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Are we alone?

india Updated: Mar 20, 2010 15:01 IST
Pranav Dixit

The Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) facility. Location coordinates: 19° 5'47.46"N - 74° 2'59.07"E, 80 kilometres north of Pune, Western Maharashtra, India.

Time: 7:00 P. M. IST.

A pale moon hovers over the serene landscape that stretches for miles in every direction. The last of the twilight sinks behind the ragged line of the hills of the Western Ghats as a breeze ruffles the grass, undisturbed by human presence. It’s a scene straight out of a science fiction movie: a mammoth dish-antenna towers over this desolate landscape, silhouetted against the sky, gigantic arms glinting white in the moonlight. Its concave face points up at the night sky, freckled with a million stars.

Less than a mile away at the GMRT labs, a lone scientist sits at a bank of computer terminals. CPUs hum in the adjoining room. The scientist pulls his lab coat tightly around him: in here, the temperature is kept at a constant 14° C to keep the highly sensitive equipment from overheating. The building he sits in is sealed off from the outside world, its windows covered by a fine, copper-mesh shielding that stops all radiation from entering – television, radio and cell-phone signals, microwaves and signals generated by electronic equipment.

As the scientist taps a series of commands into his terminal and throws a few switches, the silence in the lonely field outside is broken by a gentle whir. Slowly, very slowly, the giant antenna begins to turn its face – and locks on to a target in the sky. This particular antenna is part of an array of 30, each weighing about 80 tons and taller than a seven-storey building. They stand in a Y-shaped array in a circle of 25 kilometres. Together, they make up the world’s largest array of radio telescopes operating at metrewave frequency, and can see about 80 per cent of the sky visible from the Earth. The antennas receive radio signals that the hundreds of billions of stars and planets in the cosmos constantly emit. The signals zip through over 50 kilometres of an underground optic fibre network back to the GMRT labs, where they are processed and analysed.

Set up in 1995, the GMRT is operated by the National Centre for Radio Astrophysics (NCRA), Pune, and is part of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai. The objective is purely scientific – using radio telescopes for cutting edge research in modern astronomy. This includes the study of hydrogen clouds in space, neutron stars and galaxies, all in a bid to come up with answers to the question that has flummoxed mankind forever: how did the Universe begin?

Few people know, however, that it is the only institute in the country capable of determining something even more groundbreaking: whether some of the radio signals received by its antennas have been sent by an intelligent life-form – an extraterrestrial being, somewhere in outer space.

Search for the unknown

Generations of human beings have been fascinated by the possibility of life in outer space. Are there strange, scaly, tail-swishing, claw-brandishing creatures that survive on the hydrogen that makes up most of our universe? Or are there simply bacteria or amoeba-like creatures crawling around on some comet a thousand light years away? SETI – the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence – is the collective name for a number of activities people undertake to search for extraterrestrial life by using scientific methods. The project is currently pursued most actively at the University of California, Berkeley, and completes 50 years this month. Since its inception, the GMRT’s facilities have also been used for the search for life in the universe. Its latest programme, a 10-hour long experiment titled Project SETIG, was conducted on 1st June, 2009.

Here’s how SETI works: Most stars and planets generate electromagnetic waves from their magnetic poles. Telescopes, like the ones at the GMRT, catch these waves and process them with the help of sophisticated computer systems. “Essentially, we construct an image of the sky, similar to how an X-Ray shows you an image of your bones,” says Dr. Yashwant Gupta, chief scientist at the GMRT-NCRA.

To determine if a radio signal is coming from an intelligent being out there, you first need to determine if it is coming from a natural or an artificial source, says Dr Gupta. “Once you have established that, you need to look for a pattern – unlike most signals emitted by nature, artificial signals are fired in rock-steady pulses.” Much like the FM radio in your car catches radio waves and converts them into sound, SETI experimenters come up with complex algorithms to help them convert these artificial signals into something they hope they can understand.

Needle in the haystack

Wait a minute… what was that again? What we’re assuming here is this: A: There is life out there in the universe. B: It is at least as developed, perhaps more developed than life on earth. C: It uses the same type of radio waves we use on Earth for its communication. D: It is broadcasting these radio waves out into space in the hope that someone (like us!) will be waiting to receive them. Isn’t that a lot of assuming? “Of course it is!” laughs Dr Gupta. “The whole thing is based on a lot of ‘ifs’ and that is why I am a healthy sceptic of the whole thing. It’s exactly like looking for a needle in a haystack. But at least you know what a needle looks like!”

Vishal Gajjar, a Ph.D scholar at the NCRA, disagrees. “The SETI programme was designed by the collective wisdom of the world’s best scientists,” he says. “So we’re definitely not assuming things randomly. There is a scientific logic behind the assumptions. You cannot be sure that there are aliens who are sending radio signals towards you, but then, you have to start looking somewhere! If you never search, the possibility of finding anything is zero.”

Does life exist in the Universe? “I think that it is very likely,” says Dr. Rajaram Nityananda, former centre director of the NCRA. “It is possible that it may have evolved in some other way and one would definitely like to know more about it. But the sheer vastness of the cosmos means that there are a lot of sceptics. On the other hand, we have no clue how to look for it because we have no idea of what we are looking for in the first place.”

Dr Govind Swarup, one of the pioneers of radio astronomy and the brain behind the telescope array at the GMRT says: “There are over 100 billion galaxies. Each of these galaxies has over a 100 billion stars (like our sun), possibly with solar systems like our own. So it would be very closed-minded of us to think that we are the only living beings that exist anywhere in the Universe. Life IS out there!”

