In 2009, at the TED Conference in Long Beach, CA, Jill Tarter made a wish and challenged the conference attendees:
“I wish that you would empower Earthlings everywhere to become active participants in the ultimate search for cosmic company.”
Sitting in that audience, I was captivated by Dr. Tarter’s talk—she is the real-life astrophysicist upon whom Carl Sagan’s book, “Contact” is based. Having read the book and seen the movie, starring Jodie Foster, I knew a little about Jill’s story. What I didn’t know was her passion for education and involving children in scientific exploration and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, SETI. Like many in the audience, I wondered how I might contribute to this great challenge.
It happened that I had been working on a couple of amateur projects: working with atomic clocks and detecting cosmic rays (perhaps an odd combination). I had been thinking to combine these two interests to engage in a quixotic search for “signals” embedded in the cosmic rays that reach Earth. Amateur scientists aren’t restricted to working on projects that can secure research funding or which will produce publications, so we can pursue any old thing that interests us. As the history of science and technology shows, many important, but unexpected, discoveries were made by amateurs “tinkering” with subjects outside their own vocation. It’s fun to learn new stuff.
My first approach to looking for signals in cosmic rays was to set up an experiment to record the time of arrival of cosmic passing through my laboratory, and then try to find a pattern in the data. I figured that after a few years of collecting data (and after learning how to analyze that mountain of data) I might be able to find a needle in that haystack of data. At least, it would be fun to look—and it didn’t seem that anyone else was looking in that direction. Everybody knows there aren’t any such signals embedded in cosmic rays.
Listening to Jill’s TED Wish talk, I wondered how my hobby project might expand to engage children “..everywhere to become active participants in the ultimate search for cosmic company.” Well, all you have to do is build a bunch of experimental systems and put them in classrooms around the world.
But, it turned out there were some big challenges, both technical and organizational. The introduction of the ERGO Energetic Ray Global Observatory represents a first step in achieving that goal, and, maybe, helping to fulfill to Jill’s wish.