UK Team Plans ET Search

A group of British academic researchers has announced plans to band together in a search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Alan Penney, the coordinator of the newly-formed UK SETI Research Network, describes the group's strategy for looking for signals from the stars.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. SETI, you know, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, it's been going on for years, including the effort headed by the SETI Institute in the U.S. And now, the UK SETI research network will be adding its efforts to the hunt. Joining me now to talk about the group and its strategy is Alan Penny. He's coordinator of the newly formed UK SETI Research Network, professor in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of St. Andrews out there in Scotland. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

ALAN PENNY: Hi, there.

FLATOW: I wish I was playing golf out there with you today, but we're here on the radio.

(LAUGHTER)

PENNY: It's great. We get cheap rates on the old course.

FLATOW: We'll talk about it later. Let's talk about SETI. What was the motivation for this?

PENNY: Well, obviously, the search is incredibly exciting for myself, for everybody.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

PENNY: But I used to be an ordinary astronomer, but then I got into the search for planets around other stars, then into astrobiology, the search for life on them. And then it was a logical step to look for intelligent life.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And how many universities? How big, how widespread is this?

PENNY: Well, I mean, at the moment, we've only just started the network because, I mean, let's be frank - there's actually no SETI activity in the UK at the moment. But we've got something like 12, 13 people at 12 universities in the UK who do SETI on the side, as it were, and we've decided to get together and try and get funding to do proper searches.

The last time the UK was involved was in 2003, when Jodrell Bank Observatory worked with the SETI Institute on a search. But since then, the funding hasn't been there. So we're taking the first step in getting together to see if we can get the money.

FLATOW: Yeah. You know, in the U.S., the biggest SETI organization, they've been having their funding problems, too. So it's...

PENNY: Yeah. Yeah, indeed. I mean, the SETI Institute is privately funded. Of course, there's big SETI activity at the University of Berkeley and at Harvard University.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Now, you aren't all just saying suddenly, hey, we should look for these signals. It's - now you're going to be coordinating your efforts, correct?

PENNY: Yeah. That's right. We haven't really, in the UK, made a concerted search. So this is the first step to bring people who actually haven't met before working separately. And then we're going to have a workshop at Jodrell Bank next year to plan a proposal to our funding agencies - this would be public money - to start a search.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And so you mentioned the Jodrell Bank. Is that where most of the searching will take place?

PENNY: Well, that's our plan, as far as we can see it. As far as we can see at the moment, that's the most - the way that gives us the best chance. They've just commissioned a new radio telescope called e-MERLIN, which uses the big Jodrell Bank telescope, which everyone's seen pictures of, and another six telescopes scattered over England and joined together by fiber optics, which creates a much more powerful telescope.

And with this, we could do a SETI search, which would be more powerful in some respects than the ones done in America.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. There has been such an explosion of research lately into exoplanets. Has this altered your thinking about your searching at all?

PENNY: Well, yeah. I mean, it obviously to some extent makes it more plausible, and it also makes it more a spectacle. I mean, I first got into exoplanets in 1992, when there weren't any. And even then, exoplanets were thought to be a bit iffy. People didn't think you could possibly find them. Then you found them, and then there was the indications that there might have been life on Mars.

So you've got all these present NASA rovers wandering around Mars, looking for evidence that it was nice for life. You know, so there's planets, astrobiology, and it all makes SETI a bit more respectful, because it's the obvious next step, although intelligence is very different from life.

Hmm. And once again, I ask this question often, but people always ask it: How will you know a signal is coming from an intelligent source?

Well, in two ways. You look at the nature of the signal, and if they're radiating radio waves somewhat like in the way we do, it will be a very narrow frequency. I mean, when you tune the dial of your radio looking for a station, you'll get hiss, hiss, hiss, and then the station suddenly appears. Now, natural sources of radio waves like quasars and active galactic nuclei don't have this sharp frequency.

So if you see - if you point your telescope at a star and you see a sharp frequency, it can only come from an artificial source, another civilization. I mean there are many other ways to look for signs of intelligence. You can look for giant objects in space going in front of stars and you can look for light signals from them. There's various other ways, but the radio wave is quite cheap to do because you use existing telescopes and you can see the artificial signal straightaway if it's there.

FLATOW: So you're assuming they may be sending out sort of a radio beacon. We're here; find us.

