Astronomer Max Tegmark on how SETI altered the course of science

With astronomers still skeptical that extraterrestrial life exists, astronomy buffs all across the country have one goal: find aliens by 2035. In 1990, the astrophysicist Max Tegmark founded the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Mountain View, Calif., with the goal of encouraging scientists to gather data by looking for signs of life on far-flung planets. In his new book, “The Triangular Sky: A Story of the Search for an Exoplanet,” Tegmark chronicles the history of the project from an optimistic beginning — when reporters would be interviewing telescopes scientists at San Francisco’s Old Spaghetti Factory — to the current position.

Tegmark gives us the scoop on life hunting.

How did you get into writing?

I’m fascinated by the story of a community that, in the 1890s, overcame indifference and oppression to make a quest into a scientific priority, one that would ultimately become the epicenter of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. And yet by 1919, researchers had found no signs of alien life. There was a vigorous debate between those who said the quest was hopeless, and those who persisted. Some scientists eventually decided that the search was more important than they had previously believed, but in the meantime, the cost of pursuing the quest was high: tax breaks, heavy bureaucratic regulation, and, arguably, the death of the Dutch astronomer-physicist Christiaan Huygens. So a few decades later, scientists began gathering data on far-flung planets — and got no results. All the while, the search continued in the background, with many scientists giving up and some absconding to venture-capital firms to find an investment. But in the late 1980s, a new politician, Richard Levins, convinced those who hadn’t given up and brought them back together at what was once a restaurant to find aliens. It worked! For a while.

Do you think we’ll find life?

We’ll not be able to see aliens. But if we find evidence that life may exist on alien worlds, we could detect the signals that life uses to communicate to its friends: galaxies of pulsars. The planets that produce the signals are far away, but if you can use advanced equipment to point at them and listen to the ionization of their atmospheres, then you can learn something about them. Even if we do not find life elsewhere, we could discover more useful things, such as the temperature of the methane clouds that are churning over Earth’s oceans.

How much time do you spend writing?

I have to write something every day. I have a three-part schedule: my family meetings, the press preview for my science talk I’m giving at the Intracoastal Science Center the day before, and my readership surveys. The press preview is also the best part of the day. I love our work.

Are you a nerd?


Is your brother nerdy?

My brother is a social-studies major at the University of Oregon. But we’re all nerdy. We all have our own ideas.

What have you learned over the years about science?

What I learned is that if you want to learn something complicated, the best way to learn it is to forget. And if you find something easy, the next step is to find things harder. And if that doesn’t work, then it’s time to stop trying.

Have you made any changes to your book since you wrote it?

No. You can’t change the book without making your characters better. The best way to change is to make them less human.

How did your family respond to this?

When I first wrote the book, my parents said, “It’s going to say things to us we’re not going to like.” Now, we’re learning, and that kind of change is OK. What it has taught us, however, is that without being in the field, you can’t imagine how essential it is to the field to include voices that speak to the way the world actually works.

What would you most like to have learned?

I would love to have learned how to stop laughing.

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