Grants help scientists explore boundary between science & science fiction

October 5, 2012
By: Robert Sanders

Two University of California, Berkeley, scientists have received research grants to explore areas of science that bleed into science fiction.

Lasers in use by telescopes atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii. If aliens elsewhere in the galaxy use lasers for astronomy or communications, we may be able to detect them from Earth. Courtesy of Keck Observatory.

Astronomer Geoff Marcy, who kicked off the search for extrasolar planets 20 years ago, plans to rummage through data from the Kepler space telescope in search of evidence for civilizations advanced enough to have built massive orbiting “solar” power stations.

Theoretical physicist Raphael Bousso will look for ways of detecting universes other than our own, and try to understand what these alternate universes, or multiverses, will look like.

Marcy and Bousso are among 20 innovative researchers who will share more than $4 million in New Frontiers in Astronomy & Cosmology International Grants that were announced Thursday, Oct. 4, by the University of Chicago. The grants were made possible through funding from the Pennsylvania-based John Templeton Foundation as a way to encourage scientists and students worldwide to explore fundamental, big questions in astronomy and cosmology that engage groundbreaking ideas on the nature of the universe.

Many of the recipients, including Marcy, will describe their projects during a joint conference Oct. 12 and 13 at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Joining these presenters will be high school and college students, including UC Berkeley undergraduate Taro Yamaguchi-Phillips, who wrote winning essays about the universe and its habitats for a contest also sponsored by the University of Chicago. His essay, “From Bang to Brain: How Complexity Arises in the Universe,” won an honorable mention. UC Berkeley Nobel Laureate Charles Townes, professor emeritus of physics and 2005 Templeton Prize recipient, will help present the essay prizes.

“Through these awards, the program aims to support bold, innovative research with the potential to expand boundaries and catalyze breakthrough discoveries, as well as inspire students to pursue scientific knowledge and become original, forward-looking big question thinkers of tomorrow,” said Donald G. York, the Horace B. Horton Professor in Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago, who led the competition.

Marcy, a professor of astronomy, is a member of the Kepler space telescope team that is observing the light from 160,000 stars in our galaxy in search of ones that dim periodically because of a planet passing or transiting in front of them.

Marcy realized that the Kepler data might also reveal stars with orbiting power stations called Dyson Spheres: megastructures that orbit a star and capture a large proportion of its energy. They were proposed by physicist Freeman Dyson more than 50 years ago as a likely way for advanced civilizations to power their power-hungry societies. Marcy will look at 1,000 of Kepler’s extrasolar systems in search of solar arrays that pass in front of stars and make them wink on and off.

Cosmologist and string theorist Raphael Bousso and astronomer Geoff Marcy are exploring areas of science bordering on science fiction.

“Kepler has now discovered over 2,000 new worlds around other stars, most of them smaller than twice the size of Earth, and many probably having water,” Marcy said. “This flood of nearly Earth-size planets offers the first opportunity for us humans to hunt for other intelligent species that may have evolved on them.”

Marcy’s grant ‑ $200,000 for two years – will also pay for time on the enormous Keck telescopes in Hawaii to take spectra of 1,000 planet-hosting stars in search of laser emissions from advanced civilizations,

“Technological civilizations may communicate with their space probes located throughout the galaxy by using laser beams, either in visible light or infrared light,” he said. ”Laser light is detectable from other civilizations because the power is concentrated into a narrow beam and the light is all at one specific color or frequency. The lasers outshine the host star at the color of the laser.”

Bousso, a professor of physics, is known for his proposal with Joseph Polchinski, a UC Berkeley Ph.D. now at UC Santa Barbara, that string theory implies that the universe is comprised of possibly an infinite number of multiverses, each with its own physical characteristics but operating under the same laws of physics. Though we are unlikely to be able to visit them or even see them with the largest telescopes – light hasn’t had time to travel that far since the universe began – he is optimistic that it’s possible to find predictions of the hypothesis that can be tested. His two-year, $125,000 grant will help him explore the implications of his hypothesis.

“People were initially skeptical of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, but now, decades later, your GPS runs on it and it has led to incredibly profound questions in physics, such as how the universe began and what happens inside a black hole,” Bousso said. “We are just at the early stages of this multiverse theory, but it is a very serious, plausible proposition that we have to take seriously and test – and try to shoot down as hard as we can.”