Local scientist Frank Drake helps answer extraterrestrial quandaries at first annual SETICon
Are we alone in the universe?
That question, which has long stirred the passions and interests of people around the world, will be the topic of discussion, debate and celebration at a three-day-long event taking place this weekend in Santa Clara. The first ever “SETICon” will bring together scientists, writers, artists, actors, and members of the public to explore the possibility that that there is life beyond what we know to exist on Earth.
The SETI Institute (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is an independent nonprofit organization founded to conduct scientific research and further education regarding the quest to find out whether there is intelligent life out in the cosmos.
Aptos resident and current professor emeritus at UC Santa Cruz Frank Drake helped form the basis for what would become SETI back in 1960 when he conducted the first modern experiment that used a radio telescope to listen for signals coming from other worlds. He also created what is now known as “The Drake Equation,” which mathematically describes the evolution of the Earth and life on Earth in such a way that we can predict how many other civilizations in space there are to detect at the present time.
Drake, who has had an incredible career in the fields of astronomy and astrophysics, will be honored at a gala banquet on Friday, Aug. 13, kicking off the SETICon festivities and celebrating the 50th anniversary of his first SETI-related experiment. The former Dean of Natural Sciences at UCSC will also be taking part in several panel discussions and talks over the course of the weekend.
“It’s the first event of this kind ever in the world, and it’s aimed at both scientists and the general public,” says Drake. “It’s focused on detecting life elsewhere in the universe through serious scientific methods—there’s not going to be any UFOs or that kind of stuff discussed.”
Among the topics Drake will discuss at the conference are ideas for new ways of searching for extraterrestrial life, updates on new discoveries, and taking on critics of SETI, who question why the group hasn’t been successful in their quest for contact. “We should not be discouraged that we’ve not succeeded yet because we’ve not looked at enough stars and radio channels to have had a good chance to succeed,” he says. “We’ve hardly touched the great cosmic haystack, as we call it sometimes.”
With a laugh, he adds, “It may take a hundred years—but we have to start sometime.”
As a longtime professor—he taught classes at UCSC from 1984 until 1996—and someone who is still heavily involved with education and the search for knowledge, Drake is looking forward to again meeting with members of the public, particularly children. “A lot of kids, even quite young, are very interested in outer space, and this is a really good hook to get kids interested in science who might not otherwise be,” Drake says.
Drake himself first became interested in the possibility of other life in the universe as a young boy, and he is still highly enthusiastic about making first contact—something that he has no doubt will eventually happen. Someday. “I think what’s most exciting is that many [extraterrestrials] we will detect will have been around a lot longer, they will have evolved farther, have much better technology than we do, and we can learn a lot—which will make life better here,” he says.
There are those, however, who don’t share Drake’s optimism about what kind of a relationship humans might develop with an alien species. Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, for example, recently spoke out on the subject, suggesting that an advanced civilization could be a threat to our planet, and discouraging all attempts at making contact with them. Drake isn’t worried about that possibility.
“It’s too late, we’ve made our presence known—anybody that really wanted to find us could have found us for more than a hundred years now, easily,” he says. “There’s a shell around us of almost a hundred light years in diameter full of our signals—and they haven’t attacked us yet if you hadn’t noticed.”
When the scientists at SETI do feel that they’ve discovered a signal coming from an extraterrestrial, intelligent civilization, a series of protocols have been put in place regarding how to deal with the find. First, Drake explains, a separate observatory and team must also confirm the existence of the signal, and double check that it’s not coming from Earth. Then, once everybody involved is certain that the signal is indeed extraterrestrial, they will go to the public with information immediately, bypassing any government interference or censorship.
Once that history-making announcement is made, Drake thinks that most of the population will be overjoyed at the prospect of making contact with an alien form of life.
Drake himself has experienced that initial overpowering sense of wonder and excitement a couple of times over the years when he thought he had discovered an alien signal; however, upon double checking, they were determined to come from a human source.
“When you think you’ve detected something, you feel a very special emotion—that the whole world is going to change because of what I’m looking at,” says Drake.
The fact that there is so much interference from radio signals emanating from our own overwhelming amount of broadcasts is something that continues to plague the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and one of the many topics that will be discussed at SETICon. Drake will be offering some ideas of his own, including methods that might be just beyond our current capabilities, but that may be plausible in the future.
“In the long run there are far more powerful means to search that are just beyond our grasp; the main one I’m interested in is the use of the sun as a lens, utilizing gravity to focus light to make images—it should create a telescope far superior than any one we could build using glass and steel,” he says. In the meantime, Drake and his colleagues are hoping to build a new SETI facility much closer to home, at the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton Road in San Jose, when proper funding is secured. The Allen Telescope Array, an observing installation 290 miles north of San Francisco, has come online in recent years, adding to the search capabilities.
People from all walks of life can help with the cause as well with the “SETI At Home” project, which they can download on their home computer, and offer up computing power to help analyze all of the signals that are being scanned every day.
“This [conference] is very special,” says Drake. “We have many eminent people who are coming to speak, more than I’ve ever seen at any other meeting. Things like this are always very exciting events, and of course for me personally it’s very nice because I started the whole subject in 1960—and this is the 50th anniversary of what was the first modern search for extra terrestrial intelligent life.”
SETICon will be held Aug. 13-15 at the Hyatt Regency, 5101 Great America Parkway, Santa Clara. Visit seticon.com for more information.