Report from SETICon 2

Alien life searchers conference SETICon 2 held in Santa Clara

June 25, 2012 by Bob Yirka report

Aliens don’t want to eat us, says former SETI director

SETI’s Alien Telescope Array (ATA) listens day and night for a signal from space. Credit: SETI

SETICon 2, a conference unlike any other, ran this past weekend in Santa Clara, California. In attendance were people from all walks of life whose area of interest intersects on the topic of the search for intelligent life somewhere other than here on planet Earth.

Thus, they were made up of scientists; from and other groups, artists, and even entertainers. The goal of the conference, which is set up and run by the Institute () is to share ideas on what has been discovered of late regarding the possibility of and what might lie ahead.

Fueling much of the discussion this time around (the first SETICon was held in 2010) are findings by NASA’s Kepler mission which is dedicated to looking for extraterrestrial life, regardless of form or degree of intelligence. Since 2009, the mission has uncovered the existence of over 2,300 exoplanets that researchers believe hold the possibility of harboring some forms of life. Most notably, due to the existence of that precious resources without which we here on this planet could not survive: water. Some scientists who actually work on the mission (Geoff Marcy, Jon Jenkins, Debra Fischer, etc.) spoke to those in attendance, as did astronauts Tom Jones and Mae Jemison.

This year’s conference, those in attendance noted, was much more upbeat than the last, as more information from Kepler becomes available, the numbers of planets that might have life on them keeps going up, making the possibility of detecting its presence more plausible than ever before. As noted by several speakers, the Kepler mission is helping to find planets farther away from their stars, rather than just those that are close enough to cause their star to appear to wobble to us due to planetary gravity effects. The new more sensitive telescopes are better able to discern planets that are not only farther (meaning cooler) from their star, but smaller, some of which may have water and are rocky, making them more Earthlike and thus potentially more likely to posses the conditions necessary for the kind of life we know and understand.

In addition to offerings talks, the conference also held panel discussions, interviews, and even screenings of movies, all aimed at opening the door to the possibility that extraterrestrial life might truly exist, and if it does, highlighting the fact that we are now in a better position than ever before to find evidence of its existence.


Allen/Alien Telescope Array Targets SETI

SETI Search Resumes at Allen Telescope Array, Targeting New Planets

ScienceDaily (Dec. 7, 2011) — The Allen Telescope Array (ATA) is once again searching planetary systems for signals that would be evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. Among its first targets are some of the exoplanet candidates recently discovered by NASA’s Kepler space telescope.

The Allen Telescope Array. (Credit: Image courtesy of SETI Institute)

“This is a superb opportunity for SETI observations,” said Jill Tarter, the Director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute. “For the first time, we can point our telescopes at stars, and know that those stars actually host planetary systems — including at least one that begins to approximate an Earth analog in the habitable zone around its host star. That’s the type of world that might be home to a civilization capable of building radio transmitters.”

The ATA had been placed in hibernation mode last April as the result of the withdrawal of the SETI Institute’s former partner, U.C. Berkeley, due to budgetary shortfalls. Berkeley was the operator of the Hat Creek Observatory in northern California where the ATA is located. With new funding recently acquired for observatory operations, the ATA can resume SETI observations where it left off: examining the thousands of new candidate planets found by Kepler. Highest priority will be given to the handful of worlds discovered so far that are located in their star’s habitable zone: the range of orbital radii where temperatures are neither too hot nor too cold for liquid water to exist. Most astrobiologists consider that liquid water is the sine qua non for life.

“In SETI, as with all research, preconceived notions such as habitable zones could be barriers to discovery,” adds Tarter. “So, with sufficient future funding from our donors, it’s our intention to examine all of the planetary systems found by Kepler.”

Observations over the next two years will allow a systematic exploration of these Kepler discoveries across the entire, naturally-quiet 1 to 10 GHz terrestrial microwave window. The ATA is unique in providing ready access to tens of millions of channels at any one time, anywhere in this 9 billion channel range (each channel is 1 Hz wide). Until recently many SETI searches focused on limited frequency ranges, including a small number of observations at the 8.67 GHz spin-flip transition of the 3He+ ion, proposed by the team of Bob Rood (University of Virginia) and Tom Bania (Boston University). In memory of Rood, who died November 2, the initial ATA search of Kepler targets this week will focus around the 8.67 GHz band, before moving on to examine the billions of channels available for observation at the ATA.

The restart of SETI work at the ATA has been made possible thanks to the interest and generosity of the public who supported SETI research via the web site. Additional funds necessary for observatory re-activation and operations are being provided by the United States Air Force as part of a formal assessment of the instrument’s utility for Space Situational Awareness (see for more information).

“Kepler’s success has created an amazing opportunity to focus SETI research. While discovery of new exoplanets via Kepler is backed with government monies, the search for evidence that some of these worlds might be home to intelligence falls to SETI alone. And our SETI exploration depends entirely on private donations, for which we are deeply grateful to our donors,” notes Tarter.

“The year-in and year-out fundraising challenge we tackle in order to conduct SETI research is an absolute human and organizational struggle, yet it is well worth the hard work to help Jill’s team address what is one of humanity’s most profound research questions,” says Tom Pierson, CEO of the SETI Institute.

