Author Sarah Scoles signs copies of her book, “Making Contact,” during a presentation at the Green Bank Observatory Thursday. S. Stewart photo

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

Returning to her former stomping grounds, first-time author Sarah Scoles led a discussion and book signing Thursday at the Green Bank Observatory.

Scoles released her first book, Making Contact: Jill Tarter and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, in July and organized a program about the book and the “miss-hits” of SETI – The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence – for her visit.

“I’m very excited that the book is out in the world,” she said. “It’s a biography of an astronomer named Jill Tarter, who is the inspiration for the main character in Contact, but I’m not just going to tell you about her life because you should read the book I wrote because it took a long time. Instead, I’m going to talk to you about some of SETI’s history. Specifically, I’m going to talk about all the times SETI has done it wrong and why I – as a wise person – think they may have done it wrong.”

Humans have long pondered the question, “Are we alone in the universe?” and SETI was designed to answer that question. Scientists around the world have tried to answer the question through use of radio telescopes and on several occasions, thought they found something.

Scoles explained that SETI is not looking for actual beings in the universe, but instead, technology that would prove intelligent life exists outside of Earth. If there are beings on other planets that do not have technology, SETI will not find them.

“SETI scientists are looking for technology an alien civilization may have built in order to communicate with us or to communicate with each other,” she said. “If they don’t have technology, if they like to keep quite – if they like that they’re a Bronze Age or Stone Age just fine and don’t see any need to develop radio transmitting technology, or if they are dolphins on planets that are full of oceans, that’s not something SETI is going to find.”

While is can be discouraging to have false alarms, or “non-hits” as Scoles calls them, SETI continues the search because among those miss-hits may be a real transmission from intelligent life.

Of the several “non-hits” Scoles discussed, two took place at the Green Bank Observatory – one in its early days as part of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and another in the 1990s.

“The first false alarm I’m going to talk about, kind of interestingly, happened during the very first SETI search that ever happened,” Scoles said. “It’s called Project Ozma and it happened right here in Green Bank at the 85-foot telescope. Frank Drake – he was twenty-nine years old when it started, and I was just told that he celebrated his thirtieth birthday while he was doing this first SETI project.”

Drake was observing two stars, looking for radio signals.

“It turns out it did actually find something, but obviously this is SETI’s greatest non-hits, so you know it’s not real,” Scoles said. “Something [Drake] said in an interview for a book called SETI Pioneers, is ‘whenever you search for extraterrestrial intelligent radio signals, you always feel at the beginning that the signal might pop up right away.’”

Of course, the signal didn’t pop up right away and it was not, in fact, aliens.

“It was not aliens, and I think Frank Drake knew that was likely the case,” Scoles said. “It was his life project at the moment, and we all want to interpret something we see as perhaps the thing that we’ve been looking for even though there’s not evidence of that yet. Pretty soon after they saw this signal – I think very soon – they discovered it was actually probably just a plane flying over.”

The search continued and in the 1990s, Jill Tarter came to Green Bank to work on the SETI Institute Project Phoenix where scientists took what Drake did – observing two stars – and multiplied it by a hundred. The experiment used the 140-foot telescope and a second telescope in Georgia.

“They had a second telescope in Woodbury, Georgia, where if this telescope saw something interesting that seemed like it might be from aliens, they would alert that other telescope so that it could go follow-up on it and see if it saw the same thing and hopefully confirm something about whether it was real or not,” Scoles said.

Scoles read an excerpt from her book about Project Phoenix and described what Tarter and the other scientists were thinking and wondering as they tried to confirm if there were any signals made by extraterrestrials.

After studying more than 800 stars, the project ended with no alien made signals.

With decades of false alarms behind it, SETI scientists continue to search for signals from extraterrestrials.

Those who believe the answer to the question “Are we alone?” is no, like Scoles, have found evidence on Earth that gives them hope that there will be a definitive answer one day.

The first kinds of discovery that made it seem like it could be likely there’s life out there are the discoveries of extreme life on Earth,” Scoles said. “This is an extreme life on Earth – a tardigrade or water bear. It’s a micro organism and it can survive a lot of radiation in the vacuum of space without water and without food for thirty years. That’s longer than people used to live a long time ago. That’s pretty crazy. You don’t have to believe in them because they exist. You can see them with microscopes.

“There are other examples of extreme life that we’ve found in very iron rich deposits in mines and very acidic lakes or very salty seas and even in the radioactive pools around nuclear plants,” she continued. “Just basically anywhere that is on Earth there is some life that has found some kind of way to survive there which suggests to me and to some scientists that there are a lot more places in the universe – not just on Earth – that might be habitable that we thought as super unfriendly in the past.”

Along with extreme life, there is the discovery of hundreds of planets outside the solar system in the universe which would possibly support life.

“They orbit basically every star,” Scoles said. “There’s a lot of planets with ground, we might call them rocky planets, so somewhere an alien being wouldn’t have to be floating in Jupiter-style gas. It could build a house or whatever aliens have. Given that life here can survive any number of places that seem very bad to us, and that there are all of these planets out there where there could be all kinds of conditions that we might have thought of as bad, but maybe a tardigrade or an alien like tardigrade would like just fine.”

After her presentation, Scoles answered questions from the audience and signed copies of her book.

Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at sastewart@pocahontastimes.com