UW professor emeritus Woodruff Sullivan says it is exceedingly unlikely there’s never been intelligent life beyond our own.
LIKE MANY AN astronomer before him, Woodruff T. “Woody” Sullivan III works at night. All night, usually. While much of the world around him is sucked into vapid prime-time game shows and other distractions, Sullivan’s brain is freed to roam in the enveloping silence, unleashed to dance with stars far beyond.
In the stillness of this graveyard shift in Sullivan’s “Man Lodge” — a converted garage atop Seattle’s Phinney Ridge — phones do not ring; televisions do not blare; email slows to an occasional, bot-produced slice of overnight spam. The focused stare of Sullivan, a professor emeritus in astronomy and astrobiology at the University of Washington, is devoted only to the work — the math, geometry, physics, biology, history and the music they all can make together — on a glowing computer monitor resting on a busy wooden desktop.
It’s a seat in which most of us would squirm. Granted, even some of the non-astrophysicists among us, staring into the night sky and summoning the voice of the late Carl Sagan describing the vast universe and its “billions and billions” of potential life-spawning orbs, will ask the occasional cosmic questions, including: OK, that’s the universe; but where did it come from? In what space does it exist, and what is beyond it? And could we really be daring and/or arrogant enough to even ask whether we’re the only sentient creatures in it?
But this is the point where most of us gladly jump off the mind-blowing cosmic thought train and scurry back to the mind-numbing comfort of Facebook, knitting needles, cable news, or a glass or three of wine. Some stuff, we conclude, is best just left alone.
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For the Woody Sullivans of the world, however, this point of mere-mortal mental meltdown is the jumping-off spot: the place where physics, having dealt with many earthbound quandaries, leaps forth into an exponentially larger universe of discovery.
For Sullivan, the launchpad for this leap is a humble backyard enclave on Palatine Avenue North, beneath a ceiling-painted sundial record of the movements of Planet Earth, marked by events ranging from full solar eclipses to the birth of his two daughters. It is here that Sullivan, 72, parks himself nightly, between artfully stacked mounds of books and paper, to ponder alluring mysteries of the universe.
Chief among these, recently: What are the mathematical odds that our technological civilization has been the only one of its kind in the 14 billion-year history of the universe? And, perhaps more immediately urgent, why in the name of God is it so bloody difficult to format a Microsoft Word document that contains both text in “portrait” orientation and a table meant to be read in “landscape”?
Naturally, there is a major difference between the two, Sullivan will tell you with a characteristic laugh: The first one turned out to be a solvable problem.
THAT CALCULATION ON the odds that humans are unique in the universe recently brought Sullivan something he rarely has received in a long career of note to scientists but barely noticed by the public — a smattering of attention, highlighted by a New York Times headline last summer proclaiming, “Yes, There Have Been Aliens.”
The news followed the publication by Sullivan and research partner Adam Frank, a former UW graduate student, of a study expanding upon the “Drake Equation” — a long-accepted road map for calculating the odds of humanity’s intergalactic uniqueness.
This equation, first formulated in 1961 by Dr. Frank Drake, long a colleague of Sullivan, was more framework than solution; too many of its variables were unknown, notes Sullivan, co-founder of the UW’s astrobiology program, historian of astronomers and a longtime dabbler in various fields of SETI — the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
Sullivan and Frank, seeing some of the former blanks — total numbers of stars with planets, the percentage of planets capable of sustaining communications-capable life-forms, etc. — filled in by advanced telescopes, space probes and the like, decided to rethink the equation.
The ongoing SETI search, the two surmised, was a “needle in a haystack problem.” Finding signs of technologically adept extraterrestrial life is a longshot not only because of the vastness of space, but also the problems of cosmic time and species survival. Once life begins on a planet in microbial form, how long does it stay that way? Does it always evolve into complex forms, as it did here?
“Earth life stayed that way for 3 billion years,” Sullivan notes. “Then came the Cambrian explosion, the big bang of biology. In a very short time, considering Earth’s 4.6 billion-year history, we went from just a few things that were a bit more than microbes to the tremendous variety of animals and plants that we know today. What triggered that? Would it happen somewhere else? Were we slow? Fast?”
Beyond that: Once life becomes technologically “advanced,” how long might it last? A few hundred years? A thousand? A million?
