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An Astronomer Gazes Earthward

January 06, 1988|BETTYANN KEVLES

Brown dwarfs and little green men inhabit Benjamin Zuckerman's working world.

Neither cartoonist nor fantasist, Zuckerman is an astronomer whose recent discovery of the first brown dwarf suggests that other planets exist outside the solar system. Zuckerman defines a brown dwarf as "an object not massive enough to be a star, but bigger than a planet." While this discovery fuels the imagination of astronomers and non-scientists alike about the possibility of intelligent creatures living on these celestial objects, Zuckerman laughs at the possibility of conversing with an extraterrestrial.

He is more interested in life on what he believes is a truly exotic and probably unique stellar body--the Earth.

At 43, an astronomy professor at UCLA since 1982, Zuckerman finds time after international conferences in India to trek in Nepal, or between visits to American observatories to hike through remote corners of the Grand Canyon.

A New Yorker who fell in love with the West, he is especially drawn to remote habitats.

"I love the river canyons of the Southwest because they are beautiful and unspoiled," he said.

From Atheist to Agnostic

Like many astronomers who have to travel to telescopes on isolated peaks and deserts, Zuckerman has come to appreciate his earthly surroundings as much as the deep space he studies.

Once an atheist, he now calls himself an agnostic.

"It is hard not to believe. We are in a remarkably constructed universe," he said.

The beauty and complexity of the sky he explores with telescopes--and the earth he treads--have convinced him that there must be some plan.

This awe has turned him into an active conservationist. He muses about abandoning his study of the heavens and devoting himself to the immediate challenge of preserving endangered species. He carries a newspaper clipping in his wallet that quotes David Ben Gurion: "Anyone worth anything must have two careers. If you do not do two things, your life is a waste of time."

But the search for extraterrestrial life keeps tickling his consciousness.

"I will be surprised, but not amazed, if intelligent life is discovered in our lifetime," he said.

The brown dwarf he discovered has rekindled talk of life elsewhere in this galaxy. It is a cool, gaseous globe about the size of Jupiter that he detected using the infrared telescope atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii. He noticed that there was an excess of 90% more radiation than there should have been around a known star.

The discovery of this first brown dwarf suggests that additional optically invisible bodies exist in other solar systems, some of which may support life. Zuckerman is very sensitive to these implications.

Earlier in his career he co-discovered various molecules in space, including formaldehyde, ethyl alcohol and formic acid--some of the building blocks of life. In the early 1970s, he was also part of a search for distant radio signals from other worlds.

But he insists: "I think of myself as an observationalist. I don't like to speculate."

But he does speculate.

That search for extraterrestrial life left him a skeptic, and in a book he co-edited in 1982, "Extraterrestrials: Where Are They?," he says humans haven't picked up any signals because there are no extraterrestrials trying to signal.

Doubts Successful Search

"Maybe," he said, "the planned Jet Propulsion Lab/National Aeronautics and Space Administration search for extraterrestrial life, which is scheduled to start in 1989, will find it. But I think their chances for success are nil."

He points out that there are three separate leaps of faith involved. First is the belief that there are other planets in other solar systems. This, he grants, is probably true, especially in the light of his recent discovery.

Next is the belief that life has evolved elsewhere. This, too, is probably true considering the organic molecules he himself has discovered.

But finally, there is the leap from simple organic compounds to intelligent life. This is the step he does not believe has occurred in any region within communicating distance of the Earth. He points out that the brown dwarf is probably no more welcoming to life than Jupiter.

Of course it may not be a brown dwarf.

Strange Radiation Search

"It could be a group of dust particles or asteroids," he said. Or, he adds with tongue in cheek, the radiation could be produced by "Little Green Men." He jots down an equation and labels the unknown "LGM." This strange source of radiation--he cannot suppress a grin--could be an artificial power source, an astro-engineering project of hypothetical aliens.

He seems to get a kick out of conjuring up accomplishments for these creatures. In his book about extraterrestrials, he fantasizes that "advanced civilizations may reorganize their solar systems taking apart moons and even planets to construct habitats in space. Advanced astro-engineers could produce huge sources of radiation . . ." a brown dwarf.

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