HAT CREEK, Calif. — It's easy to spot Jack Welch's airplane as it glides past the foothills near this tiny mountain town. It's the only one.
Hardly anyone lives out this way--just a few thousand locals and a trickle of tourists. That's what makes it the perfect spot for what has turned into Welch's life work: listening to outer space.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 10, 1999 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Extraterrestrial life--A May 31 Times article on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence incorrectly named the author of a science fiction story about aliens who arrive on Earth "to serve man." The short story was written by Damon Knight.
These days, the UC Berkeley professor's job has become a bit more precise. He's the first to hold the university's chair for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence--what researchers say is the first academic position of its kind in the world.
That's right, he's waiting for ET to get on the phone.
"We get that a lot," said Welch, who teaches astronomy and electrical engineering. Smiling politely at "X-Files" jokes, UFO questions and "Star Trek" references is practically part of the job. It's also part of his life. His wife, Jill Tartar, heads Project Phoenix for the Mountain View-based Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (known as SETI) near San Jose. She was the model for the astronomer played by Jodie Foster in the 1997 film "Contact," which is based on a story by Carl Sagan.
With his appointment to the university's chair, Welch can place even greater emphasis on one of his great passions: finding evidence that human beings are not alone in the universe.
"What's important about this position is the recognition that what we are working with is serious, legitimate science," he said. "We know so little about what's out there, not to look for [intelligent life] is really foolish."
Scientists have been looking "out there" from the university's Hat Creek Observatory near Lassen Peak in the Cascades since the 1960s. Welch helped set up the radio astronomy lab, and UC Berkeley scientists have been tracking signals sent by planets, stars, black holes and galaxies ever since.
Ten radiotelescopes scan the heavens from a small plateau in the mountains. The whir and whine of their motors cut through the country stillness. Their round, white faces tilt in unison as a computer runs a "script," telling them where to point. A coyote watches this eerie ballet from the edge of a nearby clearing. Swallows flutter away when their perch suddenly swivels.
Welch, 65, has been making the trip to Hat Creek for more than 40 years. He became a researcher at the university's observatory there in 1963 and served as director from 1972 to 1996. Rather than make the five- to six-hour drive north from the Bay Area, Welch learned to fly.
"Interstate 5 wasn't built then, and on each trip up here I'd see a few accidents on the roads," he said. "I figured the odds were against me, so flying to Hat Creek looked like a good idea."
Welch now flies in weekly in his blue Cessna as he carries out his five-year mission. The Watson and Marilyn Albert chair he has held since September was set up with a $500,000 gift by a pair of Berkeley alumni.
The professor plans to build 500 to 1,000 radiotelescopes, which will be electronically connected to form one enormous instrument. The array would cover more than two acres and have a collecting area of 10,000 square meters. The giant telescope is expected to cost about $25 million.
"The exciting thing is we think we can arrange to look in several directions at once, which means that instead of looking at 10 stars, we can look at hundreds of stars," Welch said.
The resulting radiotelescope will be devoted largely to the search for extraterrestrial life. The instrument will scan the universe and listen for a signal whose power and narrow focus make it stand out from galactic "noise." If such a signal is heard, an alarm will sound and scientists will search for the source.
"If someone is sending a beacon and they're within 10 light years, we'll be able to hear it. We'll be able to have a conversation," Welch said, then grinned. "My nightmare is the answer will come back, 'Would you please repeat the question?' "
In light of intense interest in and skepticism about the project, Welch finds himself repeating several answers.
"I have to tell people we're not looking for UFOs; we're looking for signals," he said. "I'm pretty well convinced there are other people out there. But will we find them in this lifetime? I'd say that's a longshot. But we have to look."
Robert Jastrow, director of the Mount Wilson Institute in Los Angeles, agreed.
A renowned astronomer who joined NASA the day it was formed, Jastrow helped oversee an event many thought would remain pure science fiction: the Apollo moon landing. He called Berkeley's SETI program a realistic project based on a line of clear reasoning.
"Life is made of molecular building blocks that can exist on other planets and, for the first time, we have evidence that planets are common in the universe," Jastrow said. "If we find life on Mars, even if it's very primitive, then we know life started on two planets in one solar system. That makes the proposition of life in other solar systems even more likely."