Sky and Telescope - July 2018 - 12
COSMIC RELIEF by David Grinspoon
Hope, perseverance, and the
courage of their convictions
sustain those seeking hints
of alien civilizations.
Seven days a week, the
SETI Institute uses the
Allen Telescope Array in
California for its searches.
workshop, where a multidisciplinary
group of astronomers, neuroscientists,
anthropologists, philosophers, and
historians pondered new approaches
to expanding the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Discussions ranged
from the physics of planet formation,
through the origin and evolution of life
and the prospects for complex life and
intelligence, to coming hunts for both
biosignatures and "technosignatures"
To me, the way these topics ﬂowed
together at the meeting served as a
reminder that the distinction between
astrobiology and SETI is completely
artiﬁcial. It might exist in terms of
bureaucracies and funding streams, but
intellectually the quest to know how
we - and living things in general - ﬁt
into the universe is all part of the same
nested series of questions:
How does matter turn into living
cells? Is this unlikely or inevitable?
What is required of a planet to support
this and the subsequent transitions to
differentiated cells, multicellular life,
cognition, curiosity, and technology?
What planetary transitions accompanied, enabled, or were caused by these
J U LY 2 0 1 8 * S K Y & T E L E S C O P E
biological leaps? Should these have
occurred on other types of planets that
we know or suspect exist, and how
would we recognize them?
For the future of SETI, the practical
questions are, regrettably, as vexing as
the intellectual ones. Few would deny
how far-reaching success would be,
but how do you maintain funding and
scientiﬁc interest in a ﬁeld where the
payoff in any given year (or even decade)
is so uncertain?
Not long ago, many deemed exobiology, along with SETI, as a fringe ﬁeld,
which "serious" researchers must keep
at arm's length. In the 1990s, antiintellectual budget cutters in Congress
discontinued all federal government
support for SETI. In 1998, attitudes
changed. This came about largely due to
the discovery of possible microfossils in
a meteorite from Mars and the subsequent ﬂurry of scientiﬁc and public
excitement. It turned out to be a false
alarm, but exobiology was rechristened
as "astrobiology" and suddenly became
acceptable, well-funded, and even
thought central to NASA's mission.
In terms of government backing,
however, SETI remains out in the cold.
Maybe it needs its own highly credible
false alarm! In the meantime, how do
SETI researchers, year in and year out,
remain engaged and positive?
At the workshop, you couldn't help
but notice that among the most engaged
and positive participants were the now
"retired" SETI pioneers Frank Drake
and Jill Tarter. Their enthusiasm doesn't
depend upon immediate gratiﬁcation.
Both clearly believe, as do I, that we
are not alone, that these efforts will
ultimately pay off, and that whether we
live to see it or not, we're contributing
to something extremely important and
larger than ourselves.
With new technologies and search
strategies coming into play, with all the
exoplanets that astronomers will soon
bring into focus, and with people like
Tarter and Drake willing to spend their
entire careers on the quest - the odds
be damned - I believe we have many
reasons to be hopeful.
■ DAVID GRINSPOON gave a paper at
the SETI workshop entitled, "Cognitive
Planetary Transitions: An Astrobiological
Perspective on the 'Sapiezoic Eon.'" He
coined the term to denote a theoretical
time when cognitive processes become
integrated into a planet's functioning.
SE TH SHOSTA K / SE TI INSTIT U TE
IN MARCH I ATTENDED a SETI Institute