The Search for Life Beyond Earth: How it’s Done, Where it Stands and Why it Matters
Time: Tuesday, Feb 13, 2024
Humans have pondered the question of our place in the cosmos and whether we are alone in the Universe since our ancestors first gazed upon the stars with wonder and curiosity. For most of human history the question of life beyond Earth has been relegated to the religious and philosophical. But with the invention of the radio and humanity’s transition to a technological species, one of our most profound questions has migrated from the domain of intellectual speculation to the domain of scientific pursuit. Technological activities such as radio transmissions can travel at lightspeed across interstellar and even intergalactic space and are readily differentiated from natural phenomena. Initially suggested by astronomers in 1959, the first experiments to search for such transmissions were conducted just one year later by Frank Drake at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank W. Virginia. Frank and his colleagues believed that evidence of technology outside our solar system would serve as a definitive proxy for life and intelligence beyond Earth and that such a discovery would be among the most profound in human history.
Since those initial experiments, the search for life beyond Earth and the study of associated phenomena has become a multidisciplinary research effort that engages all the natural sciences. The new field of Astrobiology is the study of life in the Universe from its origins and most basic building blocks to the coevolution of life and environment and ultimately the emergence of complex, intelligent and even technological species. In just the last 1 0 years we have learned that planets are ubiquitous and that so-called habitable-zone Earth-like worlds may number in the tens of billions in just the Milky Way galaxy alone. The statistical probability that life has only emerged on one small and insignificant planet around a very ordinary star, is zero! But – we have yet to find definitive proof. And yet the search for life beyond Earth is more than just an exercise in human curiosity. It is also an opportunity to discover ourselves in the process, to understand where we fit in, how we got here, and why we even exist. SETI Institute CEO Bill Diamond will describe the science behind the search for life beyond Earth and why it matters to humankind and indeed to all life on our own planet.