An Alien Hunter
With all the space-news coverage of the Falcon 9/Dragon launch for the last 2 weeks, almost missed the news about the retirement of astronomer Jill Tarter, “Queen of SETI” – as named by Alan Boyle in his Cosmic Log. She is retiring from managing the institution, but will continue to work to get financial support for it. So. How do you measure the passion of a person for their work – is it enough to look at how much time they dedicated to it – 35 years? Probably not, but in this case an exception can be made. 35 years to promote one of the more controversial charitable organizations ever. Headlines try to be catchy, with SETI it always came down to the ridiculous sounding ‘Search for Aliens’. Should we Search for Aliens?
As it turns out, enough people found SETI not so ridiculous. The 2 most popular scientists of our times, astronomer Carl Sagan and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking believe(d) wholeheartedly in the existence of extraterrestrial life. The difference is, Sagan promoted the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), while Hawking objected to it. His most famous quote about this is: “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.” To this, Jill’s response is: “While Sir Stephen Hawking warned that alien life might try to conquer or colonize Earth, I respectfully disagree. If aliens were able to visit Earth that would mean they would have technological capabilities sophisticated enough not to need slaves, food, or other planets. If aliens were to come here it would be simply to explore.”
It seems to me we could delay the discussion about how to handle the aliens, until we actually find some. The SETI institute was formed on Nov 20th, 1984, for both educational and research purposes, searching for signs of life in the form of artificial signals from space that will indicate an intelligent source. It is based in the heart of Silicon Valley, in Mountain view, northern CA. But we should recall that such SETI activity started over 20 years earlier. It started in 1960 by astronomer Frank Drake, who used a radio telescope for such a search, and organized the first SETI conference. He came up with an equation to evaluate the probabilities of alien life arising elsewhere in our universe – the “Drake equation”, addressing the 1950 Fermi paradox “Where is everybody?”, and in the 1970’s got NASA’s support. So it’s been not 27 years, but over 50 years of searching, and so far – nothing. Both Sagan and Hawking explained that mathematically, the possibility that there is life, even intelligent life, outside of Earth, is more likely than the possibility that there isn’t, and we are all alone in the vastness of the universe. Yet the search has been unsuccessful so far. Nevertheless, as the dreamers we are, we are allowed to dream.
Luckily, Sagan was not only on the board of trustees of SETI, he was also a science fiction author. He provided us with an excellent version to dream about, in the form of the book ‘Contact’, and the later movie based upon it, detailing what happens one fine day (or actually night…) when an incoming signal is identified as artificial… I saw the movie before I read the book, and was a bit surprised at a specific difference throughout the story, but I will not spoil it for you, if you haven’t seen it, all I will say is that the difference doesn’t make the movie lacking, it is maybe even better. I highly recommend this movie even though it’s 15 years old, and many might consider that way too old – it isn’t. The book is even older (1985), so was written when SETI was just at its beginning, but it too withstands the test of time. The fact that I learned just now, about Jill Tarter being the inspiration for the main character, the smart, dedicated, strong willed Dr. Arroway, makes total sense.
In fact, I always thought this book was inspired by a real life event – the ‘Wow’ signal – a curious artificial looking spike in incoming signals received around midnight on 8.15.1977, that was believed to be of extra terrestrial source. Photo credit: an article from Houston Astronomical Society, explaining what was so extraordinary about that signal. This article also talks about Rare Earth – a more recent theory about why we haven’t found aliens yet – or rather, why they may not exist.
The Rare Earth theory is not entirely in contrast to Stephen Hawking’s famous words: “In such a vast place as the cosmos, we only need to look at ourselves for proof that impossible and extraordinary things can and do happen.”
And a bit of news: Sagan passed away in 1996, but Hawking is well and is coming to town. He’ll be giving a lecture in Cupertino, CA, not that far from SETI, on Tuesday, June 19th 2012. It is a coincidence that during the same week, SETI is hosting SETIcon, a conference to salute science, imagination (meaning sci-fi), and Tarter June 22 – 24, 2012 ?
I wonder if Hawking will be there.
Here a video about the Wow Signal from his ‘Into the Universe’ show.