Subscribe to receive SETI Institute news weekly in your inbox.

SETI Institute in the News Apr 9 - 15, 2018

SETI Institute in the News Apr 9 - 15, 2018

Andrew Siemion
SETI Institute Names Andrew Siemion to Bernard Oliver Chair of SETI Research

A recent press release announced the appointment of astrophysicist and founding Director of the U.C. Berkeley SETI Research Center to the Bernard M. Oliver Chair of SETI Research at the SETI Institute. Dr. Siemion will be serving the role previously held by SETI Institute co-founder, Jill Tarter, who will hold the title of Chair Emeritus for SETI Research and continue her service to the Institute as an advisor and on the Board of Trustees.

"I am incredibly honored to have a role in continuing the legacy of Bernard M. Oliver,” said Dr. Siemion. “Further, Dr. Tarter is a hero to astronomers the world over, most especially those of us working in the field of SETI. I am humbled to have the privilege of furthering SETI at the Institute she helped to found and shepherd for more than three decades."

As the Oliver Chair, Siemion will be responsible for representing the SETI Institute in the scientific community, and establishing methodologies and priorities for the Institute. Dr. Siemion is well known for his work in the SETI field, and maintains affiliations with a number of academic and scientific communities. The U.C. Berkeley SETI Research Center, where Siemion was a founding director, may also be familiar to fans of the volunteer computing project known as “SETI@home”, which uses open-source software to process data in the search for ETI signals.

You can read more about Andrew Siemion, Jill Tarter, and the Bernard M. Oliver Chair on our website,

Unlocking the Secrets of our Nearest Stellar Neighbor

Despite being the closest star system to our own, Alpha Centauri remains enigmatic to researchers hoping to find Earth-like worlds. The position of the stars in the binary system, as well as their turbulent properties, make observations from our vantage point frustratingly difficult. Hope remains, however, as scientists have mapped the trajectory of these stars and predict that a detailed look will be possible in a decade. A number of projects are gearing up to take advantage of this opportunity; among them a proposal by Project Blue, a private organization, to launch a space telescope that would collect imagery of Alpha Centauri. Science Magazine spoke to SETI Institute scientist, Franck Marchis, on the matter:

Franck Marchis, an astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, a partner with Project Blue, says such a telescope, outfitted with a coronagraph, would be able to obtain an image. "It's doable. The technology is there," Marchis said. "The goal is to image a pale blue dot."

Earlier this month, Franck Marchis sat down with Guilhem Anglada-Escude and Svetlana Berdyugina at the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science (EWASS) to discuss the search for exoplanets in the Alpha Centauri system for the SETI Institute’s weekly Facebook Live event. You can watch the interview, and all past Facebook Live events, on our Facebook page.

Figures from Myth and Literature Grace the Features of a Distant Moon

Astro Watch covered the recent naming of a number of surface-features on Pluto’s largest moon, Charon. The names were proposed by NASA’s New Horizon’s mission team and approved by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), internationally recognized as having the authority to designate celestial bodies and their features.

The names come from a range of literary and mythological sources, with a focus on exploration. The names were gathered in a 2015 public naming campaign by members of the New Horizon’s team, including the SETI Institute’s own Mark Showalter:

"The names reflect the diversity of recommendations we received during the Our Pluto campaign," noted Showalter, a senior research scientist at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. "We are delighted that so many people from all over the world have contributed to the new names on the map of Charon."

Another recent naming campaign, headed by Showalter, led to the New Horizons spacecraft’s next target receiving the nickname “Ultima Thule”. The target is a Kuiper Belt object, and the flyby on New Year’s Day 2019 will be the farthest planetary encounter in history.

porcoBreakthrough Discuss: Finding Alien Life in Our Own Solar System

At an the third annual Breakthrough Discuss conference, held on the campus of Stanford University, experts in a variety of scientific fields gathered to discuss possible targets for hunting down evidence of extraterrestrial life. GeekWire covered some of the conference highlights, which emphasized life-detection in our own Solar System. Several SETI Institute scientists participated, including Nathalie Cabrol, Director of the Carl Sagan Center at the SETI Institute, Dale Andersen, Senior Research Scientist at the SETI Institute, and Cynthia Phillips, formerly of the SETI Institute and now at JPL who participated in a panel discussion together. As reported by GeekWire, Europa is a potential target that holds a great deal of interest for researchers:

JPL planetary geologist Cynthia Phillips’ vote goes to Europa — an ice-covered moon of Jupiter that, like Enceladus, is thought to harbor a watery ocean. Referring to the second-genesis hypothesis, Phillips said Europa presents “the best possible case for finding life beyond the Earth that didn’t come from the Earth.”

Other targets of interest include liquid hydrocarbon lakes on Jupiter’s largest moon, Titan, and the sulfur clouds of Venus. The Breakthrough Discuss conference explored not only the diverse ways life may manifest in our universe, but practical ways to find it. You can view the livestream recordings on YouTube, and find out more about the SETI Institute scientists who participated at

mars landscapeDo You Know What to Look For? How Human Bias Might Hamper the Search for Alien Life

A possible obstacle to the discovery of extraterrestrials was revealed in a recent study published in the journal Acta Astronautica, and this time limited technology isn’t the problem: our limited thinking is. Researchers found that humans are often constrained by their own imagination, attention, and biases. When asked to look for signs of built structures on aerial photos of other worlds, the majority of the participants carefully scanning the image failed to notice the gorilla waving at them in the corner.

