Sunday, 1 September 2013

Are We Alone in the Universe?

In this exclusive interview, we speak with Prof. Jill Tarter (Co-Founder and Bernard M. Oliver Chair of the SETI Institute). We discuss her lifelong work with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute and look at mankind's quest to answer the fundamental question of whether we are alone in the universe.

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Vikas Shah, Thought Economics, September 2013

Since the time of the ancient Greeks (and perhaps even earlier) humanity has contemplated civilisations in the stars. Whether referred to as angels, gods, or extraterrestrials, many iterations of society have considered that we must be just one of many.

The physicist Paul Davies notes that, “The idea that humans share the universe with other beings was not just the product of religious mythology; it was also the subject of reasoned argument, as long ago as the fifth century BC. The Greek philosopher Democritus (460-370 BC) was an architect of the atomic theory of matter, according to which the universe consists entirely of tiny indestructible particles (atoms) moving in a void. In Democritus’ scheme, all forms of matter consist of differing combinations of atoms, and all change is nothing but the rearrangement of atoms. Democritus posited that if nature is uniform, and if atoms can come together in a particular combination to make the Earth, populated by plants and animals, so atoms can arrange themselves in a similar manner in other parts of the cosmos too". (The Eerie Silence, Paul Davies)

For centuries, mainstream discourse has largely disregarded any assertions surrounding the existence of extraterrestrial civilisations with the rigour with which- at the time of Copernicus- a heliocentric view of the solar system was dismissed as mere fringe-science. Just as Copernicus’ views were later accepted as fact, modern-science could (within our lifetimes) accept that we are not the only intelligent civilisation that has existed.

A recently declassified US Government document states; “A few years ago, this notion [that we are not alone in the universe] seemed farfetched; today, the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence is taken for granted by most scientists. Even the ‘staid’ National Academy of Sciences has gone on record that contact with other civilizations ‘is no longer something beyond our dreams but a natural event in the history of mankind that will perhaps occur in the lifetime of many of us’. Sir Bernard Lovell, one of the world's leading radio astronomers, has calculated that, even allowing for a margin of error of 5000%, there must be in our galaxy about 100 million stars which have planets of the right chemistry, dimensions, and temperature to support organic evolution. If we consider that our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is but one of at least a billion other galaxies similar to ours in the observable universe, the number of stars that could support some form of life is, to reach for a word, astronomical. As to advanced forms of life-advanced by our own miserable earth standard – Dr. Frank D. Drake of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory at Green Bank, West Virginia, has stated that, putting all our knowledge together, the number of civilizations which could have arisen by now is about one billion.” (NSA DOCID: 3052333 ‘Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence’)

The big question is; where are they?

In this exclusive interview, we speak with Prof. Jill Tarter (Co-Founder and Bernard M. Oliver Chair of the SETI Institute). We discuss her lifelong work with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute and look at mankind's quest to answer the fundamental question of whether we are alone in the universe.

Jill Tarter (co-founder of the SETI Institute) holds the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI Research at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. Tarter received her Bachelor of Engineering Physics Degree with Distinction from Cornell University and her Master’s Degree and a Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of California, Berkeley. She served as Project Scientist for NASA’s SETI program, the High Resolution Microwave Survey, and has conducted numerous observational programs at radio observatories worldwide. Since the termination of funding for NASA’s SETI program in 1993, she has served in a leadership role to secure private funding to continue the exploratory science. Currently, she serves on the management board for the Allen Telescope Array, an innovative array of 350 (when fully realized) 6-m antennas at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory, it will simultaneously survey the radio universe for known and unexpected sources of astrophysical emissions, and speed up the search for radio emissions from other distant technologies by orders of magnitude.

Tarter’s work has brought her wide recognition in the scientific community, including the Lifetime Achievement Award from Women in Aerospace, two Public Service Medals from NASA, Chabot Observatory’s Person of the Year award (1997), Women of Achievement Award in the Science and Technology category by the Women’s Fund and the San Jose Mercury News (1998), and the Tesla Award of Technology at the Telluride Tech Festival (2001). She was elected an AAAS Fellow in 2002 and a California Academy of Sciences Fellow in 2003. In 2004 Time Magazine named her one of the Time 100 most influential people in the world, and in 2005 Tarter was awarded the Carl Sagan Prize for Science Popularization at Wonderfest, the biannual San Francisco Bay Area Festival of Science.

