My friends at SETI’s Big Picture Science podcast – what used to be called the Are We Alone radio show – want to put together a live show for the October 27 Bay Area Science Festival, a huge public gathering of folks where they can learn about science. They plan on holding a lively panel of astronomers, climate scientists, and other experts about the facts behind doomsday theories (such as they are).
But they need help to raise the funds to do this. They need $4000, so they started a Kickstarter fund to help. They’re almost there – as I write this they’re only $600 away, with a couple of days left to go – though of course with more funds they can do more.
This is being done by my good friends SETI astronomer Seth Shostak and science journalist Molly Bentley, and I support them. In fact, I’ve done many a segment of the Big Picture Science podcast: Seth and I do a roughly once per month interview called Brains on Vacation (see Related Posts below). So I know this show does good work, and the live show will be really fun, entertaining, and of course educational. In a good way!
Go check out their Kickstarter and beam them some cash if you can. Thanks!
[The article below was originally posted on the BBC Future blog, and was titled "Will we ever… find life elsewhere in the universe?" I'm reposting it here because, oddly, the BBC page is only readable for people outside the UK! It has to do with the BBC rights and all that. But they gave me permission to post it here, and since I thought it was fun and provocative, I figure y'all would like it. Enjoy.]
Will we ever… find life in space?
One of the reasons I love astronomy is that it doesn’t flinch from the big questions. And one of the biggest is: are we alone?
Another reason I love astronomy: it has a good shot at answering this question.
Even a few decades ago hard-headed realists pooh-poohed the idea of aliens. But times change, and so does science. We’ve accumulated enough data that makes the question less far-fetched than it once was, and I’m starting to think that the question isn’t "Will we find life?" but rather "Which method will find it first?"
There are three methods that, to me, are the front-runners for finding life on other worlds. And I have an idea as to which one may find it first.
Life on Mars?
The first method follows the principle that when you’re looking for something, it’s best to start close to home.
We know of one planet that has life: Earth. So it makes sense to look for other places with Earth-like conditions: that is, liquid water, oxygen in the air, nutrients for growth, and so on.
The most obvious place to look is Mars. At first glance it appears dry, cold and dead. But if you can see past that, things start to look up. The polar caps, for example, have lots of frozen water, and we’ve directly seen ice at lower latitudes on the Red Planet as well – meteorite impacts have left behind shiny craters, digging up fresh ice from below the surface.
Several Mars rovers and landers have uncovered tantalising evidence that liquid water might flow just beneath the surface, but we still lack any conclusive evidence. However, if you broaden your timescale a bit, there is excellent evidence that in the past – perhaps a billion years or so ago – our neighbouring planet had oceans of liquid water and thicker air. In fact, conditions were pretty good to develop life as we know it even before it popped up here on Earth.
It’s entirely possible that life got a toehold (or pseudopod hold) there long ago, and died out. If that’s the case, we may yet find fossils in the Martian rocks. Again, there’s no conclusive evidence yet, but we’ve literally barely scratched the surface there. Now that it has successfully landed on Mars, we have the exciting possibility that the plutonium-powered, car-sized Curiosity rover will soon use its on-board laser and other tools to crack open and examine rocks in the Gale Crater, which were laid down billions of years ago in the presence of liquid water.
And Mars isn’t the only possibility in our solar system. Liquid water exists inside Saturn’s moon Enceladus, where geysers of liquid water erupt from deep canyons at its south pole. Energised by the gravitational tug of the giant ringed planet itself, the interior of Enceladus may be a vast ocean of liquid water even while the surface is frozen over. That doesn’t guarantee we’ll ever find alien fish swimming that moon’s seas, of course. But it’s an interesting place to look.
Europa, a moon of Jupiter, almost certainly has an undersurface ocean as well. If you relax your constraints even more, Saturn’s moon Titan has lakes of liquid methane and ethane on its surface, too. The chemistry for life would be different there – it’s a rather chilly -180C on the surface – but it’s not impossible to suppose life might arise there too.
Finding out whether this is the case means getting up close and personal. We’re doing that for Mars; however, the likes of Europa and Enceladus may have to wait a decade or four.
But maybe we don’t have to go anywhere. Instead, we might be able to sit here and wait for alien beings (of whatever form) to message us.
