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2002 Frank Drake Award For Optical SETI


Charles Townes Receives SETI Institute's 2002 Drake Award

Mountain View, CA — The SETI Institute has awarded the 2002 Frank Drake Award for Innovation in SETI and Life in the Universe Research to Charles H. Townes, Nobel Laureate and Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of California Berkeley. Townes received the award for his visionary championing of optical SETI, efforts that culminated in the formal adoption of optical SETI as a search strategy endorsed by leading SETI scientists.

The prize consists of a cash stipend and a special award, and will be presented at a ceremony in the spring of 2003. Townes is the second recipient of the Drake Award, which was launched in 2001 with a presentation ceremony honoring its namesake, Dr. Frank Drake. Townes is the first honoree selected from a pool of candidates whose submissions were solicited by the Institute.

Said Townes, “I am very happy to see multiple optical SETI projects undertaken with the same rigor SETI scientists have applied to radio searches. It was gratifying to participate in planning sessions that led to today’s large-scale optical SETI searches, and I am pleased by this recognition from the world’s leading SETI research organization.”

The recipient of numerous awards and 25 honorary doctorate degrees throughout his career, Townes' principal scientific work is in microwave spectroscopy, nuclear and molecular structure, quantum electronics, radio astronomy and infrared astronomy. He holds both the original patent for the maser, and (with Arthur Schawlow) the original laser patent. In 1964, he received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in quantum electronics, which led to the construction of maser and laser oscillators and amplifiers.

Townes envisioned using the infrared and optical spectrum for SETI in 1959 after reading a seminal paper in the journal Nature in which Phillip Morrison and Giuseppi Cocconi theorized the possibility of using radio waves to communicate across interstellar space. Townes first proposed searching the optical spectrum for extraterrestrial signals in 1961, one year after Drake’s Project Ozma, the world’s first scientific SETI search of the radio spectrum.

Acknowledging that radio technology matured more quickly than optical, Townes consistently maintained that other technologically advanced civilizations could exploit the optical and infrared spectrum for communications just as readily as the microwave spectrum. In two later papers, one published in 1982 and another in 1993, Townes compared the relative strengths and liabilities of optical and radio SETI, concluding that both research methods should be conducted.

By the late 1990s, laser technology had matured to the point where sensitive and accurate searches in the optical spectrum became practical. During a landmark 1997 panel convened by the SETI Institute to chart the course of SETI research for the first two decades of the 21st Century, Townes’ participation catalyzed the thinking of the working group’s optical panel. Even as the working group continued deliberations, SETI researchers Paul Horowitz of Harvard and Dan Werthimer of the University of California each initiated early optical SETI searches at their institutions.

Today, following recommendations embedded in the report of the working group (published by SETI Press under the title of SETI 2020: A Roadmap for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) numerous scientific teams are mining optical data for SETI beacons. One of these projects is funded by the SETI Institute, whose own Frank Drake works closely with the project team that comprises scientists from UC Santa Cruz, UC Berkeley, and Lick Observatory. The SETI Institute also funded a study by UC Berkeley graduate student Amy Raines to scrutinize data obtained by noted planet hunter, Geoff Marcy.

Created in 2001, the Frank Drake Award for Innovation in SETI and Life in the Universe Research honors distinguished contributors to the scientific search for life beyond Earth. Awardees are chosen by a panel of scientists appointed by the SETI Institute Board of Trustees, and selection criteria considers both past contributions and potential for future contributions of new knowledge to the body of related scientific work. The Drake Award is supported by generous contributions to the SETI Institute.

The SETI Institute is a 501c (3) non-profit California corporation, incorporated in 1984. The mission of the SETI Institute is to explore, understand, and explain the origin, nature, and prevalence of life in the universe. The Center for SETI Research and the Center for the Study of Life in the Universe comprise the two key research foci of the Institute. Innovative education programs and public outreach based upon the work of these two centers advance the education component of the Institute’s mission.

December 10, 2002

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