Humans have been looking to the stars for millennia wondering if we’re the only intelligent beings in the universe. Statistically, it’s highly illogical (as Spock would say) we’re alone. Stretching out from this planet of 7 billion people there are 46 billion light years between us and the edge of the knowable universe. There must be someone or something.
Sometimes it’s best not to dwell on this, unless you enjoy having an existential crisis. Leave that to the SETI Institute and those like Dr. Frank Drake, who in 1961 developed the Drake Equation, which seeks to calculate the number of detectable civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy.
During a recent visit to Mountain View, I stopped by the Institute to talk with President and CEO Bill Diamond ahead of World Space Week to learn more about its current research and what he thinks (or hopes) might happen in his lifetime.
Just to clear up a couple of misconceptions. The SETI Institute is a non-profit research facility, contracted to several space and scientific agencies, including NASA, NSF, and USGS. It isn’t affiliated with the protocols you may have downloaded to run in your browser during idle time (that’s SETI@home, based at Berkeley). Nor does its HQ sit within the Allen Telescope Array of 42 dishes (that’s out at Hat Creek, California) sweeping the sky for signals. But that is a radio telescope owned and operated by the Institute and is one of the locations Institute scientists use for ongoing research projects.
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Here are edited and condensed excerpts of our conversation.
Bill, can you outline the mission for SETI?
The mission of the SETI Institute is to explore, understand, and explain the origin and nature of life in the universe and the evolution of intelligence. We are a key research contractor to NASA and the National Science Foundation, and we collaborate with industry partners throughout Silicon Valley and beyond. Founded in 1984, the SETI Institute employs more than 130 scientists, educators, and administrative staff. Work at the SETI Institute is anchored by three centers: the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe (research), the Center for Education and the Center for Outreach.
What made you decide to come onboard and lead the organization?
Like a lot of people from my generation, I grew up with the Gemini and Mercury space programs; those endeavors by NASA were very exciting and compelling to me. I also devoured a lot of science-fiction, which inspired me, and I went on to study physics at the university level, where astronomy and astrophysics were a part of that curriculum. So I always had a deep fascination with the subject.
I want to make sure the next generation is equally enthused with the subject. So, through a number of education and outreach programs, including Big Picture Science, our weekly radio show and podcast, we aim to bring our science research to the public with lively and intelligent storytelling. We also have a monthly public lecture series and YouTube channel called SETI Talks.
Is it true Dr. Frank Drake still comes to work at SETI several times a week at the age of 88?
Yes, he does. And he drives himself, coming in over the Santa Cruz Mountains after Bay Area traffic subsides and leaving before it gets bad again.
That’s inspiring. Let’s talk about his Drake Equation.
The Drake equation identifies the 40 or so billion planets within our galaxy that at least have the potential to have developed technological civilizations. It does this by trying to understand the birth rates of stars; the percentage of stars with planets, the number of planets that are in the habitable zone and have the right orbital position for liquid water to be maintained. Then it examines what fraction of those planets might go on to develop life, then what fraction of those might develop complex organisms and intelligence, and finally, what fraction of those might have developed technological civilizations.
In 1961, what level of technological complexity was Dr. Drake expecting?
Frank defined a «technological civilization» as one which had developed radio technology and the ability to manipulate the electromagnetic spectrum.
Then he also calculated how long those technological civilizations might last, a sobering thought.
Indeed. This is the last variable in the Drake equation—the «L» variable. It is my favorite and the most provocative element of the equation, in my opinion. Humans are [now] about a hundred years into the technological stage of evolution, so we are very early in the time horizon of the L variable, which Frank suggested might be 10,000 years. Considering the challenges humanity faces in the next 100 years—let alone the next 10,000—Frank’s prediction may be optimistic!
Until something catastrophic happens to that species and their habitat?
Yes, things like overpopulation, a major asteroid impact (remember the dinosaurs), nuclear war, a pandemic or other such event, might all impact humanity’s «L value.» But Frank was more broadly focused on the time during which a technological civilization might remain detectable—i.e. until they were no longer emitting information in the electromagnetic spectrum, or may have evolved to a point where technology, as we know it, isn’t required for their sustained existence. Essentially, where they «go dark,» Interestingly, we are largely going dark now.
How are we going dark?
