The committee initially stumbled over what to call its May 21 hearing. It started as Cosmology: The Search for Intelligent Life, possibly in expectation of a dire outcome in Tuesday’s primaries. But by Wednesday, the title — if not the ambition — was enlarged to Astrobiology and the Search for Life in the Universe.
Chairman Lamar Smith of Texas welcomed a group of high schoolers, saying the hearing was to inspire today’s students to become tomorrow’s scientists. (Just perhaps not the vast majority of climate scientists, about whom Smith is unenthusiastic.)
Dan Werthimer, director of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, and Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at SETI, came to talk about efforts to pick up communications signals emitted from distant planets. There are so many that have the conditions to support life that Shostak predicted results, funding permitting, within 20 years. “The kind of life that could uphold its end of the conversation,” he said. That could have been a sly putdown of some panel members.
What do you think of the series “Ancient Aliens?” Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., asked.
Shostak and Werthimer were well chosen for the hearing. Their enthusiasm for aliens concealed any fatigue they might have felt over the line of questioning. Werthimer wore a tie adorned from top to bottom with brightly colored planets and stars.
Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md., might have been emitting her own coded message. “My favorite movie is 'Contact,' ” she said. The scientist played by Jodie Foster who hears the alien messages in that movie is put through the wringer by Washington.
Panel members were surprisingly unworried about a project needing an unquantifiable amount of time and having an unquantifiable chance of success. Nor did anybody worry about immigration or alien marriage. Evolution was taken for granted. Werthimer even posited the notion that some evolutionary environments might favor the smart.
Florida Republican Bill Posey was the panel’s brightest light, wondering what Shostak and Werthimer thought of thorium-powered spacecraft, the Blue Book project and Stephen Hawking’s ideas.
Oregon Democrat Suzanne Bonamici was more down to earth, asking what the plan is if the scientists find any smart aliens. It turns out there is no plan.
Shostak said modern communications technology is already sending signals. He thought that when scientists find intelligent life on other planets, it would help “calibrate our place in the intellectual universe.”
Possibly going against the grain for Congress, Werthimer thought it a good idea for now if earthlings just listen rather than send signals that might be picked up by a more advanced civilization and taken the wrong way. “Maybe we can transmit in 10,000 years,” he said.