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January 31, 2000


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The ET watcher!
Dr Paul Shuch has made it his business to find out if there's intelligent life out there.

Priya Ganapati

Dr Paul Shuch is probably the closest real-life equivalent that one can find to Fox Mulder from the X-files. Shuch like Mulder believes that there is extra terrestrial life out there. Like Mulder he is searching for the extraordinary, the unexplained and the supernatural. Unlike Mulder, Shuch hauls along some salt and pepper foliage on his chin.

Email this story to a friend. But Shuch would rather call himself a cross between Carl Sagan and Tom Lehrer -- he's reputed to sing like Sagan and lecture like Lehrer. And for those who are scratching their heads over the names, the late Carl Sagan was a Pulitzer-winning scientist and science populariser and Tom Lehrer is the Minstrel of Mathematics at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

And Shuch? He's the executive-director of SETI league, an international organisation conducting a scientific search of the heavens to detect evidence of intelligent extraterrestrial life.

On a three-day visit to the IIT Bombay for their annual technology festival, Techfest, Paul Shuch addressed a series of lectures about the search for extraterrestrial intelligent life forms.

"Have you found something?" is the question he's badgered with.

With a hearty laugh Shuch answers, "No, we are still looking."

Dressed in khaki shorts, a red T-shirt and sandals, Shuch looks the eccentric astronomer. But before the astronomy bug bit him, he had finished a PhD in aeronautical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley and served as a professor, an author and military program evaluator among other things.

But when he begins speaking about the search for life in the Beyond, you know Shuch is a Believer. For him the question is not so much about whether there is life beyond the third planet from the sun but more about where to find it.

And that's what has prompted him to be part of the SETI league, a group of amateurs looking for extraterrestrial intelligence using radio telescopes. Shuch believes that such enthusiasts, working from their backyards, can make a real difference in the hunt.

Shuch was on his first trip to India. He just made a quick detour to meet science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke in Sri Lanka.

"One reason I made this trip was that I realised that at very little expense I could go to Sri Lanka and talk to Arthur. We spoke about satellite communication, development of technology and I asked his advice on fund-raising. Most people know about Arthur because of his science fiction. But what they don't know is that he is the father of the communications satellite. He calculated all the orbital particulars necessary for satellite communication."

Arthur apart, does he have any other reason to visit India. Does it figure in his scheme of things?

"We have a regional co-ordinator for India. That's the good news. The bad news is that right now he's away, studying in the US! But the first step is to make people aware of SETI and that's why I am here today."

Shuch believes that amateurs across the world can do what the professionals with their big SETI dishes could never do: monitor the whole sky.

He says, "Who discovers comets? Not guys in great laboratories or those studying structural science. Comets are discovered by ordinary people with great patience, persistence and a little luck. Some comets were discovered by guys who were looking through binoculars or telescopes borrowed from their neighbour. But you can't walk into a shop and buy a radio telescope. That's where SETI league will help you to build one."

In this trip he aims to establish awareness in schools and colleges about the SETI project. A regular on the lecture circuit, Shuch travels all over the world, creating the enthusiasm and the belief that will power the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

As he boots up his sleek laptop at IIT's guest house in Bombay, the faces of a few journalists from local astronomy clubs light up.

Shuch says, "Giant radio telescopes are incredibly sensitive but they can only view a millionth of the sky at a given time. So if such an instrument is turned on at precisely the right frequency at precisely the instant the Call comes in, there's still a 99.999 per cent chance it will be pointed in the wrong direction! Small dishes, on the other hand, have a much larger field of view and if you have enough of them you can monitor the entire sky in real time."

And that's where Project Argus, named after the Greek god with a 100 eyes comes in.

The SETI League set up Project Argus to deploy and co-ordinate roughly 5,000 small radio telescopes around the world, in an all-sky survey for microwave signals of intelligent extraterrestrial origin. When fully operational, Project Argus will provide the first ever continuous monitoring of the entire sky, in all directions in real time.

This initiative employs smaller, quite inexpensive amateur radio telescopes built and operated by SETI League members throughout the world at their individual expense. Only 5,000 of these smaller instruments, if properly co-ordinated are necessary to cover the heavens.

With 58 member countries and over 60 co-ordinators across the world, the SETI League is one of the most ambitious private efforts in the search for alien life forms.

Shuch's discussion with journalists is peppered with dollops of technical information about microwave receiver frequencies and he proudly shows spectrographs of the Milky Way galaxy.

"Using radio astronomy one of our members has actually mapped the entire Milky Way galaxy. Here's a picture of the galactic core," he says pointing to a spectrograph in his laptop.

