New Brunswick News Newark News Camden News


Searching for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

Former ‘Sputnik kid’ turned Rutgers professor in high-level company at SETI 50th anniversary conference

By Fredda Sacharow
Searching for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
Credit: Nick Romanenko
Christopher Rose was impressed by the hard science he encountered related to measurements indicating the existence exoplanets, planets outside our solar system.

Scientists who monitor the skies for hints of intelligent life beyond Earth’s boundaries felt a glimmer of hope last month when word came of a faraway planet potentially capable of sustaining life.

Christopher Rose, an engineering professor at Rutgers, welcomed the announcement of Gliese 581g, a so-called exoplanet which is orbiting a star about 20 light-years away in the constellation Libra.

“It’s a very exciting discovery, one that greatly increases the possibility that there are quite a few habitable planets out there,” said Rose, who has more than a passing interest in the field of science known as SETI – the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Like others who are similarly engaged, the professor of electrical and computer engineering in the Wireless Information Network Laboratory at Rutgers (WINLAB) has heard the usual canards, and they make him cringe: hopeless dreamers, wild-eyed star-gazers, cranks.

These are hardly labels that describe the heavyweights with whom Rose interacted recently at a high-level conference.

People like Steven Dick, former chief historian for NASA, and Leslie Sage, astronomy editor for the journal Nature. People like Guy Consolmagno, astronomer at the Vatican Observatory, and the Hon. David S. Tatel, judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, DC.

For three days and nights, Rose joined scholars, scientists, physicists, and laboratory directors in Green logoBank, West Virginia, as they directed their gazes skyward, contemplating whether sentient beings inhabit planets far beyond our own.

The by-invitation-only conference at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory formally commemorated 50 years of SETI, presenting what Rose and others believe to be compelling evidence that rudimentary life, or at least its precursor, may indeed exist on other planets.

“Sure, there’s a giggle factor involved, the idea that we’re searching for ‘little green men.’ But most of the people who were at the conference had some affiliation with places like MIT, Cal Tech, UC Berkeley – mostly astrophysics and astrobiology types, all very highly trained,” said Rose, who is no slouch himself when it comes to training.

Rose received his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees from MIT before joining AT&T Bell Laboratories in Holmdel as a member of the Network Systems Research Department.

The multiple winner of the Rutgers Engineering Governing Council Teaching Excellence Award has been at Rutgers since 1990, serving as associate director of WINLAB from 1999 to 2007.

He defines himself as a New York-bred “Sputnik kid” who grew up bombarded by both science fiction and science fact as filtered through the general media of the 1950s and 1960s.

It was an era of what Rose calls “Big Science,” when the possibilities for progress seemed limitless. Great thinkers, such as astronomer Frank Drake of Cornell, would create a methodology to search for distant life in remote solar systems via interstellar radio waves, and the late Philip Morrison would put the search on firm theoretical footing in terms of what frequencies were best.

Those initiatives marked the official launch of SETI, which until the mid-1980s received funding from the federal government and is now being underwritten largely through private donations.

Rose had his own role to play in the SETI saga. It came by way of a 2004 cover story in Nature which offered Rose’s twist on the conventional wisdom about how best to make contact with any extraterrestrial civilization that might exist.

The Rutgers engineer posited that scientists are looking for love in all the wrong places – or at least in all the wrong ways.

As an alternative to scanning electromagnetic waves reaching Earth for any signals far-off beings might have sent, Rose suggested that messages would be more efficiently transmitted by what he calls “information-bearing physical artifacts” – in essence, bundling data and sending it out into the universe.

The paper generated a media buzz, garnering what Rose called “an astounding amount of press coverage,” including an editorial in The New York Times. His notion met with mixed reviews within the SETI community, Rose acknowledged, but apparently is still compelling enough to prompt several informal discussions at last month’s conference. 

What impressed him most about that gathering was the sheer volume of hard science he saw and heard, particularly relating to measurements indicating the existence of exoplanets, or planets outside our solar system. 

Rose described these masses as rocks hurtling around another sun, an astonishing finding, he said, since until 15 years ago scientists didn’t even know for sure that other suns had planets, let alone know how to measure them. 

The results of spectroscopy – essentially measuring the intensity of the colors of the light emanating from the halo around a planet as it passes in front of its sun to examine the composition of the gasses surrounding the planet – led many scientists to believe that these exoplanets could be hospitable to some form of life. 

Recent word that Gliese 581G might fit that bill has Rose intrigued, he said. 

Scientists have dubbed it a “Goldilocks” planet – that is, one situated in a way that the heat radiating from the star it circles is just the right temperature – not too hot, not too cold -- for water to exist in liquid form on its surface. 

“That doesn’t mean there’s life out there,” Rose cautions, “but it does suggest to me that there’s the potential.”