Life in space inspires discussion at Vincent Price Art Museum

Dr. Seth Shostak
ARE WE ALONE? – Senior Astronomer Dr. Seth Shostak illustrates the likelihood of an advanced society beyond our own. The Physics and Astronomy Club hosted a presentation for the East Los Angeles College students and guests last Thursday at the Vincent Price Art Museum. CN/Erik Machuca

By Erik Machuca

For those skeptical of alien life, Dr. Seth Shostak shared his life’s passion of searching for extraterrestrial intelligence at the Vincent Price Art Museum last Thursday.

Shostak, senior astronomer at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute in Mountain View, California, advocated that we will soon know of life beyond Earth.

“The bottom line is, because of the increase in speed and the vast amount of habitable real estate in the cosmos, I figure we are going to pick up a signal in the next two dozen years,” Shostak said.

The SETI Institute estimates that there are one trillion planets in our galaxy and that our galaxy is only one of 100 billion that we can see with telescopes.

Shostak said the question is what fraction of these planets are actually suitable for life? Thanks to NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, Shostak said we could learn the answer as soon as this year.

“The smart money is suggesting that the fraction of planets that might be suitable for life may be from one in a hundred to one in a thousand. Even taking the pessimistic estimate, that means there are at least a billion cousins of the earth in our own galaxy,” Shostak said.

Showing a semi-log plot, Shostak explained the speed of antennas’ signals to communicate with other star systems is doubling every 18 months.

“We’re looking for a needle in a haystack, with the haystack being the galaxy. But we’re going through the haystack no longer with a teaspoon, but with a skip loader because of this increase in speed,” Shostak said.

Erik Orellana, president of the East Los Angeles College Physics and Astronomy Club, said he learned a few things about how advanced our technology was becoming.

“In the future things such as computing are going to be pretty much self-sufficient and we may not even be doing the programming ourselves,” Orellana said.

Shostak also raised the question, what would come from a detection of other intelligent life within the next two dozen years?

Researchers can’t predict what finding extraterrestrial intelligence will mean, but Shostak expects it will be a society that’s drastically more advanced than our own.

“You’re not going to be hearing from alien Neanderthals. They’re going to be ahead of us by either a few thousand or million years,” Shostak said.

Looking out to the universe has long been considered as looking back in time. But with the approach Shostak and astronomers at the SETI Institute are taking, they are aiming to look into the future.

“A signal coming from a more advanced society will tell you something about our own possibilities, that we’re not inevitably doomed to self-destruction. Because they survived their technology, we can do it too,” Shostak said.

The SETI Institute continues to promote exploration and address the lack of science and literacy in society by getting young people involved in science.

“I’m happy everyone is interested in understanding about the universe and science. Even without taking a high-level science class they have the heart and motivation to understand and explore,” Orellana said.

The ELAC Physics and Astronomy Club meets every other Wednesday in B1-102 from 12:30-1:30 pm.

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