Hello....Is There Anybody Out There?

The SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute's Jill Tarter has spent decades searching for the signals that would tell us we aren't alone in the cosmos. Tarter discusses the hunt, and what the presence of intelligent life elsewhere might tell us about our own future on Earth.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking with Jill Tarter, chair for SETI Research, and with Saul Perlmutter, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, about search for extraterrestrial life and about the expanding universes and, Jill, we're finding all these exoplanets now, you know - planets around other stars. Does that increase the odds that we might find?

JILL TARTER: Well, I think that's been a game-changer. Until the early '90s, we didn't know whether any other stars would have planets. And life, at least life as we know it, appears to be a planetary phenomenon. So now the fact is we know there are other planets out there. It looks like almost every star probably has planet or two or three. And that means that we can redirect our search with the radio telescopes. We're no longer just trying to figure out, hmm, that star might be a good host for planets. We now know there are planets there. So that's where I point my radio telescope.

FLATOW: Could there - now, the planets are so far away, could you find a civilization that if the signal takes so long to get here, that it no longer exists, the civilization itself?

TARTER: Well, if we're going to detect a signal, it's going to be because on average technologies, and that's really what we're searching for. Technology is our proxy for intelligence. If we're going to find a signal, be successful, it's only because technological civilizations survive for a very long time. And so when you're talking about a long-term survival, the fact that it could take up to 100,000 years for a signal to cross from one side of our galaxy to the other is in fact not a very long time. And if they were there to send the signal, they're probably still there.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's go to the audience for some questions. Yes, sir.

CARL HEWITT: Carl Hewitt from iRobust. My question is about the politics of SETI. And that is, what do we understand about why they might want to communicate with us? To take your fish analogy, if I were a very smart fish out there, I can see why I'd be very motivated not to be detected by the humans on this planet.

(LAUGHTER)

TARTER: What do we know about extraterrestrial politics? Absolutely nothing.

(LAUGHTER)

TARTER: There may be no one else out there. We may be alone.

HEWITT: Or they may - might not want to be detected by us.

TARTER: That's also possible, or it might turn out that as one tries to go from being an emerging technology, such as we are, to being an old, stable technology, there might be a real problem. We might have a bimodal distribution. We might have a lot of young civilizations' technologies and a few that made it to be old. And perhaps, learning about the old technology and the fact that they survived, when you're a young technology, might help you get through. And so maybe there's some prime directive that says, for the good of the emerging technologies, we should make ourselves known. I don't know.

FLATOW: Or...

TARTER: Your scenario could be just as correct.

HEWITT: Or maybe as Carl Sagan used to talk about, people are finally listening to "I Love Lucy" someplace out in another star.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Things are leaking out that we didn't think about.

TARTER: Absolutely. And we have this bubble of information about us that is expanding one light year per year. This radio broadcast is going to leak off this planet and four years from now, it will reach the nearest star. But we've only been doing that for, again, a short period, 100 years?

FLATOW: Right.

TARTER: We have a galaxy that's 10 billion years old. We have - so they'd have to be pretty close to us in order to have found...

FLATOW: And that's what's fascinating about the recent exoplanets is that they are so close. That if they had intelligent life, we could communicate in two ways within one of our lifetimes, could we not?

TARTER: Yes. There are certainly planets that are close enough to have detected our early radio signals, television broadcasts and transponded back.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. All right. Let's go to a question here. Yes, sir.

ROSS: Yes. I'm Ross, and I was wondering about the Fermi paradox, which I believe said something about if they're out there, why aren't they here, and if our guest could comment. Thank you.

TARTER: Let me phrase - paraphrase what the Fermi paradox is. Fermi postulated that if there was ever another technological civilization within our galaxy anytime, anyplace, that obviously, that technology would quickly, in terms of galactic lifetime, have developed the ability to travel between the stars, and they would do so and they would colonize the galaxy in a time very short compared to the lifetime of the galaxy. But they're not here, and therefore when you phrase this as a paradox, the only solution to that paradox would be to say there could never have been another technology anytime, anyplace. We're the first. If, indeed, you can make that statement, set it up as a strong paradox, then you're entitled to a strong conclusion.

