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Beyond The Sky
  • July 23, 2012 : 15:07
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Before leaving San Francisco, I stopped at a neighborhood café. I asked the regulars if they had any messages for the institute across the bay. “See if those ETs do crossword puzzles,” a guy in a Giants cap said. He tapped his newspaper with a pencil. “I need a five-letter word for cornucopia.”

It was overcast all the way out of the city. As soon as I reached Silicon Valley, the clouds scattered and sunlight shot across the sky. I passed Stanford University, NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Federal Airfield and an aviation museum. An electric Tesla breezed by me on the highway without a sound. I followed my car’s navigation system to the SETI Institute’s headquarters in Mountain View. I expected to find the place teeming with scientists interpreting the latest data from Kepler. Instead, the parking lot was mostly empty.

The SETI Institute shares a building with a company called Jasper Wireless. I could see the Jasper guys through an open door in the lobby, working away at their computers. The institute’s door was shut. A handwritten sign explained: seti institute closed for winter holidays. in case of year-end gift receipt, urgent message or other important issue, please call main number.

Maybe this was why the aliens hadn’t made first contact—they kept trying to communicate during our winter break. I walked around SETI’s half of the building, hoping for a glimpse inside. I climbed up into the planters and stood beside an old elm. I peered through the dirty window.

“Can I help you?”

I turned. Down in the parking lot a man stood beside his Toyota Prius, holding a cup of coffee. He’d parked in one of the SETI spaces.

“You work here?” I asked, climbing out from under the elm. “You mind if I ask you a few questions?”

He gave me a shy smile and walked me into the building. An astrophysicist with a doctorate from Cornell, Paul Estrada has a pronounced forehead and bulging eyes—as if his brain were so large, it needed an escape route. Estrada studies how planets form out of nebula dust. He took me through SETI’s front offices, which were occupied by high-speed computers. They blinked steadily behind a wall of glass, interpreting signals from the powerful Allen Telescope Array up in Hat Creek—about 320 miles northeast of Mountain View. (Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, donated $25 million to the project to keep this search for aliens alive.) The SETI Institute, Estrada explained, is pointing the array at stars with potential Earth-like planets that are being discovered by NASA’s Kepler space telescope. These planets are relatively close, a few hundred light-years away.

“So if we heard a message right now,” I asked him, “it would be hundreds of years old?”

“That’s right,” Estrada said. “And our reply would take hundreds of years to get back.”

I wondered what kind of meaningful conversations were possible under such time delays. If I asked an alien for a five-letter word for cornucopia, would crossword puzzles still exist by the time I received an answer?

Estrada walked me upstairs and turned down a corridor of cubicles. The fluorescent lights flickered on. I glanced into the empty workstations. Instead of pictures of family members, SETI Institute researchers hang pinups of black holes and supernovas.

“We can talk in here,” Estrada said, leading me into the Carl Sagan conference room. The walls were covered with computer-generated images—a telescope beaming from the surface of the sun, a space base on Mars. Estrada settled into a leather chair.

“Can you tell me a little more about your research?”

“I study the origins of the planets by looking at how they form from the disk of gas and dust that surrounds their young parent stars.” Estrada drank the rest of his coffee. “I model the structural and compositional evolution of Saturn’s rings due to meteoroid bombardment.”

I was at a loss for words. He sat forward, waved his hands and started to shout. “Do planets form out of nebulae that are turbulent or not turbulent? That’s one of the key questions I am trying to answer. I do complex parallel computing to model the sticking and growth of dust particles into larger bodies in the nebula on a global scale.”

I wanted to go back downstairs. I could have talked to the good people of Jasper Wireless or watched the computers tracking signals from outer space. I wondered if Estrada himself were an alien and if he had snuck into the SETI Institute to infiltrate the human race.

Estrada walked me out of the building. I walked to the parking lot, gathered myself for a moment, then turned on my car’s navigation system to guide me home.

***

There are no easy answers to why we’re here on this planet or if we’re alone. We build rockets, fly men to the moon, guide robots around the surface of Mars, only to come crashing back to Earth, no less ignorant about the most important questions. How was the universe created? Is there a purpose to life? Are we really cosmic accidents, all by ourselves, or do we share our fate with some web-footed Greys in a distant galaxy?

Stephen Hawking, confined to his wheelchair and capable now of moving only a few muscles in his cheek, finds encouragement in the revelations of science. Recently he told New Scientist the most exciting discovery during his career was “variations in the temperature of the cosmic microwave background,” which amounts to “quantum gravity written across the sky.” (When asked what he thought about most during the day, Hawking admitted, “Women. They are a complete mystery.”)

The cosmic microwave background, also described as the afterglow from the big bang, consists of a band of barely detectable thermal radiation, a remnant of the brief period of time when light and matter first separated. Because it holds such valuable clues to our beginnings, a full understanding of the CMB almost certainly means a Nobel Prize for whoever achieves it. I wanted to know where the best minds were investigating the CMB—and after some research, I headed south to Pasadena.

It was early January, and the day felt as warm as bathwater as I drove among the palm trees. A few Santa Claus sleighs littered the enormous front yards. I passed Orange Grove Avenue, where rocket scientist Jack Parsons blew himself up in his garage in 1952. The road rose toward distant mountains. Soon I reached a sign: welcome to la cañada flintridge, home of the jet propulsion laboratory.

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read more: entertainment, culture, issue july 2012

4 comments

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous
    What, indeed, if you'd been an alien? Are they supposed to leave a message after the beep, or what? And how do we know you're not an alien spy, sent to confuse with your respectful, humorous, hopeful take on this question? A lovely read.
  • Anonymous
    Anonymous
    Great stuff Rob Smith.
  • Anonymous
    Anonymous
    So beautifully written. A poetic scientific, cosmic and philosophical journey.
  • Anonymous
    Anonymous
    I agree, the writing's very good. But what's next? Is there a follow up piece?
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