Astronomers, actors and a host of other science-minded professionals will descend on California this weekend to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the SETI Institute and its mission to scan the universe for signs of intelligent extraterrestrial life.
Called SETICon, the public gathering includes a veritable feast of research presentations and discussions. Here, SETI Institute senior astronomer Seth Shostak offers a taste of what to expect and the big SETI shindig:
What would happen if an Earthling astronaut encountered a Vulcan? Would they chat about the rigors of spaceflight, or merely chuckle about one another’s misshapen ears?
Anyone who can make it to California’s Silicon Valley the weekend of Aug. 14-15 can learn the answer to this portentous question. The SETI Institute, which is best known for its hi-tech search for alien signals, will be hosting a public event called SETIcon: A massive smorgasbord of talks, panels, and one-on-one interactions – all dealing with the science and science-fiction of extraterrestrial life.
Sci-fi conventions ("cons") are an established cultural phenomenon. They’re well-known, well-respected, and well-attended. I’ve been to quite a few, and it’s hard to gainsay the fun of spending a few days experiencing a fantasy existence – the life we might lead if only we were born a few centuries hence, when interstellar rockets are as common as commuter buses, and your job description is to defend the United Federation of Planets.
But sci-fi is more than fairy tales for nerds. It is the hypothesized history of the future, a prismatic view of what humankind might become. Some people consider it valuable for imagining products or deeds – why can’t we build the "Star Trek" tricorder or massive, artificial habitats in space? Others see this genre’s worth in offering us cautionary tales of what could go wrong, thereby potentially helping us to avoid societal suicide.
Either way, sci-fi goes an extra mile in comparison with other popular narrative forms (e.g., westerns or mysteries), because it’s prophetic. [Top 10 Alien Encounters Debunked]
Science fiction vs. science fact
The genre’s been around for more than a century, if you count (as you should) the work of Jules Verne. But in Verne’s day, rockets existed only in a few people’s minds, and the idea that we might actually alight on other worlds was as plausible as expecting monkeys to pen poetry.
But that was then, and this is now. Science has caught up to much early sci-fi, and in some cases rendered it obsolete or even quaint (think of "War of the Worlds," with its marauding Martians). Nonetheless, and despite a half-century of the space age, we still can’t send a probe to a black hole nor dispatch a cohort of Lycra-wrapped astronauts to boldly go in search of gnarly-headed aliens.
In this endless leapfrog of science-based imagination and research accomplishment, where do we stand today?
At SETIcon, planet hunters like Mike Brown (whose discoveries led the demotion of Pluto from planet to dwarf planet), Debra Fischer, and Doug Caldwell will tell us about the hundreds of billions of unseen planets that pepper our Milky Way, while media stars Tim Russ (Tuvok in "Star Trek Voyager"), Andre Bormanis, John Billingsley and Kevin Grazier describe their experiences in bringing such worlds to life on the phosphor screen.
Jennifer Ouellette will tell you about how she puts Hollywood sci-fi producers in touch with real scientists (will this mean no more silver-screen howlers?), and her husband, physicist Sean Carroll, will ruminate on why the arrow of time seems to point in only one direction. Astrophysicist Alex Filippenko will give attendees the truly big picture of our universe – painting a picture of a cosmos that’s blowing apart faster every day.
Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart can tell you first-hand what it’s like to sit in a cramped aluminum can, headed for the moon. He’s got another project now: to protect you from untimely death-by-asteroid.
Writers? You bet your word processor. Sci-fi legend Robert Sawyer will be making the scene, as will Phil Plait and Mary Roach (author of the new book "Packing for Mars"). Robyn Asimov promises to tell stories about growing up with her dad, Isaac – perhaps the most famous sci-fi author of all time.
Science of extraterrestrials
Of course, SETI Institute scientists will be at the con, and as abundant as kudzu. I’ll be giving a talk on what will happen if we detect a signal from extraterrestrials, and Jill Tarter (the model for Jodie Foster's character in Contact) will tell you how you can be part of the search by using your eye and brain to scan data coming from the SETI institute's new Allen Telescope Array.
In the course of the next two dozen years, this array could increase the number of star systems checked out for signals by a thousand times.
On Saturday night, you can tuck in your bib at a banquet in honor of Frank Drake, the man who organized the first experiment to eavesdrop on extraterrestrial transmitters 50 years ago. I’ve known Frank personally for three dozen years, and I can assure you that he’s not only a pioneer, but one of this planet’s cleverest, gentlest guys. If he were the only presenter at SETIcon, it would still be worth attending.
Science will, of course, never make sci-fi obsolete, will never overtake the imagination of those who can peer into the future and see stories and situations that are far beyond our present ken. But there’s never been a time when the search for life beyond Earth – a staple of the genre – was more informed by real science. For this reason alone, SETIcon promises to be an event unlike any other.
I hope to see you there.