Tarter is deeply involved in the education of future citizens and scientists. In addition to her scientific leadership at NASA and SETI Institute, Tarter was the Principal Investigator for two curriculum development projects funded by NSF, NASA, and others. The first, the Life in the Universe series, created 6 science teaching guides for grades 3-9 (published 1994-96). Her second project, Voyages Through Time, is an integrated high school science curriculum on the fundamental theme of evolution in six modules: Cosmic Evolution, Planetary Evolution, Origin of Life, Evolution of Life, Hominid Evolution and Evolution of Technology (published 2003). Tarter is a frequent speaker for science teacher meetings and at museums and science centers, bringing her commitment to science and education to both teachers and the public. Many people are now familiar with her work as portrayed by Jodie Foster in the movie Contact.

Q: When did humanity begin the search to understand if we are alone?

[Dr. Jill Tarter] The question as to whether we are alone has been asked by humans almost since they first crawled out of the cave! For millennia we used to ask the priests, philosophers or shaman- whoever we thought was wise- how to answer that question. They always came back with a belief system.

What makes SETI different today is that instead of the verb "to believe" we're trying to use the verb "to explore". We want to see what's actually out there instead of just believing what someone tells us is out there.

Trying to figure out how we fit into the cosmos is old, it's a basic human question.

Q: What is the case put forward for the existence of life (and intelligent life) outside Earth?

[Dr. Jill Tarter] Although, today, the universe appears more bio-friendly than it ever was. That doesn't mean it is inhabited. We still have to prove that.

When we look at the process by which the elements and molecular building blocks of life are formed, we see they have the appearance of being completely universal.

The iron in the haemoglobin in your blood was cooked up in the heart of a massive star that blew up about 8 billion years ago. We understand now in pretty good detail, how intimately connected we are with the cosmos.

It seems quite reasonable to extrapolate that what happened here on Earth, could happen elsewhere. In the past couple of decades we have detected exoplanets galore and we have expanded our understanding of extremophiles. The difference today in terms of potentially habitable real-estate from years ago (when I was a student) is vast.

We used to think life could only exist in a very constrained rage of parameters; between the boiling and freezing point of water, at neutral pH, without too much pressure, with access to sunlight. What we know now is that life is more robust, and more opportunistic than we could have ever thought.

Q: What are the techniques and strategies used in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence?

[Dr. Jill Tarter] The discipline I worked in was called SETI- The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Of course, that latter word is a misnomer. We don't know how to define intelligence or detect it at a distance.

What we have done is to use technology as a proxy for intelligence- and therefore we have been looking for evidence of someone else's technology... looking for something that is modifying their environment in ways you could sense over the huge distance between the stars. Practically that has meant that we have looked for radio signals, optical signals and artefacts (should they be there). We are looking for things that we don't think nature can do.

In the electromagnetic spectrum, we really are looking for artefacts... Signals that are compressed in frequency beyond what nature is capable of. That's what the radio searchers are looking for- very narrow band signals. Nature does not seem to be able to emit with that coherence, but technology can. In the optical, we are looking for time-compression. Bright flashes that are faster than anything nature can do.

As more computing power comes along, as we have the opportunity to process data on the fly in greater detail, we can start looking for signals that have a more natural appearance and look more like noise. We can start looking in the radio and time domain together; which we have not done before. In both the optical radio we eventually need to look for transience- for things that don't persist. Right now we're not very good at being able to detect a transient and have any confidence in confirming that could have been a technology.

Q: Is the search for extraterrestrial intelligence broad-reaching or do you have any specific targets?

[Dr. Jill Tarter] Planets seem to be the key. Life as we know it is a planetary phenomenon. It started and evolved on a planet, profoundly changed the planet, and was moulded by the planet.

When we started SETI, we didn't know about any planets- so we started with stars. We wanted stars that were similar to the Sun; not so massive that they burn themselves out too quickly too allow evolution to take place and (we used to think) not too small where they would have insufficient luminosity to sustain a planet. The latter is now an open question and dwarf stars are back on the table.

