Grandma and the Aliens


by Tim Moran

Alice, my maternal grandmother, was a believer in many unconventional things.

The Ouija board. Edgar Cayce. UFOs.

Turns out she was a trend-setter for some pretty serious scientists.

Alice Gilbride, nee McGrath, spent most of her days watching "my stories" wearing what she called a "muumuu." She would not be seen in the morning until she had had her coffee and "put on her eyes." After a day of TV and, perhaps, some gardening or other puttering, Alice would, of a summer night, go out onto her suburban porch to watch and wait.

She believed they were coming. She didn't know when, or where, or who they were, but they would come and she would be ready.

My grandfather, F.X. Gilbride, told her she was crazy. She told Frankie that he could say whatever he wanted: When they came, they would take the believers like her and they would leave the sorry likes of him. F.X. was fine with that. So was Alice.

One summer's night, back in the early 1960s, Alice was scanning the skies with her low-power telescope when, dear lord, she spotted something that was, to her eye, clearly not a star or planet. It was them, she was sure. It's just Telstar, said Frankie, the new satellite that was launched to make phone communications and television pictures better. Hmph, said Alice. They weren't going to be taking Frankie anyway, so what difference did it make if he wanted to think it was a satellite. Alice knew better.

Almost 50 years later, there's SETI. It would seem that there is still a cadre of Alices out there. They might dress better and spend their days a bit more fruitfully, but they believe, too--or, at least, want to believe.

Take Jill Tarter, for instance. Jill's an astronomer who, according to a recent article in New Scientist, won a TED Prize last year. Winning a TED Prize gets you some money (about $100,000) and a wish-- "One Wish to Change the World." Astronomer Jill's wish was simple: "I wish that you would empower Earthlings everywhere to become active participants in the ultimate search for cosmic company."

Tarter and TED teamed with the SETI Institute to create SETIQuest.org, which just went live. According to the New Scientist report, the SETIQuest site will "make vast amounts of SETI data available to the public for the first time. It will also publish the SETI Institute's signal-detection algorithm as open source code, inviting brilliant coders and amateur techies to make it even better."

The SETIQuest site further explains that modern technology--cloud storage and processing, for instance--enables DSP experts and students and the like to access raw data from which they can develop "new algorithms that can find other types of signals that we are missing now."

The site makes it clear that one needn't be a coder or software expert to participate. SETIQuest needs all kinds of Earthlings to act as "citizen scientists." With this new open access to SETI data, regular people can "visually search the data for anything that looks suspiciously like something other than white noise. Should you spot something anomalous, alert the global community. If enough citizen scientists agree that something looks fishy, their collective concern will direct SETI's telescopes to zoom in on the questionable patch of sky."

You hear that, Alice? You weren't a programmer or DSP expert. But, in your own way, you were a citizen scientist. You were looking skyward for that anomaly, that white light scutting through the summer sky too fast to be anything but, well, something not of this earth. You were ahead of your time, Alice.

Even if you spotted something, who could you have told and what could you have done about it? Told Frankie? Told me? To what end, but ridicule.

Today, though, you would have all of the scientific community to tell about your thoughts and discoveries. Forty-five years ago you were astronomer Jill's wish already come true, for you were, without a doubt, an active participant in the search for cosmic company. I hope you ultimately found some.