Q&A with SETI Institute President and CEO, David Black

David Black in his office

(Interviewed July 18, 2014)

You asked, and SETI Institute President and CEO David Black answered!

Check out some of the questions that SETI Institute fans posed this week.

Question from Syed Atif Ali: If there could be enormous life prevailing beyond the horizon, why haven't we picked up even small signals?

Answer: There are several possible answers to your question.  One is that we have picked up signals and simply do not recognize them.  No one knows for certain what form a signal might take.  We make our guesses based in part upon the known laws of physics.  Another is that the signals are unintentional, similar to our TV signals from 30 to 40 years ago that are now 30 to 40 light years away from the Solar System, and are just too weak for our current systems to detect as signals get four times weaker for every doubling of distance from their source.  As a famous person once said, “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”.

Question from @BrandonMINUET: Ok, question. Meteor over Russia, 30 times brighter than sun, any bio markers?

Answer: At the present time, there are no reports of biomarkers in any of the meteorites associated with the meteor; remember that fragments of meteors that reach the ground are called meteorites.

Question from Sammy Alvarado: If we were to discover life out in the universe but it's not organic but an A.I. What would that discovery be classified as?

Answer: Detection of extraterrestrial intelligence. Even if what we detect is a “machine”, there would be no escaping the fact that intelligence in some form was involved in the existence of this AI.

Question from Andrew Greene: If life could exist using liquid hydrocarbons in an environment like Titan, how might cells organize themselves? How far can we extrapolate?

Answer: There are research groups studying possible alternatives to our standard thinking about how life may work. It is likely that at the cellular level, the basic functions and organization would be similar to cells in living organisms on Earth. Extrapolation to whole organisms, such as humans, is a different issue. Your guess might be as good as anyone else’s.

Question from Ryan Berry: Would life you may find be more likely intelligent or unintelligent?

Answer: If by intelligent you mean capable of developing technology, you are more likely to detect signs of unintelligent life. The reason is the technology has existed on this planet for a century or so, depends on how one defines technology, while unintelligent (again, we here mean non technical) life has been around for billions of years. That means you are about ten million times more likely to find unintelligent life than intelligent if you look at the Earth from a planet orbiting a distant star. Remember that there has been intelligent, but non technical, life on the Earth for much longer than a century in the form of chimps, whales, and dolphins to name a few examples.