For us, planets are what matters. What we've done is change our search strategy to focus on the Kepler Field; where we now know there are over 3,000 planetary systems. We select 3 of those systems at a time and do our search in that area of the sky. It makes our searching very efficient. It now looks like every star has a planet, and we're going to finish the Kepler Field in a systematic way- look at our results- and move to other nearby stars.

We're also looking at the galactic centre, which is a unique place in our neighbourhood. We're also looking at strategies that limit our search to the ecliptic on the sky; any stars in that direction, and in that plane, would have seen the Earth in transit against the Sun.

Q: What are the procedures to validate a SETI discovery?

[Dr. Jill Tarter] We certainly have a plan for what we will do, if and when our automated signal detection algorithms exhaust their programmed capability and we still have a viable candidate. We try and automate as much as we can- but at a certain point humans have to get involved!

Our responsibility is to look at everything within the laboratory or observing environment and firstly make sure that we are not being misled. The next step is to seek independent confirmation from a telescope to the West with equipment we didn't build, and software we didn't write. I worry a lot about those Caltech undergraduates and their propensity for hoaxes!

Once we have that independent confirmation, we would make plans to tell the world what we've found! In our case, we have specific intention to publish an IAU (International Astronomical Union) telegram that allows all the world's observatories to get the information about the discovery so they can begin using whatever instruments they may have to look in different ways. This allows a group of individuals, who are best-trained, to interpret what it is that has been discovered- and communicate that to their local media. Not everyone will be able to call the discovery site! We would like to provide knowledgeable sources so that the media don't have to make it up and write their own stories...

This is a process that would be done by scientists. It's a great science fiction story that the government would get involved. In reality however, we know that it's impossible to keep this kind of thing quiet. We've had a few false positives and the media have been right-there without any special announcements... So we've already inadvertently done this experiment! We didn't mean to... but keeping these discoveries secret will not be practical. Particularly given the open-access and communication we enjoy today, everyone will know.

As scientists we worry... We would like to keep the data to ourselves- just for a little while- so that we can understand what has been discovered and plan an announcement based on that. We're quite concerned that it will get away from us!

Q: What would be the impact for humanity to learn that we are not alone (or that we are)?

[Dr. Jill Tarter] To make the decision that we are alone will be a long process. It's an extraordinary conclusion to reach given the scale of the universe and its apparent bio-friendliness. That important conclusion will require an amount of effort that commensurate with its importance. In my mind, such conclusions would only happen a long-way in the future. We have done so-little searching so far, with such little understanding.

The critical thing (for me) that comes out of a successful detection of someone else's technology is a message- loud and clear- that it's possible for us to have a long future. Phil Morrison who co-authored the first SETI paper in '59, had a lovely way of referring to SETI. He used to call SETI the archaeology of the future... We are dealing with a finite speed of light. If there's any information in a signal, it will have come over a long-distance and thus we will be learning about their past. The very act of successfully detecting a signal means that on average technologies are stabilising, and that technological civilisations survive for a long time- otherwise it would be impossible to have a successful detection. If technologies are short-lived, popping up somewhere in the galaxy, thriving and then switching themselves off- or doing themselves in- then there will never be any two technologies that are close enough in space, and co-temporal in the very long 10 billion year history of our galaxy.

If we get a signal, we suddenly have a really important message. I'm not talking about extraterrestrial salvation... I don't think they'll solve our problems... but it does mean that our problems are soluble. It means somebody else has made it through. That is the key piece of information that could come from a 'dial tone', a cosmic artefact that has no information embedded.

Successful detection tells us that we can figure out a way to make it through.

Q: Would a successful detection of extraterrestrial intelligence change our understanding of who we are as a species?

[Dr. Jill Tarter] It must, but it might not do it instantaneously... it would be like the Copernican or Darwinian revolutions (both of which had profound effects on how we view ourselves and the universe we occupy). Thinking doesn't change overnight.

We already know at a molecular level that we are not the pinnacle of evolution, nor the be-all and end-all of the process. For some reason, we cannot push our ego out of the way and internalise this understanding.

One of the things that will change is our ability to internalise how we relate to the cosmos, and that we are not the end-result of anything- but a part of a very large evolutionary story.

