Menus Subscribe Search

The Search for Intelligent Light

• July 03, 2008 • 12:00 PM

Planet hunter Geoff Marcy scans the skies for answers to the universal question of other life.

Even the most casual driver need strap in to negotiate the perilous twists of the single-lane road that winds up California’s Mount Hamilton to the Lick Observatory. But the biggest twist of the evening will require something of a mental seat belt. It lies inside the control room of the three-meter telescope, where University of California, Berkeley astronomer Geoff Marcy and his colleague from San Francisco State, Debra Fischer, train their lens on distant stars and search for a telltale sign of advanced stellar civilization: lights.

Yup, these are reputable scientists looking for extraterrestrials — though not the little fingertip-lit variety that just want to phone home. Marcy and Fischer seek laser lines — that is, high-powered lasers used by advanced civilizations to communicate or, possibly, power their spacecraft.

While characterizing the search as an “extremely long shot” and “sounding bizarre,” Marcy is perfectly straightforward and not the least bit apologetic about this research.

“The project is a one-in-a million chance. But you have to do it, because if it’s there, you can’t be too arrogant not to look,” he said. “This is somewhere between harebrained and stupendous. But if we find intelligent life, it would supersede the discovery of fire.” Marcy has not requested funding for this work, which he does in his “spare time,” because it has such a low probability of success.

He has a long and storied track record of not being “too arrogant not to look” for things that few believed possible. This began in 1983 with a search for planets — not the planets of our solar system but extrastellar planets (i.e., twin Earths). At the time, it was a part of science considered the “lunatic fringe.” No one had found any, and no one was trying because the technology to detect a planet simply hadn’t arrived.

Marcy was unfazed. Scientists have known since the early 1900s that a star orbited by a planet would move or “wobble” just a little because of the planet’s gravitational pull. And that wobble could be detected by measuring vanishingly small changes — the Doppler shift — in the star’s light waves. So Marcy got to work with a state-of-the-art spectrometer and a great deal of elbow grease and began to reduce the margin of error in measuring light waves. In 1995, he hit the astronomer’s equivalent of a mother lode.

He found not one but two planets orbiting distant stars, which he promptly announced at the January convention of the American Astronomical Society. It generated a response typical of many major scientific discoveries: mounting skepticism. But since then, Marcy and his team have found nearly 150 more and enough corroborating evidence for these planets to be accepted universally … well, almost.

So far, all of the planets found are considerably larger than Earth, and astronomers suspect none has an atmosphere like Earth’s. So the search continues today, because lying at the heart of this investigation is the big question: What else out there can, or does, support life?

“We have highly trained astrophysicists working on this problem, and yet it’s something so fundamental that a 5-year-old gets it,” Marcy said.

In the meantime, Marcy had another idea. He could apply the same method of spectrometry that found him so many planets to detecting laser lines.

At this point, we need to back up a bit to 1961, the year in which Nobel laureate physicist Charles Townes laid the groundwork for extraterrestrial lasers. Not coincidentally, Townes is also considered the father of the laser. In musing on the capabilities of intensely focused light in the post-Sputnik age, Townes delivered a paper in which he computed how much light would be received from a laser at various — astronomic — distances and concluded that laser technology would be the most likely means of communication for an advanced civilization.

“Everyone said at the time, ‘Oh yeah, that’s obvious,’” Marcy said. “But it has only been in the last few years that people have said, ‘Let’s follow up.’”

The follow-up research has employed a direct method of pointing a telescope at the sky and looking for pulsed optical lasers — a flash no more than a billionth of a second. Among the leading lights in this search are Dan Werthimer of UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Lab, Paul Horowitz at Harvard and Stuart A. Kingsley, all part of what’s called Optical SETI.

Instead of trying to catch this flash directly, Marcy uses a spectrometer that will pick up any laser, pulsing or not. He takes 30-minute exposures of entire galaxies, which a spectrometer breaks into thousands of colors — think of it as shining the light of a galaxy through the world’s most differentiating prism, producing a spectrum of 100,000 different shades of the rainbow.

The good thing for Marcy, and the key to this method, is that lasers emit a single color of light. Shine a laser through this prism and you get one — and only one — color, just two or three pixels wide. Thus, a laser would be easily distinguished from starlight, which emits thousands of colors, as well as the sodium streetlamps of nearby San Jose, which produce a single smudge the color of smog.

“We’re looking for a dot at a specific wavelength at a specific place in the sky,” Marcy said.

Marcy’s strategy is to stay close — a relative term — gazing a mere 30 million light years away. “That’s out your back porch, cosmologically speaking,” he said, “one-thousandth the size of the visible universe.” Plus, he’s focusing at the center on entire galaxies — tens of billions of stars at a time, “any one of which might house a laser-toting civilization.”

Time constraints prevent him from analyzing data until July. And if he should get a result that looks promising, it would require considerably more thought, study and consultation in order to rule out all other possibilities. Marcy is nothing if not a very careful scientist.

Still, the question looms. What if Marcy becomes convinced that he has found a laser line? It would trigger a host of concerns: Can we communicate with extraterrestrials, and what can we learn? What have we learned already? Do they have a great galactic library of information that might be useful to us?

