SETI@Arecibo: Observatory Life

March 19, 2001

by Seth Shostak - Senior Astronomer

Project Phoenix is back at Arecibo, checking out nearby stars for signs of intelligent life. Astronomer Seth Shostak is reporting from the observatory once again, and will be home to his Arecibo Diaries. This is the final installment.

"If I start to snore, just throw something at me." Peter Backus, who manages the Project Phoenix observing program, switches off the last of the lights in Bachelor Unit #1.

It’s 3:30 am -- an early night. The terminology rumbles through my sleepy brain: "Bachelor Unit #1." Sounds like something out of Stalinist Russia, with an ambience to match. The teak and plywood Bachelor digs are like dorms at an all wood college, sporting a single bathroom, a small kitchen and a Formica plank that might serve as a desk if you’re desperate.

Life at the observatory is Spartan, but as the veterans like to brag, it used to be a lot rougher. Not so long ago, the only accommodations were the dorm-like garrets known as the Visiting Scientist’s Quarters. Bunk beds were standard issue. It’s hard to imagine a quartet of guys living in those things for a few weeks without starting World War 3.

In the mornings – late mornings – I stumble down the stairways to the cafeteria. The observatory recently constructed an outdoor dining area with high-grade, polished picnic tables; a roof to keep your chicken from drowning in the event of a sudden downpour; and an overhead fan to discourage flies. Not that there are many flies. The observatory is remarkably free of insects, a fact that the locals attribute to the living carpet of small frogs and lizards covering the hills. When it comes to a choice between insects and reptiles, I vote for the reptiles. Unlike the flies, lizards won’t land on your beans.

Maggie Turnbull – a grad student from the University of Arizona with bright eyes and an easy laugh – is ahead of me in line. She’s surveying the open, stainless steel tubs of food. Chicken. Beef. Turkey. Veggies tortured long past the point of confessing. "Not much here if you don’t like hot, dead animals," she says.

"Well, it’s meat week," I offer.

"You mean, sometimes they have just salad and veggies?"

"No, I think it’s always meat week."

Easy parody, but in fact the cafeteria has added a salad bar for those whose tastes run to chlorophyll. And to be fair, the appeal of the main courses has greatly improved. This has eliminated a convenient source of complaint, which – like removing an escape valve – has probably heightened the stress level for visiting observers.

For those who insist on grousing about the food, the final opportunity may be the quantity. A typical lunch is a groaning plate heaped with chicken, rice (required by law), beans, salad and a hunk of bread, lubricated with a liter of brown gravy. Now for those observatory employees who’ve been laboring all day under the dish, tightening bolts or taming the underbrush, these ample rations are probably necessary. We, on the other hand, have done nothing more strenuous than occasionally punch the "return" key.

I’m hiking the 500 concrete steps to the observatory’s snazzy Visitors’ Center. A recent addition is a scale model of the solar system, with a basketball-sized Sun at the start of the stairs and planets on metal poles all the way up. I’ve seen this kind of thing before; probably you have, too. But I’m up the stairs about a hundred feet, and there’s Earth...a small – really small – blue-white bead, maybe 0.1 inch (3 millimeters) in size, behind a Plexiglas window. I look up the stairway to Mars: an even smaller bead, 70 feet (21 meters) away.

The relative sizes and distances of the universe are back-of-the-hand knowledge for every astronomer, and pretty much taken for granted. But I’m stunned by the incredibly tiny size of this blue bead even in the relatively limited space of our own solar system. How miniscule and insignificant the planets are -- a few grains of sand whirling through an amphitheater.

This, in the end, is what SETI is all about. Somewhere, on an unknown, unseen bead many tens of thousands of miles away (on this scale) there may be a bit of equipment making a signal. We’re trying to find that? We are. Incredibly, we are.

Something unexpectedly hits me from behind. I reach around my head and grope in the dark. Why is it dark? I find a book, a softcover book.

"You were snoring!"

"What?" I look over to the next bed, and see the face of Peter Backus.