E.T. Ph.D.: Space Alien Research Could Get Its First Grad Program

One day in spring 2018 astrophysics professor Jason Wright gave his students a tall order: make a substantial, novel contribution to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI)—in a semester. That kind of research is usually reserved for Ph.D. dissertations, the culmination of years of toil and turmoil. But Wright was asking the students in one of his classes at Pennsylvania State University—the school’s first ever graduate course in SETI—to conduct such work because it seemed possible: in the way that 19th-century naturalists could simply trek around the tropics and discover new species, budding SETI scientists still have plenty of low-hanging (but juicy) fruit to pluck. Although SETI has been around for about 60 years, it is still a small and immature academic field, with its research happening largely outside the ivory tower. Penn State would like to change both of those things.

That initial class was an experiment, but it is now in the school’s official course catalogue and represents the university’s first small step in boosting SETI research. The giant leap will be the creation of the Penn State Extraterrestrial Intelligence Center, or PSETI Center: a formal academic hub that aims to fund research, host conferences, educate students, and raise up the next (and next and next) generations of scientists looking for space aliens. If everything works out, Wright aims to dedicate PSETI at the First Penn State SETI Symposium in July.

Stumbling into SETI

At the helm of this still unbuilt ship is Wright, an affable, articulate guy who—until fairly recently—mostly studied exoplanets and not signs of their potential exobeings. His journey into SETI research was a coincidence, a collision between past and present that—like any collision—sent him spinning off in a new direction. In 2012 he attended a talk by Michael Cushing of the University of Toledo about Y dwarfs, small starlike spheres sometimes cooler than the human body. They were hiding in data from the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). “He had found one or two objects that were room temperature in space,” Wright says, still sounding amazed.

The relative chilliness of the objects sent Wright’s brain back to his grad-school days, when an adviser had proposed that he look for Dyson spheres—hypothetical alien-engineering projects that capture the energy from stars and radiate heat—using data from a survey called 2MASS. Wright did not end up pursuing the project, because 2MASS could only pick up fevered Dyson spheres, which are unrealistically hot. In reality, the structures, if they exist, would probably be closer to room temperature—like, Wright realized during the 2012 colloquium, a Y dwarf; like what WISE could see. “That’s it!” he thought. “That’s the data set.” With Penn State astronomer Steinn Sigurdsson, he dreamed up a project called G-HAT, or Glimpsing Heat from Alien Technologies. The two sifted through WISE data for signs of life.

They did not find any, but as Wright was searching, another idea occurred to him: Dyson spheres would also show up in visible-light telescopes—when they crossed in front of their stars, they would block starlight. One day, while he was working on this hypothetical idea, an astronomer named Tabetha Boyajian stopped by his office. In hand, she had some strange data about a star that periodically dimmed by more than 20 percent, as if something big was passing between us and it—just the way a Dyson sphere would. Wright fatefully mentioned that idea to a reporter for the Atlantic. As alien headlines often do, this one went viral. And all of a sudden, a guy who had only done a little SETI research became famous—or notorious—for it.

Soon, when journalists needed a comment for their “I’m not saying it’s aliens but” articles, they turned to Wright. He decided to embrace the notoriety—aesthetically and academically—and to make it easier for others to do so. SETI’s hurdles, Wright had realized, were located right at its starting line. Since the 1990s, money mostly has not come from the federal sources, such as NASA, that astronomers usually depend on. There are no training programs. Just seven people have ever gotten Ph.D.s doing SETI research. And then there is the part where people call it silly, wasteful, hype-driven and out of place in the halls of any university. So when former SETI Institute board chair John Gertz floated the idea of an academic center that basically said goodbye to all of those issues, Wright bit—and kept chewing. The idea eventually became PSETI.

A Legitimate Pursuit

Today PSETI boasts advisers such as Natalie Batalha, former mission scientist for the Kepler space telescope, and Aleksander Wolszczan, who co-discovered the first exoplanets. Together, they hope to mature SETI into a full-on academic field. Astronomer Jill Tarter—who has dedicated her career to SETI but has largely had to work independently, outside of universities and funding agencies—is excited about what the center could mean for research. “We need to make SETI a legitimate academic pursuit,” she says. And doing so will also add to other disciplines. “It is a great way to teach a cornucopia of more traditional science, engineering and math topics.”

First on PSETI’s to-do list is figuring out what important studies scientists have already conducted. “That’s part of what academia does,” Wright says. “It formalizes disciplines and creates a canon of work that gets cited and a common body of knowledge to build upon. And that’s what SETI has been missing.” Though some good overview articles of radio SETI exist, few papers pull together the full spectrum. “There were all of these hidden gems,” he adds, “all these papers I stumbled across that nobody cited.” Scientists have thus been exploring some of the same ideas over and over, without realizing it.

As a starting solution, a student in the first graduate course, Alan Reyes, created a comprehensive library of SETI studies as his final project. Others in that course took different approaches: William P. Bowman and Caleb Cañas made a database of alien-signal searches that have been done so far, which became part of the SETI Institute’s searchable “technosignatures” catalogue. Christian Gilbertson worked with a $100-million, privately funded SETI project called Breakthrough Listen to make its public Python code actually usable to outsiders. And Sophia Sheikh devised a way to search for engineered signals skewed by motion around their stars without knowing much about that motion.

Sheikh is planning to do her Ph.D. work on SETI as a PSETI member. But the center does not quite exist yet: it awaits approval from the university’s vice president for research. Douglas Cavener, dean of Penn State’s Eberly College of Science and a PSETI supporter, feels confident that approval will come. “The president is already on our advisory board even though we don’t have a center,” he says. And wealthy donors have pledged around $3.5 million of their estates to the center’s endowment. PSETI’s money will support Penn State scientists and their projects, outside researchers’ work, the symposium, professorships and grad-student salaries. The initiative aims to be, for SETI, what agencies such as NASA and the National Science Foundation have been for other subfields: a stable, supportive partner. That is particularly important for a necessarily lengthy enterprise such as scouring the cosmos for life. “We’re really committed to the long haul,” Cavener says.

No one knows what the future holds—what discoveries will be made, what innovations will be schemed, what signals will be dissected. But even if astronomers make extraterrestrial contact someday, Wright believes PSETI will still be useful. The meaning of the acronym SETI will merely shift: “The S just changes from ‘search’ to ‘study,’” he says.

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