Looking for Life in the Cosmos
by D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs
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.
Its obvious were 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 Berkeleys SERENDIP IV, the worlds 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 Institutes 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 Drakes 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.
[ Back to top ]
Copyright 1998, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
Comments? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.