UC Berkeley establishes SETI chair - the first ever academic position devoted to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

By Robert Sanders, Public Affairs

BERKELEY-- A new academic chair at the University of California, Berkeley, may well be the first ever reserved for an astronomer involved in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, called SETI.

The Watson and Marilyn Alberts Chair in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, established in the Department of Astronomy at UC Berkeley, was created last year thanks to a generous gift by the two alumni who have had a long-standing interest in the field.

"It's a real honor," said the first holder of the chair, William "Jack" Welch, former director of UC Berkeley's Radio Astronomy Laboratory and current vice president of the Mountain View-based SETI Institute. "The search for extraterrestrial intelligence embraces many fields of science - physics, astronomy, computer engineering - and this position supports them all. I'm very proud to be the first appointee."

The chair will provide support in perpetuity for SETI research at UC Berkeley and "will serve to enhance its status as an area of serious scientific inquiry," according to the proposal approved by the UC Regents in June of last year. Welch was appointed in September.

Welch is set to embark on one of the most ambitious SETI projects to date - construction of an array of 500-1,000 radio telescopes dedicated in part to searching for intelligent signals from space.

The telescope array, dubbed the One Hectare Telescope, or 1hT, will cost approximately $25 million and comprise a total collecting area of 10,000 square meters, or one hectare (2.47 acres). For comparison, the world's largest radio dish, at Arecibo, Puerto Rico, is 1,000 feet in diameter and 18 acres in area.

"The idea is to try to build a big telescope and do it inexpensively," Welch said. "By using a large number of satellite TV antennas and inexpensive receivers we will build ourselves, we can get a very sensitive antenna that is much cheaper than the cost of building one big reflecting dish and one large receiver."

Once completed, the 1hT will be the world's largest observing facility devoted substantially to SETI. The most likely site is UC Berkeley's Hat Creek Observatory near Mt. Lassen in northern California. Hat Creek has housed UC Berkeley radio telescopes since its founding in 1960 and currently is the site of a ten-telescope array - called BIMA (Berkeley-Illinois-Maryland Array) - operated by the campus's Radio Astronomy Laboratory .

Welch emphasizes that the novel array will be spectacular for radio astronomy too.

"Because of its unique construction, the telescope can be used simultaneously for SETI and other radio astronomy," Welch said. "We plan to have multiple beams on the sky, and, because of the wide field of view of the small antennas, we can look at more than one object at a time."

"Searching for other civilizations is very important, and the discovery of an intelligent signal from space would have all sorts of repercussions," said Watson Alberts, a physiologist and now retired science administrator from the National Institutes of Health. "But that discovery may be a long time from now. A chair at Cal is a way to guarantee that research in this area will continue."

"Our interest in SETI has been steady over the years," added his wife, Marilyn Alberts, a former high school English teacher. "Only after retiring to California did we start to get involved."

Watson has volunteered with UC Berkeley's long-running SETI project called SERENDIP, which analyzes radio signals picked up from the Arecibo radio telescope. The Alberts also have contributed to the financial support of the project.

The new endowed chair will provide support for a chair holder in the astronomy department to conduct his or her research. Should intelligent life be discovered in the universe, the chair could be opened up to researchers in other departments, such as linguistics, who are "conducting relevant research to further the study of extraterrestrial intelligence."

Welch is a well-known radio astronomer who earned his PhD in electrical engineering from UC Berkeley in 1960. He led the Radio Astronomy Laboratory as director from 1971 to 1996, and was the main force behind the BIMA array operated jointly by UC Berkeley and the universities of Illinois and Maryland. Completed in 1996, it consists of 10 six-meter radio dishes tuned to millimeter wavelengths suitable for studying cool matter in the universe.

Welch stepped down in 1996 to pursue his own research full time. His specialty areas include millimeter-wave interferometry, molecular-line radio astronomy, star formation and instrumentation for radio astronomy. He currently has a joint appointment at UC Berkeley in the astronomy and electrical engineering departments.

He is no stranger to SETI - his wife is Jill Tarter, science team leader for the SETI Institute and holder of the institute's Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI. Welch currently is vice president of the institute. He has chaired the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee for the Sub-Millimeter Array of the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and served as a member of the Millimeter Development Consortium for the NRAO (National Radio Astronomy Observatory) Millimeter Array.

Marilyn Alberts graduated from UC Berkeley in 1955 with a BA in English, while Watson Alberts graduated in 1951 with a BA in physics and in 1956 with a PhD in biophysics.

He went on to work in the field of human neurophysiology, specifically Parkinson's Disease, at Mt. Zion Hospital in San Francisco, in the laboratory of Senator Dianne Feinstein's late husband, Bert Feinstein. From 1972 until 1994 he worked at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, primarily as deputy director of its fundamental neuroscience program. Marilyn taught English at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Maryland.

Upon their retirement in 1994, the couple moved back to California and settled in El Cerrito. They have two children, a daughter Allison Alberts Worley, who graduated from UC Berkeley in 1982, and a son, Allan. Both live in San Diego.

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