Listening for Aliens, with Carolyn Porco – StarTalk All-Stars

The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, USA, one of the radio telescopes Breakthrough Listen will use to scan for intelligent life. Image courtesy of NRAO/AUI.

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About This Episode

Is anybody out there? How would we know? And what happens if there is? Welcome to our second episode of StarTalk All-Stars, when host Carolyn Porco, and her guest Dan Werthimer, principal investigator of the Breakthrough Listen Initiative, answer your Cosmic Queries about the search for ET, chosen by co-host Chuck Nice. You’ll learn why Breakthrough Listen is the most comprehensive search for extraterrestrial intelligence ever, a new leap forward able to scan 10 times more of the sky and 5 times more of the radio spectrum, with 50 times greater sensitivity than any previous SETI project. You’ll hear about the search for life on the moons of exoplanets, as well as the possibility of microbial life here in our solar system. Explore the difficulties with the Drake Equation, which predicts the likelihood of intelligent alien civilizations, as well as the difficulties of designing instruments and spacecraft to detect life forms that could be quite different from us. Find out what a “second genesis” in our solar system could tell us about the chances for life in the rest of the universe. Carolyn and Dan discuss the protocols that are in place for responding to an alien signal and ponder an even bigger question: who should speak for Earth if we do make contact? Finally, dive into one of the most controversial issues being debated today: should humanity be broadcasting our existence to the galaxy at large, or is that a recipe for disaster that could end up with humanity’s enslavement…or worse?

NOTE: All-Access subscribers can watch or listen to this entire episode commercial-free here: Listening for Aliens, with Carolyn Porco – StarTalk All-Stars.

In This Episode

  • Host

    Carolyn Porco

    Carolyn Porco
    All-Stars Host, Planetary Scientist, Cassini Imaging Science Team Leader
  • Co-Host

    Chuck Nice

    Chuck Nice
    Comedian
  • Guest

    Dan Werthimer

    Dan Werthimer
    Co-Founder, Chief Scientist SETI@home; Principal Investigator, Breakthrough Listen Initiative

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Episode Topics

  • Kiril Karaatanasov

    How long do we think a typical civilization will use radio waves for? Would that be enough to make credibly big window that is likely to overlap in time and space with SETI?

    Do you see end of radio waves usefulness e.g. in quantum technology?

    We know for sure our civilization did not use radio for the first say 10 thousand years of it’s existence. We have radio for about 200 years. How long shall we continue to use radio for? If it turns out radio waves are used for about 300 years in the history of a civilization than may be chances of finding another civilization with SETI are less than the chances of physically stumbling upon alien civilization in the not so distant future.

    • mellored .

      Know one knows. But there’s not many other things we can do. We can’t touch, hear, smell, or taste them. We can only look.

  • Adam Pierce

    It was a “mistake” to use fossil fuels at all? Are you taking something? The benefits we have gotten from the use of petroleum and coal have been enormous. I don’t want to go back to a life expectancy under 50 years or grinding poverty as the norm. The fact that a technology has certain real downsides doesn’t by itself make it a mistake to use that technology. That is the same anti-science view you seen in the anti-vaccine community, in the anti-animal-testing community, and in other anti-science movements where they refuse to consider the advantages of a technology and only consider the downsides.

  • Parker S

    Where are you getting these “low low probability” numbers of determining how safe it would be to transmit a radio signal into space? It seems to me a guess at best, and I am inclined to think that it’s not a good idea to put our planet at risk due to a guess. Also you say intelligent life would be grateful to find other intelligent life, which would make them unlikely to harm us. However, this is intelligent life as we know it. Presuming to know anything about other intelligent life is vastly overestimating our comprehension of the universe and its potential inhabitants, IMO.

  • jonathan warren

    My main issue about the discussion was that idea about other civilizations giving us their technology. It was assumed we could learn from it or use it. That would depend on the gap and the willingness of the aliens to part with the tech. Not to mention we might be dealing with alien bureaucracy…

    For example we had high hopes with the “one laptop per child” program. If we cant manage tech migration from first world to third what makes us think we could manage it from an extraterrestrial first “world”?

    In truth though, there is no real way to measure the risk/reward of active exploration. You have no real baseline or metric to measure. If you were to try though it might look like this, null/infinity (null for people who think it means none, actually means invalid or no binding value). The risk/reward is what excited early explorers to drive their expeditions further. The early explorers did not know the measure of risk. So you could have said back then that there was a risk of them unleashing a mighty world destroying monster.

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