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The Canary Islands Winter School on Extrasolar Planets

Earlier this year, over one hundred graduate and post-doctoral students from 17 countries attended a special Astrophysics Winter School in the Canary Islands, located just off the northwest coast of the African continent. I was fortunate to be one of the eight invited professors. Each of us lectured on our specialty related to extrasolar planets--detection methods, observational techniques, planet formation theories, characterization of discovered planets, and so on.

The Canary Islands, belonging to Spain, are a European center for astronomy. Two of the islands, Tenerife and La Palma, are home to 31 telescopes. The location's clear night sky is well-suited to astronomy, and the astronomers usually only have to shut down for sand occasionally blown off the Sahara Desert. The sand gives the sky a pretty appearance of twinkling, blue diamonds raining down. For the delicate telescope mirrors, however, the result is far from beautiful--and difficult to clean off!

During the sessions, I lectured on various extrasolar planet methods including Pulsar Timing, Periodic Radial Velocity Variations, Gravitational Microlensing, Astrometry, Imaging (both chronographic and nulling interferometry), Radio Flux, Transit Photometry, Phase-Reflection Variations, Eclipsing Binary Minima Timing, and--for those who believe that civilizations will transmit from planets--radio and optical SETI.

Everyone had a wonderful and educational time. Ten years ago there were but a handful of astronomers doing research on extrasolar planets, and here was a room of over one hundred advanced science students selected from around the world. With the typical Spanish agenda, including two hours for lunch, there were many opportunities for in-depth discussions. It is difficult to convey, in a few words, what an inspiring time this was for all.

After the Winter School, I traveled with my colleague Dr. Hans Deeg to the nearby island of Gomera, where a 2,000 year-old whistle language is still used. The people here developed this language long ago to communicate across the island's rocky terrain. We recorded some whistles from an expert there, Professor Don Mendoza, who teaches this "Gomera Silbo" language as part of the schools' required curricula. We hope to be able to compare this human language of whistles directly with the whistle signals of bottlenose dolphins in our research here at SETI Institute, where we seek to understand better the Drake Equation term Fi--the fraction of life-bearing planets on which intelligent life emerges. By examining human and cetacean whistles, we can overcome the difficulties that might arise from comparing the "apples" of human phonemes with the "oranges" of dolphin whistles. Since both are whistles, we can use the same signal-classification scheme.

When the astrophysics school was visited by the Princess and Prince (and future King) of Spain, each professor was introduced in turn, having time for a little discussion. The Spanish royalty seemed decidedly interested when they read the affiliation "SETI Institute" on my nametag. They were very nice folks and well worth the effort of putting on a suit and tie--at least for a couple of hours.

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Laurance R. Doyle

Laurance Doyle is a principal investigator for the Center for the Study of Life in the Universe at the SETI Institute, where he has been since 1987, and is a member of the NASA Kepler Mission Science Team. Doyle’s research has focused on the formation and detection of extrasolar planets. He has also theorized how patterns in animal communication, like those of social cetaceans, relate to humans.