Christian Long

Jill Tarter: Call to Join SETI Search

In TED Talks on May 22, 2010 at 9:20 pm

Reflection by TREVOR S.

Original TED page w/ speaker bio, links, comments, etc:

Jill Tarter:  Call to Join SETI Search

“Are we alone?” Jill Tarter asks the audience at the beginning of her talk at TED.

“The story of humans is the story of ideas. Scientific ideas that shine light into dark corners, ideas that we embrace rationally and irrationally, ideas for which we’ve lived and died and killed and been killed, ideas that have vanished in history, and ideas that have been set in dogma. It’s the story of nations, of ideologies, of territories, and of conflicts among them.”

But she then points out the problem, everything that we have accomplished, from the stone age up to now, has all been on this tiny planet in this vast universe. To this she adds, “From my perspective, we live on a fragile island of life in a universe of possibilities.” She talks about since the beginning of time we all have wondered who else is out there on a journey to find answers. “Is it really just us? Are we alone in this vast universe of energy, and matter, and chemistry, and physics?” Pointing to our tiny universe on her intergalactic map, she says that if we are, it’s an awful waste of space.

50 years ago, this search, SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), began, and took a different path to find these answers. She explains how SETI uses astronomical instruments to attempt to discover evidence of other technology ‘out there’. She states that since our own technology on Earth is visible over interstellar distances, that other technology may be as well. She says that we are at the point in our existence where we can rely less on the voices of philosophers and priests, and use our 21st century technology to actually figure out what is, as opposed to what should be. To SETI’s defense she adds that they don’t presume the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, but that they merely note the possibility of it. Our sun is just one of some 400 billion stars in our galaxy, and we have discovered, in the last 14 years, the existence of over 350 planetary systems on these stars, and even if there is no life in these systems, there’s still hundreds of billions of other galaxies out there with that possibility. She states that there is proof on Earth of the existence of organisms that would be capable of living in conditions that we, as humans, are not able to, and that these ‘extremophiles’ tell us that life may exist elsewhere as well.

She says that since all of the universes around us are so many light years away, that any information that they may receive would tell us about their past, and not their present, which is why some people call SETI the “archaeology of the future”. She then relates this to the ending of David Deutsch’s 2005 TED talk at Oxford (which you can find here: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/david_deutsch_on_our_place_in_the_cosmos.html) where he stated that he had two principles for living. One was that problems are inevitable, and the second was that problems are also soluble. She then talks about the means by which SETI will continue to exist. She states that our technology will determine whether they fail or succeed, which is based on the longevity of these technologies and research here on Earth. She says that we are a very young system in an old galaxy, and they are unsure to this point whether or not it is possible for technologies to persist.

At this point she shifts her talk from large numbers to small numbers. She relates this to the amount of time that the Earth was lifeless. She says that if you take zircons that are mined in the Jack Hills of western Australia, they show that within a few hundred million years of the origin of the planet, there was abundant water, and maybe even life. And therefore, our planet has spent most of its time developing life, and not just anticipating its emergence. Life here happened very quickly, so there is large potential for the existence of life elsewhere in the cosmos. She also points out the very small amount of time in which we, as humans, have claimed to be the dominant intelligence on Earth. It’s only been a very narrow window that we have been pursuing technological advances. She says the first step to accepting life elsewhere in the cosmos is to truly appreciate the different varieties of life on this planet.

She then states that we are not the “pinnacle of evolution”, and that we aren’t the determined outcome of billions of years of evolutionary planning, but we are just one outcome of the continuing process. I really liked this line, “We understand the scientific basis for the interrelatedness of life, but our ego hasn’t caught up yet.” She’s basically saying that we are just a small part in a very large story, and even then we are still only a small branch off of the large tree of life on this planet.

Then she changes the subject to scientists. Scientists that have played a large part in making SETI a success. She first brings up Nicholas Copernicus and his published book The Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres. She talks about what in science is known as geocentrism, and how he took the Earth out of the middle of the universe and introduced heliocentrism by theorizing that the Sun is the middle of the universe, and we revolve around it, not the other way around. This opened our eyes to see how we are just a small part in this large universe, and even today Copernicus’s theory has a large influence in the fields of science, philosophy, technology, and theology. In 1959, Giuseppe Coccone and Philip Morrison published the very first article on SETI in a refereed journal, bringing SETI into the public eye and the mainstream of science. In 1960, Frank Drake conducted the first SETI observation by looking at two stars for around 150 hours. Although he did not discover extraterrestrial intelligence, he learned a very valuable lesson from a passing aircraft, which is that it’s very easy for terrestrial technology to interfere with the search for extraterrestrial technology. She makes the clever analogy that the research that SETI has done up to now is equivalent to scooping a cup of water from the ocean, and that even though there are no fish in the glass, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there are no fish in the ocean.

Our twenty first century technology has helped SETI and all efforts by giving us “bigger glasses”. She talks about the Allen Telescope Array in northern California, and how they are beginning to take observations with the first 42 of them. These telescopes, the ATA telescopes, are the first of their kind. They are built from a large number of small dishes and then hooked together with computers, and she talks about how they will be increasing the number of antennas to three hundred and fifty in the future for more sensitivity and processing capability. She talks about signal strength and the Voyager-1 spacecraft that is over 106 times further away from us than the sun. Even though the signal is faint from that far away, we can still read it with our technology, and are still trying to improve on these signals.

She brings up the significance of the year 2009. Four hundred years ago, Galileo used the telescope for the first time. Two hundred years ago, Charles Darwin was born. One hundred and fifty years ago, his book, On the Origin of Species was published. Fifty years ago, SETI became a science, and twenty five years ago, the SETI Institute, as a non-profit organization, was created. 2009 also marks the twenty fifth anniversary of TED. She begins to talk about the Kepler spacecraft that launched just a month after this conference. The Kepler spacecraft was made to travel through the universe and send back data to tell us the frequencies of other Earth-like planets in the universe, which will become the targets for conducted SETI searches. She also says that 2009 has been declared by the U.N. to be the National year of Astronomy, where we can “rediscover our cosmic origins and our place in the universe”.

Her main point is finally front and center. She begins to talk about the absence of the knowledge of the existence of SETI and how they are much in need of more hands and bigger glasses, and that maybe if we all work together, we can all live to see the detection of the first extraterrestrial signal. She quotes her wish, “I wish that you would empower Earthlings everywhere to become active participants in the ultimate search for cosmic company.” She goes through the steps of which would make this a possibility. She says that we would first have to tap into the global brain trust, and build a place where raw data could be stored and accessed to where new algorithms could be developed and old ones made more efficient. She says that doing this would be a creative challenge that would have the power to change the perspective of the people who worked on it. The next step, she would like to replace the automated signal search with humans, where the human eyes can detect patterns and find signals that the current technology misses. She then brings up the next generation, and how they would like to inspire them to join this search. They’d like to be able to take the technology that they’ve built and bring it into the education field, so that everyone, even those who can’t make it out to the ATA, would be able to see what they see. She says that even if all that SETI accomplishes is to change the perspective of people, they will still be successful.

She ends with a quote from President Obama’s inaugural speech in January, “We cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass, and the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve, that, as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself.” She says she looks forward to working with the TED community in the future, and that hopefully someday soon, this visionary statement can become a reality.

We all belong to a single tribe as humans. We are all Earthlings.

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