That’s right, a gorilla! According to LiveScience, researchers inserted an image of the happy primate to see if the participants would notice such an absurd detail while expecting to find something else – human (or alien) structures, in this case. Researchers found that most did not, and that participants with a more analytical and rational cognitive style were even less likely to pay attention to an unexpected greeting from a cosmic gorilla than those with a more intuitive cognitive style. Gabriel G. De la Torre, a neuropsychologist at the University of Cádiz and leader of the study, preconceived notions may hinder humankind from recognizing intelligent life that doesn’t match our expectations. LiveScience turned to the SETI Institute’s Senior Astronomer, Seth Shostak, for a response:

Shostak agreed to some extent. "If you'd been able to ask a trilobite 500 million years ago who it expected to run the Earth in another few hundred million years, it might have dreamed up a "really souped-up trilobite," Shostak said. "The organism probably wouldn't have foreseen a couple of mass extinctions and the upheaval of all forms of life on Earth. Humans likely face that same sort of problem in imagining life on other planets", Shostak said.

"On the other hand," Shostak said, "SETI researchers have given the matter some thought. There are arguments, he said, that humans are actually a pretty good example of what an intelligent life-form might need to get by — opposable thumbs, stereovision — and thus looking for aliens who look like us isn't a bad strategy. There are also arguments that the most likely type of extraterrestrial intelligence won't be biological at all, but will be artificially intelligent machines created by biological, but less bright, creators, Shostak said.

This study raises important questions, and highlights the need for a multidisciplinary approach to SETI. Just last month the SETI Institute hosted a workshop titled “Decoding Alien Intelligence”, which sought to broaden perspectives and expand the methodologies applied in the effort to detect and understand extraterrestrial intelligence. You can hear our Facebook Live interview with some of the participants, including experts in astrobiology, neuroscience, archeology, anthropology, and animal communication. You can view all our past Facebook Live interviews, and follow the SETI Institute’s events and activities, on our Facebook page:

exoplanetListening for Life: Has E.T. Already Gone Cold?

Is it already too late to find extraterrestrial life? Are we not only alone, but the sole survivors in our galaxy? That’s the haunting question being probed by Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute, in response to a recent paper that suggests any alien signals we detect would probably be from a long-dead civilization. The new paper offers a mathematical argument for the probability of encountering a signal from an advance alien species, co-authored by none other than Frank Drake, Chair Emeritus of the SETI Institute Board of Trustees, early SETI researcher and creator of the Drake Equation. The research team, headed by French astronomer Claudio Grimaldi, put forth a scenario in which distant alien civilizations rise up and fade away in less than 100,000 years. For context, so far humans have been sending out radio signals for less than a century. Their signals, echoing at the speed of light like vast ripples across a galaxy that is 100,000 light years wide, would therefor reach us long after their source had vanished. In a piece for NBC News, Shostak offers his reaction:

"My response to this melancholy logic is to note that most of the star systems examined by SETI scientists are less than a few hundred light-years away. So a signal from one of these wouldn’t be a million years old. And since a few centuries isn’t really much time, I usually offer an analogy: It takes the postal service three days to deliver a letter from my aunt. But it’s unlikely that she died in the interim because three days is brief in comparison to the average lifetime of aunts."

Should the possibility of encountering an extraterrestrial epitaph discourage us, since we’d have no hope of sending a timely reply? Undeterred, Shostak notes:

"If we were to receive a message from aliens, the big news wouldn’t hinge on whether we were able to converse with them. It would be simply that someone else was out there."

Big Picture Science

Last week, the encore of Brain Dust shed light on the mysteries of the human brain. This week’s episode, Skeptic Check: Political Scientist looks at the sometimes-contentious relationship between science, political engagement, and activism.

Facebook Live

Last week’s Facebook Live featured Nathalie Cabrol. Nathalie discussed her field work in Chile, her professional journey, and what drives her scientific curiosity with CEO Bill Diamond.

Videos of all past Facebook Live events can be found on our Facebook page:

  • California Academy of Sciences: April 21, 2018, San Francisco, CA Franck Marchis will demonstrate the Unistellar eVscope
  • Montalvo Arts Center: April 27, 2018, Saratoga, CA Life Beyond Earth featuring SETI Artist in Residence Felipe Pérez Santiago, Director of SETI AIR Charles Lindsay and SETI Institute co-founder Jill Tarter
  • Girl Scouts: April 28, 2018, San Francisco, CA The annual Girl Scouts Bridging walk across the Golden Gate Bridge and gathering in Chrissy Field Pamela Harman, Acting Director of Education will participate
  • Hive Summit, May 2 SETI Institute Senior Scientist Franck Marchis will speak
  • Palo Alto Jewish Community Center, May 2, Palo Alto, CA Seth Shostak to of offer SETI Talk presentation
  • Association of Computer Professionals in Education: May 4, Welches OR Seth Shostak to participate in annual conference
  • San Mateo County Astronomical Society May 4 SETI Institute Senior Scientist Franck Marchis will present
  • The Villages: May 8, San Jose, CA Seth Shostak to offer talk about SETI
  • Silicon Valley Astronomy Lecture Series: May 15, Los Altos Hills, CA Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto with Alan Stern and SETI Institute Scientific Advisory Board member David Grinspoon
  • SETI Talks: May 23, 2018 Menlo Park, CA Hal’s Legacy: 2—1’s Computer as Dream and Reality with David Stork
  • Yerkes Observatory: May 26, 2018, Williams Bay, WI Seth Shostak to speak

Recent Articles