In the middle of a lush green jungle in Puerto Rico sits an astonishing testimony to the scientific imagination. The Arecibo Observatory is an engineering marvel, constructed over 50 years ago. It is a huge radio telescope scanning the heavens and recording a variety of planetary phenomena, asteroid approaches, odd energy bursts, radio signals, and other heavenly things that I do not know how to define. You’ve probably photos of it: a huge dish nestled in a sinkhole. Above it hovers a sub-reflector and a waveguide. It looks like an alien encampment, stark and vaguely threatening.
The Arecibo Observatory has accomplished much over the years in the way of astronomical research. Hundreds of programs and projects were birthed right there in the jungle. As I understand it, the original intent for the construction of this breathtaking telescope was to create an advanced means by which to detect Russian missiles launched against the USA. That didn’t work so well. But what they were able to detect was the action in our solar system. And as technology ramped up, from massive, slow computers to ultra-advanced software systems, astronomers were able to see more and more.
There have been many firsts from the jungles of Puerto Rico: the first asteroid ever imaged; the true rotation of Mercury; signal emissions from a brown dwarf star; the rotation speed of pulsars; the chemical composition of the atmosphere of moons of Jupiter. These are examples of the work done at Arecibo.
But of all the projects that have transpired at Arecibo, I am most transfixed by SETI: the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. We’ve all surely looked up at the nighttime sky, filled with so many shining stars and God knows what else, and wondered, “Is somebody looking back at me? Are there other places in the Universe with intelligent life? Or are we a lonely planet of strange lifeforms slapped together through the strange phenomenon of DNA?”
It’s one thing when you or I look up with awe and wonder in child-like amazement. But it is surely another thing when an astronomer or astrophysicist gazes at the same panorama. We see philosophy; they see science. We think about it all as a question, an interesting, ever unknowable question. They think about it as a problem to solve.
The urge to understand the cosmos and to solve the riddle of extraterrestrial life has been explored by scientists for hundreds of years. From Galileo to Newton to Einstein to Stephen Hawking to Kip Thorne, and a million people in between, scientists qua scientists have asked, “Are we alone?” – and then set out to definitively answer with real time data as evidence.
A group of scientists started the SETI project many years ago, using the Arecibo Observatory to scan the cosmos, looking for patterns, radio signals that repeat in a logical cycle rather than pulse randomly. So far – nothing. At least, nothing we recognize as anything other than energy impulses from the stars. But they’re still looking.
1974, some scientists adopted a new aspect to this work, called “active” SETI, or METI: messaging extraterrestrial life. They decided that, rather than wait for a message, we should send out a three-minute encoded pictogram into the cosmos, saying, essentially, “Hello from the planet Earth.”
And now, 46 years after sending out that cosmic message in a bottle, a series of budget crises, internal arguments about who really runs the Observatory, and grueling climate change wreaking havoc on the island of Puerto Rico 46 years later after, Arecibo Observatory is no longer. Engineers cannot find a safe way to repair it after two cables supporting the structure suddenly and catastrophically broke, one in August and one in early November. It is the end of one of the most iconic and scientifically productive telescopes in the history of astronomy—and scientists are mourning its loss. “I am totally devastated,” says Abel Mendéz, an astrobiologist at the University of Puerto Rico in Arecibo who uses the observatory.
I am devastated, too. That Arecibo is gone due to human foibles seems impossible. The neglect of science and the notion that it is anything other than essential to understanding our present and future is destructive. That climate change, which has altered weather patterns and has made the southern Atlantic area increasingly vulnerable to storms, is played down as a hoax while people suffer from its effects, is criminal. That internal political bickering threatens the very essence of American democracy, and puts millions of Americans at risk, is intolerable. The end of Arecibo is a parable about what happens as Nero fiddles.
Is anybody out there? And if someone IS there? Do we invite them over for a play date? Given the condition of Earth right now, how comfortable would we be receiving guests?
So many questions. So much strife and angst. And yet, even as Arecibo is slowly swallowed by jungle vines and buffeted by hurricane winds, the message in the bottle continues its way across the cosmos. Space is expanding and the stars drift away from view while the light from stars that were born a billion light years ago is just reaching us. Today. The glass is half empty. The glass is half full. And here we are, looking up at the nighttime sky, looking for someone else, looking for ourselves.