Admit it: there's been a night when you've looked up into a sky ablaze with stars and wondered whether there is any life beyond planet Earth, and even whether some of it might be gazing back at you. This happened to me for the first time long ago, as a little girl, walking along the deserted and dark beaches of Manasota Key, FL holding onto my father's hand. It seemed obvious that on other planets circling some of those distant stars, some other young creature, similarly attached to its parent, must see our Sun in its night sky and wonder too.
Because I got a degree in engineering physics and another one in astrophysics, and particularly because I learned early how to master the art of programming a PDP-8/S computer in octal, I got very, very lucky. I've been able to spend my scientific career trying to find out whether what was 'oblivious' to my young self is, in fact, correct. Instead of continuing as humans have for millennia, asking the priests, the philosophers, or other wise individuals, whether we should believe that life exists beyond Earth, my team and I have been adapting the astronomical tools of the current era to explore what might actually be.
I've got perhaps the best job in the world, but the exploration we've all undertaken is vast, and we can use help. Help from the very much faster and smarter descendents of that old PDP-8/S, of course, but also help from you! OK, sure, your financial support is crucial, and we've set up SETIStars.org to enable that, but I'm also interested in your 'thinkons'! Computers excel at doing what they are programmed or trained to do, but the combination of human vision and cerebral processing power does an amazing job with the unexpected; even if it doesn't have elaborate training sets of 'normal' to compare against.
At the Allen Telescope Array in Northern CA, we use a complex system of automated search tools, recently upgraded by generous donations from Dell and Intel, to search for radio signals that have the appearance of being 'engineered' and unlike the signals naturally emitted by many astronomical objects in the cosmos. When such candidate signals are detected, our SonATA (SETI on the ATA) system immediately, and automatically, follows up with new observations designed to discriminate a potential extraterrestrial signal from one being generated by our own technology. Any candidate signals that continue to survive this culling process set off alarms to involve our team in the evaluation process. This doesn't happen very often at all, but when it does, it launches an intense, adrenaline-filled assault on the candidate signal until it gets resolved. So far, no joy -- we've been the culprits; the signals have been generated by human technologies. SonATA is listening to a range of microwave frequencies from 1 to 10 GHz, a region of the spectrum where there is little background noise from our galaxy or the Earth's atmosphere; this is where nature is quiet, this is where the faintest transmitters can be detected. For these same, and other economic reasons, our own technologies choose to broadcast here. So in our systematic search through the terrestrial microwave window, we encounter frequency bands where SonATA detects so many signals that it gets confused. Our system knows there are signals there, but it cannot make decisions quickly enough about whether the signals are our own or possibly from ET. That's where you come in.
With backing from TED and the Science Channel, the wizards at Galaxy Zoo have crafted what we think is the first real-time citizen science project called SETI Live! It's an experiment to see whether an army of citizen scientists, working with data streaming from the ATA, can recognize, remember, and classify patterns, often multiple patterns, well enough to see if there is anything left over that could be an ET signal requiring immediate follow up. But the army needs to do more. Since SonATA is confused by all these signals, the citizen scientists also need to make rapid decisions during the follow up observations they have triggered. Is the signal still there? Can it be detected when the antennas are pointed in other directions? Has it been seen before? Does it look like it is linked to the frequency standard within our observatory? How is it changing in frequency? At what frequency should we be looking a few minutes from now when we try to reacquire it again? Does it look like the kind of signal that our own communications satellites use? Which satellite? And there will be new questions that the citizen scientists will pose themselves. SETI Live! is an experiment, and we don't know whether it will work. At a minimum, we may learn enough about how humans try to work through the complex mixture of detected signals so that we can teach SonATA how to do the job in the future. Or we may conclude that these bands must remain unusable, but having solved the technical problems of allowing citizen scientists to work in real time, we may have set the stage for yet other, unrelated applications. We may come to understand that, with clever scheduling, we can observe some of these frequency bands when the sources of interfering signals aren't in the sky. And of course, we may find what we are looking for -- we may find a signal from a distant technology that we would otherwise have overlooked.
Can our citizen scientist army do what clever machines cannot? We don't know. To answer that question we must first recruit our army. If you're convinced, start working with us at setilive.org. If you'd like to learn more about what we're doing and whether it might be something you'd like to participate in, tune into the Science Channel during the month of March. March is their "Are We Alone?" month, and they will be providing interstitial tutorials, games, and even a contest to engage you.
Please contribute your 'thinkons' to our army of citizen scientists and help us try to change the world.
"Alien Encounters Part 2: The Arrival," airs Tuesday, March 20 at 10 p.m. on the Science Channel.