Forget 'Men in Black 3': Why aliens won't attack Earth
SETI hunter Jill Tarter says Sir Stephen Hawking is wrong about aliens coming to attack or colonize Earth. If aliens can get here, Tarter reasons, they'll be advanced enough not to need slaves, food or other planets,
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Tarter: The Kepler worlds are really legitimizing SETI. All of us that are even peripherally involved with that are looking and saying, "You know, Earth 2.0 — that's just right around the corner. We can almost taste it." And I think the moment you can point up at the sky and say to somebody, "There. Just like Earth," the next question is going to be, "Well, does anybody live there?"Skip to next paragraph
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SPACE.com: Do you think we're going to detect an alien signal someday?
Tarter: I don't know the answer to that question. That's why we're doing the search.
It is conceivable that our technological civilization is unique, or at least unique in this particular epoch of the galaxy's history. Or we might be one of many.
SPACE.com: What would it mean if we found a signal? How would it change how we think about ourselves and our place in the universe?
Tarter: I would like to have the opportunity to make the argument that investing in SETI is investing in our future. What would it really mean if we were to detect a signal? It would mean, in the words of [the late physicist] Phil Morrison — a lovely phrase — he always referred to SETI as the archeology of the future.
Detecting a signal — if there's any information, we'll learn about their past, because of the finite travel speed of light. But if we detect a signal, we'll certainly instantly know, even without any information in the signal, that it's possible to become an old technology.
Success in SETI is never going to be achievable unless technologies, on average, survive for a long time in a cosmic sense, so that two technologies — an emerging technological civilization such as ours, and another technology — overlap in the 10-billion-year history of the Milky Way galaxy.
They have to be close enough in space so that we have the sensitivity to detect them, but we also have to be cotemporal. And that's not going to happen if technologies spring up and last a few years, and then are gone.
There are so many other indicators that we are enmeshed in today that suggest that in fact we don't have a very long future ahead of us. So working on SETI, and succeeding in detecting a signal so that we know it's possible to have a long future, I think is enormously valuable.
SPACE.com: Yes, that would be heartening — to know that we could survive for at least a few million years, because somebody else has done it, too…
Tarter: Exactly. And along the way towards that success, we can also do some world-changing by getting people involved in the whole process of SETI. Because if you get people involved and thinking about it, then they have to open up their minds and take on a more cosmic point of view. And they have to, at least for a short time, see themselves as all one species, all Earthlings, on one planet in a large cosmos, and understand that we're all the same.
If we can get people involved and supporting SETI and participating in it, then perhaps we can do a little bit to trivialize the differences among humans that we find so difficult to deal with today.
SPACE.com: Speaking of getting the world involved, are there any plans in place to make SETI a more international effort? If so, how do you do that?