Friday, May 6, 2011, 7:00 pm
Are we alone?
Aliens abound on the movie screens, but in reality we are still trying to find out if we share our universe with other sentient creatures. Intelligence is very difficult to define, and impossible to directly detect over interstellar distances. Therefore, SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, is actually an attempt to detect evidence of another distant technology. If we find such evidence, we will infer the existence of intelligent technologists. For the past 50 years, the SETI community has had a very pragmatic definition of intelligence—the ability to build large transmitters! Almost all SETI searches to date have looked for radio signals coming from distant civilizations. This is not the only possible way to detect a technology across the vast distances that separate the stars. We’ve recently begun looking for very short optical pulses as well. As our own technology matures, we may try other means of searching, and we will certainly improve upon the searches that we are already conducting. Guiseppi Cocconi and Philip Morrison ended their 1959 seminal paper on SETI with the statement, “The probability of success is difficult to estimate; but if we never search, the chance of success is zero.” This remains true today; in the past fifty years, we’ve examined barely one glass of water from the cosmic ocean.
Room: Ursa Major C
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