But I would claim we can't say that they're not here, and I'm not talking about alien abductions and medical experiments or any of that pseudo-science. What I'm simply saying is we have so poorly explored our local environment that they could well be here, even if you're talking about big, wet biology boldly going in starships. You know, there are a couple of places in our neighborhood, the Lagrangian points, where we've looked and could probably rule out bright, shiny Battlestar Galacticas. But we certainly can't rule out small, dark things.

We just got, in February, surprised by a big rock, 20 meters across, that came into the atmosphere and - at Chelyabinsk, and surprised the hell out of everyone. There was another rock that, in the same timeframe, that we knew was coming, but we don't - when we can't find 20-meter rocks coming our - right at us, think about how little we know about our local neighborhood.

FLATOW: And how much of the ocean there is they could land in, and we'd never see them, if as the Earth - yes, you have a question, there. Stand up and...

CARRIE ANN: Yeah. Hi. I'm Carrie Ann(ph). I'm a student here. I was wondering if there's any program sending out signals that other - that are systematically trying to contact other civilizations that might be out there, whether it'll be 100,000 years from now that they'll get them, beyond just our radio and TV shows.

TARTER: So we have leakage radiation, but we don't have any systematic transmission. And that's because we're not real good at 10,000-year plans.

(LAUGHTER)

TARTER: If you're going to transmit, it does no good to transmit for two years, because your signal will reach an intended audience and go by them in a two-year period. They'd have to be looking at you in just the right way, at just the right moment. So if you take transmission seriously, you've got to be in it for the long term, which means I think we have to grow up before it's time to transmit. I think it's an easier job to listen. We should listen first. And then, as we begin to have the capability to take this long look at the future - which we need to do for so many reasons, for so many other challenges on this planet - transmission might be in our future.

FLATOW: Let me give you both the blank-check question I give to a lot of my guests, and that is: If you had unlimited funds, if you had a blank check, Jill, and you wanted to continue and give up raising the money because you have the money now and you now could spend it, what would you do with it? What do we need? What technology? What ideas? What would you do with all that blank check?

TARTER: Well, actually, my check is rather modest, because I can't claim to tell you that I know exactly what the right thing to do is. I can tell you that of order, a few to $10 million a year could be very well spent expanding the kinds of things we know how to do. But what if the right thing to be looking for - and I'd love to have that money, by the way. I mean, I'll take your check right now.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Of course. I have the check in my pocket, yeah.

TARTER: OK. But I wouldn't spend huge amounts on it. I wouldn't - because we can't guarantee success. It might be zeta rays that we should be looking for. I don't know what zeta rays are.

FLATOW: I was going to ask you. I missed that one. What is it?

TARTER: Yeah, right. Right. But it's a technology we haven't yet invented. It's the kind of physics that Saul is going to eventually lead to our understanding thereof. And then we'll be able to build the zeta-ray technology and use it, and we will. I mean, we always reserve the right to get smarter, so we'll keep doing what we know about wanting to be able to do in the future, adding things we don't yet know about. So my check is fairly modest.

FLATOW: Modest, yeah. Is yours modest, Saul?

SAUL PERLMUTTER: I've one reasonably modest one, if you count the new space telescope. There is a - for a long time, we've developed a plan, you know, the community has developed a plan for what's now called WFIRST, which was the, you know, astronomy's top-priority, decade-old survey, which is basically a much, much wider-field Hubble Space Telescope. You can actually see, you know, a much larger fraction of the sky at one time. And we know that that would allow us to take the next big step forward towards exploring dark energy.

But I think your big-check version actually comes back to saying, I think would be more what Jill's saying, which is that we just have to make sure that we keep the basic science coming, so that we keep inventing the next way of thinking about the world, and then that's going to help us, you know, to do the long steps.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So you know what those zeta rays are when you find them. Yes.

ALEX MANGUM: Hi. My name is Alex Mangum(ph). How do we know that they can receive the radio signals? How do we know that they don't have a different type of technology?

TARTER: Well, actually, that's a question that we were just discussing. We don't know what the right technology is. We can assume that a civilization, when it begins to develop technology, will want to explore its universe. And they might develop optical telescopes and radio telescopes and infrared telescopes and X-ray telescopes, and all the other wonderful things we do to explore the cosmos. And then we look within what nature does, and we try and find ways that you can transmit information over interstellar distances, the simplest answers.

And we presume that their physics is the same as our physics, and that they're - in their quest to explore the universe they live in, they will possibly have invented what we have. If they haven't invented it yet, if they're younger and less capable than we are, then we can't detect them over interstellar distances. We'll detect civilizations that have more capability than ours, that are older than we are.

