Mon, 12 Jul 1999 11:08:29 EDT
This is an interesting article that went out on the AP newswire at 2 AM this
attached mail follows:
.c The Associated Press
By MICHELLE LOCKE
HAT CREEK, Calif. (AP) - On a high desert plain, with silvery green sagebrush
roasting under a glowing ball of sun, astronomer Jack Welch looks at the sky
For years, he's studied the stars, uncovered the secrets of their distant
fire. Now, as the first professor to hold the new chair dedicated to the
Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence at the University of California at
Berkeley, Welch is embarking on a new venture - listening for the alien
civilizations that may lie beyond the stars.
The future is out there, he thinks. One day, he hopes to hear it.
``We're listening for technologies like our own,'' he says.
Welch, an expert in star formation, has been coming to the mountains of
Northern California for years, studying stellar chemistry at Berkeley's Hat
Creek Radio Observatory, some 230 miles northeast of the university.
Last fall, he was appointed to the Watson and Marilyn Alberts Chair for the
Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, a field of study commonly called
``The search for extraterrestrial intelligence is like taking a big leap and
saying, 'Well, look, if there's organic chemistry going on, why don't we just
- boom - listen?,''' he says, striking his hands together for emphasis. ``Why
don't we just go right to the top?''
Some think Welch and his colleagues are wasting their time.
``There are excellent reasons to expect that technological intelligence
occurs only very rarely in the universe,'' Ben Zuckerman, a professor of
astronomy at the University of California at Los Angeles, says in an e-mail
Zuckerman opposes public funding of SETI research but says he wishes the
researchers good luck provided they stick to private funds. He said the idea
that aliens are out there ``is supported only by Copernican argument and
By Copernican argument, Zuckerman refers to a world view - dating back to the
astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus' discovery that the Earth revolves around the
sun - that there's nothing particularly special about life on Earth and it
could therefore exist elsewhere.
Congress withdrew NASA funding for SETI in 1993 amid cutbacks and criticism.
The work continued after a number of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs stepped in
with private support.
On the other end of the spectrum are those who seem a little too willing to
believe: the UFO enthusiasts with their tales of bright lights on country
roads who make the SETI scientists groan.
Welch says no unexplained radio signal has been received in decades of
listening, let alone a visitation. ``My own feeling is they're less likely to
be flying around in a spaceship than to be parked on a planet somewhere
broadcasting,'' he says.
Having a chair at prestigious Berkeley - one endowed with $500,000 to boot -
is vindication for SETI researchers trying to demonstrate their work is
science, not fiction.
``It shows that SETI has been recognized as an important part of mainstream
science,'' says Frank Drake, president of the Mountain View-based SETI
Institute and a pioneer of the use of radio telescopes in the search for
Welch has strong ties to the SETI Institute. He's on the board of directors
and is married to Jill Tarter, project scientist for Project Phoenix, the
institute's search program. Tarter was the model for the astronomer played by
Jodie Foster in the 1997 movie ``Contact.''
Welch's job makes the couple a two-chair pair; Tarter holds the institute's
Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI.
A former director of UC Berkeley's Radio Astronomy Laboratory, Welch took a
roundabout route to SETI, spending most of his career in orthodox astronomy.
But with each major discovery, he became more convinced that the possibility
of life elsewhere existed.
``The numbers are sort of overwhelming,'' he says, reeling off the arguments
for life beyond Earth: billions of stars, millions of planets, the discovery
of water and other organic chemicals floating around in space. ``Put that all
together, it seems crazy to believe that there isn't life on some level.''
The next big step will be building an array of radiotelescopes, probably at
the Hat Creek observatory, over 2 1/2 acres, which is one hectare. Drake
dreamed up the so-called One Hectare Telescope, or 1hT - an array of 500 to
1,000 conventional backyard satellite dishes tied together with dedicated
The finished array - supporters are trying to raise $25 million to get it
built - would be much cheaper than building one large dish, could look at
many directions of the sky at the same time and could be used for regular
astronomy and SETI work simultaneously.
For now, the Hat Creek observatory is home to 10 six-meter radio dishes,
spread out on a stretch of land ringed by mountains. Modest ranch-style
accommodations dot the compound.
The Hat Creek antennas now in place are not being used for SETI research. But
in six years or so, Welch hopes to be able to look out over a forest of
satellite dishes, each with an ear on the heavens.
One day, someday, he thinks someone is going to hear something.
``Maybe it won't be me, but I think it will happen,'' he says.
Copyright 1999 The Associated Press. The information contained in the AP
news report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise
distributed without prior written authority of The Associated Press.
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