Wilson da Silva

Science journalist, feature writer and editor.

Jul. 16, 1995
Published on: Sunday Age
14 min read
FEATURE | Stars in their eyes
The Parkes Observatory

By Wilson da Silva 

BOBBIE Vaile is a talented young astrophysicist at the University of Western Sydney. She also has a brain tumor.

Doctors have twice given her terminal deadlines, and twice she has beaten them, the latter in March this year. The irony of searching for life off the Earth while facing her own mortality is not lost on her.

Vaile is one of the participating Australian scientists in Project Phoenix the most detailed search yet for life beyond Earth, and the first leg of a planned 10-year program to search the cosmic haystack of the universe for that one, tiny needle of a radio signal. 

Vaile is one of the believers in the value of Phoenix. Her hazel eyes are full of an enthusiasm that is infectious, and her voice is soft and pensive. There is an underlying optimism in the way she talks about her work, what it means for her personally, the technical difficulties, and even the barbed criticism from colleagues who consider the search a sad waste of time and resources.

Her stoic determination to live has served her well in a project like Phoenix. Vaile is searching for signals she’s not sure are there.

But if they are, she doesn’t know the frequency they will be on, or when they’ll be transmitted, or even what direction they’ll be coming from.

It takes a dogged determination to face these odds, to ignore the critics and get on with the job, day in and day out. One of the things that drives her is the potential force for good that an eventual discovery might become. “It won’t matter what gender, color or race you are, or what sport you play. None of that will rate. It would be the single thing that would be most unifying for the human race. And the change in perspective will be irrevocable,” she says.

And even if nothing is found after a decade-long search? For some, just being part of the search is reward enough. Dr Jill Tarter, the chief scientist in charge of Phoenix’s Australian leg, considers the undertaking as the end of a journey that began on the sands of the Florida Keys.

She and her father, an amateur astronomer, would walk the sands at night, and he would point out the constellations. “Even at that early age, it seemed to me inconceivable there weren’t other children on other worlds looking up at their night skies and thinking the same thoughts,” she says.

IN A small restaurant in rural Parkes a few weeks ago, a happy crowd of Australians and Americans ate, drank and danced into the night.

They were astrophysicists, engineers and technicians out for a good time; not dissimilar to other patrons that have visited the Gracelands restaurant, its walls lined with pictures of Elvis Presley. But what they were celebrating was a little unusual six months of searching for aliens in outer space.

“They had us doing the limbo at one stage,” says Vaile. “Not the sort of thing one usually does.” It had been five months since the scientists of Project Phoenix began scanning the stars above the dusty sheep country of central western New South Wales for radio signals from beyond Earth.

The scientists did not expect to find anything so early into the decade-long program. After all, in the five months they covered the merest fraction of their planned search area. But they did come across a number of interesting and unusual signals.

None was clear enough to qualify to their rigorous standards for the definitive alien signal. None withstood the hard-nosed scrutiny of the team, which in the end must explain them to the rest of the world and withstand intense quizzing by the scientific community.

But the scientists are not fazed. “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” says associate professor David Blair of the University of Western Australia, one of the participants. “It’s way too early to be saying there’s nothing out there. There a whole lot more searching to do; there’s really 10 years’ worth of work there before you can start questioning if we really are alone.”

SETI Institute's Dr Jill Tarter

The researchers know that in a universe so big and with so many possible frequencies to search, the odds were against them from the start. Even if there are a dozen alien civilisations out there broadcasting TV and radio signals into space, it could take scientists nearly 1000 years listening to every likely frequency before they found even the first of them. These are long odds.

Faced with such a gargantuan search, they employed some very smart technology. First, they built the world’s fastest information processor to run an automated search. Coupled to the 64-metre dish of the Parkes radiotelescope, it began panning the sky in February.

Day and night, the computer picked through 28 million channels, processing 75 billion floating point operations (or calculations) a second almost four times faster than existing supercomputers. For months at a time, the computer combed the airwaves, spending an average of five minutes on each frequency before moving on, searching, relentlessly searching.

Originally, it was to be part of a $US100million search for extra- terrestrial intelligence program to be run by the American space agency Nasa.

Under development since 1972, the hi-tech instrumentation began a 200-hour test run in 1992, on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas. The following year, funding was cut by the US Congress not even the support of US Vice President Al Gore, five Nobel laureates and the US Academy of Sciences could save it.

In its place, supporters of the concept, backed by wealthy computer entrepreneurs such as David Packard of Hewlett-Packard, and Gordon Moore of microchip-maker Intel, pitched in to establish the private Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute. With a $7.1 million budget, it opened its offices in July last year, installing $2.1 million worth of equipment at Parkes in preparation for the search.

“We have a number of problems on this planet right now: people are starving, there’s war; are we going to wipe ourselves out with pollution or destroying the ozone layer?” asks Dr Ray Norris, one of the astrophysicists on the project.