“We’re into astrosociology now,” Sullivan says, chuckling. “If it’s 100 years, civilizations may be popping up all the time, but they don’t last. As opposed to a million years; then, at any given time, you might see gobs of them.”
To account for all this, Frank and Sullivan went big. “We asked a different question: Not how many are existing today that we can communicate with, which is what SETI is interested in … but how many have ever been around.”
Their answer: The odds that humans are the only technological species to have existed in the universe are worse than one chance in 10 billion trillion. In straight digits, that is one chance in 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.
Context: Comparatively, your chances of winning Powerball next week are pretty darn good — about a trillion times better, in fact. Hence, the “Yes, There Have Been Aliens” headline — another small step forward toward the begrudging acceptance among egocentric humans that A) it’s exceedingly unlikely that we are unique in the long history of the universe, and B) it’s not exactly surprising that we have yet to receive verified signals, let alone visits, from other life-forms.
What does that mean to us today? Apparently precious little, based on the roll-over-and-go-back-to-sleep response from the public. What should it mean? Maybe everything, Sullivan says.
“It’s about thinking about our life in a cosmic context,” he says. And that might prove key to confronting the probability of our own survival, determined by how we consume our planet’s stored energy and other resources, ultimately either “ramping up to catastrophe, or wising up at some stage.”
HELPING OTHERS RELATE to those realities in tangible ways has been a life’s work for Sullivan, a walking, talking, cycle-commuting Renaissance man who embodies the pocket-protector segment of the Boomer Generation. He sums up the spark for his life’s journey in six words:
“I am a child of Sputnik.”
Sullivan’s father, Woody Jr., was a B-17 pilot during World War II, and later a civil engineer trained on the GI Bill. His son inherited can-do bravado and a love of science.
“I loved big numbers,” he says. “Astronomy has big numbers.”
From the moment on Oct. 4, 1957, when news arrived that the Soviet satellite Sputnik was orbiting Earth, the space race was on. The resulting frantic scramble to catch up and surpass the Russians in science launched a wave that Sullivan rode to degrees in physics and astronomy from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Maryland.
Searching for a place to make their own mark, Sullivan and his wife, Barbara, a schoolteacher — noting the delightful absence of pollution, traffic, high cost of living and other headaches in then-sleepy Seattle — happily adopted the Northwest as home when Woody signed on at the UW in 1973. (This was, in a way, a homecoming: Family lore holds that Woody was conceived in Room 462 of Seattle’s landmark Olympic Hotel while his parents visited to promote war bonds in 1943.)
Sullivan has largely specialized in radio astronomy, traveling the globe to conduct research at radio telescope installations, including the Westerbork Array in Holland and the massive Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. A groundbreaking Sullivan study of radio signals sailing into space from Earth helped SETI researchers focus on signals that might be emitted from other civilizations, perhaps through Earthlike radar and broadcast “leakage.”
Sullivan also memorialized the work of the entire generation of post-WWII radio astronomers, interviewing 250 of them for a history, “Cosmic Noise,” which he finally completed in 2009 — 38 years after he started. A similar longtime project, growing from his fascination with British astronomer William Herschel (1738-1822), is likely to result in a biography Sullivan is now writing.
Sullivan’s long fascination with Herschel might, at its root, lie in a shared trait — the men’s multidimensional intellectual curiosity, specifically a melding of science and the arts. Herschel began his life performing classical music, an obsession he abruptly abandoned in his 40s, once his mind reached for the stars.
Sullivan’s own life quest has been to let his mind wander the universe, but regularly return home, to enjoy the uniquely human milieu of the grand and the pedestrian: the hard science, the softer arts and collisions between them.
“I’m trying to show that science does not have to be this separate thing,” alien to many because it relies on the decidedly non-Romance language of mathematics, he says. “I’m trying to show that science is a human activity. It’s a creation process no different than writing a symphony or a book, or having a beautiful backyard at your house. These are all different aspects of the human mind.”
THAT BLENDING, SULLIVAN’S friends and associates say, has long made him stand out as an educator, friend and resource whose overly active mind seems incapable of following a single path.
“I have these eclectic interests,” Sullivan says. “ ‘Astronomy on the Edges!’ When I retired, I gave a talk about it. Astronomy where it contacts society in other senses: music, history, astrology, religion, navigation, art, literature. I have always worked that kind of thing into my teaching.”
He thinks a lot about a book on that subject. And he has long brought it with him to campus. Sullivan showed up for lecture classes on occasion in full-dress garb as Herschel, his long-admired astronomer trailblazer.
