This Month in History (March 9, 1999)

Compiled by Lida Zakurdaew / Office Manager

Alien hunter drops by UAF for lecture

(Subheader: Subject of “Contact” listens for distant radio signals in space)

Mandy Strohl / Sun Star

UAF may not be likely to get a social call from Jodie Foster anytime in the foreseeable future, but we did even better than that.

Last Monday, the University was visited by Jill Cornell Tarter, upon whom Foster’s character in the movie “Contact” was loosely based.

Tarter is the director of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute’s Project Phoenix. Project Phoenix systematically searches outer space for radio signals generated by intelligent lifeforms.

Tarter received the Women in Aerospace Lifetime Achievement Award for her work in exobiology, or, as she puts it, “life as we don’t yet know it. You don’t want to exclude something new and novel.”

“Exobiology is often derisively referred to as the science without a subject,” Tarter said. Basically, she said, it’s trying to determine how life could be recognized from and astronomical distance.

Tarter began her scientific career with a bachelor’s degree in engineering physics from Cornell University. I realized I had really food problem solving skills, so I went looking for problems to solve,” she said.

She did her graduate and doctoral work at Berkeley, getting both degrees in astrophysics.

During the years she spent in grad school, Tarter was given one of the world’s first microcomputers, the PDP8/s to program. “It had 11 instructions and all the code was in octal – zeroes and ones,” she said. “I programmed it to run a spectrometer program on a telescope used for student training.”

Years later, she was contracted by Stu Bowyer, now a major player in the field of astrophysics with Berkeley, to help with programming the PDP8/s for broader observations. He was beginning what would become Project SERENDIP, the first large-scale program focused on extraterrestrial intelligence.

He got Tarter interested in the project by giving her a copy of the “Cyclops Report” by Barney Oliver, now research vice-president for Hewlett Packard. Cyclops examined the technology and science involved in any search for extraterrestrial life.

“We’re the first generation who can try to answer this question that’s been asked for millennia,” she said of the search for extraterrestrial life.

Begun in 1995, Project Phoenix uses radio-telescopes to examine nearby stars similar to the Sun.

“The first thing it was necessary to do was take a look at the natural sky,” Tarter said.

The researchers then started looking for naturally transmitted signals that were consistent. “The narrowest thing we could find oscillated at 3000 hertz.”

So they focused theirs search between 1000 and 3000 hertz. What they were looking for was a carrier signal, the signal that takes up and exact frequency, and not any informational transmission that may be attached.

“We built detectors that can find narrow bands of frequency,” Tarter said. “We found lots of those types of signals, but unfortunately they’re our own technology.”

To work around the problem of picking up earthly transmissions, Phoenix uses two telescopes thousands of miles apart. Currently, they are observing at the Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico – the world’s largest – and at the Jodrell Bank Telescope at England’s University of Manchester.

“We require both telescopes to hear [a signal],” Tarter said. “There should be a Doppler shift. We can predict the difference in frequency.”

After four years, Project Phoenix has not found any promising signals.

Phoenix targeted approximately 1,000 Sun-like stars within a 200 light year radius at its outset. Thus far, only roughly one-third have been scanned and researchers remain optimistic.

“I think the probability is greater than zero,” Tarter said. “Nobody would work on such a project if they didn’t think it would succeed. We are hopeful. We prepare for success.”

In the Milky Way alone, there are 100 billion stars similar to ours, she said. “There are as many galaxies in the universe as there are stars in the Milky Way.”

While she feels confident life does exist elsewhere, the big question is how developed that life is.

“We’re left wondering if intelligence is something so useful that it may have been invented… several times,” Tarter said. “Maybe intelligence is a very god thing and would have evolved independently.”

Later, she said that the only possibility of finding foreign lifeforms is to look. “If we don’t search, we don’t succeed,” she said.

Because Project Phoenix is funded entirely by private donations, the publicity raised by “Contact” has benefited the group greatly. The organization’s wen site, www.seti.org, currently receives around 50,000 hits a day, which Tarter estimates as five to six thousand people.

Using grants from the National Science Foundation, the SETI Institute is developing interdisciplinary educational programs. “The challenge we’re working on now is a year-long high school curriculum, ‘Voyages through time: The Evolution of Everything’,” Tarter said.

Because the CD-ROM-delivered text would deal with evolution, there have been protests from religious groups over the representation of human origins. Tarter hopes these difficulties can be overcome.

“It’s such a big story,” she said. “Students like it because they see themselves as part of a process.”

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