When scientists go out looking for research funding, it helps if their projects aren’t all that exciting. Excitement usually goes with the most speculative, cutting-edge science, but funding agencies usually prefer to put their money on projects that seem likely to bear fruit. “You pretty much have to demonstrate that you’ve already done half the work to demonstrate it’s feasible,” says Lucianne Walkowicz, a postdoctoral fellow in astrophysics based at Princeton University.
By that standard, Walkowicz’s latest project shouldn’t be getting any funding at all. She wants to conduct a search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), not by doing anything so conventional as listening for radio transmissions á la Jodie Foster in Contact, or watching for flashes of laser light. Instead, she wants to see if ET’s are somehow manipulating the light coming from their stars so that they wink at us — a long shot if ever there was one, especially since she has no clue how they might go about it.
But thanks to a program titled “New Frontiers in Astronomy and Cosmology,” funded by the John Templeton foundation and administered by the University of Chicago, Walkowicz is getting her chance. Cutting-edge research is what this program is all about, and the question “Are We Alone in the Universe?” is one of the major areas it aims to address.
The odds of a discovery with Walkowicz’s project may be long, but the search technique is quite straightforward. “Our premise,” she says, “is that up until now, we’ve had a preconceived idea of what a SETI signal would look like.” It would basically be the sort of signal we know how to create, and understandably so, since searching for a signal from some entirely unknown technology would be kind of difficult.
If aliens were so advanced that they could cause their star to appear to flicker, however, it wouldn’t matter how they did it, and it would be easy enough to see with existing technology. In fact, says Walkowicz, “our premise was, ‘what if we’ve already detected a signal but missed it because of our preconceptions.’”
So she and her co-investigators (including Princeton’s Edwin Turner, who recently suggested looking for alien cities on Pluto), proposed to look through a potential trove of signals: the archives from the Kepler mission, which has been scanning space since 2009 for stars that are winking because of orbiting planets passing in front of them. Kepler also sees stars that are winking because they have sunspots, or because they’re eclipsed by other stars, or because they brighten and dim naturally, all on heir own.
What Walkowicz and company will do is use software algorithms to look for unusual patterns of variability. “We’ll get all sorts of things we understand,” she says, “but we’ll also be looking for things that aren’t matched by well-known physical processes.”
Naturally, they’ll try at first to explain these unusual variations with conventional physics — and in fact, the discovery of new, natural types of stellar variation could be a valuable side benefit of the project. Big, wide-field surveys of the sky with instruments such as the upcoming Large Synoptic Survey Telescope will inevitably uncover all sorts of unexpected phenomena, so Walkowicz’s work could pre-explain at least some of them.
Once she and her team have ruled out all of the plausible natural explanations for strange flickerings, however, they’ll be forced to consider the possibility that it really is ET calling. “What would lead us to say it really is an alien signal?” she asks. “I don’t know, but in my book, finding things you can’t explain is interesting no matter what it is. If we see ‘SOS, send water,’ in Morse code, that would be great.”
There will probably be a bit more ambiguity than that, she admits, and we may never know for certain that we’re seeing a deliberate signal. “You don’t want to invoke the strangest thing first,” says Walkowicz, “but we should think a little bit more outlandishly. If we’re always succeeding all the time, maybe we’re not trying hard enough.”