Published: 3:39 PM 3/11/2014
By Kristina Houck
Are we alone?
It’s a question most of us have asked ourselves; and a question a Del Mar resident hopes to one day answer.
For nearly three decades, James Brown has spent countless hours searching for extraterrestrial intelligence. The search began with a book.
A Salt Lake City native, Brown relocated to Del Mar with his wife, Cherie, from the Bay Area in 1976. He had also just finished building a computer — a computer he believes to be the first ever built by a single person.
That’s when he came across “Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence” in a local bookstore. Edited by astronomer and author Carl Sagan, the book suggested that as computers became more powerful, they could become an important part of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
“I read all that and a light dawned on me that I was probably one of the very few people on Earth that could actually build a thing like that,” said Brown, who worked as an engineer for 35 years, retiring from SAIC in 1999.
“I knew about computers, electronics and radio frequency, and I had time to do it.”
Brown set out to develop hardware and software to detect extraterrestrial intelligence, which is known as the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, or SETI.
He built the first SETI search system on his second computer, a Z80 machine he called “Zeke.” He also purchased and installed a 12-foot antenna, and developed early software before Windows had even released.
His first SETI system was born.
Since retiring, Brown has spent much of his time developing and operating the new system, SETI Network.
“A lot of people think that we must have groups of people searching for extraterrestrial intelligence in the United States and around the world. There must be government-sponsored projects because it seems pretty important,” said Brown, who is also known by his amateur radio call sign W6KYP.
“But there are only four SETI stations.”
Brown’s station, SETI Network, is located at his Del Mar home. He believes it is the only amateur search station in operation.
He knows of three professional SETI stations in operation. These include the Allen Telescope Array in Northern California, Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and SETI Italia.
“Four stations on Planet Earth searching for extraterrestrials — that doesn’t seem right to me!” he said.
Using his equipment, Brown searches for a “beacon” every day.
“Let’s say there’s an extraterrestrial out here,” said Brown, as he pointed to an image of the solar system on his screen. “If he wanted to be found — if he had the ability, the money, the time and the technology — he would probably send a beacon to each of the stars in the Milky Way.
He would go through the whole Milky Way, one star at a time, and finally he would get around to our sun and shoot the beacon toward us.”
It would take a high-powered beacon to make it all the way to Earth, but that’s not the only problem.
For starters, there are about 300 billion stars in the galaxy.
“The odds are very small — miniscule — but they’re worth a shot,” Brown said.
There is also a vast space for Brown to search for a beacon. Although he has narrowed his search to a clear spot known as the “water hole,” that alone is a large area.
“The problem is that the beacon may not be pointed to us for another 300 billion years and I may be looking in the wrong place for the beacon,” Brown said. “So the odds are pretty small. Nevertheless, that’s what I’m doing, and that’s probably why other people are not.”
The SETI League honored Brown for his technical contributions to amateur SETI science with the Giordano Bruno Memorial Award in 2005.
But his contributions weren’t cheap.
In all, Brown estimates it has cost about $20,000 to build and maintain his station over the years. But it’s all worth it, he said, because he believes life is out there.
“I do not because I have any evidence, but because the odds are simply in favor of it,” Brown said. “In our Milky Way, there are 300 billion stars. There’s billions and billions of galaxies. There’s trillions and trillions of planets. From that, you’ve got to think there’s intelligent life on at least one other one.”