Then there are the issues of planetary security and the primary fear that probably lurks in the hearts of John and Jane Q. Earthling: Are they coming to get us?

Marcy stressed three things at this point of the discussion:

1.    This is a very, very long shot.

2.    Scientists would have to be sure that the discovery became publicly available — it couldn’t be bottled up by any government or any of its interested institutions, such as the military.

3.    The average person would realize that we are “part of some galactic country club — just one species of perhaps many in the universe.”

In short, any such discovery would rip the top off most everything we know. So unbuckle those mental seat belts; you are now free to move about the universe.

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Click here to become our fan.

Add our news to your site.

Frank Kosa
Frank Kosa is a freelance writer for news and documentary filmmaker for television. His articles have run in the Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, Miami Herald — international edition — and the Oaxacan Times. His documentaries have aired on the Discovery Channel, History Channel, A&E, TLC and other cable networks. He has lived in Santa Monica, Calif., for 20 years but can still forget to move his car on street cleaning days.

More From Frank Kosa

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 22 • 12:00 PM

On the Destinations of Species

It’s almost always easier to cross international borders if you’re something other than human.


July 22 • 10:51 AM

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.


July 22 • 10:47 AM

Irrational Choice Theory: The LeBron James Migration From Miami to Cleveland

Return migrants to Cleveland have been coming home in large numbers for quite some time. It makes perfect sense.


July 22 • 9:32 AM

This Time, Scalia Was Right

President Obama’s recess appointments were wrong and, worse, dangerous.


July 22 • 8:00 AM

On Vegas Strip, Blackjack Rule Change Is Sleight of Hand

Casino operators are changing blackjack payouts to give the house an even greater advantage. Is this a sign that Vegas is on its way back from the recession, or that the Strip’s biggest players are trying to squeeze some more cash out of visitors before the well runs dry?


July 22 • 6:00 AM

Label Me Confused

How the words on a bag of food create more questions than answers.


July 22 • 5:07 AM

Doubly Victimized: The Shocking Prevalence of Violence Against Homeless Women

An especially vulnerable population is surveyed by researchers.


July 22 • 4:00 AM

New Evidence That Blacks Are Aging Faster Than Whites

A large study finds American blacks are, biologically, three years older than their white chronological counterparts.



July 21 • 4:00 PM

Do You Have to Learn How to Get High?

All drugs are socially constructed.


July 21 • 2:14 PM

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.


July 21 • 2:00 PM

Why Are Obstetricians Among the Top Billers for Group Psychotherapy in Illinois?

Illinois leads the country in group psychotherapy sessions in Medicare, and some top billers aren’t mental health specialists. The state’s Medicaid program has cracked down, but federal officials have not.



July 21 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, MacArthur Genius?

Noah Davis talks to Yoky Matsuoka about youth tennis, wanting to be an airhead, and what it’s like to win a Genius Grant.


July 21 • 11:23 AM

People Are Clueless About Placebos

Doctors know that sometimes the best medicine is no medicine at all. But how do patients feel about getting duped into recovery?


July 21 • 10:00 AM

How Small-D Democratic Should Our Political Parties Be?

We need to decide how primaries should work in this country before they get completely out of hand and the voters are left out entirely.


July 21 • 8:00 AM

No, Walking on All 4 Limbs Is Not a Sign of Human ‘Devolution’

New quantitative analysis reveals that people with Uner Tan Syndrome don’t actually walk like primates at all.


July 21 • 6:00 AM

Sequenced in the U.S.A.: A Desperate Town Hands Over Its DNA

The new American economy in three tablespoons of blood, a Walmart gift card, and a former mill town’s DNA.


July 21 • 5:00 AM

Celebrating Independence: Scenes From 59 Days Around the World

While national identities are often used to separate people, a husband-and-wife Facebook photography project aims to build connections.


July 21 • 4:00 AM

Be a Better Person: Take a Walk in the Park

New research from France finds strangers are more helpful if they’ve just strolled through a natural environment.



July 18 • 4:00 PM

The Litany of Problems With the Pentagon’s Effort to Recover MIAs

A draft inspector general report found that the mission lacks basic metrics for how to do the job—and when to end it.


July 18 • 2:00 PM

Sure, the Jobs Are Back, but We Need a Lot More

We’re back to where we were before the 2008 recession, but there are now 12 million more people in the United States.


July 18 • 12:00 PM

What Are the Benefits of Government-Funded Research?

Congress wants to know.


July 18 • 10:31 AM

Why Didn’t California’s Handheld Phone Ban Reduce Motor Accidents?

Are handheld cell phones as dangerous as they have been made out to be?


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.

People Are Clueless About Placebos

Doctors know that sometimes the best medicine is no medicine at all. But how do patients feel about getting duped into recovery?

No, Walking on All 4 Limbs Is Not a Sign of Human ‘Devolution’

New quantitative analysis reveals that people with Uner Tan Syndrome don't actually walk like primates at all.

Why Didn’t California’s Handheld Phone Ban Reduce Motor Accidents?

Are handheld cell phones as dangerous as they have been made out to be?

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.