SETI Institute’s jill tarter takes issue with Stephen Hawking, ‘MIB3,’ ‘Prometheus,’ and ‘Battleship’

May 24th, 2012
The creative minds who fill movies and TV shows with angry aliens will soon be defending their vision of these extraterrestrial antagonists at SETIcon, a public event sponsored by the SETI Institute. The Institute is known for its science-based search for radio signals that would betray the existence of intelligent beings on distant worlds. SETIcon will take place June 22 through 24 in the heart of the Silicon Valley, and will feature a celebrity banquet honoring Jill Tarter who, for the last 35 years, has led the search for extraterrestrial intelligence at the SETI Institute.

Tickets are available now at

Aliens are exceptionally well represented at the local multiplex this spring. Hostile invaders, tipped off by an overly enthusiastic broadcast from Earth, try to sink a lot of naval hardware in “Battleship;” domestic extraterrestrials give headaches to urbane government agents in “Men in Black III;” and fans of the “Alien” films finally get the back story of Ridley Scott’s toothy terror in the famous director’s prequel, “Prometheus.”

“Often the aliens of science fiction say more about us than they do about themselves,” said Jill Tarter, who announced on May 22nd that she was stepping down as Director of the Center for SETI Research. “While Sir Stephen Hawking warned that alien life might try to conquer or colonize Earth, I respectfully disagree. If aliens were able to visit Earth that would mean they would have technological capabilities sophisticated enough not to need slaves, food, or other planets. If aliens were to come here it would be simply to explore. Considering the age of the universe, we probably wouldn’t be their first extraterrestrial encounter, either. We should look at movies like ‘Men in Black III,’ ‘Prometheus’ and ‘Battleship’ as great entertainment and metaphors for our own fears, but we should not consider them harbingers of alien visitation.”

At SETIcon, many of the topics raised by film and TV sci-fi will be explored and explained, including how scientists have injected more realism into such series as “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” and “Battlestar Galactica.”

SETIcon panelists include researchers from the SETI Institute and elsewhere, together with guests from the world of sci-fi, including well-known writer Robert J. Sawyer, “Star Trek: Voyager” actor Robert Picardo, and astronaut Mae Jamison. Mary Roach, author of “Packing for Mars,” will also be in attendance.

“The science fiction genre has been enormously popular for decades, and the cutting-edge of research in astronomy and exobiology is a gold mine for Hollywood screenwriters,” says writer/producer Andre Bormanis, a science advisor for “Star Trek” and a panelist at SETIcon.

Other SETIcon panels will consider whether Hollywood aliens make biological sense, discuss the continuing search for planets beyond our own solar system, debate whether humans or robots make the best space explorers, and explain how NASA tries to protect our planet (and other worlds) from accidental infection.

The value of connecting sci-fi creators with practicing scientists has been recognized by the National Academy of Sciences. The Academy operates an office in Southern California -- the Science and Entertainment Exchange -- that puts researchers in touch with Hollywood writers and directors during the early stages of screenplay development. SETI Institute astronomer Seth Shostak has been a consultant on “Battleship,” “Green Hornet,” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” as well as other films.

“Frequently, the creative folks simply want your help in solving a script problem -- for example, what sort of weaponry might an alien society commandeer,” says Shostak. “On other occasions, they just want some technical corrections to dialog. But the really interesting challenge is to introduce these people to some of the newer ideas in science -- ideas that aren’t yet hackneyed.”

“Ours is the one conference where the public can rub elbows with the innovators and leaders in the quest to find life in the universe,” said Andrew Fraknoi, SETI Institute Trustee and Foothill College Astronomy Professor. “It’s where ideas that sounded like science fiction just a few years ago become part of today’s reality.”

SETIcon will take place June 22 through 24 at the Santa Clara Hyatt Hotel, and will feature a celebrity banquet honoring Jill Tarter. Tickets are available now at

Provided by SETI

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