One of my favorite aspects of astronomy is how it tackles the biggest questions we humans have. How did this all begin? What is the ultimate fate of the Universe?
Are we alone?
Oh, that last one. Such an interesting question, and one that for centuries has been essentially unanswerable due to a lack of solid data. But that’s changed very recently. We’ve started exploring other planets up close. We’ve been able to listen to potential signals from other civilizations. And we’ve begun to get a handle on how many habitable planets there might be in the Universe.
The BBC Future blog asked me to write up my thoughts on this for their clever series, "Will we ever…?", and so I did: "Will we ever… find life elsewhere in the universe?" is now online.
I’ll note this is an opinion piece, but it’s based on the best data I know about these three avenues of inquiry: physical inspection of other worlds in our solar system, listening for E.T., and observing planets around other stars. Given the current state-of-the-art, and where these programs are going, I predict which of these three I think will pay off first – assuming life is out there to find.
I won’t spoil it here. Go read the article!
[Note: In June, I also wrote a piece for them called Will We Ever Live on the Moon? which you may also enjoy.]
- Will we ever live on the Moon?
- 50 new worlds join the exoplanet list
- Success: SETI array back on track!
- Enceladus does and does not have a global ocean
- Huge lakes of water may exist under Europa’s ice
Every month (or so), astronomer Seth Shostak rings me up and we talk about some topic relevant to skepticism for his radio show, "Are We Alone". This month, we talked FTL neutrinos. That is, the latest news in the faster-than-light neutrinos saga.
If you want the background info, you can find it in the Related Posts section below.
- Unconfirmed rumor: FTL neutrinos may be due to a faulty GPS connection
- New experiment neither proves nor refutes FTL neutrinos
- Followup: FTL neutrinos explained? Not so fast, folks.
- Faster-than-light travel discovered? Slow down, folks
Last night, I started getting emails and tweets asking about a possible detection of a radio signal coming from two of the newly-discovered planets orbiting other stars.
Cutting to the chase: yes, a signal has been seen, but no, it’s not coming from some alien civilization. It’s almost certainly something much closer, like a satellite interfering with the observation.
So what’s the deal?
You talkin’ to me?
The Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is a
privately-funded group of scientists and engineers who are trying* an ongoing effort to figure out ways to detect signals from space that could be coming from other intelligences: aliens. They focus (haha) mostly on radio signals, since it’s very easy to send radio waves across the vast light years separating stars, it’s easy to detect radio waves (so primitive life like us can pick up the call), and it’s easy to encode information that way. Heck, we’ve been broadcasting coded radio waves for over a century now!
Currently, no unambiguous alien "Hello there!" has been detected. The sky is big, there are a lot of stars out there, and the radio spectrum is really wide, too. Think of how many radio stations there are on a typical radio dial from top to bottom; now divide that up into a billion tiny slices and try to find the one that’s playing the song you want to hear. It’s something of a painstaking process.
Recently, astronomers came up with a clever idea: the Kepler space mission is finding tons of planets orbiting other stars. It may find an Earth-like planet orbiting a Sun-like star at just the right distance to allow life to evolve, though no such planet has been found just yet. Still, why look all over the sky when we know where there are lots of planets?
Can’t stop the signal
So a search targeting those stars with planets has been set up. And that’s where our story picks up: using the ginormous 100 meter Green Bank Telescope, astronomers from UC Berkeley found what look like artificial signals when observing two different stars. The stars are called Kepler Object of Interest 812 and 817 (or just KOI 812 and 817 for short). Here’s an example of a signal they found from KOI 817:
Via Alan Boyle’s Cosmic Log blog, I am very pleased to find out that the mothballed SETI telescope array will soon be operating again!
As I reported here a few of months ago, the SETI Allen Telescope Array had to be shut down due to a lack of funds. It costs roughly $2.5M per year to keep it running, and the funding agencies were pulling back. The folks at SETI decided to create a public fund drive called SETIstars, hoping to raise the $200,000 needed to kickstart the project again.
As of a few days ago, that goal was reached! I was happy to see that people such as Jodie Foster (who played SETI astronomer Ellie Arroway in the movie "Contact") and science fiction author Larry Niven were among people who had contributed, as well as Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders.
