SETIcon II: No Radio Telescopes Required
August 22, 2012
Fans of and leading minds in scientific search for extraterrestrial life gathered in Santa Clara, California for SETIcon II. SETIcon II ran from Friday, June 22, through Sunday, June 24, 2012. It was an opportunity to share meaningful and informative time with extraordinarily accessible microbiologists, planet scientists, astrobiologists, physicists, engineers, entrepreneurs, geologists, philosophers, linguists, astronauts, artists, and science fiction stars. It was also a chance for the SETI Institute, a non-profit scientific research organization focusing on the search for extraterrestrial life, to update their fans and enthusiasts on their research.
SETIcon II had more than 800 attendees who ranged in age from tot to senior. Though it was primarily men of a fair complexion, there was a strong showing by women and some ethnic diversity as well. There was also a strong international showing as well. The convention attendees were scientists, engineers, science fiction writers, futurists, and average people interested in SETI. However, the group was unusually well educated in space exploration, a fact that became evident by the caliber of questions lobbed at the panelists.
SETIcon II was not a place for scientific lightweights. If brain power could be applied to the power grid, the conference might have been able to light up Los Angeles. A comprehensive level of understanding and knowledge of science in general, and space research specifically, was expected of everyone in attendance.
People without a strong grasp on the history of space exploration, NASA, and SETI may have found themselves as lost as a donkey in a calculus class. References were made to Voyager, DARPA, and ATA with the expectation that everyone had done their homework on international space exploration history. Terms like “exoplanet,” “extremophile,” and “EUs” were thrown around without explanation. It may have been frustrating for those on the back-end of the space science learning curve, but it was an opportunity to have in-depth, well-informed conversations and panels without having to resort to explanations that a sixth grader could comprehend.
Each panel allowed time for questions by the audience. Generally, the questions asked were well informed and interesting. It’s no surprise though. The audience was not filled with just space enthusiasts and SETI members. Scientists from NASA, the 100 Year Starship Project, other space agencies, universities, and research groups were in attendance and taking the opportunity to ask questions. There were surprisingly frank conversations about failures in research and public outreach.
Like all conferences, there were a few nuts as well. Well-meaning and seemingly well-adjusted people offered their evidence for visiting aliens and UFO’s in conversation between sessions. Discussions of medieval carvings that depict alien invasion and personal experience were quietly whispered to friendly ears. There was even a question about a planetary unconsciousness that left the panel squirming to find a polite way to answer. The nuts were sprinkles on the sundae that was SETIcon II.
SETIcon II’s kickoff party on Friday evening was part update, part concert, and part art show. John Gertz, chairman of the SETI Institute Board of Trustees, updated the group about the happenings at SETI. He made a call to the participants to get involved by volunteering, raising money, participating in their open source programs, or starting Friends of SETI chapters in their towns. He was followed by SETI staff David Morrison, Edna DeVore, and Gerry Harp, each giving a brief message of welcome, an explanation of their positions, and how the group could help SETI.
To give the audience a brief explanation of the range of science done at SETI, a gaggle of staff scientists lined up to give lightning talks. Each of the talks lasted one minute or less and was on the topic of study of the scientist presenting. The presentations ranged from the study of ice on Europa (one of Jupiter’s moons) to the examination of extremophiles (organisms that live outside conditions expected to be life supporting) on Earth that are redefining the parameters of life and habitability.
Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons (NASA’s mission to Pluto) hyped the beauty of the private space flights. After an explanation of the different models of spacecraft currently being considered for private space travel Stern said, “I believe commercial space travel is where Star Trek begins.”
Former astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison gave a short talk and explained DARPA’s 100 Year Starship Project, a project to try to make human interstellar travel a reality in the next century. She explained a serious and obvious problem with our current technology: we just cannot go fast enough. Using our country as an analogy, if the Voyager probe launched from Santa Clara, California, in 1977, and New York City represents Alpha Centauri (one of our closest stars), it would have traveled one mile on its path by that scale. That distance makes interstellar travel using our current technology a real hassle.
The project seeks not only to overcome the technological challenges to traveling that far, but also how to sustain life on the planet and address any social or interpersonal issues that may arise. Dr. Jemison expressed hopes and understood the necessity that the problems are solved to make interstellar travel a reality be applied to Earth’s problems today.
Her presentation was followed by a sneak peek of “Shuttle 3D & The New Pioneers,” a documentary about the end of NASA’s shuttle program and the new world of privatized spaceflight with David Knight.
The kickoff was wrapped up with live music by the Kepler Mission Band and conversation that went late into the night.