PENNY: Well, we don't - I mean, they could be doing this.

FLATOW: Yeah.

PENNY: They could be beaming at us. Or they could be beaming at somebody way behind us and we merely eavesdrop on them, you know, somewhat like the NSA.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: I remember Carl Sagan used to talk about that chances are that if somebody were living on Alpha Centauri or something close by, they would be eavesdropping on our own just communications. I think he used to talk about the TV show "I Love Lucy" or something might be reaching a star about that point. Do you expect that they would be listening that way also?

PENNY: Yeah. I mean, if they're out there they're probably a billion years more advanced than us. I mean the galaxy has been going for 40,000 million years whereas our sun was only born 4,000 million years ago. So if the civilizations emerged before then and evolution came at the same rate, they're likely to be much more advanced than us.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

PENNY: So they'll certainly have giant telescopes and they will, in effect, know all about us.

FLATOW: Well, but if they're a billion years ahead of us, they could be using some sort of...

PENNY: Absolute...

FLATOW: ...that we have no idea what it is, it's so advanced. Right?

PENNY: Absolutely. And that's the answer to one of the big puzzles of SETI. It's called the Fermi Paradox, yeah. If they're so advanced why haven't they come here? And we don't see them in the solar system. So they're either not out there or for some reason they haven't come here or for some reason they're hiding. Or, you know, or perhaps, as you say, they've changed and they've now retreated into gazing at their navels in hyperspace and we're doing entirely the wrong sort of search.

That's one of the big drawbacks of SETI. You don't know what they're like so you don't know if your search is a good search. All you can do is look for things which you can see are artificial. So if they're there, if they're like that, we'll be able to find them. If they're not like that, then we'll have to try again with them with a more cunning message.

FLATOW: Did you say that you have ruled out the possibility that they have come here?

PENNY: Well, I mean, there's no evidence. There's no evidence of flying saucers - no reliable evidence - on flying saucers in the earth, you know, in the atmosphere.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

PENNY: I mean, everybody - you see dots of light in the sky but you can't go back and see them. What you'd really like is a flying saucer to land and the guy say we'll be back next Tuesday, bring your friends.

(LAUGHTER)

PENNY: And then we could say, yeah, they've come.

FLATOW: Well, but of course if they're a billion years ahead of us, they could've come a billion years ago, right? And said, OK...

PENNY: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...we check you off the list now. Yeah.

PENNY: Yeah, but, yeah, that's sort of - they know all about us, quite frankly.

FLATOW: Yeah.

PENNY: Because they've got big telescopes and they can monitor us from afar. Or they can put a probe in the asteroid belt and tell it, you know, if these guys ever do anything interesting, radio back to us and we'll come and have a look.

FLATOW: Is there any way to detect - and this is slightly outside of your field because you're looking for intelligent life, but is there any way to detect just life in general that might not be sending signals?

PENNY: Yeah, indeed. One of the things on exoplanets is we're starting to be able to detect their atmospheres. We've done it on several extreme cases. There was something in the news just yesterday about a planet which had a blue atmosphere. Now, if you can get a planet like the Earth and if there's life on it, you'll get oxygen in the atmosphere. All the oxygen in our atmosphere comes from bacteria and grass and if you don't have life, all the oxygen disappears in a million years.

So if we can - the next stage of telescopes, there's a big telescope in space which could look for the atmospheres of these small Earth-like planets around nearby stars.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

PENNY: And if we saw oxygen in them and various other things, we would say, ah, there's biological activity there.

FLATOW: Have you met Jill Tarter?

PENNY: Yes, indeed. She's obviously the leading SETI person, I suppose.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Well, what do you think of her?

PENNY: I think she's done an amazing job. I mean, she's carried SETI through from the 1970s and she's still working hard. And, you know, the SETI Institute getting private funding, I mean, it just got $3.5 million earlier this year to upgrade their telescope. And she's inspirational.

FLATOW: Well, she's our next - she's up next on the radio program. So I want to thank...

PENNY: Ah.

FLATOW: Thank you for taking time to be with us today and I wish you great luck, Alan.

PENNY: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: Alan Penny is the coordinator of the newly formed U.K. SETI research network and professor in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of St. Andrews, somewhere I hope to put down my three wood someday. Thanks again for joining us today.

PENNY: OK.

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