Why we search for aliens: a 30-second primer

A panel of eminent scientists discusses the search for alien life during the World Science Festival in New York.
Date:9 June 2014 Tags:, , , ,

Time and again, usually over several glasses of something chilled and fermented, people ask us why astronomers “waste their time” looking for life on other worlds while we have so much to deal with on our own planet. It’s not always easy to explain the phenomenon we know as curiosity, especially to those who find it a strange and unnecessary concept.

Because life is short and time rather precious (that is, we could be wiped out by a rogue asteroid next Thursday), you’ll just have to accept that it’s an admirable trait for any human and probably also a useful survival mechanism, which suggests that it will be retained in future generations because it confers an evolutionary advantage.

If you’re interested in the subject of ET and where we are likely to find him (it?), visit Nasa’s Astrobiology site and dig to your heart’s content. That done, we suggest you visit the SETI Institute – and if you’re really impatient, check out Dr Jill Tarter’s 30-second video primer on why we search for aliens.

Here’s what we know about her, courtesy of SETI: “Dr Tarter is the holder of the Bernard M Oliver Chair for SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). She is one of the few researchers to have devoted her career to hunting for signs of sentient beings elsewhere, and there are few aspects of this field that have not been affected by her work.

“She was the lead for Project Phoenix, a decade-long SETI scrutiny of about 750 nearby star systems, using telescopes in Australia, West Virginia and Puerto Rico. While no clearly extraterrestrial signal was found, this was the most comprehensive targeted search for artificially generated cosmic signals ever undertaken. Among her numerous distinguished awards and recognitions, Dr Tarter received the 2009 TED Prize. Not surprisingly, the Jodie Foster character in the movie Contact is largely inspired by this real-life researcher.”

The extraterrestrial issue came up again last week at the World Science Festival in New York, where four eminent scientists took to the stage in front of a sell-out audience to discuss an important question: “Alien life: will we know it when we see it?” They were Nobel Prize-winner Jack Szostak, whose current research delves into self-replicating systems and the origin of life; Paul Davies, a theoretical physicist, cosmologist, astrobiologist and best-selling author whose research focuses on the “big questions”, from the origin of the Universe to the origin of life; Sara Seager, a planetary scientist and astrophysicist whose groundbreaking research ranges from the detection of exoplanet atmospheres to innovative theories about life on other worlds; and Dimitar Sasselov, an astronomer and co-investigator on Nasa’s Kepler mission, which monitors more than 100 000 stars to hunt for exoplanets. He is also director of the Origins of Life Initiative, which unites scientists in the search for the origins of life on Earth and elsewhere.

It was an invigorating and fascinating discussion, and quite naturally, not all the answers were neat and irrefutable. As the WSF tells it: “Scientists haven’t found aliens yet, but by scanning the sky they’ve shown that our galaxy harbours billions of planets, many of which likely have conditions similar to those on Earth. Which brings new questions into sharp relief: when searching for life beyond our home planet, how do we know what to look for? What human prejudices might cause us to overlook intelligent life forms very different from what we expect?”

By now you should be able to work out why we search for aliens: it’s because they’re out there…

Source:  SETI Institute