Saturday and Sunday were broken up into five tracks, with one hour-long session each. Each of the tracks had its own topic and panel. Three of the tracks had three to five panelists from a variety of different scientific disciplines. Many of the panels also had non-scientists, including linguists, web developers, and actors. Every panel had audience-driven question and answer time.
The others were the Media and the Fireside Chat tracks. The Media track ran video, sometimes with the filmmaker, and question and answer sessions. Each of the Fireside Chat sessions had two thirty minute interviews of one person of interest.
Note: The five tracks with five one-hour sessions per day meant there were nearly fifty different panel, media, and fireside offerings. Only one session will be covered per track. There is a link for each of the panelists mentioned at the end of the article. When choosing tracks, scientific panels always won out over science fiction or artist panels, so it is skewed that direction.
The Next Big Science Revolution
Moderator: Pierre Schwob
Panelists: Neil Jacobstein, Alex Filippenko, Ariel Waldman
The panelists were asked to predict the next big science revolution. It was no surprise that each had a take specific to their field. Jacobstein posited that artificial intelligence (AI) would be the next big revolution and that all science will come out of the larger processing power AI provides because the human brain has limited raw processing power. “AI provides a fulcrum [for] all areas of science,” said Jacobstein. Waldman thought it would be the rise of citizen scientists and the decrease in cost of space travel. Waldman asked, “What will you do when space exploration is as cheap as the web?” Filippenko thought it would be advances in our understanding of dark energy and dark matter.
The panel was asked by an audience member how to inspire the public to support scientific endeavors. Jacobstein emphatically insisted that scientific illiteracy has been tolerated for too long and should, “be eradicated like small pox.” Waldman said science needs to communicate with, and reach out to other industries and non-scientists. Fillippenko suggested that a literal “buy-in” would be helpful to get people interested.
Other audience member questions covered: the percentage of dark matter in the universe; how the Higgs Boson Particle will change physics; dark energy and whether or not it can be harnessed; what could be a Sputnik-like event in our future; what assumptions will be broken down in the future; the next generation of science standards; and the possible consequences of finding a signal from ET.
Moderator: Edna DeVore
Panelists: Seth Shostak, Andrew Fraknoi, Leonard Mlodinow, Dave Morrison
The panelists were asked what role they thought the internet played into the spread of the 2012 Doomsday myth. Mlodinow explained that belief in the irrational is hardly a new phenomenon. He cited religion and cults as examples. He explained that 2012 believers are just early adopters. Morrison’s idea was that the internet lacks referees on the truth and that young people do not know how to tell fact from crap.
All Aboard the 100 Year Starship
Moderator: Adrian Brown
Panelists: Mae Jemison, Richard Rhodes, Dana Backman, Bill Nye
Mae Jemison gave a brief explanation of the 100 Year Starship Project before the panel started to address the problems that would need to be overcome before interstellar travel would or could become a reality. Rhodes saw a number of hurdles to overcome, including propulsion technology, politics, and what would happen if we came across AI before organic life. Jemison pulled Richard Obousy out of the audience to discuss the problems with using chemical propulsion for interstellar travel. Nye thought the considerations of the human need for gravity and temperature control would be essential. Another concern he brought up was how best to assure people get along on such a long trip in such a small space. Backman encouraged the audience to consider how many people were absolutely necessary to start a new population and cited the entire indigenous American population started with about seventy people.
An audience member asked if human beings should consider not embarking on such an endeavor because of their negative qualities. Rhodes brought up the example that when Australians went to New Guinea they brought law with them, greatly reducing the murder rate in New Guinea. (He seems to have missed the fact that the residents of New Guinea were not another species and were in fact human beings.) Jemison encouraged everyone to think past European values. Nye asked the audience to consider what it means to humans to not explore.
Other questions included inquiries into why DARPA was funding it, if art was considered important to the human way of life, and what would or should happen to humans born off world who want to rejoin Earth societies.
The Race to Find Alien Life
Moderator: Cynthia B. Phillips
Panelists: Robert Picardo, Richard Quinn, Scott Hubbard, David Summers
The panel offered their ideas about the method, manner, and place that would provide the best opportunity to find and detect alien life. Summers thought it would behoove us to first come up with a definition for life. After defining it, it would be a combination of methods, probably indirect methods like chemical analysis and remote sensing machines that would confirm extraterrestrial life. Hubbard, a self-described recovering bureaucrat, thinks that missions to Mars focused on following the water as well as a trip to Jupiter’s moon Europa may be promising locations. If those don’t work, the Kepler mission has provided over 2,000 planetary candidates, some of which are Earth sized and in an inhabitable zone. Quinn reminded the audience that the useful information we can gather is limited by our senses. Picardo wondered if we met our first aliens and they were not humanoid, or had a different size scale, or varied too much from what we already understand as life, if we would recognize them as life.
