New SETI Chief On Search For Extraterrestrials

The SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Life) Institute has a new director of its Carl Sagan Center for Study of Life in the Universe. Dr. David Morrison will take the reigns from his predecessor, Frank Drake, who pioneered the famous Drake Equation. Host Guy Raz speaks to Morrison about the ongoing search for intelligent life in the universe.

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GUY RAZ, host:

For 25 years, scientists in Mountain View, California have been manning listening stations, hoping not to miss the moment aliens make contact with us humans. The place is known as the SETI Institute. It was inspired by the famed astronomer Carl Sagan. And the idea was to use radio telescopes to listen to the cosmos just in case.

Sagan's first doctoral student was David Morrison, and this week he took over as the new head of the institute's Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe. He's in Mountain View.

David Morrison, welcome.

Dr. DAVID MORRISON (Director, Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe, SETI Institute): It's a pleasure to be here.

RAZ: So, after 25 years, how do you measure SETI's success? I mean, it was set up to find alien life. Why are you convinced there is life out there?

Dr. MORRISON: One of the greatest discoveries in astronomy of the last two years is that there are thousands of planets around other stars. That Kepler Mission of NASA is now discovering better than one new planet a week. So we know that the habitats exist where there's a potential for life.

RAZ: And for the record - and please feel free to break some news here - you haven't yet made contact, right? Or perhaps you have something to announce?

Dr. MORRISON: Don't I wish I did. The way we know is when we hear the champagne corks popping - and I think the champagne is pretty old.

RAZ: I got you. Okay. But what is the difference between a scientist who studies and searches for intelligent life from a scientist who, you know, does things like look for microbes in asteroids or Martian ice?

Dr. MORRISON: The people who are searching for signals are the kind who would go for the jackpot in gambling. Other scientists, perhaps a little more conventional, take on problems that they think they can answer. From there are microbes on Mars is something we will know in the next 10 or 15 years from our continuing spacecraft.

So a person doing basic astrobiology has a prospect of finding answers within her or his lifetime.

RAZ: Dr. Morrison, Stephen Hawking recently said we shouldn't be trying to contact aliens because if we're successful, you know, there's a good chance they might come visit us and wipe us out. Does he have a point?

Dr. MORRISON: Sure he has a point. But I don't agree with all parts of it. First, of course, we are not transmitting our presence, and in that I think we all agree with Hawking that that's not the right thing to do. Secondly, if we did get radio contact with some civilization hundreds of thousands of light years away, the chances of their being able to come here from just the basic laws of physics are very low. Most of the people I work with are not worried about that.

RAZ: Your predecessor, Frank Drake, he pioneered the now famous Drake Equation, which estimates the number of intelligent civilizations in the Milky Way. Firstly, can you explain briefly how that equation works?

Dr. MORRISON: The Drake Equation is a conceptual way to address this problem. You just start asking: how many civilizations are there? Well, nobody knows. But you break it down into components. How many planets, how many planets that might be Earth-like, what fraction of those are going to have life start, what fraction of those will develop technology and so forth. And so you can break this problem down into individual pieces. You still can't plug in a number and get an answer, but it helps you wrap your mind around what's otherwise a rather awesome question about the existence of life elsewhere.

RAZ: By the time your directorship is over, what do you hope you would have been able to find or to discover?

Dr. MORRISON: I'd like to take a longer perspective because I probably won't be in this job for more than two or three years. By the time I die, which I hope will be 20 years from now, I think we have a good chance of having determined if there is or ever was life on Mars. I think we will have found many planets that are truly Earth-like planets beyond our own solar system, which is where the astronomers will direct their big telescopes to look for evidence that there might be life on those Earth-like planets.

RAZ: That's David Morrison. He's the new director of the SETI Institute's Carl Sagan Center for Study of Life in the Universe.

David Morrison, thank you so much.

Dr. MORRISON: My pleasure.

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