Category : Science

The Search for Intelligent Life and a Champagne toast

It is a question as enduring as time itself: “Are we alone in the Universe?” Astronomer Dr. Jill Tarter, who is the former Director of the SETI Institute (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) has been asking that critical question for most of her professional life. And, of course as we know – it remains unknown, and perhaps unknowable – for now. I interviewed Dr. Tarter about the potential for such an historic discovery at our Curiosity Studio in Gateway, Colorado:

“I think there is a possibility for life, and some of it being intelligent to exist beyond the earth…We are made out of the elements that were fused up inside massive stars that blew up billions of years ago…Although we can’t tell you exactly how the chemistry turned into biology, it clearly did on this planet a long time ago.”

An intriguing and unanswered key question is what should Planet Earth do if intelligent life is found elsewhere in the Cosmos? Should humans actively reach out? Or should we stay silent? Are there inherent dangers and risks if Earth does make contact with alien life? Are we prepared as a planet? Are the right protocols in place? Who would actually speak for Planet Earth, and what would we say? Well, Dr. Tarter thinks it is worth the risk:

“Well, I think it would change everything and change everything quite quickly. So the very first thing that we’re going to do is drink champagne that’s been sitting in the refrigerator for all these decades. And then we’ll get busy with the follow up protocol. This is pretty big stuff.”

I asked Dr. Tarter what are the tools and technology scientists are using to explore the universe for intelligent life? It is called a radio telescope and Dr. Tarter explains how it works:

“We can take a lot of energy and compress it all into just one channel on a radio dial where nature is more profligate. Nature spreads the energy she emits over many, many frequencies. For efficiency, we compress it into one and that doesn’t look like Mother Nature. So that’s our sandbox, kinds of signals that don’t appear to be the sorts of things that nature can create.”

So for now, fifty years or so into the search, Dr. Tarter and the scientists at SETI continue their unique exploration of the Cosmos, hoping that one day, or night, Planet Earth might hear that ping…and then…!


Richard Sergay
Chief Curator

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