So why haven’t we found any evidence? “Right now, we can only examine a miniscule amount of our own galaxy,” says Gajjar. “Also, what are the chances that someone will send a signal in our direction at the exact moment we are looking for it?” There is an inherent problem with SETI, says Dr Nityananda. “Imagine trying to listen to someone in a crowded, noisy room. It’s hard to isolate the voice of the person you want from the rest of the voices. It’s the same with radio signals from outer space. Antennas on earth constantly receive millions of signals and you have to figure which are likely to be alien transmissions.” There are ways to do this, of course. “But most of them,” adds Nityananda, “usually just tend to be ‘build a bigger telescope’.”

Close encounters

In the 50 years since SETI began, there have been a few occasions when scientists thought they finally had it – evidence of signals from an advanced civilisation many light years away. In 1977, senior researcher at Ohio State University Dr Jerry Ehman was working on a SETI project at the Big Ear radio telescope. He detected a strong signal that lasted for a full 72 seconds and bore all the hallmarks of a potential non-terrestrial and non-solar system origin. Dr Ehman was so amazed at the discovery that he circled the signal on the computer printout and wrote a big ‘Wow!’ next to it. The signal is now known as the Wow! Signal and till date, its origins remain undiscovered.

Despite some encouraging signs, though, the SETI programme doesn’t have any dearth of sceptics. There are many people (including scientists) who think that institutions should stop wasting money on what is essentially a billion-dollar exercise in grasping at straws.
“But the same logic can be applied to astronomy as well,” says Dr Rajaram. “After all, when you come to think of it, who cares all that much about the galaxies, the stars, the nebulae out there except for the science buffs? Most people would rather see the kind of money that research like this needs spent on solving our problems here on Earth.”

Adds Gajjar: “My personal theory is that even if you look hard enough in our own solar system you will find life. Maybe not intelligent, just bacterial, but it will be there. We just haven’t looked hard enough. And if we do manage to find something, it will be, without a doubt, the single greatest moment in human history.”

Face-off

So what do you think an alien looks like? A few scientists, like Dr Jayant Naralikar, leading Indian astrophysicist and Emeritus Professor at the Inter University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune, think aliens might be less like the blue-skinned, 12-foot tall Pandorians in James Cameron’s $300 million dollar spectacle, Avatar, and more like miniscule bacteria.

Last year, Dr Naralikar was the principal investigator for a unique programme sponsored by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). “Instead of using radio telescopes, we tried an ingenious approach,” says Dr. Naralikar. “We tied a payload to a special type of balloon and launched it 40 kilometres above Hyderabad to collect air samples.”

When these samples were analysed, Dr Naralikar and his team found some shocking evidence: 12 species of bacteria, three of which were entirely new, found nowhere on the globe. “Unlike the bacteria found on Earth, we found that these species were completely immune to all types of UV radiation that is abundant in outer space,” says Dr Naralikar. “Over the next two years, we are going to run more tests on these creatures. Before we claim anything, we are waiting for extraordinary evidence.”

If the extraordinary evidence is indeed found, it will virtually prove panspermia – the theory which holds that life was actually seeded on Earth somewhere from outer space – proof that no living being ever originated here: all life as we know it is an alien race itself.

No big deal

In the 1953 Arthur Clarke novel, Childhood’s End, mankind stops fighting among itself and enters a golden age of peace and prosperity once it is dominated by a highly advanced and intellectually superior alien race known as the ‘Overlords’. This, believes Dr Swarup, is what will happen if we ever make contact with aliens. “We will look beyond our own selves and realise that, actually, we are not as important and special as we think we are,” he says.

“Hundreds of years ago, we thought that the universe revolved around our planet and that the Earth was the centre of the universe,” says Gajjar. “It’s the same case with life. We believe we are alone simply because we haven’t found anyone else. Once we do, we will realise how common we are.”

Back at the GMRT, the scientist switches off his terminal and crosses the length of the frigid room towards the door. There’s a soft click in the silence as he shuts the door behind him. Outside, in the lonely field, the giant dish-antenna stands still, silhouetted against the brilliant moon. Its concave face points straight up at the night, freckled with a million stars. The inky blackness is broken only by a flash of brilliant movement as a falling star leaves a trail in the sky.

UFO sightings

All the experts we spoke to categorically dismissed UFO sightings as a load of old tosh, almost certainly the flights of fancy of hyper-imaginative minds. Here are some reports of sightings in India:

May 13, 2009
In Coimbatore, a final year aeronautical engineering student was lying down on his terrace when he saw what he claims was a ‘flying wing’ in the evening sky. It was grey in colour, had rings on its body and did not make any noise as it flew through the air. Following the flying wing were four rod-shaped objects.

January 22, 2008
A Pune couple was parking their car at the foot of a hillock near their house when they saw something strange flying through the air. When they looked through a pair of binoculars that they happened to be carrying, they saw a ‘typical UFO disk’ “like the ones you see in sci-fi movies” rotating about its axis. After about a minute of hovering in the air, the UFO disappeared behind the hill.

August 24, 2008
A few tourists walking along the sea face at Colaba in Mumbai saw a strange saucer rising out of the ocean. Someone screamed and the saucer disappeared into the clouds that dotted the horizon.

June 17, 2008
A man swimming back-stroke at a pool in Bangalore saw five objects suspended in the sky. They were glowing silver and seemed to be oscillating at regular intervals.

November 15, 2007
Two friends walking along the beach in Vizag, Andhra Pradesh saw what looked like a glowing saucer coming out of the ocean. Further, they claim, that even as they looked, a strange-looking person stepped out of the saucer and starting running across the water.