Aliens are almost surely out there—Now can we find the money to find them?

Jun 05, 2014 by Glen Martin, Cal Alumni Association

Dan Werthimer thinks his testimony last week before the House Subcommittee on Science, Space and Technology went pretty well. As director of the SETI Research Center at Berkeley, Werthimer updated committee members on the search for extraterrestrial life, and provided a generally upbeat evaluation: ET microbial life likely is ubiquitous throughout the galaxy, and new technologies have improved the chances of detecting signals from advanced alien civilizations.

"They were quite engaged," Werthimer says of the representatives, members of a Congress notorious for its ideological partisanship and not particularly renowned for a deep commitment to science. "They asked reasonable questions, and they seemed disinclined to go at each other."

On the other hand, Werthimer acknowledges that it is discouraging that the current science subcommittee has convened more hearings on extraterrestrial life than on climate change.

"This general backlash against science is frightening," he says. "(Denying ) is like playing Russian roulette with 99 bullets in the gun. I suspect it's because all the research indicates we're in trouble. People want to stick their heads in the sand."

But back to the happier (hopefully) topic of aliens. Part of the reason Werthimer made the dreary trek to the Hill was, unsurprisingly, money. It's something that researchers at SETI—an acronym for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence—need more of if they're going to continue probing the cosmos.   

"There are maybe two dozen full-time SETI researchers in the world, and we're all operating on shoestrings," he says. "We don't need a zillion dollars for this work. Our research is quite inexpensive, but we do need some money. More to the point, we need reliable funding. The fluctuations in funding have been more problematic than the amount of money. For example, sometimes we get money from NASA and sometimes we don't. That makes it difficult to plan experiments."

Werthimer has been involved with SETI since 1972, and he isn't disheartened that no alien yawp has yet been detected. He never really expected, he says, to discover ET in his lifetime.

"I thought perhaps my students would confirm something, or perhaps their students," he said. "The universe is a big place, and we're really in the infancy of this science. We're still not sure if we're even looking for the right things. Two hundred years ago, people would have been looking for smoke signals, or geometric designs. Now we're monitoring the electromagnetic spectrum, and we've made tremendous progress. In the 1970s and 1980s, we could listen to about a hundred channels at once. Now we're able to monitor about five billion simultaneously."

But it's very possible that advanced civilizations abandon the wholesale transmission of electromagnetic signals as they progress, Werthimer says. Even Earth is getting quieter in the cosmic sense: As our transmissions increasingly are contained in fiber optic and copper cables, we put fewer electromagnetic signals into the ether.  Aliens may be communicating via lasers, or artificially generated x-ray or gamma ray bursts, or neutrinos or gravitational waves. Too, seeking any communication medium may ultimately prove fruitless. Instead, we may someday identify advanced ETs by detecting large artifacts in distant solar systems—such as Dyson spheres, hypothetical energy-harvesting structures enclosing entire stars.

"One new thing we're doing is 'eavesdropping,' " he says. "As advanced civilizations develop, they may colonize nearby planets, and communication would be established between them. When those planets are aligned with each other and earth simultaneously, when they're all in the same plane, it would be much easier to detect electromagnetic emissions. And happily, this kind of alignment happens fairly often. We're targeting about a hundred systems."

Wertheimer emphasizes that SETI also looks for primitive life. For distant worlds, this ultimately may be possible through spectrographic analysis: evaluating the light reflected by the atmospheres of candidate exoplanets.

"Oxygen, for example, would betray the presence of photosynthesis," says Werthimer. "We aren't quite there yet with this approach, but I think we'll be doing it in 10 to 20 years."

Too, could well exist in our own solar system. The Jovian moon Europa has a vast sea of water encased by 50 miles of ice. Beneath that frozen cap could be anything from exo-bacteria to alien moon whales, participants in a food web charged by sulfide compounds pouring from hydrothermal vents. (Such vents have been discovered in Earth's marine abysses, sustaining colonies of giant tube worms and other exotic creatures—a remarkable exception to the general rule that food webs are structurally dependent on photosynthesis.)

Another candidate is Enceladus, a moon orbiting Saturn that is likewise covered by ice and supports enough water to fill the Lake Superior basin.

"Ultimately, we'd like to set something on those worlds, something that could get through that ice and see what's down there," said Wertheimer. He paused, and chuckled.  "It's funny.  I sometimes give talks at schools about our work, and when I tell young kids about the possibilities on Europa, I present the problem of getting through the ice and I ask them how they'd deal with it. The boys invariably want to use machine guns, bombs, high explosives.  But the girls usually give more considered responses, like using giant mirrors to reflect solar energy to melt the ice."

Along with funding shortfalls, SETI has another problem. Most researchers are approaching retirement age, and it's unclear if there's enough young blood to keep the project going.

"Here at Berkeley, we have only one guy, Andrew Siemion, who took his PhD in SETI and is staying with the program," Wertheimer said. (Siemion testified with Wertheimer in Washington.) "He's doing brilliant work, but he's just one person. We need to recruit and train a new generation of researchers."

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User comments : 16

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orti
2 / 5 (10) Jun 05, 2014
I'd prefer they use crowd funding rather than go after my tax money. There's got to be enough nuts out there.
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
4.3 / 5 (13) Jun 05, 2014
"Wertheimer emphasizes that SETI also looks for primitive life."

That's putting the cart before the horse. Astrobiology studies life in the universe. Parts like exobiology looks for life elsewhere, and SETI looks for intelligent life. But they are all benefiting from the umbrella of astrobiology making for cross-disciplinary advantages.

@orti: Yes there are nuts, and your trolling is proof of it.

