Yesterday, SETI astrobiologists told the U.S. Congress there's "close to a 100% chance" that aliens exist, adding that we might detect signs of life in 20 years. But things went south when the floor opened up for questions.
Dan Werthimer, director of the SETI Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, and Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at SETI, were on Capitol Hill yesterday discussing the need for continued funding for the search for life in the galaxy. The gathering was a follow-up to a December 2013 hearing on the search for biosignatures in our solar system and beyond.
Werthimer told the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology that the possibility of microbial life on other planets is close to 100%.
"It would be bizarre if we are alone," Werthimer said. "It would be a cramped mind that didn't wonder what other life is out there."
To which Shostak added: "If you extrapolate on the planets [we've] discovered, there are a trillion planets in the galaxy. That's a lot of places for life. We know that the majority of stars have planets [but what] fraction of stars has planets that are more like the earth? It might be one in five."
Shostak advocated for three different approaches: (1) searching for microbial life nearby (like on Mars), (2) examining the atmospheres of exoplanets, and (3) the SETI approach of listening for signatures, like radio signals. He believes that the first two approaches could lead to results within the next 20 years — provided these projects are adequately funded.
Both astronomers agreed that aliens likely exist in various stages of development and that there could be "a lot of advanced civilizations" as well. Thankfully, Werthimer did not advocate for an Active SETI approach, instead arguing that we should just "receive signals and see what's out there," adding: "My feeling is that we should just be listening."
Werthimer talked about some next steps, including the construction of wide-angle, panchromatic telescopes that will expand its ability to pick up extraterrestrial signals. He also talked about using "interplanetary eavesdropping" to detect signals that could be transmitted between other planets, and the practice of using lasers to pick up signals.
But once the presentation was over, the floor was opened for questions. And that's when things, for the most part, started to get a bit weird. Danielle Wiener-Bronner from The Wire reports:
Rep. Suzanne Bonamici recalled the question a colleague, Rep. Chris Smith, posed during an earlier hearing. "What do we do when we find life on another planet?" She asked the alarmist question next, "What's the plan? Do we announce it to the world?" Shostak shot back, respectfully, that people have thought for years that the government has a secret alien plan when, in reality, "nobody in the government shows the slightest bit of interest" in SETI's activities. Zing.
Rep. Chris Collins posed the question he thought was on everyone's mind — "Have you watched Ancient Aliens and what is your comment on the series?" Shostak replied that he takes issue with the premise of the show, which posits that ancient artifacts suggest a long-ago alien visit to Earth. "Pyramids were built by Egyptians," he said, and Werthimer added that "UFOs have nothing to do with extraterrestrials." That was Collins's only question. Rep. Bill Posey asked the scientists to discuss "Project Blue Book," drawing a connection between UFOs and the search for life in spite of Werthimer's note.
It should be noted, however, that some members of the committee made more serious inquiries. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson asked how SETI research had contributed to other areas of science, and Rep. Donna Edwards asked for details on how the panchromatic telescope project would work. But its hard to shake the feeling that, for the most part, committee members stepped into the room with a view of aliens as imaginary humanoid beings waiting to talk to us, and walked out with that same view. Which has more to say about the state of our government than the state of our scientific advances.
Ugh. I can imagine the mental face-palms being made by Shostak and Werthimer during the Q&A period.
(Top image courtesy of NRAO/AUI)