Dr Ray Norris

“The chances are that another civilisation, while it might not have exactly the same problems, will probably have confronted similar problems. The interesting thing is, if this civilisation is more advanced than us, then we know it’s been through all this and hasn’t wiped itself out, it’s made it through. And that gives us a ray of hope yes, mankind can survive.”

Norris is a thirtysomething hot shot in radiophysics. He studies you with intense eyes and an occasional flick of the brown fringe of hair from his face. A British-born, Cambridge-educated astrophysicist respected in his field, he is also a believer in the search, in a scientific community divided by the subject.

LOOK at it his way when you consider that Earth is one planet out of nine orbiting around a rather average sun, which itself orbits a rather ordinary galaxy of a hundred billion suns, and that there are millions upon millions of other galaxies in the universe . . . well, you’d have to be a bit obtuse to say with certainty there’s nothing out there. Or so he argues.

The concept is fine in principle. But reality is a lot more complex.

Some biologists say life on Earth has arisen through such a quixotic mix of chance and chaos that it is unlikely to be mirrored anywhere else in the universe.

As for intelligent life, well, you can just forget it, they say.

Some cognitive scientists, who specialise in thinking processes, say that human brains are such bizarre and quirky instruments, such a mish-mash of our evolutionary past, that we can never hope to understand alien signals even if we do detect them.

Even if there are aliens out there, we may never meet them the distances between the stars are simply too massive. Even travelling at the speed of light, the nearest star to our sun, Alpha Centauri is more than four years away. And no one has yet figured how to travel anywhere near that speed.

A needle in a cosmic haystack: even the closest stars to us are incredibly distant

To make their task more manageable, Project Phoenix researchers have targeted their search area: over the 10 years of the program, they plan to listen to the nearest 1000 stars that might harbor suitable life-bearing planets. The researchers will spend three-quarters of every observation day listening to each target star, scanning 28 million channels simultaneously before moving on.

There have been more than a few false alarms during the Australian stint. Every now and then, the high-powered computer would lock on to something so strange that it stood out from the background. The scientists then conduct a number of standard checks to weed out local interference, like car phones or microwave ovens.

If the signal persists, they activate the second dish, Mopra, a remotely operated radiotelescope 200 kilometres away. If Mopra hears exactly the same thing, the scientists know the signal isn’t local.

Then they check for satellites making a pass overhead, or other such possibilities. If the signal remains interesting, they keep coming back to it, analysing and cataloguing it.

In every case, they either found a plausible explanation or the signal drifted off. This “chasing down the signal” technique has weeded out thousands of otherwise interesting candidates, although five have intrigued the researchers enough to survive three separate observation runs before eventually drifting.

Yet, even at this rate, the SETI Institute expects to take until the year 2000 to have made the briefest of visits to the targeted 1000 stars. The Australian leg of the project scanned the first 200 of the candidate stars, which are visible only from the Southern Hemisphere.

Later, the SETI Institute plans to use the Arecibo radiotelescope in Puerto Rico, a dish 330 metres in diameter whose parabola blankets a whole valley. Another two radiotelescopes in France and Britain are also under consideration.

But for the moment, the SETI Institute plans to review the results of the Australian leg of the program, see what mistakes were made and what can be learnt, before starting phase two. Despite their determination and the high-powered technology, Professor Ron Eckers believes the chances against the search succeeding are as high as a billion to one.

Eckers, one of those scientists whose distinguished grey beard and thoughtful blue eyes give him a slightly absent-minded look, is the director of the Australia Telescope National Facility, a group of seven telescope dishes of which Parkes is a part.

Although sceptical himself, he does not object to the research project. “They can now do a search that is a million times better than what could be done before, but I think we are still far away from having a reasonable chance,” he says.

The giant Arecibo radiotelescope in Puerto Rico

What impact would a discovery have? Scholars widely agree that there would be a great deal of culture shock, especially if we could decode the transmissions. Many talk about the threat that the very existence of alien civilisations might represent to established religions: do aliens have souls, were they also created by God? Others warn of cults starting up that might worship radiotelescopes like some high-tech Stonehenge conveying messages from the stars.

While Bobbie Vaile thinks an eventual discovery would be positive, others are not so sure. Many scholars point to parallels in human history that are not comforting: less-developed civilisations have been on the losing end of the equation almost every time.

IF YOU’RE worried about these experiments revealing our location to potential bands of marauding aliens, it’s already too late, says Professor Frank Drake, an American astrophysicist. By now, civilisations some 50 light-years away are receiving our first television broadcasts, while radio has reached even further. If we did pick up a stray television broadcast from another planet, could we ever decipher its meaning? Here debate is hottest.

Even if we conclude that the cosmos is silent, this is in itself a powerful discovery, argues American space scientist Carl Sagan. “It would speak eloquently of how rare are the living things of our planet and would underscore, as nothing else in human history has, the individual worth of every human being.”

Professor Lawrence Cram, head of astrophysics at the University of Sydney, agrees. “I think an increasing demonstration that we are alone will have an impact on the collective consciousness and the part humanity has to play in the world. The obligation will be on humanity to protect our natural environment.”