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Waiting (and Waiting, and Waiting) for Godot, the Extraterrestrial - Lecture Recap

Report on “Waiting Godot, the Extraterrestrial” event, September 21, 2015 (by Russ Dobler). Photos by Jonathan Nelson.

“I have, as long as I can remember, always fantasized about aliens coming to get me,” said Neer Asherie, professor of biology and physics at Yeshiva University. “I haven’t yet found anybody who hasn’t at least once imagined what they would do if they had an alien encounter.”

Though a tantalizing idea, as Asherie would go on to explain, it’s unlikely to occur. The chances were especially low for the National Science Foundation grant recipient on September 21, when speaking about the possibilities of alien life to a standing room only audience at a New York City Skeptics lecture in the basement of Manhattan’s Baruch Performing Arts Center. A fan droned loudly to help conceal the meeting, but maybe it wasn’t the aliens they were hiding from.

“After all,” Asherie said, “the NSA is listening.”

While some believe that speaking openly about alien life will land your name on a secret government naughty list, as Asherie said, it wasn’t always that way. Despite what some less-than-reputable History Channel programs might have you think, the first tangible instance of anyone mentioning other worlds comes from ancient Greece, where a favorite pastime was sitting around and thinking about stuff.

“And they thought about pretty much everything,” Asherie said.

Thinking guy Metrodorus wrote the first recorded words about the possibility of planets beyond our backyard in the fourth century BC, when he said:

Things that exist tend to do so in great multiplicity, from grains of sand to ears of corn. It would be odd if only a single stem of corn grew in a field. Similarly, it would be strange if our Earth were the only one in the cosmos.

Needless to say, that sort of free-thinking didn’t last.

“Two amazing Greek philosophers, “Asherie said, “came in the way and ruined everything for everybody – Plato and Aristotle.” The pair of paragons believed the Earth was indeed special and unique, which made their teachings more attractive when Catholicism moved into the area. A church edict in 1145 banned the thought of other worlds as heretical, and friar/philosopher Giordano Bruno was infamously burned at the stake for talking about it. Well, denying transubstantiation and the Trinity probably had something to do with it, too.

According to Asherie, Enrico Fermi was inspired to ask where everybody is by a New Yorker cartoon that blamed UFO occupants for a rash of NYC trash can disappearances.

“But that’s just talk,” Ahserie said. Nobody really tried looking for alien life until legendary physicist Enrico Fermi posed his paradoxical question in 1950: If there really is someone else out there, why haven’t we met them? The galaxy’s not that big, and the universe is really old, so if there were little green men buzzing around anywhere, surely some of them would have bumped into Earth by now.

Asherie saw two possible answers to Fermi’s query. “The answer could be we are alone.” Not the answer anyone wants, but one we may just have to deal with. “There is a more cheerful scenario,” Asherie said, “that there are aliens around, but they just don’t want anything to do with us.” Advanced intelligences, indeed.

Ten years after Fermi crafted his paradox, astronomer Frank Drake tried to quantify just how many of those intelligences should be out there. His renowned equation starts with the rate of star formation in our galaxy, then multiplies in other factors like the fraction of those stars that have planets, the fraction of those planets that can support life, and so on. It was a fanciful conversation-starter but not much else, as there really weren’t any reliable ways to put numbers on those variables 55 years ago.

xkcd comic by Randall Munroe

But now we know enough to start filling in the blanks. It seems that six or seven stars are born in the Milky Way every year, and thanks to the Kepler space observatory, it looks like the stars nearest to us average one planet each. “What about finding planets that can have life on them?” Asherie asked. That’s where the James Webb Space Telescope will pick up in 2018. The JWST will be able to target the planets identified by Kepler and analyze their atmospheres to look for signs of life, such as an unexpected abundance of oxygen.

Frank Drake was also a founder of SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence that passively sweeps the sky in search of unnatural radio transmissions, an effort that continues through today. No luck yet, but might we have a better chance being more active? “We have a few times sent messages into outer space,” Asherie said, though Stephen Hawking and others question the wisdom of that tactic. We might not want to announce our presence until we can gauge the friendliness of any potential neighbors.

We’ve also included messages on probes that will continue on into space, like Pioneer 10 and 11, but the chance of another civilization finding them is pretty remote. Still, Asherie called the lack of such a message on the Pluto-focused New Horizons probe “immensely sad.”

But other stars are so far away. “Wouldn’t it be nice if there were life here in our solar system?” Asherie asked. The new discovery of flowing water on Mars offers hope, and a probe set to launch in 2022 toward Europa, the icy moon of Jupiter thought to have a liquid water ocean, will also help inform the possibility. Any microbes we find close to home probably won’t have much interesting to talk about, though.

The lecture ended with a spirited question and answer session that raised trivial questions like what exactly life is and cast doubt on SETI’s effectiveness by bringing up Edward Snowden's thought that alien radio transmissions may be too encrypted to crack. Got you there, NSA.