On Top of the World With the SETI Institute
SETI scientists and guests peer out from atop the CFHT (Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope) Observatory in Mauna Kea, Hawaii.
Credit: Jeff Breidenbach

Each year, Mail Archive colleagues Jeff Breidenbach and Jeff Marshall take time from their busy schedules to seek out a few causes worthy of support. Throughout the years, the team has followed the business practice pioneered by Ben & Jerry?s, which includes donating a fixed percentage of pre-tax income to a good cause. Given the uncertain economy, it?s laudable that small business owners would choose to support a charitable organization.

Familiar with the SETI Institute, the colleagues perused the Institute?s website, and the Adopt a Scientist program captured their attention. After reading through the list of fascinating scientists participating in the program, Jeff Breidenbach chose to ?adopt? Dr. Franck Marchis.? Jeff?s personal interests are in perfect alignment with Marchis? work, and he says, ?Franck had the coolest project!?

According to Jeff, ?Adaptive optics sounded like great fun. Franck gets to play with lasers and motors and electronics and signal processing, and in the end -- hopefully -- sees things nobody else in the world has ever seen. The scale of astronomy blows me away. Franck explained to me that it is common to make an observation, and then wait half a year so that the earth is in a different location and measure again to see things from a slightly different orientation. He thinks about and works with these things on a daily basis. What's the grandest thing you thought about today? For me, it was probably pondering the weather.?

Jeff jokes that the program made him feel like a patron from the Middle Ages supporting a classical composer, ?which was fun!? He adds, ?I'm glad we live in a world with hopes and dreams; and in that respect, the SETI Institute is one of the most inspiring organizations in the world.?

Jeff and a guest joined Franck on a spectacular expedition, which involved a personal tour of the CFHT (Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope) Observatory, which is situated atop the dormant Mauna Kea volcano that rises 4,200 meters above the Pacific Ocean on the island of Hawaii. It was a rare opportunity not available to the general public. The expedition created several life-long memories for Jeff. He and his guest were treated to what must rank among the most spectacular views in the world. Amidst a freezing 40-knot wind on the observatory?s catwalk, they savored a magnificent sunset as the snowy mountaintops cast a shadow onto the atmosphere above the clouds.?

Another highlight of the expedition was the time spent with Franck and his colleague and ?resident astronomer,? Olivier Lai. Jeff particularly enjoyed learning about Olivier's in-progress giant interferometer project called O?HANA, which means ?family? in Hawaiian and will eventually gather and combine light from all seven observatories on Mauna Kea. Jeff says he made holograms in college and people had to hold their breath for nearly 30 seconds so no vibrations disturbed the light. He adds, ?Everything has to be stable -- ideally to well under a quarter wavelength of light. Olivier?s system has requirements, but there are moving motors involved. And not little submicron movements; we're talking multiple feet over a 30-minute exposure! I was blown away by the sheer audacity. How could one even think to try such a thing? And this multi-year, cutting edge project is in progress, right there in front of me, with this very scientist. It felt like stepping into another very exciting world.?

Out of curiosity, Jeff asked Olivier what percentage of projects totally fail, guessing the answer would be at least half. ?Apparently astronomers build lots of utterly crazy instruments, and most of them actually work. Astounding!?

Jeff had previously imagined the Institute as a giant roulette game in which ?you do a ton of work and it either boils down to hearing a signal or not; with maybe some spin-off technology developments.? But he notes, ?That is simply not true! I was so impressed by Franck?s depth of knowledge,? he says. ?I?m very impressed by the substance that is behind the scientists. This is clearly not a bunch of people working on PowerPoint slides all day ? these are real people doing really meaty work and that was very heartening to see. I?m very appreciative of the experience.?

Jeff?s impression of the Institute and the Adopt a Scientist program has been very positive. ?A lot of places we donate to act like a black hole; you don't hear anything back and hopefully the money goes to something useful,? says Jeff. ?As far as I'm concerned that's fine, assuming the money actually does go to something useful. The SETI Institute, however, goes out of its way to engage supporters. I'm supremely appreciative, honored, and enriched by my interaction with Franck and I can't thank him enough for generously sharing some of his time. I'm very proud and happy to help support such work.?

Franck is honored to have been adopted by Jeff through the SETI program. Franck enjoyed the opportunity to share with Jeff the excitement of his new projects but also to show him the human side of his work. Franck is convinced that the interest and support of the public is mandatory to lead to successful projects. After Jeff?s visit, Franck and Olivier had insightful discussions about interferometry and its application to science. As a result, Olivier and Franck will initiate a collaborative work involving a new idea for an instrument project.

The SETI Institute gratefully acknowledges the Mail Archive?s support of its Adopt a Scientist program. There are many levels of support available, beginning at $1,000, with expeditions, such as the one described above, available at higher levels. To learn more, visit the Adopt a Scientist webpage.?