Ben Schuetz is a man on a mission. He’s searching the universe for an elusive signal, a laser pulse directed at Earth from another civilization, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. This SETI endeavor is the Holy Grail of many astronomers, physicists, mathematicians and astro-dreamers amateurs and professionals alike, and has been for many, many years. Ben Schuetz is 76. He’d once dreamed of a life ‘somehow involving astronomy,’ he says. And now he’s heavily involved in it, scanning the Panamanian dry-season sky, using tools he built himself and pursuing the SETI effort with a passion.
Recently, my wife and I accepted Ben’s invitation to visit the observatory behind his home near Boquete. We’d seen the pictures and descriptions on his website www.optical-seti.org and the METI International website and gotten a taste of what we might find in the hills above Boquete. But we had…no idea. This post is a very small taste of what we found, like a butter bean at a banquet, or one of the <1 to 50 nanosecond laser pulses Schuetz is seeking. Let me assure you that our one hour visit with Ben left us with far more questions than answers, along with a profound appreciation for the challenges, pitfalls, methodology and current status of SETI, plus an amusing anecdote about a busted car.
Ben Schuetz & the balky Kia
We arrived at 9:30 on a brilliant Sunday morning, and Ben was scurrying around, tending to things on the house side of his property. I say ‘house side,’ because his observatory is up the hill a bit, away from whatever ambient light the house and/or neighbors might exude. Watching Ben discuss a problem with his friend and car mechanic, we waited patiently. Something was clearly wrong with the balky though reasonably new Kia, and Ben had reached a level of deep frustration with it. “We only drive it about five thousand miles a year,” he said. “And it never has worked right.” When I suggested he should perhaps drive it more often, he laughed, nodded, and directed us toward his true interest, the SETI observatory fifty yards off.
The Boquete Optical SETI Observatory
It doesn’t look like much, but inside this little structure is one man’s contribution to the search for extraterrestrial life, and looks are, in this case, very deceiving. Keep in mind that Ben Schuetz built this site and everything in it himself: the edifice, telescope, electrical components & circuit boards to operate it, even the chain-driven roof opening mechanism. A short–very short–version of what Schuetz is pursuing is this, (and forgive me, Mr. Schuetz for capsulizing): Using his optical telescope, he’s scouring the heavens for laser pulses. Directing the scope toward one star at a time, focusing on stars that are close by, that is within 300 light years, he looks for pulsations that, if found, indicate the possibility of a sentient beacon. His reasoning is this: the light from a star is a stream of millions of photons per square meter arriving more or less evenly spaced during each second, while a laser pulse of a few nanoseconds will have a far higher photon arrival rate. Schuetz uses his scope and specialized detector to separate the hoped for pulsed signals that indicate they’re not emitted from the star itself, but anomalous emissions from a planetary system, or systems, orbiting that star.
On the left, Ben shows Mariah his carefully charted star list, a file holding 3000+ stars that he uses as starting points for his nightly searches. Top right, in the scope room, he jots a highly simplified explanation of the photon bursts/laser signals that concentrate his efforts. The differentiation of those signals will (he hopes) display the sent laser emission he’s seeking. Even after all this excruciating attention to detail, Ben realizes it’s entirely possible the signal will be missed, and he’s sanguine about that. “After doing all that homework, there are still important details that are hard to ferret out of the information jungle.” That ‘information jungle’ Schuetz refers to is based on the millions of photons per second per square meter any given star floods toward us. ‘Ferreting out’ the laser signal from that tsunami, and other ‘spurious noise,’ requires the search for pulsed signals; signs that may be from a sentient source. Middle right, at the computer, Ben slices, dices, reads and interprets all manner of digitized data. The bottom picture is the scope itself, a 20 inch optical device Schuetz built, and the centerpiece of his SETI effort. The main scope has a built in highly sensitive detector. A second scope is equipped with a digital camera roughly a million times more sensitive than a home type video camera. The assembly weighs 500 pounds, but is balanced so well that, until the clutches are engaged, it moves at the touch of a finger.
More pictures of the 20 inch Optical SETI scope. The middle shot shows the roof opening, which mechanism Ben built, and which opens in about two minutes so the scope can be raised. The right hand shot is the specialized detector. On cloudy or rainy nights, of course, the scope sits idle. I asked Ben what his regimen is like: “During the dry season, I’ll often go to bed around six or seven (PM) and then get up at midnight or one o’clock. I’ll come up to the observatory and, if the sky is clear, I’ll work until four or five.” In the wet season, May through November in Boquete, Schuetz does a lot of development and system upgrades.
Ben Schuetz is a man with what can be called without hesitation a laser focus on his passion, to be in position with the right equipment, right mechanism and the right touch of serendipity to capture the elusive laser pulse long sought by interplanetary experts like him. As he states on his website: “….one hates to think that your main toy may be poorly adjusted, and those (countless) hours could not bear fruit…there for the picking.”
I had many more questions than answers, as I said, but a few had to be cleared up. I asked, if light from the nearest star has been traveling to us since Shakespeare was scribbling Hamlet, how do we even know the star is still there? Ben explained that we’re fortunate to have developed algorithms that can predict where stars will be into the far distant future. I had to know why not search further out? We now have the technical ability, after all, to transmit laser signals far beyond his preferred 300 light year search limit, so why not expand the search? Schuetz’s entirely reasonable response: dependent upon the power of the laser pulse, the 20″ telescope system has its detection limits. Also, if ETI has anything like our longevity, then sending out signals for which a returned response would require many hundreds or thousands of years seems to make little sense.
I posed the inevitable question to him: in his estimation, knowing what he does about the topic, how many potential so called Goldilocks planets are there? Ben’s response was that, given the recent discoveries and the vast numbers of stars in our galaxy, it’s not unreasonable to expect that there are many thousands of habitable planets. He qualifies the response thus: No matter how many extraterrestrial civilizations are out there, the chances of detecting a signal from one of them is infinitesimally small…but if no one looks it’s a certainty they won’t be found. I asked, is anyone sending signals out? “No, because there’s some resistance to the idea and, as you might imagine, no funding for that sort of thing.” Lastly, I asked Ben if he’s actively recruiting someone to continue his work, and the answer is yes, he is. Interested grad students can apply for an internship at the Boquete site for this coming summer. Here’s a link to the internship description and qualifications, and an application form which must be submitted by May 1st 2016, with review through June 1st 2016. Ben cautions that the study opportunity is offered during the wet season in Boquete, so actual viewing opportunities may be limited, but essential benefits are numerous. The chance to work with Mr. Schuetz is benefit enough.
So, why does Ben Schuetz keep climbing that (very steep) hill behind his house in the mountains above Boquete Panama night after night, aiming his telescope, tweaking his computerized graphing and tracking software (which application he also built)? Why the laser focus on searching for a pulsed beacon from another solar system, one he admits is so elusive as to be almost non-existent? “At 76, I’m still hopeful to be around when the incredible event happens,” he says.We’re fortunate to have dedicated, smart, laser-focused scientists like Ben Schuetz. Fortunate to have people like him who spend their lives on solitary, and often lonely pursuits such as SETI. Now, if we could only find a good mechanic who knows how to fix a Kia.