Del Mar resident searches for extraterrestrial intelligence with home-based station

Del Mar’s James Brown built SETI Network to search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Photos/Kristina Houck
Del Mar’s James Brown built SETI Network to search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Photos/Kristina Houck

By Kristina Houck

Are we alone?

It’s a question most of us have asked ourselves, and a question a Del Mar resident hopes to one day answer.

For nearly three decades, James Brown has spent countless hours searching for extraterrestrial intelligence. The search began with a book.

A Salt Lake City native, Brown relocated to Del Mar with his wife, Cherie, from the Bay Area in 1976. He had also just finished building a computer — a computer he believes to be the first ever built by a single person.

That’s when he came across “Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence” in a local bookstore. Edited by astronomer and author Carl Sagan, the book suggested that as computers became more powerful, they could become an important part of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

“I read all that and a light dawned on me that I was probably one of the very few people on Earth that could actually build a thing like that,” said Brown, who worked as an engineer for 35 years, retiring from SAIC in 1999. “I knew about computers, electronics and radiofrequency, and I had time to do it.”

Brown set out to develop hardware and software to detect extraterrestrial intelligence, which is known as the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, or SETI.

He built the first SETI search system on his second computer, a Z80 machine he called “Zeke.” He also purchased and installed a 12-foot antenna, and developed early software before Windows had even released.

James Brown

His first SETI system was born.

Since retiring, Brown has spent much of his time developing and operating the new system, SETI Network.

“A lot of people think that we must have groups of people searching for extraterrestrial intelligence in the United States and around the world. There must be government-sponsored projects because it seems pretty important,” said Brown, who is also known by his amateur radio call sign W6KYP. “But there are only four SETI stations.”

Brown’s station, SETI Network, is located at his Del Mar home. He believes it is the only amateur search station in operation.

He knows of three professional SETI stations in operation. These include the Allen Telescope Array in Northern California, Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and SETI Italia.

“Four stations on Planet Earth searching for extraterrestrials — that doesn’t seem right to me!” he said.

Using his equipment, Brown searches for a “beacon” every day.

“Let’s say there’s an extraterrestrial out here,” said Brown, as he pointed to an image of the solar system on his screen. “If he wanted to be found — if he had the ability, the money, the time and the technology — he would probably send a beacon to each of the stars in the Milky Way. … He would go through the whole Milky Way, one star at a time, and finally he would get around to our sun and shoot the beacon toward us.”

It would take a high-powered beacon to make it all the way to Earth, but that’s not the only problem.

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