March 22, 2010

Brainwave 2010: Is Life Out There?

It was a beautiful day, and perhaps many were more interested in getting some sun as there were less people this time than the previous brainwave event I attended. This time it was rock musician Claire Evans of Yacht and Fred Adams author of The Five Ages of The Universe.
When the Director of the Event, Tim McHenry introduced the duo, i just learned that Claire Evans actually has a blog called Universe, and Tim started the event by showing the 60-sec animation created by Claire about the evolution of life. Then she began the conversation by introducing the Fermi Paradox.
The speculations that followed included the notion that Life is common, but intelligence is rare.
Claire is cognizant of the fact that we dont know enough just yet about the makeup of extra-terrestrial lifeforms, speculating--for example, about a "sentient cloud" and then wondering how to best detect them. However Fred says that we don't know anything better than using radio astronomy for SETI just yet, and so that is the method we currently use.
Claire likes the Hypothesis that some Advanced Technological Civilizations (ATC) know that we exist, but they dont want to touch us--in line with the "Prime Directive" in Star Trek, ATCs must not bother with developing civilizations.
As the duo continued to explore the solutions to the Fermi Paradox, they moved on to bleaker scenarios such as the inclination of Technological societies to destroy itself. Or various naturally occuring cosmic events such as Supernovae could explain why no civilization ever lives long enough to meet everyone else.
Fred mentions the idea that we're literally living in a supernova bubble--that supernovae have been a few parsecs away around our sun's neighborhood in the distant past.
Somehow this alerted Claire to mention speculations of how earth might die, such as getting yanked out of orbit by a passing celestial object. She says she might find the scene beautiful, how the atmosphere would snow down on earth, as the planet freezes the surface dwellers to death. She added that among the survivors would be the creatures around the deep underwater vents.
Fred adds how a watery planet would be in the cold outer part of a solar system. It will have a frozen outer shell, but internal heat would cause liquid water beneath.
And since Fred mentioned that the "Holy Grail" of SETI is the discovery of a technologically advanced civilization, Claire asks what would it mean if extra-terrestrial life were found.
Fred answers that its a gamechanger...but creationism wouldn't go away. Fred mentions though, a "lesser" Holy Grail, in the form of developing the ability to create synthetic life in the lab. Claire asks Fred "Do you believe in Technological Singularity?" since she herself finds it hard to believe. Fred answers by saying that ours is a young civilization and we might engineer our survival. Fred mentions the idea of moving the earth by a bit outwards (i think he meant gravity traction) via an asteroid. The gradual outward migration of Earth's orbit will hopefully match the swelling of the sun and move outwards to the expanding habitable zone to prolong life on this planet. Finally, among other feats of hypothetical Astroengineering, the Dyson sphere was mentioned, of course.
As the Q&A portion ensued, I happened to be picked to ask the third question. After a gentleman asked about Kepler and it's discoveries, Fred was optimistic that the Earth-like discovery will come very soon (if not this year). I followed up by asking what the impact of the discovery of an Earth-like planet will be to the human culture.
Fred answers that the impact of the discovery of an earth analog on human culture will be modest. Though, it will be on the front page of the New York Times, he adds. Claire says it takes much more than an earth-like planet to rouse the masses as people generally doesn't care much about these things. It will be the discovery of Life on these worlds that will have much impact on humanity.
Tim asks what scifi film exemplifies SETI best. Claire mentions "Contact". Fred, still in the technological frame of mind from answering a previous singularity question, says he likes "Bladerunner". Science fiction was briefly discussed among the audience, mentioning how scifi mirrors our hopes and anxieties in terms of a technological future.
Tim wraps up with a question on the future of our universe. Fred shows a few slides of new findings about our cosmic future, how the accelerating expansion of the cosmos will isolate galaxies, and result in "island universes", rendering all hopes of communicating with other galaxies impossible as light will never reach from one to the other.
The point of contact seems bleak in terms of gigayears ahead. And even now, the prospect of finding any extra-terrestrial signal may seem to be a hopeless endeavor if you take the negative stance.
The key I suppose, is to keep asking, and to keep searching. Perhaps there really is something incredible out there just waiting to be known.