Q: Is the search for extraterrestrial intelligence helping us to understand life on earth?

[Dr. Jill Tarter] I am surprised that the 1968 photo that Bill Anders took, showing the earthrise over the land of the moon... showing our planet against the blackness of space and as a whole entity... has lost its power. It doesn't seem to be ever-present today.

We need to discover Earth 2.0, an Earth analog out there that we can point our telescopes to and say, "..wow, there's something just like life out there!". It will concrete our relationship with the cosmos again. It will make people once again ask, "can we go there?", "does anyone live there?" and will make us realise that we are one of many... a very different view to ours today.

Making a SETI detection could help motivate us to solve the problems that seem insurmountable today. I really want to get the world involved in SETI as a global enterprise. Thinking about SETI, working on SETI, changing your point of view to one where you see the planet in a cosmic context... is like holding up a mirror to everyone on the planet and saying, "hey! you're all the same!".

When compared to the rest of the universe, all humans are the same. If we can work on the SETI endeavour (which is relatively benign and non-threatening), it may be a practical activity to stimulate the kind of global thinking and cooperation we're going to need to solve the challenges that don't respect national boundaries.

Q: What is the role of government, private-sector, the not-for-profit sector and individuals in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence?

[Dr. Jill Tarter] Here's an opportunity to create a new kind of collaboration. The closest thing we have at the moment are universities. Endeavours like SETI could take generations, and we really don't have good models for how to promote, sustain and fund generational activities and keep them held to the highest standards. If we take the university endowment model, we see that it has kept universities moving forward, always changing and never the same; but with the goal of educating the next generation.

If we can get the governments, non-profits, individuals and businesses to collaborate, there is a case for long-term scientific exploration in this field. I can't draw you a blueprint, we're sitting here trying to answer this very question. What is it that we should be getting buy-in for? how do we fund this activity into the future so that the best and brightest who are excited by this endeavour can take a risk and pursue it?

For individuals, programmes like Seti@Home is still running today at UC Berkeley. They are still collecting data from Arecibo. Seti@Home did not invent distributed computing, the concept was already there with folks who were factoring Pi, looking for Mersenne prime's, breaking code and so on. Seti@Home was just such a sexy application that it put distributed computing on the map, and launched a whole universe of citizen science.

Q: What is the inspiring role of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence?

[Dr. Jill Tarter] We certainly hear that Carl Sagan's 'Cosmos' inspired many young people into science. I hear that all the time with respect to the 'Contact' film too. Personally, I think it will be Earth 2.0 that makes everything concrete. It will enable a young person to think, "that might be a world I could explore one-day..."

Astrobiology is phenomenal at bringing in really bright motivated students at all levels. It was incredibly successful when we developed a year-long curriculum of integrated science for the 9th grade covering the story of cosmic evolution, who we are, where we came from, how we fit in. It's a great story! It allows students to understand new concepts in biology, chemistry, physics and see that these sciences are interrelated.

Q: How do you feel our planet, and our species, would be viewed by another intelligence?

[Dr. Jill Tarter] We are so juvenile in many ways... we have such great capabilities but such great cruelty, and such poor judgement. I think the only way we could be viewed is that we are an emerging and very juvenile technology- we have to grow up.

If you ever take a look at the sights and sounds we sent with the Voyager Golden Record and think about them seriously... you'll see we lied through our teeth. In the messages we sent, there's no poverty, there's no disease, no pollution.... everybody is beautiful. We showcase humans as magnificent, and while there is that component of us; the not-yet developed frontal-cortex of humanity is very scary.

Q: Do you feel it is a realistic goal to some-day make contact with an extraterrestrial civilisation?

[Dr. Jill Tarter] Absolutely! We do it right now, in time rather than space. We have extraordinarily profitable conversations with Shakespeare, the Ancient Romans, the Greeks and more. They have shown it is possible to transmit information forward in time. I think that there's a model for that with respect the transmission of information not just forward in time, but across the vast distances of space.

If there's anything purposeful that's transmitted in a message that allows for a sense of understanding, it's communication. We have this bias that makes us feel that communication must be two-way. I feel there are extraordinarily satisfying forms of communication that may only be one way.

