Brave Thinkers 2012 November 2012

Geoff Marcy

Astronomer

Celebrated as the “planet hunter” for his role in discovering more than 400 of them, Marcy raised eyebrows recently when he announced he was shifting focus, taking over as the head of Berkeley’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence program and becoming an alien hunter. The long odds he faces notwithstanding, Marcy has a plan.

I’ve been intrigued by the question of extraterrestrial life for a long time; the whole idea of other civilizations that have been around for thousands or even millions of years longer than humans just seemed like an amazing reality. But the interest is logical as well. Now that we’re finding Earth-like planets out there, you have to wonder: Is there intelligent life on them? The search for life is simply the next best question.

The mechanics of answering, of course, are unique. While we now have a precise method for detecting planets in other solar systems, detecting life requires guesswork. It requires us to put ourselves in the place of advanced species that have technology beyond what we humans do—communications technology, in particular, because the best chance we have of detecting intelligent life is eavesdropping on their communications. For me, the question is not “Is anybody out there?” It’s “Is anybody out there, close enough to communicate with?” And the odds of answering that question, given our current resources, are slim—maybe one in 1,000. So if we, at Berkeley or anywhere else, don’t end up finding life, I won’t think of that as a failure; I’ll think of it as information. We humans may realize that we are carrying the ball for intelligent life in this sector of the Milky Way.

And the small odds of success, ultimately, can be liberating. I feel like I have the lucky opportunity to fail in all this, simply because I’ve been so fortunate up to now. When I began searching for exoplanets, everybody said I was crazy. But it worked, and planet hunting has moved from science fiction to, simply, science. So while finding life out there is a long shot, there’s also this: I got lucky once. I might get lucky again.

See all our 2012 Brave Thinkers.

Presented by

As told to Megan Garber, staff writer, The Atlantic

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we still save the night sky?

Video

The Faces of #BlackLivesMatter

Scenes from a recent protest in New York City

Video

Desegregated, Yet Unequal

A short documentary about the legacy of Boston busing

Video

Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Life

The Supreme Court justice talks gender equality and marriage.

Video

Social Media: The Video Game

What if the validation of your peers could "level up" your life?

Video

The Pentagon's $1.5 Trillion Mistake

The F-35 fighter jet was supposed to do everything. Instead, it can barely do anything.

More in Technology

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In