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by Morris Jones for SpaceDaily
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Jul 16, 2013
The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has captivated the imagination of the world like few other recent scientific projects. It's on the cutting edge of interdisciplinary science and a source of wonder to the general public. Who doesn't want to know if we are alone in the universe? Despite this, SETI has sometimes seemed to lurk on the fringes of the scientific community, often struggling for funding and its very survival.
Few individuals who have worked in SETI have the experience of Dr Jill Tarter, who has searched for extraterrestrials for decades. The former director of the SETI Institute in the USA was the inspiration for the character portrayed by Jodie Foster in the movie "Contact", based on a novel by Carl Sagan. Dr Tarter recently spoke with Spacedaily.com correspondent Dr Morris Jones during the Australian Astrobiology Conference in Sydney.
SpaceDaily: Dr Tarter, you have an insider's perspective on SETI that is not shared by many people. After working on SETI for so many years, what has been your view on how SETI has developed in your time?
Jill Tarter: Well, the technology has certainly improved exponentially. We can say easily that the searches we are doing now are at least 14 orders of magnitude more comprehensive than the original searches done by Frank Drake. So the technology has improved, but it needs to improve a lot more because of the haystack we are trying to search is vast. But I think also that for the general public, SETI has become more concrete over time. Exoplanets (planets around other stars) and extremophiles (organisms surviving in extreme environments on Earth) have been real game changers.
From the biological point of view, the extremophiles that we have been finding on this planet have changed completely the concepts that I learned as a student about where you could find life. At every parameter, the boundaries have been expanded enormously. So there might be a lot more habitable real estate out there than we once thought. The fact that we know there really is real estate out there in the form of exoplanets is really exciting. There could be more planets than stars out there, and that gives the question of whether there is life out there more meaning. It's no longer so abstract.
SpaceDaily: When you started in SETI, what were your expectations of how the field would progress?
Jill Tarter: I got started because I found it exciting be alive at just the right time, with new tools and the right skills to do an experiment to answer this age-old question. I think I appreciated that the tools of the time, the radio telescopes, would probably not be the only tools that would become important over time. We have now been able to incorporate optical SETI. We are looking to push that into the infrared. We are trying to remain wise enough to allow ourselves to get smarter as we learn new things.
I think I appreciated from the beginning what a vast undertaking this would be. I felt privileged to be able to help get this started, and hopefully it has enough interest and backing to continue as long as may be required. That could result in a successful outcome or get to a threshold of pain where people are no longer willing to invest in this project and they begin to accept the rather extraordinary claim that perhaps we are alone.
SpaceDaily: You mentioned how progress in astrobiology has boosted SETI and you also said that your equipment is better than at the start. What else has changed for SETI in recent years?
Jill Tarter: I think the exciting thing is that SETI has reached a state of maturity now, after roughly 50 years of performing SETI. We are now willing to re-question everything and think about what we can do now that was not considered possible when we got started. So people are looking at new pathways for exchanging information over interstellar distances. People are discussing whether we should be transmitting instead of just listening. People are trying to use social media, which we didn't have before, to conduct a global conversation about this subject, particularly the question of transmitting. Should we transmit or is that dangerous? And if we decide that we should transmit, who will speak for Earth? What will they say?
Historically, it wasn't that we never thought about these questions but we would put together a workshop and place a limited number of people in a room. Most of the time, they were mostly men from first-world countries. They certainly didn't look like a representative sample of the people from planet Earth. The fact that social media is now so widespread in all kinds of places allows us to hear from communities whom we couldn't incorporate before.
SpaceDaily: How do you feel about the relationship between SETI and the general public?
Jill Tarter: I think SETI is all about their future. Really, working on this project and getting the public actively involved is a good exercise in having people learn to step back from the immediate and the known, and to see themselves from a different perspective. They can appreciate that they are all Earthlings on one planet, and compared to some other form of creatures that evolved somewhere else, we are completely all the same versus them. If we can share with the people of the planet this perspective that astronomers have, that it really takes a cosmos to produce a human being, then we can share our commonalities and trivialize our differences. This point of view is absolutely necessary for moving forward to tackle the challenges that we face today. We all have to work to adapting to challenges such as climate change.
This is not something that stops at any national border. We need to work on ways to sustain the biodiversity of the planet and husband the planet, to stabilize the population and protect water and food resources. These are global questions and the more that we can encourage people on this planet to think of themselves first as Earthlings, the more likely it is that we can establish the kinds of transnational co-operations that we need to fix what's broken and prepare for what's coming.
SpaceDaily: You did mention earlier that SETI is influenced by related disciplines such as the search for exoplanets. These areas were not traditionally connected to SETI in its early days. Astrobiology itself seems to be booming now. To what extent do you see SETI becoming more connected to astrobiology as a whole?
Jill Tarter: Actually, I think they are both parts of the same activity. There is a whole spectrum of different disciplines and studies that roughly want to understand the origin, distribution and limits of life. So SETI is a form of astrobiology that uses the actions of inhabitants of other worlds. They are all different ways of approaching the same questions. Before we started using the term astrobiology we had "exobiology" and "bioastronomy". The label of "astrobiology" has now penetrated the educational strata and we are seeing students being fascinated by these big questions.
SpaceDaily: So far, we have yet to make a discovery. How will you feel if we have not made a discovery in another 20 years?
Jill Tarter: Another 20 years will make roughly 70 years of trying to answer this question. That's a time that has significance only in terms of human lifetimes. This is a big question. We live in a really old universe. We have young technology and we may not have discovered the right tools for pursuing this question, but we do reserve the right to get smarter in the future. I like to tell students that even though radio and optical SETI makes sense with what we have today, it may be that "zeta rays" are the perfect vehicle for interstellar communication. Now, I don't know what a "zeta ray" is, but there is more physics to be learned, and I'm sure there is a lot technology to be developed. Our strategy should be to use what we know and manage to survive long enough so we can learn and invent better tools in the future so we can finally find the "zeta rays" that do the trick.
SpaceDaily: How do you think the world would react if we made a discovery today?
Jill Tarter: I think that there is no doubt that it would change everything, and it has the possibility of changing it all at once. On the other hand, what does it really mean? If you do polls, as we love to do in the USA, you find out that over half the population already believe that there is life beyond Earth, and a large fraction of them think that it's intelligent life like us. So by proving that, answering that question, they will just absorb that into their worldview, and I don't think that it would be hugely disruptive. I think that having that proof would teach a lesson that we don't seem to be able to get traction with any other way.
A detection would mean that, on average, technological civilizations can survive for a long time, long in cosmic time. We have lots of different indicators that say that our own technological society isn't going to survive for a very long time. We see lots of ways that things could go wrong. But the detection of a signal instantly tells us that there is a future, that it is possible to grow old as a technological civilization, otherwise we would never have made a detection. So I think that if nothing else comes of it, that's the most important message from SETI. That is why it is worth funding SETI. We can't promise success, and we don't need huge funding, but that funding is really a true investment in our future.
SpaceDaily: Where is the SETI community heading right now?
Jill Tarter: I think we are heading away from holding our own meetings and seeing ourselves in a silo. I think we are embracing a history of involvement with the astrobiology community that has really existed for a long time. We are reaching out to them and they are welcoming our participation. I said before that SETI was the tail of a distribution of scientific explorations that comprise astrobiology, and I think that's the correct way to look at it. We are not crazy people looking for little green men. We are part of a large scientific enterprise to understand the limits on life.
Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst who has reported for spacedaily.com since 1999. Email morrisjonesNOSPAMhotmail.com. Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email. Dr Jones will answer media inquiries.
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