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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI)

Last month I enjoyed a visit to the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico (pictured). I found the view as astounding as I’d thought from seeing it featured in the movies GoldenEye (James Bond) and Contact. In this latter film Jodie Foster starred as a character that author Carl based on Jill Tartar. Tarter is director of the center for research at SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Mountain View. Evidently the future of SETI lies in arrays of telescopes, not a big dish like Arecibo, which will be closed down in few years according to their visitor center information.

After my visit to Arecibo I saw this CNN television feature on Tartar. She touted SETI’s new array of 350 steerable dish antennas built with the help of a $25 million endowment from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. See this fact sheet for details on progress so far and the goal for the Allen Telescope.

Do intelligent beings live outside our planetary system? Many people imagine so, for example in the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still that premiered this week (a remake of the 1950's classic). The brilliant physicist Enrico Fermi also felt sure ET must be out there, but if so, why hadn’t we seen them yet? This became know as the Fermi paradox. Later Frank Drake formulated an equation, which Sagan used for an optimistic view on the possibility of ETI. Author Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park, etc), recently departed, did not consider this calculation very scientific as noted in this blog by statistician William Briggs, which delves deeply into the whole controversy whether it's even worth speculating about extraterrestial intelligence.

I think it's not worth arguing about, but I am in favor of listening for signals, especially with the awesome ‘ears’ of Arecibo and the newer arrays such as the Very Large Array in New Mexico (where I am pictured from a visit in December, 2006).

“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
-- Carl Sagan


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