When I read Monday that it was the 66th anniversary of the notorious report of a flying disk crashing to Earth on a ranch near Roswell, N.M., sparking endless theories that it was an alien spacecraft, I couldn’t help but remember my own summer years ago looking for life in outer space. My search, though, didn’t involve hunting down reverse-engineered spacecraft or photographing the sky for strange forms.
Instead, I sat at a desk in an astronomer’s office at the University of Chicago running a routine data reduction program on radio telescope data and cataloging the basic descriptions of the stars that telescope had been pointed at. And it was more thrilling than scanning the night sky for little green men because this project carried the possibility of really finding something legitimately extraterrestrial.
The project was called Ozma II, and it was the brainchild of two astronomers, Patrick Palmer of the University of Chicago and Benjamin Zuckerman, now a professor emeritus at UCLA. For several years in the mid-1970s, they looked at 659 solar-type stars in our Milky Way galaxy, the theory being that a star like our sun might have a planetary system and civilizations with technical capabilities. Those civilizations would probably transmit radio signals. So with a radio telescope tuned to the frequency of the most abundant element in the universe -- hydrogen -- the astronomers went looking. It’s kind of like what Jodie Foster did in the movie “Contact,” only they weren’t actually listening to sound; they were looking at data on graphs to see if there were any spikes, which is what an artificial signal would look like -- and it would stand out against the broad band of the hydrogen background.
For the record, we didn’t find anything. Or, at least, not that Pat and Ben ever told me about. It was very much like looking for a needle that might or might not be in a haystack.
That was a summer job between freshman and sophomore years in college for me. And for them, it was also a part-time project, a labor of love. They already had tenure and big careers -- they are credited with discovering the first organic molecule in space (formaldehyde) -- and other research demands.
Since then, there have been numerous other scientific searches launched, most far more elaborate than the one I worked on.
Just as the world has historically had a desire to do manned space exploration -- Zuckerman believes strongly in the importance of going to Mars -- so people have an almost primal desire to find any other life already out there.
Of course, sometimes that takes a decidedly unscientific approach. Years after working for the astronomers, I traipsed into the Nevada desert, not far from the so-called Area 51 -- another iconic spot for UFO reconnaissance -- with a group of devoted watchers of all things extraterrestrial for a story I was writing. We spent the night gazing expectantly at the sky but saw nothing more than satellites cruising across the darkness. Later we repaired to a cafe known as the Little A'Le'Inn (their motto: Earthlings Welcome.);it is a gathering spot for UFO buffs, and the walls are plastered with photos of their sightings.
There's a giant gap between radio astronomers and the Nevada folks I hung out with (who pretty much all believed in one or another Roswell conspiracy theory). But on the Roswell anniversary, it's worth acknowledging the spirit of inquiry and wonder that drive us to look for life elsewhere.