By Gail Kurtz
Astronomy professor Geoff Marcy has been appointed the next Watson and Marilyn Alberts Chair in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). The Alberts, who have long held an interest in SETI-related research, established the chair in 1998. It is the first-ever endowed chair that supports the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. “This chair ensures that SETI research will continue to be vigorously pursued at Berkeley, inspiring future generations of scientists to advance the field,” states Watson Alberts.
“It is a great honor to be appointed to the Alberts Chair,” says Marcy, a leading astrophysicist in the detection and characterization of exoplanets. “The discovery of extrasolar planets has spawned the search for Earth-like, habitable worlds and for life in the universe. Our recent discoveries will inevitably lead us to more SETI-related work as we find increasing numbers of potentially habitable planets. It is an extremely exciting time to be in this field.”
Marcy has been a pioneering “planet hunter” since the 1980s, when few scientists believed in the quest to find extrasolar planets. Marcy and his collaborators have discovered and studied over 250 extrasolar planets, including the first multiple planet system (Upsilon Andromedae), the first Saturn-size planet, and the first Neptune-size planet. He is a co-investigator on the NASA Kepler telescope discovery team that, since 2009, has detected more than 2000 possible planets along the “Orion Spur” of our Milky Way galaxy.
Professor Marcy’s appointment to the Alberts Chair coincides with exciting news in his own work-- news relevant to SETI research. In December 2011, the Kepler team announced the detection of “Kepler-22b,” the first planet that the NASA telescope has confirmed in the “habitable zone” of a star very similar to our own. They also announced discovery of the first two Earth-size planets around Sun-like stars (Kepler 20 e and f).
In recent months, Marcy has begun work on new SETI-related projects. In collaboration with Andrew Howard, he is searching for laser beams emitted by advanced civilizations by taking spectra of nearby stars and galaxies. He is also searching for signs of Dyson spheres in the brightness variations of nearby stars.
“I couldn’t be more pleased about the support this appointment provides me and my team. As we continue to search for habitable planets, we will also seek methods to detect signals from extraterrestrial intelligence. This appointment will assist me in developing that research and will allow me to support and involve dynamic emerging astronomers, who will continue this work long into the future.“
The Alberts are both Berkeley alums, Watson holding a Ph.D. in Biophysics and Marilyn a B.A. in English. The two have been involved in SETI work for many years. Watson has volunteered for the University’s SETI-related project, SERENDIP, which analyzes radio signals picked up by its telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. The couple has also supported the SERENDIP project.
“We are very excited about Geoff’s appointment to the chair,” states Marilyn. “Our interest in SETI has been steady over the years, and it has been thrilling to watch Geoff’s work bring him closer and closer to finding habitable, and therefore potentially life-supporting, planets in the universe.”