The $200k donated is enough to get things started again, but not enough to continue operations, so it looks like there will be more fund (and awareness) raising soon by SETI. I think this is a pretty interesting endeavor; SETI has long been a political and scientific target, but they are doing good work in a variety of fields of astronomy and biology (for example, I recently wrote about a new meteor shower discovered that indicates there’s a previously-unknown near-Earth comet out there — this was funded in part by SETI). I don’t know how sustainable direct public funding of scientific projects can be, but SETI is making a pretty good stab at it. I’ll be very curious to see how this pans out.
Back in April, I reported that SETI’s Allen Telescope Array — a 42-dish setup in northern California that scans the skies, listening for signals from potential alien intelligences — had to be shut down due to lack of funds.
This bad news resulted in something of a public outcry, and a grassroots organization sprung up to try to help rectify the situation. They started the website SETIstars, where people can donate to restart the ATA. They have the relatively modest goal of reaching $200,000 in donations, which is enough to get the array restarted; SETI can then leverage on this to try to get more funding flowing (the array takes about $2.5M a year to run). You can learn more about this on their info page.
As I write this they’ve raised over $20,000, 13% of the goal, with just over a month to go. If you support them, please go take a look and do what you can.
[UPDATE (Monday, May 2): There have been a lot of interesting comments on this post since I put it up, but I have to give the honors to this one. Thanks, Jill!]
John at μcosmologist has created an interesting infographic depicting how much it would cost to run SETI from one year ($2.5 million) versus various other things we spend money on. In the graphic, each radio dish represents $2.5 million. Here’s a (small) piece of it:
[Click to enalienate.]
The whole thing is much larger, and you really need to see it. Especially the bit about how much people spend on Starbucks. Yegads.
John made this because of SETI having to mothball the Allen Telescope Array, and I strongly suspect because people were trying to say there are better things to spend money on. I’ll tell you, I think that argument is a crock. First off, it’s a false dichotomy; we can afford to do more than what we need to survive. And moreover, there is always something better to spend money on, yet we still seem to be able to justify (or rationalize) the way we spend the money we do.
In the United States alone we spend five times as much on tobacco products as we do on the entirety of NASA. How’s that for rationalization? And what we spend on NASA is much, much more than we spend on SETI (7500x more, actually). And we don’t spend enough on NASA, either.
On the other hand, as a skeptic, I understand the desire to ask why we should spend this money on SETI, why we should spend it looking for alien intelligences? There are lots of reasons, actually, but I still think the best one is simple: Because we should.
Tip o’ the radio dish to reddit.
If aliens call, who will listen?
For the past couple of decades it’s been astronomers and engineers at SETI, the Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence. But a desperate lack of funds has forced them to mothball their Allen Telescope Array, a group of 42 radio dishes in northern California.
The budget crisis has hit nearly everyone, and with states nearing bankruptcy it’s no surprise that a lot of science is getting curtailed. But SETI represents something noble and good about science, something we do both because of its deep philosophical ramifications and also simply for the joy of finding things out. So it hurts a little bit more to hear this.
SETI astronomer Seth Shostak gives the rundown on the situation. And there’s a little bit of salt in the wound because SETI was just ramping up to start investigating the exoplanets recently found by the Kepler mission as well. For the first time in human history we’re finding systems outside our own where habitable planets may exist. I think it’s worth giving them a listen.
But that won’t happen for a while at least. The array costs about $2.5 million per year to run, and that money simply isn’t coming in; there are several funding agencies — including the eponymous Paul Allen — but as the SETI press release puts it:
In an April 22, 2011 email (PDF) to Allen Telescope Array stakeholder level donors, SETI Institute CEO Tom Pierson described in detail the recent decision by U.C. Berkeley, our partner in the Array, to reduce operations of the Hat Creek Radio Observatory (and thus the Allen Telescope Array) to a hibernation state effective this month. NSF University Radio Observatory funding to Berkeley for HCRO operations has been reduced to approximately one-tenth of its former level and, concurrently, growing State of California budget shortfalls have severely reduced the amount of state funds available for support of the HCRO site.
Knowing my readers, some of you will want to help. SETI has a donation page. I talked with Seth yesterday and he told me "every little bit helps".
And hey, if you happen to know a millionaire who happens to be able to look a little bit beyond the next day or two of market fluctuations, you know where to send them.