Ask Dr. SETI ®
by Daniela De Paulis
As an artist, I have been visiting several radio observatories while working with radio technologies. For more than a decade I have been collaborating with operators and astronomers from around the world and this methodology increasingly showed me how radio antennas can connect humans from different countries and cultures in a meaningful and engaging way. I first visited the Green Bank Observatory in July 2019, for the Moonshots and Earthshots, in the Search for Life be-yond Earth workshop that brought together leading research-ers in the fields of astronomy, astrobiology, philosophy and art.
I returned to the GBO last October to work on my current project A Sign in Space, in collaboration with an international team of SETI researchers. My two months stay at the observatory is supported by the Baruch Blumberg Fellowship in Astrobiology, awarded by the scientific committee at the GBO. This is an exceptional opportunity and I feel truly honored for being the recipient of such a prestigious award and for having the possibility of spending precious research time at the observatory. The fact that the scientists here truly appreciate and foster a cultural, interdisciplinary exploration of radio astronomy, is a remarkable aspect of this unique scientific facility.
There are many other exceptional aspects to this place. Upon arrival in early October, I had to instantly adapt to the strict regulations of the radio quiet environment which here covers the area of the observatory and the nearby towns. I quickly learnt that some locals are not in favor of the limitations regulating the usage of Wi-Fi and mobile phones. On the other hand, some people move to Green Bank thanks to the radio quiet zone, as highlighted by film director Werner Herzog in his 2016 documentary Lo and Behold. Adjusting to a lifestyle that reminds me of the pre-mobile phone era, has been challenging for the first few days, after which I started appreciating that people here take time to talk to each other and attend public events without being distracted by their phones or laptops.
Overall, here there is a sense that events still unfold at a human pace instead of following a rhythm punctuated by instant messages, instant photos, ringtones and selfies. Interestingly, the many school children and students visiting the facilities for a few days, seem to adapt very quickly to exploring the surrounding nature, the scientific facilities and to interacting with each other, instead of focusing on their virtual life on social media. The sound, and mostly silence, of nature and wildlife inhabiting the dense vegetation that surrounds the observatory is occasionally interrupted by the hissing, almost eerie sound of the majestic radio telescopes that move to track celestial objects. Since landing here, I witnessed the vegetation changing from autumnal bright red, yellow and green colors to the wintery brown and grayish tones, while perceptibly noticing the changes of the light from golden to cooler shades.
The stunning natural surroundings are punctuated by the highly technological architectures, the very large antennas conducting various types of observations and, above all, by the majestic Green Bank Telescope, the largest movable structure in the world. There is a noticeable sense here that while humans conduct their daily activity, these machines access an inscrutable reality, relaying the mysteries of the cosmos back to our earthly dimension. During my stay, I had the opportunity to visit the Green Bank Telescope twice, climbing on top of its imposing structure. While directly facing the 300 feet diameter dish, coated in white paint, I experienced some shifting in my spatial references. I felt like standing in front of a white sea, an abstract space of reverberating light on a far away planet. The GBT is the principal character of the observatory. Scientists from all over the world travel to the observatory to work with the Green Bank Telescope, conducting cutting edge research, including the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. The control room is detached from the radio telescope and features state of the art computing and cooling facilities that are continuously upgraded to make the observations more precise.
During my residency here, I had the opportunity to visit the control room and directly observe the work conducted by prominent SETI researchers affiliated with the Breakthrough Listen team at UC Berkeley. I learnt about their observations and gained a realistic insight into the work of SETI scientists. The permanent research staff at the GBO has been equally welcoming and all the astronomers here showed great interest in my artistic work and in the project A Sign in Space, for which the Green Bank Observatory is one of the collaborating organizations, together with the European Space Agency and the SETI Institute. During the first few weeks of my stay, I gave a lunch talk for the scientific staff at the GBO and I will be giving another talk for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory staff in Charlottsville at the end of November, just before resuming my residency here.
In my talks I present the artistic research I have been developing for the past thirteen years, focusing on radio technologies and interdisciplinary collaborations. In my work I often combine radio astronomy with neuroscience, cosmology and philosophy. The scientists at the GBO have been offering specialist feedback on several aspects of my research and appreciate the various cultural ramification of radio astronomy into fundamental existential questions. Besides the profession-al interaction with all the scientists and staff working at the facilities, I treasure being part of a community of open mind-ed and interesting individuals, with whom I share daily lunch conversations, walks and dinner parties. It is inspirational to experience how this relatively small community of researchers, living in a remote rural area, established a balanced and supportive environment in which people seem to feel at ease with each other. As the first Artist in Residence, I am honored I can be part of this stimulating community and contribute to the scientific and cultural work conducted at the observatory. I will treasure this unique experience for many years to come.
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this page last updated 3 December 2022
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