An audience member asked the panel if it is possible that life on Earth started on another planet in the solar system and was transplanted to earth. Hubbard explained that, “the planets have been trading bodily fluids for some time,” implying that comets and debris go from world to world and if life was on one of them, it could have “seeded” the Earth. Summers said it was a possibility that could not be ruled out, but after applying Occam’s razor, it was of lesser probability than life just evolving on Earth. Quinn hopes for separate biogenesis because it would be more interesting. Phillips thinks Europa is too far away for a single biogenesis to account for life—if indeed it even exists/existed.
Other questions asked: how to protect ourselves from aliens; non-organic or atypical alien life detection; which instruments would be used in a search for life on Europa; the prospects for liquid water on Mars; how to popularize the search for extra-terrestrial life; and problems with entertainment skewing expectations of science—specifically the high number of the public who believes that we have already found alien life.
Did the Big Bang Require a Divine Spark?
Moderator: Pierre Schwob
Panelists: Alex Filippenko, Seth Shostak, Richard Rhodes, Marc Okrand
Schwob asked the panel their thoughts on the question; did the Big Bang require a divine spark? Unfortunately, most of the panel avoided answering the question directly and started a half-hearted intellectual tap dance. Schwob, the moderator, opened the conversation with a declaration of his agnosticism but then asked the panel for their input. Shostak told jokes and self-deprecating comments before asking the audience, “If aliens also had religion, it might be evidence for a deity.” It was unclear if this was an attempt to force the audience to think about religion differently or a sincere question. Given the history of his podcast, Big Picture Science, it is likely that it was joke. Rhodes, once a seminary student, recounted his personal story of violence, how he turned to the church, but felt lost. Okrand, a linguist, discussed the parallels between the origin of language and religion. Filippenko said that he did not think religion is a scientific question and is thus outside the laws of physics. He believes that these questions fan flames between religion and science that “we have tried to douse.”
Schwob used his privilege as the moderator to ask a question about the multiverse hypothesis. After an explanation of multiverse hypothesis, Filippenko said, “I love the multiverse hypothesis but I have no proof.” Later he continued, “[We] can’t prove their existence but we can’t disprove their existence. They would have to interact to know they are there.” Shostak offered, “If this is the only universe, then is that a thumbs up for god?”
Other questions fielded by the panel included if the universal constants change, if the Klingon language required religion, if logic is axiomatic to the universe or made up by humans, if SETI finds an all-powerful alien race, would SETI be a religion, how we talk about concepts we can’t think about, how to hit on a Klingon (a good snarl), and if the reason we have something instead of nothing is because nothing is unstable.
Do Any Exoplanets Have Intelligent Occupants?
Moderator: Gerry Harp
Panelists: Jon M. Jenkins, Jill Tarter, Margaret “Maggie” Turnbull, Dan Werthimer
Werthimer enthusiastically shared his belief that life would be found in primitive form (bacteria or other microorganisms) on planets with water, but thought that radios or lasers may not be the way to find them. Turnbull reminded the panel and the audience that there is no good definition of life or intelligence yet and that that is a major hurdle to overcome. Jenkins thinks the Kepler mission’s results are promising but the next 50-100 years will be huge for identifying planets that may be habitable. Tarter thinks that we cannot understand biology until we find another example. She said, “We don’t know what is necessary and what is contingent.”
The panel was made up of SETI researchers and NASA scientists, so there were few surprise answers to any question, but the lively debate between the scientists about terms and presumptions was enlightening into how little is known or agreed upon in extraterrestrial research. It seemed whenever a scientist would assert something about the nature or qualities of life, they would be reminded that we only have one sample and it is impossible to draw conclusions about life as a whole from one sample. Turnbull was adamant that the categories of organic and inorganic could be oversimplifications, and that the process to biogenesis could be more nuanced than two stages. She thinks we have reason to believe that there was an intermediate step, or steps, between the two.
The audience’s questions were diverse and included: the likelihood that Earthlings are the first intelligent life in the universe; a question about if we should send out signals; non-planet places that could have life; if there is a planetary consciousness; and Dyson Spheres.
Fireside Chat with Mark Okrand and Debra Ann Fischer
Interviewers: Andrian Brown and Franck Marchis
Andrian Brown interviewed Mark Okrand on his body of work as a linguist, which includes inventing the Vulcan and Klingon languages for Star Trek. Okrand recounted how a serendipitous lunch with a friend in Hollywood landed him the job developing Vulcan for Star Trek. However, not all of his linguistic knowledge goes into made up languages. He also worked on reconstructing the Native American language of Mutsun, a dialect of the Ohlone people who inhabited the San Francisco area. He also worked on the first live closed-captioning for television.