We are actually going dark in the extent to which we now listen to music, watch television, and even listen to the radio through a closed network of fiber optics, essentially on the internet. This means that we’re doing much less broadcasting out into space. We still emit radio waves for radar from airports, for example, and right now those are the most powerful signals we transmit. Nevertheless, it is precisely these kinds of signals we are looking for, out there. Indeed SETI research is all about listening and looking for so-called «techno signatures» such as laser pulses, radio waves, and other phenomena we perhaps haven’t yet imagined.
Good point. Take us back, what were the SETI Institute’s earliest experiments?
Dr. Jill Tarter, SETI Institute co-founder and SETI pioneer, performed early experiments at the Arecibo radio telescope [in Puerto Rico]. She was a key participant in the Institute’s Project Phoenix [from 1995 to 2004] and then led the effort to build the Allen Telescope Array [commissioned in 2007 and operated by the SETI Institute as the world’s only dedicated and purpose-built SETI radio telescope].
Jill is still with us, as a trustee, and heavily involved to this day—34 years later. Frank Drake is of course another SETI pioneer, having conducted the very first SETI experiments at the National Astronomical Radio Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia, back in the 1960s. It was in preparation for a first-ever meeting of astronomers and astrophysicists—called for by NASA to explore the merits of SETI programs, that included such luminaries as Carl Sagan—that Frank derived the now-famous Drake Equation.
Your background in optics has proven instrumental with the Laser SETI project. Can you talk about that?
Yes, we are adding optical technologies for the detection of laser pulses and the Laser SETI project is aimed at deploying specialized cameras around the globe for an all-sky, all-the-time observatory to search for laser flashes from deep space. Laser pulses might be used for communications and/or advanced propulsion systems and their characteristics would be easily differentiated from starlight or other natural phenomena.
How do you collaborate with NASA?
The SETI Institute has a long history with NASA, starting from early SETI Experiments when NASA was funding those efforts. The Institute and its founders have been involved in every Mars mission since Viking, as contributing to the science of missions like Voyager, Galileo, Cassini, OSIRIS-REx ,and New Horizons.
Nathalie Cabrol, Janice Bishop, Pascal Lee, and Ross Beyer have helped identify landing sites for Mars missions; Philippe Sarrazin developed the XRD/SRF CheMin X-ray diffraction system on the Curiosity Rover; and Pablo Sabron is developing a revolutionary Raman spectrometer for NASA missions to Enceladus and Europa. Mark Showalter is discovering new planets and moons around the gas giants and Pluto, and Franck Marchis is detecting them around asteroids. The SETI Institute’s Kepler/TESS team is developing new algorithms to find new exoplanets from the Kepler and Tess mission datasets We are also collaborating with NASA on the Frontier DevelopmentLab, which is an AI research accelerator for NASA Space Science.
This is bringing AI experts to the SETI Institute, many for the first time?
Yes, coming from industry, academia, and other research centers the FDL program is a research accelerator for early career PhDs in AI and machine learning, and their counterparts in deep science domains, such as planetary science. We put together interdisciplinary teams, where we pair off computer scientists with research scientists to tackle major research challenges where advanced AI/ML techniques can be effectively deployed to accelerate discovery and understanding.
FDL is not only about applying AI to basic research, but it’s also about the power of interdisciplinary teams. Scientists often work in isolation, or in somewhat homogeneous collaborations. FDL is about building research teams with individuals from diverse backgrounds and leveraging the power of AI to do impactful science. It also involves industry partners—such as Intel, Google, IBM, Lockheed, and Nvidia—and these companies provide technology, expertise, and funding to support the research teams. The results have been extraordinary in the first three years of the program, and we’re already in the planning phase for FDL 2019.
What do you think of Hollywood’s attempts to portray SETI type discoveries?
Hollywood space movies at least generate interest and excitement about space exploration. 2001, A Space Odyssey is one of the great movies of all time! I [also] thought the movie Arrival was particularly compelling because—for the first time, I believe—in a Hollywood movie, the extraterrestrial experience was explored in a positive light.
Finally, I have to ask this. If a craft from outer space came down and a door opened, are you so curious that you would get onboard?
Yes, I would.
The reason I would, is that I think we’d have some understanding of intention long before the opportunity came to get on board the craft. Any civilization that has the technology to travel across interstellar space, with biology on board—as traveling that distance is hard for biological beings to survive—by default, is vastly more advanced than we are. So the likelihood they traveled across interstellar space just to drop by Earth to «have us for dinner» is a rather absurd notion. So, yes I’d be curious to meet them.
If you’re fascinated by what might be out there, check out an event in your part of the galaxy as part of World Space Week from Oct. 4-10.