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SFSU Public Affairs Press Release

Published by the Public Affairs Office at San Francisco State University, Diag Center.

#064--April 24, 1999; For Immediate Release
Contact: Ligeia Polidora 415/338-1665

ET explorers highlight SFSU Centennial event

SAN FRANCISCO, CA--April 24, 1999--Planetary discoverer Geoffrey Marcy and Jill Cornell Tarter, the real-life Ellie Arroway of the movie Contact, will take their audience on a voyage beyond our solar system on Thursday, April 29 at an event hosted by San Francisco State University.

Marcy, a SFSU professor, and his team just announced the discovery of the first planetary system outside the Earth’s solar system. Tarter, chief scientist for Project Phoenix of the SETI Institute, is the prototype for Jodie Foster’s character in the movie Contact. She has spent more than fifteen years in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Marcy and Tarter will appear at 7:30 p.m. at SFSU’s McKenna Theatre to engage in a conversation about the discovery of planets and the search for intelligent life beyond our solar system. The moderator is Dr. Frank Drake, a pioneer in extraterrestrial research. Drake, a University of California, Santa Cruz professor, is president of the SETI Institute’s Board of Directors. The free lecture, one of the highlights of SFSU’s hundredth anniversary celebration, is followed by a free reception for all attendees.

Marcy, SFSU post-doctoral researcher Debra Fischer, and a team of scientists from four other institutions made international news on April 15 when they announced the discovery of the first system of multiple planets revolving around a star, reminiscent of our own Solar System.

In announcing the discovery of planets circling the star Upsilon Andromedae, Marcy said, "When I watch Star Wars and Star Trek movies, I see people like Jean-Luc Picard darting from planet to planet in the Milky Way Galaxy, and it seems utterly obvious, at least to the writers, that there would be a multitude of planets out there.

"But scientifically, we had no evidence of this until today with this Upsilon planetary system. Now we have the first clear evidence that there are indeed planetary systems out there and probably most of the stars in the Galaxy harbor some sorts of planets.

"I have to admit that I am quite curious as to whether there’s life elsewhere in our galaxy," Marcy added. "I’m deeply curious as to whether we are alone in the galaxy, and if not, how do we– humans and the other species of life here on Earth – fit in the grand galactic context of biology?"

While Marcy and his team have spent more than a dozen years finding 14 of the 20 planets now known to exist beyond our solar system, Tarter, his friend and colleague, has been heading up the world’s most sensitive and comprehensive search for extraterrestrial intelligence. SETI’s Project Phoenix has trained the largest radio telescope in the Southern Hemisphere on a thousand stars, listening for radio signals that are either being deliberately beamed our way or are inadvertently transmitted from another planet.

Millions of radio channels are simultaneously monitored by Phoenix’s computers and though no clear extraterrestrial transmissions have been found so far, "the faint whine that would betray an alien civilization might be heard tomorrow," say Phoenix researchers. The project was made famous by Carl Sagan’s book and movie, Contact.

"Carl Sagan wrote a book about a woman who does what I do, not about me," explained Tarter. "He did his homework, and thus included many of the ‘character-building’ experiences that are common to women scientists studying and working in a male-dominated profession, so Ellie seems very familiar to me."

Tarter received a bachelor’s degree in engineering physics at Cornell University, before earning an M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in astrophysics at the University of California, Berkeley where she became involved in SETI as a graduate student. Her research background also includes theoretical studies of star formation and cosmology, and radio astronomy.

A principal investigator at the SETI Institute since 1985, she recently was named to the institute’s permanently endowed Bernard M. Oliver Chair. She has received widespread recognition for her work and published research, including a Lifetime Achievement Award in Aerospace from Women in Aerospace, and two Public Service Medals from NASA.

Tarter and her colleagues have welcomed Marcy and his team’s April 15 discovery, a topic of Thursday’s lecture. "Clearly, we like the idea of a commonplace solar system," said SETI astronomer Seth Shostak. "This is good news for alienkind."

Geoffrey Marcy has been internationally recognized for his work in planetary discovery. A professor at SFSU since 1984, he earned his BS summa cum laude from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1976 with a double major in physics and chemistry. He earned a master’s degree in astrophysics and a Ph.D. in astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He also serves as an adjunct professor of astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley. He was recently honored in the California State University System with the special title of University Distinguished Professor of Science.

For more information on the free April 29 lecture, call (415) 338-2467.


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