A review of SETI and its weekly podcast by ANDY FLEMING.
Are We Alone? The age-old question, eloquently answered by Ellie Arroway’s dad in Carl Sagan’s book and following 1997 movie Contact “well if we are, it’s an awful waste of space”.
Over the last fifty years, more and more scientists have stepped out of the closet to seriously confront this most ancient of all questions, shunned for centuries by serious scientists, fearsome of professional ridicule. Both Frank Drake and Carl Sagan risked their professional careers by engaging with both the public and the scientific establishment in trying to have both exobiology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) taken seriously.
The former of course went on to formulate the famous “Drake Equation” which ostensibly estimates the number of intelligent galactic civilisations, but in reality reveals the immensity of what we really don’t know. The latter’s PBS series Cosmos ponders the question of extra terrestrial intelligence several times when the late NASA astronomer asks what are their politics, religions, and how different are they from us?
Regarding exobiology, now termed astrobiology, Drake, Sagan and others succeeded. It’s a subject that has finally come of age. The majority of serious scientists today are now minded to the consensus that life is common in the universe. Some of it may be lurking within our own solar system – in sub-surface Mars or in Jupiter’s moon Europa’s subterranean water ocean. Many reckon it’s only a question of time and political will before we find it – the technology already exists.
Indeed, with projects such as NASA’s James Webb Telescope (that depending on the US Congress may or may not be launched in the next ten years), and its Terrestrial Planet Finder project, we may, through spectroscopy of their atmospheres, have gathered evidence of the signature of life on planets orbiting other suns before evidence is forthcoming from Mars, and certainly Europa. However, most scientists take the view that when we find these critters they are likely to be primitive – microbes, bugs – lichens and algae if we’re lucky.
The scientists at the SETI Institute in Pasadena, California stick their heads out further than this though. They’re willing to spend their professional time and careers scanning millions of radio channels to see whether ET has mastered the art of propagating electromagnetic radiation, or even discovered the power of lasers. The search started with Frank Drake at the Green Bank Radio Telescope in the early 1960s and has, with new technology, quickly developed since then.
From scanning one channel at a time, SETI astronomers can now scan millions of frequencies at once. They’ve even enlisted the help of some of the world’s largest radio telescopes, such as the gigantic Arecibo dish in Puerto Rico, and had (albeit for a short period) the help of full scale NASA involvement. They’ve even enlisted surfers to participate in a most ingenious project called SETI@home, where wide scale distribution and processing of Arecibo data on individual personal computers globally circumvents the need for expensive supercomputers to process the masses of radio information. Drake and Sagan even sent a message in 1974 via the Arecibo dish to the globular cluster M13, in the hope ET will hear us (a reply via radio would take 46,000 years to reach us, so don’t hold your breath!)
Despite direct NASA funding for SETI being withdrawn in the early nineties, and despite the lack of a repeated independently verified signal from ET, the SETI Institute continues to thrive and gather respectability. Evidence for this comes from an increasingly respectable list of sponsors including Sun Microsystems, Equallogic and a massive donation from Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft who has provided funds for the Allen Telescope Array (formerly the One Hectare Array) – a kind of Socorro Very Large Array on steroids purely for SETI.
The organisation’s public outreach initiatives include a superb website at http://seti.org/, public lectures in the United States, and the now weekly Big Picture Science SETI Institute Radio podcast, formerly entitled until a few weeks ago, Are We Alone? I have had the pleasure of listening to this programme for the past couple of years. Whatever your feelings on SETI, and the “Intelligent” part of it, it certainly divides scientists (many of whom postulate that it is not science, as at its basis is an hypothesis that is not falsifiable) - as a standalone general science broadcast it is a polished piece of work, outshining much of what is available on terrestrial media.
The programme is presented by SETI’s senior astronomer, and man of fine humour and knowledge, Seth Shostak. This SETI stalwart is usually joined by Molly Bentley, who is the senior producer of SETI Radio, and has in the past presented science reports from the USA on both the BBC World Service and the BBC News channel.
Like the Planetary Society’s Planetary Radio, Big Picture Science always includes interviews with top scientists from a host of different fields, from sociology, psychology, anthropology and biology, right through to genetics, astrobiology, astrophysics and cosmology.
As NASA itself has concluded, illustrated by its own “Origins” initiative, the SETI Institute recognises the need for a multidisciplinary approach when it comes to thinking about intelligent aliens. In the process, it educates the listener extremely well in cutting edge science, explained with wonderful analogies for the lay person. Indeed these excellent podcasts require little previous scientific knowledge – this fact being amazingly juxtaposed with an enormous amount of valuable knowledge being conveyed in each fifty minute programme (file size is 35MB mp3 downloaded in a minute or so with a broadband connection).
The Big Picture Science team, left to right Barbara Vance, Molly Bentley and Seth Shostak.
This Sagan-esque public outreach approach, combined with the multidisciplinary angle is illustrated well in the last SETI Radio broadcast I heard, downloaded from the huge archive of programmes before compiling this review. Entitled Life’s Stories it centred around a series of interviews conducted with senior scientists at the AbSciCon (an acronym standing for Astrobiology Science Conference) held in 2009 in Santa Clara, California, and sponsored by the SETI Institute. On the show’s menu was a very interesting interview with Diana Valencia, planetary physicist at Harvard University, about the discovery of an increasing number of “super earths” (terrestrial or water worlds with masses up to five times that of the Earth).
Charly Lineweaver, cosmologist at the Australian National University was interviewed concerning his research into the size and age of possible habitable zones in galaxies, where stars and their solar systems can reside away from the effects of galactic central black holes, overcrowding of stars and resulting frequent supernovae events and lethal levels of cosmic rays.
Baruch Blumberg, a scientist at the Fox Chase Cancer Institute, Nobel Prize winner and Trustee at the SETI Institute was interviewed concerning the role of viruses in the development of life, and was questioned as to whether viruses as self-replicating structures themselves constituted a primitive form of life. Other interviewees commented on their respective specialisms that included the length of the present epoch when the universe was able to form terrestrial planets (i.e. the period during which there was sufficient metallicity for terrestrial rocky worlds to form around stars). Asteroid impacts and volcanic activity were also discussed along with their implications for mass extinctions such as the KT and Permian, and resultant large reduction in biodiversity.
Unbelievably, all of these interesting items were discussed in a fascinating fifty minute high quality science audio broadcast (burn it onto audio CD and listen on your hi-fi!), and one that I thoroughly endorse.
A quality science programme such as this cannot be cheap to research, or produce, bearing in mind in the superb technical and presentational quality. The programme succeeds in traversing the difficult tightrope of both being highly entertaining and highly informative, with both Seth Shostak’s knowledge, jokes and humour being nicely contrasted with Molly Bentley’s common sense and professional journalistic style. This is borne out by the terrestrial radio transmission of the show on many talk radio stations, both in the US, and globally.
For the listener, the Big Picture Science succeeds in providing a high quality up-to-date general science, astronomy and cosmology “fix”, while it also acts as a superb ambassador for the organisation striving to answer that greatest of all questions: Are We Alone?
Full details of the present show and the SETI Radio show archive (all available for download) at: http://radio.seti.org/ where you can also participate in the SETI blog, contact Seth and Molly, or just enjoy the rest of a very professional website.