Celebrated scientist speaks on space exploration

by Anna Parachkevova | 5/28/04 5:00am

While there is a chance that humans are alone in the universe, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence will continue, famed scientist Jill Tarter said Thursday in a speech at the 13th annual Karen E. Wetterhahn Science Symposium in Alumni Hall.

While humans have always wondered if there is life elsewhere in the universe, only recently have technological innovations and scientific advances allowed us to conduct experiments and look for evidence rather than rely on assumptions and beliefs, said Tarter, the current director of the research center for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI.

Tarter said the sheer numbers in the ever-expanding universe leads one to believe that there must be life on one of the hundreds of billions of stars and planetary systems.

One way to narrow down the search is to think of life as a "planetary phenomenon," and start looking for planets that exhibit similar conditions to those on the Earth," she said, noting that "by the end of the decade, we will have statistical data about the number of Earth-like planets."

Part of the search for life-bearing planets includes defining where and how life started, but various theories exist that explain the origins of life.

"We don't really know where and how life occurred, but we know it occurred fast, and it might occur or it has occurred already elsewhere given similar conditions," Tarter said.

Liquid water might be one indicator of life or a factor conducive to the development of life, and explorations are focusing on finding water's presence in outer space. The presence of liquid water on Mars might mean that life "started there first and then infected the Earth," said Tarter. "We might all be Martians."

In addition to liquid water, oxygen or ozone might also be indicators of life.

Tarter is currently spearheading Project Phoenix, a joint venture of the University of California at Berkeley and SETI that aims at raising funds for the building of the world's newest multiple-use radio telescope array in northern California.

The Allen Telescope Array, or ATA, was named after Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, who donated $13.5 million to complete the first two phases of the Phoenix project. The entire cost of the project is $53 million, Tarter said.

The telescope array will eventually consist of 350 small 6.1-meter dishes. So far, three have been built, and 32 more will be built by the end of the year.

The Wetterhahn Symposium is an annual on-campus gathering of undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and administrators around the theme of science. The symposium is also an opportunity for undergraduate science researchers to show their work to the larger Dartmouth community.