Nobel Prizes related to SETI   updated April 7,  2016  (carrigan@fnal.gov - subject line must be sensible)

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Many great scientist have been interested in the subject of SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. The first two people to make a detailed examination of radio SETI were Giuseppe Cocconi and Phil Morrison. Morrison was a good nuclear theorist with a career going back to Los Alamos during World War II. I talked to him shortly before his death about his recollections of Fermi's views on UFOs. Cocconi was an outstanding elementary particle physicist. I remember with fondess his visit to Fermilab duing the early construction. At one point he got down on his knees to rescue a frog from a puddle in a Meson Laboratory gallery under construction. Charles Townes, the father of optical SETI, is a Nobel Prize winner as was Enrico Fermi of  "Fermi paradox" fame. Our laboratory is named after Fermi. The discoverer of the famous astrophysical triple alpha reaction, Fred Hoyle, was deeply interested in astrobiology and SETI. Frank Drake and Jill Tarter are outstanding scientists who have made much of their reputations through SETI. Bernard Oliver, former head of R&D at Hewlett-Packard, was a major innovator in radio SETI. Freeman Dyson, the namesake of Dyson spheres, is an outstanding theoretical physicist with a broad range of interests. Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the discoverer of pulsars, initially wondered if she had found a SETI signal. Carl Sagan is a special case. Sagan was sometimes put down by other scientists (see the end of the article about Ralph Cicerone). Carl Sagan's views on planetary evolution have had a towering impact on planetary exploration. Sagan might have been a better scientist than he was a communicator.

Parenthetically, it is interesting how many of these people had a connection to Cornell.

Some of these SETI people who have won Nobel Prizes or were near winners are listed to the right.

E. Fermi (1938) "demonstrations of the existence of new radioactive elements produced by neutron irradiation, and for his related discovery of nuclear reactions brought about by slow neutrons." Fermi may have asked the famous question about space aliens "where are they?"

C. Townes (1964) Townes received the Nobel Prize for "work in the field of quantum electronics, which has led to the construction of oscillators and amplifiers based on the maser-laser principle."  When Townes received the Prize he had already published on the possibility of optical SETI.

F. Dyson (near winner - 1965) Some feel Dyson's contributions to quantum electrodynamics were on a par with the 1965 prize winners. One of the winners, Tomonoga, cites Dyson noting "Dyson showed that all infinities appearing in quantum electrodynamics could be treated by the renormalization procedure..." When Dyson followed Feynman at Cornell, Bethe said Dyson was "the only man in the world who could replace Feynman." Dyson published his idea on what has become known as a Dyson sphere in 1960.

J. Bell Burnell (near winner - 1974Bell Burnell actually discovered the neutron star that is the subjects of the 1974 Prize. One of the winners, Martin Ryle, has been a constructive critic of SETI.

F. Hoyle (near winner - 1983Hoyle was an important contributor to stellar astrophysics, the subject of the Prize.