Later in the day, as Shuch moves around the campus and interacts with students, you see he's still the quintessential professor. He answers questions with great patience and explains his subject with a passion born of conviction.

An IIT student remarks, "You can go to his room any time at the guest house. He is always walking around the campus and he has no airs. He's really nice to talk to and he explains well."

The 'half-shirteywala' as the guest house attendant calls him laughs, "I like it when people ask me questions. I don't' think any question is dumb. For if you can ask a question it means you are not dumb!"

Later in the evening, Shuch held a workshop that explained to students what Project Argus is all about and why radio astronomy is used in the search for intelligence.

A number of celestial objects emit waves more strongly at radio frequencies than they do at visible wavelengths. Radio telescopes are used to pick up these frequencies and then seek intelligent patterns within them.

Project Argus is the biggest SETI League project, involving grassroot support.

Shuch says, "Project Argus seeks to eventually scan the sky in all directions. We don't know where the signal might emanate from. I don't care if you are searching hard enough for the signal but what is the point in looking for if it isn't there in the first place?"

As he chats with the students at IIT or the press, you notice his repeated use of the word 'when' rather than 'if' when discussing the search for intelligence in outer space.

The next evening Shuch again gave a lecture to a packed convocation hall at IIT, speaking of what he described as the need for Project Argus.

The project SETI@home relies on data from a single antenna at Arecibo in Puerto Rico. So the coverage is limited to about 30 per cent of the sky. Because it takes six months to complete a scan, only four observations of a given source are likely in a two-year sky survey.

Project Argus, with its coverage of 5000 radio telescopes throughout the world, will change this, Shuch hopes.

Shuch's enthusiasm is quite infectious. In fact, at one of his lecture sessions Shuch broke into a song that he had composed on Arthur Clarke! To the stunned crowd of students, Shuch explained that he occasionally composed music too. He went to belt out a few more songs.

Shuch explains why he chooses to work from a corner of Northen Pennsylvania, a good distance from any city.

"I bought my house in an area with no cell phone coverage. I went around with my cell phone looking for that spot. But less than a year after I moved in they built a cell tower next to my house. I guess when I was going around with my cell phone some entrepreneur was doing the same thing too!" he laughs.

The location was important to Shuch because radio telescopes look for patterns in the microwave band, between about 1 and 10 GHz.

Radiation from natural sources limits our ability to detect artificial emissions. The earth's own ocean of air also generates spectral absorption and emission lines which draw a further curtain across our sky.

Radio astronomers rely on one of the relatively clear windows in the microwave region. However, this region is also affected by the emission from terrestrial transmitters of military satellites and by cell phones. So, radio astronomers are forever looking for spots where interference from earth's own sources are minimal.

Shuch lists four things an enthusiast has to do to find an intelligent pattern someday on his own computer:

  • Get a dish antenna.

    Shuch explains, "Those big ugly dishes that are used to receive television signals are getting obsolete. In fact, India has these old INSAT satellites operating on the 2.6 GHZ frequency which is now obsolete since television broadcasts over satellite are moving to the KU band. We could convert one of these INSAT terminals to capture signals."

  • Get a microwave receiver.

    The receiver will convert signals falling onto the dish into data that a computer can process. Shuch says that a receiver could approximately cost Rs 40,000 which he points out," is as much as a motorcycle would."

  • Feed the output of the receiver to the sound card of the computer.

    The sound card of the computer is analogous of the digital processor and will process the data from the receiver.

  • Install the software that will sift through the data thrown at it, looking for intelligent patterns that nature could not have produced.

    The processed data has to be sent back to the SETI League, which would look for the patterns that signal the presence of intelligent extraterrestrial life.

Shuch promises that the SETI League will help amateurs get the hardware, the software and co-ordinate the efforts being made by members across the world.

Question him what happens if an unnatural signal pattern is detected and his eyes light up. But his enthusiasm is peppered with words of caution. "The first thing would be to see if the signal has periodicity. It is similar to the idea that if results can't be duplicated it is not successful science. We don't' want to tell the world that ET is calling me and then discover that it was inference from military equipment," he smiles. Shuch adds "If the signal is truly an unknown one then we would have to run a complete diagnostic on it. Then I guess we would have a psychologist examine us to prove that we are not fooling ourselves or believing in something because we desperately want to believe in it. Then we would verify it by checking if someone else at some distant location too has obtained the signal. When all this checks true we will call the press and tell the world that ET is here!"


The SETI League site

The SETI institute online

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