The search for alien life

November’s Science Cafe Nashua blasts off on a discussion of space, the final frontier and the search for alien life, more specifically. This week we will again bring a panel of experts together with a public invitation to a conversation about “Space, SETI and Little Green Men.” As always, this free event gives everyone a chance to chime in, ask questions and be part of finding “the truth.”

Since humans first roamed the earth and beheld the skies, we’ve wandered and wondered “Are we Alone?” Over the ages, the stars have provided gods, wisdom, guidance and possibly visitors to earth. Man has looked to the heavens and searched for something, anything, to prove cohabitation of this seemingly infinite space by any other form of life but those here on our tiny, infinitesimal spec of a planet. So far, no proof of alien life has been seen.

The Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, is a technical response to trying to find the answer. SETI began in the 1990s as a project to harness the vast network of computer resources often sitting idle. SETI @ Home has been running ever since, breaking down volumes of radio frequency data into small, bite-sized problems that are farmed out to individual PCs across the world to solve. Results are then integrated back to create a processed, usable set of data that can then be share by scientists and astronomers around the world.

But the problem with radio waves is that there are lots of them. And radio telescopes listen to space 24 hours a day. And then that data must be analyzed 30-50 different ways to examine different aspects hidden in the numbers. “Hundreds of millions of pulses or signals have been observed that cannot be explained,” said Skip Crilley, former CTO, current SETI researcher at the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia and Science Cafe panelist. “The current explanation is they are mostly interference, but the challenge is to look for meaningful patterns in all this clutter.”

Today, the Berkeley SETI Research Center at UC Berkeley is a well-funded institution coordinating a variety of SETI projects and experiments. For example, Skip develops systems, hardware and software for astronomical observations and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, for the Green Bank Telescope, the world’s largest fully steerable telescope, the Forty Foot Telescope at Green Bank and the Paul Plishner Deep Space Exploration Society Sixty Foot Telescope near Haswell, Colorado. By using data from two large telescopes that are geographically disperse, Skip hopes to weed out false positives in the data and help focus energy and time on radio signals that are most likely to be some form of communication from other worlds.

SETI scientists continue to search the night sky but are also beginning to embrace the power of artificial intelligence to help evaluate the mountains of data these telescopes collect, even though they only look at a tony fraction of the sky (about 1 degree). Advances in computing hold hope for speeding up the process of pattern identification, verification, and decode into intelligible communication. Finding meaningful radio signals remains a daunting, needle-in-a-haystack problem but one where teaching machines could help free astronomers to look farther, see beyond, and hear the messages that may be out there.

Skip thinks SETI is important because in the end it helps us become more human and perhaps find ways to treat each other more humanely. He thinks that hypothetical, altruistic aliens might communicate in subtle, sophisticated and non-obvious ways. So he searches day after day, frequency after frequency, year after year for the signals from afar as part of the large distributed computing project in the world: the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence.

Please join us at Science Cafe and find out what they’ve heard, how the search is changing, and what you can do to become part of it!

As always, Science Cafe is free, open to the public and offers a place where the community can engage in civil discourse, talk science, have a beer, learn from each other and enjoy a safe haven for the geeks among us. Come join the conversation!

Hosted at The Riverwalk Cafe and Music Bar. You can learn more about Science Café New Hampshire at www.ScienceCafeNH.org.

Dan Marcek is co-founder of Science Cafe New Hampshire and can be reached at dan@vetflix.org.

If You Go

WHAT

Science Cafe:

Space, SETI and Little Green Men

TIME

6-8 p.m., Wednesday

WHERE

The Riverwalk Cafe and Music Bar, 35 Railroad Square, Nashua