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stars ATA 10 2011 ENH PPR-1

Photo credits: Seth Shostak, SETI Institute

As I get older I’ve been thinking more about Arthur C. Clarke’s three laws – Wikipedia renders them this way:

    1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
    2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
    3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Sure, ACC was a science fiction writer, but he also held patents on geosynchronous satellite systems for global communication. A smart man indeed.

Number 3 is important for our SETI searches, so we avoid becoming too prescriptive and miss other evidence of signals. It is also a reminder to encourage our grad students and postdocs, who are poring through vast quantities of data, to keep their eyes open for anomalies – the equivalents of Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s ‘little bits of scruff’. Number 1 weighs on me more heavily as I assume the mantle of “elderly scientist” – but then again ACC deliberately used the personal pronoun ‘he’ and I’m a she, so maybe folks will still pay attention to what I have to say; positive or negative.

It’s Number 2 that is taking me in directions I wouldn’t have predicted. I’m pretty sure that exchanging information over interstellar distances is much more energetically cost effective using electromagnetic radiation rather than ‘boldly going’ between the stars. That’s why I work on SETI trying to detect signals and I don’t lose much sleep over the so-called Fermi Paradox; ultimately everyone will be forced into some sort of energy accounting – the stuff is finite. But I grow more and more uncomfortable with saying that anything is impossible, even big wet biology voyaging among the stars. It might just be very hard. So I’ve been serving on an advisory committee for Dr. Mae Jemison’s 100-Year Starship Study. I think it’s an amazing opportunity to push down some technology barriers that now hold us back. The starship goal is so audacious and so motivational to many of us weaned on science fiction, that we just might make breakthroughs in the service of that goal, breakthroughs that would otherwise elude us. And if we do, those new capabilities are bound to pay huge dividends right here on terra firma, before anyone ever departs for the stars.

100-YSS logo

My hunch is that starships are effectively impossible and so I remain the chief cheerleader for the SETI Institute’s searches with the Allen Telescope Array, and other SETI efforts everywhere. But that’s just a hunch, and just like SETI, we won’t know unless we try. Thanks for your advice, ACC.

# # #

Jills antennaJill Tarter holds the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI Research at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. Tarter received her Bachelor of Engineering Physics Degree with Distinction from Cornell University and her Master’s Degree and a Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of California, Berkeley. She served as Project Scientist for NASA’s SETI program, the High Resolution Microwave Survey, and has conducted numerous observational programs at radio observatories worldwide. She is a Fellow of the AAAS and the California Academy of Sciences, she was named one of the Time 100 in 2004, and one of the Time 25 in Space in 2012, received a TED prize in 2009, public service awards from NASA, multiple awards for communicating science to the public, and has been honored as a woman in technology. Since the termination of funding for NASA’s SETI program in 1993, she has served in a leadership role to design and build the Allen Telescope Array and to secure private funding to continue the exploratory science of SETI. Many people are now familiar with her work as portrayed by Jodie Foster in the movie, Contact.


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