Q: What would be your message to the next generation of individuals embarking on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence?

[Dr. Jill Tarter] First, reserve the right to get smarter! If something new comes along, or you learn something new. Go ahead and incorporate that into your portfolio. It doesn't mean you stop doing what you're already doing, but means that we must be willing to incorporate new things as we get smarter.

Second, it's a big job you're undertaking. Don't ever lose sight of the fact that it's an enormous exploration.

Thirdly, remember Arthur Clarke's third law; any sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic, so keep your eyes open for anomalies.


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Around 14 billion years ago, an event occurred. That event (whether a ‘big-bang’ or something else) resulted in a chain of reactions that meant one day (around 3.5 billion years ago), on a small planet, around an insignificant star, the impossible occurred. Life.

In an even more improbable set of circumstances, that 'life' progressed from being a single cell organism (currently thought of as being the Last Universal Common Ancestor) to flooding the planet with diversity ranging from bacteria through to creatures with minds complex enough to contemplate their own place in the universe and who can create artificial life-forms of their own.

"Somehow..." pondered Paul Davies "the universe has engineered, not just its own awareness, but its own comprehension. Mindless, blundering atoms have conspired to make, not just life, not just mind, but understanding. The evolving cosmos has spawned beings who are able not merely to watch the show, but to unravel the plot. What is it that enables something as small and delicate and adapted to terrestrial life as the human brain to engage with the totality of the cosmos and the silent mathematical tune to which it dances? For all we know, this is the first and only time anywhere in the universe that minds have glimpsed the cosmic code. If humans are snuffed out in the twinkling of a cosmic eye, it may never happen again. The universe may endure for a trillion years, shrouded in total mystery, save for a fleeting pulse of enlightenment on one small planet around one average star in one unexceptional galaxy...." (The Goldilocks Enigma)

If this sequence wasn't beautiful enough, let us not forget that, "... essentially every atom in your body was once inside a star that exploded. Moreover, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than did those in your right. We are all, literally, star children and our bodies made of stardust." (Lawrence M. Krauss, A Universe from Nothing)

As individuals, we are only here for a limited time. Our culture and knowledge however, endure. Every iteration of human culture is based on the combined achievements of the billions that have gone before- meaning that we were able to extend our sphere of influence from the cave to deep-space in a truly minute amount of time.

Recent times have shown a convergence of science-fiction and fact. A little over half a century ago, our current abilities to manipulate human DNA, instantly access the total sum of human knowledge, enjoy space as tourists and to communicate globally- instantly- would have been seen as far-fetched notions of a fiction-writer's vision of the future. In truth, these are the tip of a cascade of innovations which will have profound impacts on every aspect of human life from our economy and culture to our own biology.

As part of this knowledge-renaissance, we are also discovering that life is more robust, enduring, numerous and varied that we could ever have known. This understanding, combined with our rapid acceleration of space-facing technologies means that at some point, in the not too distant future, we could find evidence of life (be that intelligent civilisations, or simple organisms) elsewhere in our universe. This would be humanity's most significant discovery, and would have a profound impact on the future direction of our entire race.

In 'The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence: A Philosophical Enquiry', David Lamb wrote "…the one thing that can be predicted is that most of our predictions about contact with an advanced civilisation are likely to be wrong. So far no society on Earth has correctly predicted its future: no ancient Greek, Egyptian or Babylonian predicted television or its effect on human culture. Religion on Earth was once the foremost vehicle for social progress and that would have been the area to look to for predictions regarding future cultural developments. But religion gave way to science, although it may never return again to its former exalted states. New, as yet unheard-of-problems may shape our conception of progress and notion of progressive forces."

In this sense, even the very act of predicting that we may one day find intelligence or life in the universe could seem flawed The truth is, either way the outcome of the search will be mankind's greatest discovery.

"If extraterrestrial intelligence is found and contact is made, it will be truly important...." Lamb continues, "If we do make contact our children will be astonished to discover that we made so little effort to do so, and then they will laugh at those who denied any possibility of contact. But if, after a massive search, we fail, that too will be important, as it will convince many of us that if this is all there is, we should do our best to protect it."

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