The public can follow the new ATA observations via web site and can read more about the overall work of the SETI Institute at The SETI Institute is proud to be a supporting partner in NASA’s Kepler mission — see

Headquartered in Mountain View, California, the SETI Institute is a non-profit research organization that addresses the question of the origin, nature, and prevalence of life beyond Earth.


Looking for Alien Cities

City Lights Could Reveal E.T. Civilization

ScienceDaily (Nov. 3, 2011) — In the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, astronomers have hunted for radio signals and ultra-short laser pulses. In a new paper, Avi Loeb (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) and Edwin Turner (Princeton University) suggest a new technique for finding aliens: look for their city lights. “Looking for alien cities would be a long shot, but wouldn’t require extra resources. And if we succeed, it would change our perception of our place in the universe,” said Loeb

If an alien civilization builds brightly-lit cities like those shown in this artist’s conception, future generations of telescopes might allow us to detect them. This would offer a new method of searching for extraterrestrial intelligence elsewhere in our Galaxy. (Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA))

As with other SETI methods, they rely on the assumption that aliens would use Earth-like technologies. This is reasonable because any intelligent life that evolved in the light from its nearest star is likely to have artificial illumination that switches on during the hours of darkness.

How easy would it be to spot a city on a distant planet? Clearly, this light will have to be distinguished from the glare from the parent star. Loeb and Turner suggest looking at the change in light from an exoplanet as it moves around its star.

As the planet orbits, it goes through phases similar to those of the Moon. When it’s in a dark phase, more artificial light from the night side would be visible from Earth than reflected light from the day side. So the total flux from a planet with city lighting will vary in a way that is measurably different from a planet that has no artificial lights.

Spotting this tiny signal would require future generations of telescopes. However, the technique could be tested closer to home, using objects at the edge of our solar system.

Loeb and Turner calculate that today’s best telescopes ought to be able to see the light generated by a Tokyo-sized metropolis at the distance of the Kuiper Belt — the region occupied by Pluto, Eris, and thousands of smaller icy bodies. So if there are any cities out there, we ought to be able to see them now. By looking, astronomers can hone the technique and be ready to apply it when the first Earth-sized worlds are found around distant stars in our galaxy.

“It’s very unlikely that there are alien cities on the edge of our solar system, but the principle of science is to find a method to check,” Turner said. “Before Galileo, it was conventional wisdom that heavier objects fall faster than light objects, but he tested the belief and found they actually fall at the same rate.”

As our technology has moved from radio and TV broadcasts to cable and fiber optics, we have become less detectable to aliens. If the same is true of extraterrestrial civilizations, then artificial lights might be the best way to spot them from afar.


ET’s and Dolphins

Dolphin Studies Could Reveal Secrets of Extraterrestrial Intelligence

Keith Cooper, Astrobiology Magazine
Date: 02 September 2011 Time: 01:49 PM ET
Analysis of Dolphin Communication
Analysis of dolphin communication with Information Theory has shown it to be surprisingly intricate and possibly second only to human communication in terms of complexity on Earth.
CREDIT: Wild Dolphin Project.

How do we define intelligence? SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, clearly equates intelligence with technology (or, more precisely, the building of radio or laser beacons). Some, such as the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, suggested that intelligence wasn’t just the acquisition of technology, but the ability to develop and improve it, integrating it into our society.

By that definition, a dolphin, lacking limbs to create and manipulate complex tools, cannot possibly be described as intelligent. It’s easy to see why such definitions prove popular; we are clearly the smartest creatures on the planet, and the only species with technology. It may be human hubris, or some kind of anthropocentric bias that we find difficult to escape from, but our adherence to this definition narrows the phase space in which we’re willing to search for intelligent life.

Technology is certainly linked to intelligence – you need to be smart to build a computer or an aircraft or a radio telescope – but technology does not define intelligence. It is just a manifestation of it, perhaps one of many.

Astrobiologists see intelligence a little differently. The dictionary defines intelligence as the ability to learn, while others see it as the capacity to reason, to empathize, to solve problems and consider complex ideas, and to interact socially.

Intelligence in the universe

If we take these characteristics to be a broad working definition of intelligence, our view of intelligent life in the universe suddenly looks very different. No longer are we confined to considering only life that has technology.

To be fair to SETI, at this moment in time it cannot search for anything other than beacons – the vast distances across the cosmos coupled with our own baby steps into the Universe mean that we don’t have the capability to search for any other form of intelligent life other than those that can deliberately signal their presence. However, what a wider definition of intelligence tells us is that we are not alone, not even on our own planet Earth.

Professor Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist from the University of Oxford, was one of the first to put forward the theory that the evolution of intelligence is driven by social factors, allowing animals to survive, interact and prosper in large and complex social groupings. These include notions of reciprocal altruism (I scratch your back, you scratch mine), politics (forming sub-groups and coalitions within the larger group) and understanding the emotions of others (empathy, which in turn relies on theory of mind, the ability to be aware of one’s self and others).

Looking at it that way, modern social networking on media such as Facebook may just be a symptom of what helped drive us to become intelligent in the first place, many tens of thousands of years ago.

Here’s the trick – to be social, you must be communicative. Staying quiet is anti-social. Personal interactions require communication, of some form, and the more complex the interaction, the more complex the communication. So if intelligence and social behavior is linked – and many people agree that it is – then the best place to start looking for intelligence is in animals that like to chat with one another.

And that brings us to dolphins.

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