By Daniel J. Kramer, CONTRIBUTING WRITER
Published: Friday, December 02, 2011 Discovering extraterrestrial life is not a new goal on mankind’s to-do list. The search, of course, has traditionally played a larger role in popular culture than in the halls of academia. But over the last 40 years, the question of whether we are alone in the universe has formed a new field in the sciences. Astrobiology, the study of life in space, is no longer relegated to the stuff of science fiction and alien enthusiasts. “There are a lot of variables involved in knowing if there’s life out there, where it would be, and how prevalent it would be,” says Curtis C. Mead, a graduate student at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences who is involved in the search for extraterrestrials. “We think that life probably does exist.”
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Harvard physics professor and electrical engineer Paul Horowitz ’65 is a leading figure in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).
The initiative is one of the first academic attempts at finding alien life. Its goal is to find intelligent alien life by using radio telescopes to detect signals emitted by alien technology.
Horowitz, who received his Ph.D in Physics at Harvard in 1970, says SETI began in 1960 with scientist Frank Drake, also a doctoral alum of the Harvard Astronomy Department. At the time, Drake was searching for interstellar radio waves from nearby stars as part of Project Ozma, based in Green Bank, West Virginia.
Horowitz’s own involvement with SETI began in 1978 with his work at the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico, the world’s biggest single-dish radio telescope.
Today Horowitz, a physics professor by day, has become something of a figurehead for SETI. On Tuesday, he gave a lecture at the MIT Museum on SETI’s research as part of a series on life in the universe.
He says he is constantly looking for new support. NASA had initially funded SETI, but the initiative is now completely private, dependent on prominent donors like the founders of telecommunications company Cisco Systems and the Planetary Society, a space exploration advocacy group.
“For something that could potentially yield the greatest discovery in human history, it isn’t getting very much resources,” Horowitz says.
So far, no signals have been detected by SETI that are strong or long enough to be confirmed as artificial in origin, says Horowitz. But he says the search is far from over.
Though an interstellar conversation could never exist on human time scales due to sheer distance, Horowitz says he hopes to at least detect a one-way signal. Detectors must continue to work simultaneously, he says, to compensate for how short and intermittent the signals can be.
When that signal arrives—and Horowitz says “when” and not “if”—he predicts an immediate frenzy to translate the signal. “I expect it would be on the front page of the newspaper for an entire week ... The new obsession will be the message,” he predicts. But the time scale, even for Horowitz, is unclear.
“We’ve had this technology for about a century. That’s about zero on the time scale of geologic history,” Horowitz observes.
For now, Horowitz’s graduate student, Mead, is taking up the intergalactic mantle. Mead is now working on improving SETI’s All-Sky Optical Telescope to be 100 times more powerful and extend detection into the infrared.
Not everyone holds such confidence in finding intelligent life on distant planets.
Benjamin M. Zuckerman of the UCLA Astronomy Department represents one of the strongest academic voices in the camp of extraterrestrial naysayers.
Zuckerman, who completed his doctoral thesis in astronomy at Harvard in 1968, recognizes in his book “Extraterrestrials: Where Are They?” that there is no evidence intelligent life exists. And if it did, he says, why haven’t they contacted us yet?
Zuckerman’s path toward skepticism was borne out of unfulfilled aspirations. At…