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. Yes, ma'am, up there at the microphone. You're next.

SHANNON: Hi. My name is Shannon. I was wondering - speaking of big rocks coming toward the Earth, there is an organization that is asteroid detection and deflection, with former astronauts...

TARTER: B612.

SHANNON: B612 - right - with Scott Hubbard and Ed Lu. Are you working together? And also, Ira, when will you have them on the show?

TARTER: I'm cheering them on.

FLATOW: We've had them on. We've talked - astronaut. Yeah, we've talked about asteroid detection and deflection. So are you working with them?

TARTER: Yeah. They're very good friends, and I'm cheering them on, because they're also out there trying to raise money for their spacecraft. Yeah. The dinosaurs aren't with us anymore because they didn't have a space program.

(LAUGHTER)

TARTER: We would be foolish to go the same way. I'm looking for every way we can to make sure that we actually have a long future. And I see SETI as an investment in that long future.

FLATOW: Saul, before we go, we have a couple of minutes left. As a Nobel Prize winner - you, as a Nobel Prize winner - I'd like to know, what's the best perk you get, benefit you get, winning a Nobel Prize?

(LAUGHTER)

PERLMUTTER: Well, there's no question that the single biggest perk that you get is a parking spot right in the middle of campus, at the university.

(LAUGHTER)

PERLMUTTER: You know, growing up in a big city, you know, that has got to be the ultimate.

FLATOW: For life, huh? You get it for life?

PERLMUTTER: Oh, yes. At least, as far as I know.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: You haven't checked today. That's great. I think we have time for one more question. Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So I'm thinking about the Big Bang, and is there another sort of metaphor that you would use instead of the Big Bang? If the balloon doesn't work and the Big Bang doesn't work, what would be a better metaphor?

PERLMUTTER: Well, I was joking when I said the Big Soup. And I think that in some sense, though, that when you go back in time, that's about as far as we know that we - the period that we can actually talk about is a period in which things were very, very dense and right on top of each other. And, you know, it's - I don't think it's going to catch on, to be honest.

FLATOW: For some reason, the big Mulligatawny just doesn't have the same ring.

(LAUGHTER)

TARTER: A clam chowder of the universe.

PERLMUTTER: It has to be a lumpy soup, because, you know, we have to be able to form things where the lumps are, you know, so that we get to be here eventually. So, it's not...

FLATOW: Yeah.

TARTER: Cosmic clam chowder?

PERLMUTTER: Yeah, exactly. It's...

FLATOW: Cosmic clam chowder.

PERLMUTTER: It can't be consomme. It has to be more of a clam chowder. Yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah, yeah. But it is something that is hard for people to grasp, that you could have something from nothing, that empty space is not empty, really. Right?

PERLMUTTER: That's right. I mean, that aspect itself is mindboggling, you know, to begin with, that we can't actually have an empty space. We have this very busy, boiling turmoil of what we ordinarily would consider to be completely empty. And, of course, you know, when it comes down to it, even if you get back to that first instant in your description, you call something a Big Bang or a Big Soup, that begs the question, right? Because it doesn't get to - what we really want to know is, how do we get that soup? And, you know, I think that maybe one of these - well, we don't know if it's an, you know, endless question.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And that is something everybody's been trying to think about for years. I mean, everybody's been trying to answer that question, what - you know, where did it all begin?

PERLMUTTER: I almost imagine that it might define what it means to be a human being, that, you know, you walk out of your cave, you know, at night, and you look up at the stars and you find yourself asking that, and Jill's question.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Well, I want to thank both of you for taking time to be with us to be with us today. We're happy to allow you time to talk to our audience and to think about what the future is and where we're going, where we came from. These are certainly questions you hope that people think about, right? I mean, you don't have trouble explaining it very - you don't have much trouble. Is it easy for you to explain this whole idea of dark energy?

PERLMUTTER: Well, as you can hear, you know, it's almost trivial. It's...

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: All right. Well, we'll leave with that. Thank you, Saul Perlmutter. He is a Nobel winner in physics and professor of physics at UC Berkley, also senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. And also with us is Jill Tarter, chair for the SETI research at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. Thank you both for taking time to be with us today.

TARTER: It's been a pleasure.

(APPLAUSE)

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