His zeal to mark our place in the universe long ago manifested itself in a fascination with sundials. Sullivan’s creations have marked celestial time in parks, plazas, sides of a UW building, the ceiling of his “Man Lodge” and elsewhere. His broader study of celestial markings recorded through human history has taken him around the globe, to locations such as the historic cathedral Santa Maria degli Angeli in Rome.
One of his designs — a collaboration between a Cornell University team including Sullivan and former Seattleite Bill Nye, “The Science Guy” — cast shadows on Mars, where it landed on a pair of NASA’s planetary rovers. Hidden beneath the base of those devices are metallic cutouts in the shape of small baseball home plates — a secret homage to Sullivan’s passion for baseball.
Perhaps trying to forget the frequent exploits of his team, the Mariners, Sullivan also has collaborated on numerous art projects, notably with UW art professor Rebecca Cummins, who says her friend and stargazing colleague shows “a genuine interest in, and respect for, artists, and the arts.”
To his credit, Sullivan also has shown a knack for knowing when to step away from work that could easily become all-consuming, keeping family as a focus, says Barbara, his partner of 48 years. From their early days as a couple, when Woody showed up at her front door with a “bouquet” of colorful, artfully assembled IBM computer punch cards, through his often-creative, personal hand in raising two daughters (his use of individualized voices for characters while reading “Charlotte’s Web” to his daughters is the sort of thing that sticks with you), his boyish enthusiasm has been an irresistible force.
“He has this … zest for life and enthusiasm for what you can do,” Barbara says. “I was always attracted to that.”
PEOPLE WHO STUDY life-forms beyond Earth have a standing joke about their profession: “It’s the only science that has yet to prove that its subject matter exists.” True, for now, but never a deal-breaker to them.
“Astronomers are kind of like poets,” Sullivan says. “They don’t do anything useful, capital U. But we need them. Sometimes we don’t know that we need them. But like a lot of people in an enlightened society, even though they are not directly contributing to the GNP or whatever, they enrich life in other ways.”
That need might be greater today than at any time in recent history, says Sullivan, who turns glum when asked about the recent hard turn away from science in America’s political discourse.
Yet Sullivan, Nye and other science boosters see this as perhaps the last gasp of a dying generation of me-firsters. They remain bullish on science, largely because of an upswell in interest among younger Americans.
Still, spreading that knowledge to the masses remains a formidable challenge. Nye, a mechanical engineer and one of a handful of celebrity scientists who evangelize on science via pop-culture media, credits Sullivan for serving as a role model.
“Woody is a real astronomer, from the real days of astronomy,” Nye says. “He’s an intellect, and he blows my mind. I won’t say he’s changed my life, but he’s certainly redirected it a half-dozen times.”
He points to Sullivan’s longstanding success with “citizen science” projects: Sullivan collaborated with others to allow people to put home computers to work in the SETI search, and long ago used existing satellite images to create a popular “Earth at Night” poster.
Connecting big-picture science to daily life is a critical step not just for humanity’s long-term well-being, but for individual sanity, Nye says.
“Astronomy is humbling and empowering all at once, when you realize you are this tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny, TINY feature of the cosmos,” Nye says. “You and I are just insignificant. And yet through our understanding of astronomy, we can know that. And that is astonishing. It fills you with reverence. We are at least one way that the cosmos knows itself. That is amazing. Woody understands that.”
Sullivan shares Nye’s enthusiasm for introducing the public to the science of the heavens. It can be accomplished through simple means, such as urging people to take in the full solar eclipse that will sweep along a track through the Northwest on Aug. 21. Sullivan has witnessed a half-dozen already, and calls them “profound experiences” that border on life-changing.
Understanding the cosmos is not the point. For most, pondering it is plenty.
“It definitely changes my outlook on ‘normal’ life,” Sullivan says. “It means you look at things in a more … measured sense. You realize that your family, your community, your planet, is important to say the least, but it’s just a very tiny part of a much bigger picture that is pretty amazing.”
Modern humans have made amazing discoveries about the interconnected nature of the universe, Sullivan notes. But the best one of all? Sullivan thinks it’s one many human cultures got wrong from the very beginning.
“The idea that we’re at the center of everything has definitely turned out to be wrong,” Sullivan says. “And that really is a wonder. With a capital W.”