PUBLIC ASTRONOMY TALK: Are We Alone?

Dr. Jill Tarter
Director, Center for SETI Research
SETI Institute

(This event is over.)

Aliens abound on the movie screens, but in reality we are still trying to find out if we share our universe with other sentient creatures. Intelligence is very difficult to define, and impossible to directly detect over interstellar distances. Therefore, SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, is actually an attempt to detect evidence of another distant technology. If we find such evidence, we will infer the existence of intelligent technologists. For the past 50 years, the SETI community has had a very pragmatic definition of intelligence — the ability to build large transmitters! The majority of SETI searches to date have looked for radio signals coming from distant civilizations. We’ve recently begun looking for very short optical pulses as well. As our own technology matures and innovates, we may try other means of searching, and we will certainly improve upon the searches that we are already conducting.

Guiseppi Cocconi and Philip Morrison ended their 1959 seminal paper on SETI with the statement, “The probability of success is difficult to estimate; but if we never search, the chance of success is zero.” This remains true today! At the SETI Institute we are trying to get the whole world actively involved in the search; in addition to donating their spare CPU cycles, we want to enlist Earthlings’ minds and eyes as pattern recognition tools and, for those who are technically proficient, their skills at signal processing and code development to improve and expand the searching we can do.

Jill Tarter is Director, Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. Tarter’s work has brought her wide recognition in the scientific community, including two Public Service Medals from NASA. In 2004 Time Magazine named her one of the Time 100 most influential people in the world. Tarter was one of three TED prize-winners in 2009, and was a recipient of the Silicon Valley Women of Influence 2010 Award. In the movie CONTACT, Jodi Foster plays the character of Ellie based upon Jill’s career as a radio astronomer.

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This event is sponsored by The Forum, the Cal Poly Astronomical Society, the Central Coast Astronomical Society, and CESaME (the Cal Poly Center for Excellence in Science and Math Education).

2013-09-26T16:51:05+00:00