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

August 19 • 4:00 PM

Can Lawmakers Only Make Laws That Corporations Allow?

There’s a telling detail in a recent story about efforts to close loopholes in corporate tax laws.




August 19 • 12:00 PM

How ‘Contagion’ Became Contagious

Do ideas and emotions really spread like a virus?


August 19 • 10:00 AM

Child Refugees: The New Barbarians

The disturbing rhetoric around the recent rise in child refugees into the United States from Central America may be shaping popular opinion on upcoming immigration reform.


August 19 • 8:00 AM

Making Police Departments More Diverse Isn’t Enough

Local police departments should reflect the communities they serve, but fixing that alone won’t curb unnecessary violence.


August 19 • 7:15 AM

Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.


August 19 • 6:00 AM

Seeking a Healthy Public School Lunch? Good Luck

Mystery meat will always win.


August 19 • 4:00 AM

The Positive Effects of Sports-Themed Video Games

New research finds sports-themed video games actually encourage some kids to get onto the field.


August 19 • 1:00 AM

DIY Diagnosis: How an Extreme Athlete Uncovered Her Genetic Flaw

When Kim Goodsell discovered that she had two extremely rare genetic diseases, she taught herself genetics to help find out why.



August 18 • 3:30 PM

Mister Rogers’ Heart-Healthy Neighborhood

Researchers find living in a friendly, cohesive neighborhood lowers seniors’ chances of having a heart attack.


August 18 • 2:00 PM

Wealth or Good Parenting?

Framing the privileges of the rich.


August 18 • 12:00 PM

How Much Did the Stigma of Mental Illness Harm Robin Williams?

Addiction treatment routinely fails people with mental illnesses, while mental health care often ignores addiction. And everywhere, stigma is rife. Can a tragic death prompt a more intelligent approach?


August 18 • 10:00 AM

Punished for Being Poor: The Problem With Using Big Data in the Justice System

Correctional departments use data-driven analyses because they’re easier and cheaper than individual assessments. But at what cost?


August 18 • 8:00 AM

What Americans Can Learn From a Vial of Tibetan Spit

Living high in the mountains for thousands of years, Tibetans have developed distinct biological traits that could benefit all of us, but translating medical science across cultures is always a tricky business.


August 18 • 6:00 AM

The Problems With William Deresiewicz’s New Manifesto

Excellent Sheep: a facile approach to an urgent critique.


August 18 • 4:00 AM

Ferguson Is a Serious Outlier

One black city council member is not nearly enough. In a study of city councils, only one place in America had a greater representational disparity than Ferguson, Missouri.


August 16 • 4:00 AM

Six Days in Ferguson: Voices From the Protests

A day-by-day chronology of what happened in Ferguson, drawn from the best reporting by journalists and witnesses on the ground.


August 15 • 4:00 PM

Skirting Ochobo: Big Business Finds a Way Around Local Customs

The “liberation wrapper,” which was designed to shield mouths from public view while eating, has helped a Japanese chain increase sales by over 200 percent.


August 15 • 2:00 PM

How Wall Street Tobacco Deals Left States With Billions in Toxic Debt

Politicians wanted upfront cash from a legal victory over Big Tobacco, and bankers happily obliged. The price? A handful of states promised to repay $64 billion on just $3 billion advanced.


August 15 • 12:00 PM

How the Sexes Evolved

The distinction between males and females is one of the oldest facts of biology—but how did it come to affect our social identity?



August 15 • 10:00 AM

Will Philadelphia Ever Be Home to a Middle Class?

Jake Blumgart has watched his friends decamp his adopted hometown for places with more opportunities and city services. Will anyone be left to build a better Philly?


August 15 • 8:32 AM

How a Shift in Human Head Shape Changed Everything

When did homo sapiens become a more sophisticated species? Not until our skulls underwent “feminization.”


Follow us


Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.

How a Shift in Human Head Shape Changed Everything

When did homo sapiens become a more sophisticated species? Not until our skulls underwent "feminization."

Journalists Can Get PTSD Without Leaving Their Desks

Dealing with violent content takes a heavy toll on some reporters.

Do Ticking Clocks Make Women More Anxious to Have Children?

Yes, but apparently only women who grew up poor.

Facebook App Shoppers Do What Their Friends Do

People on Facebook are more influenced by their immediate community than by popular opinion.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

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