Okrand dove into his influences, the way the Klingon written language was developed, and how spoken Klingon developed. He also explained why he left out what he intentionally left out of the Klingon dictionary. For example, he did not include geographical places in the Klingon home world so as not to hamper the writers of Star Trek.
Debra Ann Fischer answered questions by Franck Marchis about her research into exoplanets. She explained the limitations of current technology’s precision and the effects of having to share space with scientists in a different field. She conveyed to the audience how radically views of what is possible in the universe has changed in recent years. Kepler is finding more planet candidates, some of which are found in places where it was previously thought they could not exist, like binary star systems.
Fischer emphatically encouraged citizen scientists to get involved with planetary discovery. Using www.planethunters.org, a citizen scientist can review Kepler data in a user friendly format and help find planets and get credit for their discoveries.
Citizen Science – Can Science Harness the Power of 6 Billion People?
Moderator: Dane Glasgow
Panelists: Debra Ann Fischer, Jon Richards, Alex Hall, Dan Werthimer, Ariel Waldman
Glasgow let panelists explain their citizen science projects. Fischer told the audience about planethunters.org, a website that lets citizen scientists review Kepler data to find planets. Werthimer outlined SETI@home, a processor-sharing program installed on computers to run as a screen saver and analyze data. In it, participants get points for their use, and get credit for the discoveries made while using their computer. Richards explained SETIlive.org which, using a simple interface, allows citizen scientists to review data that might otherwise be ignored. Waldman shared information about spacehack.org, a website that acts as a repository for citizen space science projects.
In the discussion there was some conversation about some failures of citizen science, including SETIquest. SETIquest is an open-source project which required more maintenance than people at SETI anticipated and eventually became more of a hassle than it was useful.
The crowd was both excited to help in space research and apprehensive of its potential for failure. The panelists were asked about their biggest challenges, the actual value of crowd sourcing, about websites for particular space research, solutions for sharing problems, how to motivate people to participate, and how to inspire collaboration.
The Magnificence and Majesty of the Outer Solar System
Moderator: Rob French
Panelists: Cynthia B. Philips, Mark R. Showalter, Charles Lindsay
Philips and Showalter dug into NASA’s photo albums and presented some spectacular views of the outer planets. There was no shortage of good-natured ribbing between the two scientists about their chosen disciplines. Between the silliness of Philips’s mantra “geology is better,” and Showalter’s “nuh-uh, rings rock” was a collection of visuals that helped define scale, color, and topography of not only planets, but also their moons.
During the question and answer section, Showalter and Philips answered questions about why Neptune’s axis is sideways with respect to the other planets, how long the rings have been around some of the planets, their biggest surprises as scientists, and why there are spokes on the rings of Saturn.
What is the Future of the Allen Telescope Array?
Moderator: John Gertz
Panelists: Jack Welch, Jill Tarter, Gerry Harp
The Allen Telescope Array, located in Hat Creek, California, sports forty-two relatively small radio telescopes that, when working together, equal the sensitivity of a much larger telescope at less cost. The array has been victim of promises not kept and budget cuts, having spent several months in hibernation while new funding was secured.
Moderator Gertz seized the opportunity to mention a few ways that individuals could give money. Tarter explained that the antennas are currently shared with the Air Force. She hopes the array will expand into over 300 telescopes, as was previously planned. She would like to see an array in the southern hemisphere, maybe Australia, because it has a better view of the center of the galaxy. Harp had some technical changes he would like to make. Welsh developed a new receiver which greatly improves the telescopes’ receiving bandwidth and would like to see more antennas. Harp would like to improve the computers which are processing the information coming from the array.
The audience wanted to know how they could participate. Some suggested small, one-meter antennas in people’s backyards and others suggested other methods of fund raising.
In the halls and during breaks, there was much chatter about how to help SETI, and science in general. People buzzed with excitement, often telling other people about what they had heard and explaining how the listener’s special skills could be used. In the crowd were the panelists and scientists, encircled by enthusiastic and inquisitive attendees grasping the opportunity to ask questions. It is that connection that will serve SETI in the future, and what people will take away from SETIcon II.
100 Year Starship Project
New Horizons - NASA’s mission to Pluto
“Shuttle 3D & The New Pioneers”
Cynthia B. Phillips
Higgs Boson Particle
Debra Ann Fisher
Mark R. Showalter