Science has one of the best ROI known [see NASA's studies on that], it is mutually supportive and it is practically impossible to predict the Rs from the Is. So SETI is necessary to amp up astrobiology, which in turn amps up biology, astronomy and astronautics, which in turn gives many Rs on the Is.
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
5 / 5 (6) Jun 05, 2014
For "necessary" replace with "beneficial". I need more coffee. =D
Incosa
1.8 / 5 (10) Jun 05, 2014
Aliens are almost surely out there— can we find the money to find them?
LOL, when the money are involved, then the alliens and extratterestrial life suddenly becomes reality... One would say, the contemporary reality is represented with amount of money, which could be collected for it. If you have money, you can convince the people about everything.
Modernmystic
1.4 / 5 (9) Jun 05, 2014
If they were out there, then they'd be here by now...
JoeBlue
1 / 5 (9) Jun 05, 2014
They could have posted on Kickstarter and asked for help instead of trying to extort more money from taxpayers using the political machine to steal it.

Science has one of the best ROI known [see NASA's studies on that], it is mutually supportive and it is practically impossible to predict the Rs from the Is. So SETI is necessary to amp up astrobiology, which in turn amps up biology, astronomy and astronautics, which in turn gives many Rs on the Is.


NASA's best return has been through the work on rocketry to develop nuclear weapons. Let's not get reality mixed up with what you or some ego-maniac academics want please.
bluehigh
2.7 / 5 (7) Jun 05, 2014
If they were out there, then they'd be here by now...


We already are here.
Code_Warrior
2.5 / 5 (6) Jun 05, 2014
It seems to me that the development of the technology to simultaneously monitor an ever increasing number of channels with ever increasing analytical sophistication should be their primary selling point to obtain funding. Their method of testing the monitoring systems may look for ET, but, if they want to have more consistent funding, I don't think they should be touting that mission as much as they should be touting the testing and development of the monitoring technology itself.
Solon
1.6 / 5 (7) Jun 06, 2014
If they were out there, then they'd be here by now...


I think we should leave things be, if they know we are here they might send their Orkin Man®.
hurricane25
4.3 / 5 (6) Jun 06, 2014
Aliens are almost surely out there— can we find the money to find them?
LOL, when the money are involved, then the alliens and extratterestrial life suddenly becomes reality... One would say, the contemporary reality is represented with amount of money, which could be collected for it. If you have money, you can convince the people about everything.


Something tells me that you don't consider science important. I bet you'd support bombing another nation and rebuilding it...
alfie_null
3.3 / 5 (4) Jun 06, 2014
NASA's best return has been through the work on rocketry to develop nuclear weapons. Let's not get reality mixed up with what you or some ego-maniac academics want please.

And which rockets would that be? Go take a look at what rockets were used for nuclear weapons. Who developed them? Then take a look at the rockets used by NASA and the origin of those rockets.

I understand your ambivalence towards academics - I don't imagine they treat you well.
Jonseer
1 / 5 (2) Jun 06, 2014
The problem is they live incredibly long lives and on that scale our lifespans are the lifespan of an insect.

For that reason what we do, all our civilization resembles the construction of an anthill after the rain.

Our importance is similar to the ants in those anthills which out of sight out of mind unless we step on them whereupon we take a few brief moments to deal with it and forget them.

To find them, we need to adopt the perspective of the ants rather than the current model which assumes aliens would see us as intelligent species worthy of notice.

The vast differences between us and ants and the obstacles it would present "aware" ants in finding and recognizing us as intelligent living creatures and not just incomprehensible aspects of nature and the difficulty we'd have in recognizing the lowly ant as being intelligent would likely produce a far better way to find aliens that are here whose actions likely span several human lifetimes.

Moebius
1 / 5 (3) Jun 07, 2014
After over 40 years of skeptically following everything regarding UFO's I've come to the conclusion that not only are they visiting us there has to be many different civilizations doing it.

There are too many irrefutable film videos and testimonies and they are of too much variety in craft types to be from a single civilization. I don't mean thousands of cases. I am talking about a handful of cases that have no earthly explanation.

Bookbinder
not rated yet Jun 08, 2014
1. If they are visiting us, they are aware of us and our attempts to make contact, so obviously they don't wish contact, so let it go.
2. We are on the outer rim of the MW, so likely older and more advanced, so what is the point of trying to contact baboons? None.
3. If they are more advanced, what is the point of contacting us (baboons), None.
4. We have no freaking idea how life arose on this planet. Chemical precursors; where are they now? And if life is so abundant, the earth so life giving, why did it arise on earth only this one time. Where are all the other forms?
OK, I'm playing Devil's Advocate, but we need to realize that it is equally likely that we may just be it.
binghamjames
1 / 5 (2) Jun 08, 2014
Costly projects such as looking for alien life would be easier to accomplish if we can make planetary travel within our solar system profitable. Perhaps start by figuring out how to turn the our neighboring planets into economic resources. For example, there are plans to place solar panels in orbit or on the moon and beam the solar energy back to earth. We could program robotic systems complete w self-piloting missions in order to utilize fuel sources such as solar energy and set up systems of automated manufacturing. For example, build the groundwork for the initial systems here on earth. Once launched into space, these self-controlling systems would set out to build, manufacture, and obtain the needed resources to not only fund the mission but turn a profit. Once we figure this out, we will be well on our way to accomplishing other great things such as searching for alien since they would be more achievable by products of our growth. It's simply a matter of vision and technology.
eric_in_chicago
1 / 5 (2) Jun 08, 2014
If you can't refute this information, about what can you make a cogent statement?

https://www.youtu...qrl6Q2rk