as Fomalhaut b seen here orbiting its parent star, have supplied new frontiers to search.
Dr. Tarter, who directs the search for extraterrestrial intelligence at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., received this year's TED Prize, which awards its winners "one wish to change the world." The $100,000 prize is accompanied by $1 million in support funding and, more importantly, the opportunity to marshal the technology, multimedia and fund-raising resources of the TED elite. Other recipients this year were deep-sea explorer Sylvia Earle and Venezuelan music maestro Jose Antonio Abreu, who teaches disadvantaged youth to play classical music.
"We said to them: You have our wish to change the world," said TED curator Chris Anderson. "Dream big."
Dr. Tarter's wish encompassed the known universe.
She asked for a way to "empower Earthlings everywhere to become active participants in the ultimate search for cosmic company." Her aspirations focus on the new Allen Telescope Array at the Hat Creek Observatory about 290 miles north of San Francisco -- the largest radio telescope devoted full-time to the search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen donated $29 million to design and build its initial array of 42 satellite dishes, which began observations in October 2007.
The Allen telescope searches the radio spectrum of single stars for transmissions from other civilizations while making wide-angle star maps at the same time. For the first time on a telescope of this scale, astronomers and SETI scientists can share a view of the cosmos, without getting in the way of each other's work. Until the advent of the Allen Telescope, SETI researchers operated on borrowed time.
"We have been using other people's telescopes for small amounts of time," Dr. Tarter says. "That's what the Allen Telescope is changing. We built this telescope in a way in which we can do traditional radio astronomy and SETI at the same time. This is the first telescope that has ever been built to do this."
Dr. Tarter and her colleagues are eager to expand that radio array to encompass 350 satellite dishes with enhanced signal detectors, at a final project cost of about $50 million. Today, the SETI scientists can scan only a few stars at a time across a fraction of the spectral bandwidth available for alien signals. "My goal for the next decade would be to search a million stars like the sun and for each one of them to scan about 10 billion frequency channels," she says.
Within minutes of announcing her TED wish, she started hearing offers of assistance.
An Australian electronics magnate volunteered his company's engineers to improve the telescope's signal processing capabilities. A computer scientist donated his patented search algorithms for better data analysis. Marketing experts offered to create Spanish-language Web sites to spread her message throughout Central and South America. A senior developer from Google Inc. volunteered to persuade his company to incorporate searchable star maps into Google Earth.
If past TED Prize projects are any guide, that may be just the beginning. When Harvard University biologist E.O. Wilson received the award in 2007, he wished for an online encyclopedia of biodiversity that would document our planet's 1.8 million species. Within a year, organizers had raised $22 million for the project. By last month, the resulting Encyclopedia of Life Web site had cataloged 80,000 species and created basic pages for a million more. So far, 34,000 people have volunteered to help.
By its nature, SETI is an act of shared imagination. Researchers can only guess at how or why a sentient life form on another world might try to signal others in the universe. Gulfs of time and space are so vast that such a species could easily be extinct by the time its signals reached Earth.
The modern search for extraterrestrial life has been under way for 50 years, operating at the fringe of scientific respectability -- an X-Files endeavor that, critics chortle, verges on pseudo-science. No federal money is spent directly on the search for intelligent life on other worlds.
Its outsider status is curious, because the search for tell-tale harbingers of extraterrestrial life, like water, has energized the unmanned exploration of Mars and the moons of the outer planets, such as Jupiter's Europa and Saturn's Titan.
Every new discovery of an alien exo-planet edges SETI more into the mainstream. As of this month, astronomers have discovered 340 planets around nearby stars, most of them gas giants like Jupiter, sharpening the question of whether some form of life developed beyond Earth. In November, the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope took the first visible light snapshot of a planet circling another star -- a giant orb three times the size of Jupiter circling the bright southern star Fomalhaut.
On March 5, NASA plans to launch its $437 million Kepler probe on a four-year mission to survey the Milky Way for earth-like habitable planets.
The search for extraterrestrial intelligence may be born of wishful thinking, but it has a practical side.
In 1999, for example, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, devised a scheme to analyze SETI signals by using idle personal computers around the world, through a free software program called SETI@home. It soon grew into the world's largest distributed computing effort, with five million computer users in 200 countries.
On some days, the volunteer SETI network is one of the five fastest supercomputers on Earth, just behind processors at NASA and at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
As a test bed for cooperative computing, moreover, it enabled a new wave of research relying on such virtual supercomputers. Projects include efforts to create a three-dimensional map of the Milky Way, to analyze the molecular shapes of proteins, to monitor earthquakes, and to test climate prediction models. All of them utilize unused processing time volunteered by thousands of home computer users.
The design of the Allen Telescope is no less innovative. SETI's most valuable contribution, though, is its spiritual dividend, Dr. Tarter says. The search centers us in a universe of hope by offering the possibility that we are not alone. At the least, an alien signal could be evidence that an advanced civilization like ours on another planet can in fact overcome its own technological and environmental stresses to survive for a long time. "It is a proof of existence, that it is possible to survive," she says.
Dr. Tarter is haunted by the possibility that she may have overlooked the alien signal she's been seeking for so long.
"We may have already seen it and thrown it out," Dr. Tarter says. "That's why we need to find new ways to analyze the data."