For those interested in communication with aliens and planetary Armageddon, there was only one place to be this weekend: SETIcon, in the San Francisco Bay Area town of Santa Clara.
The conference featured panels with titles like “Do we have to learn Klingon: How will we communicate with ET?” and “Will the kind of rock that obliterated the dinosaurs get us next?” Participants included NASA scientists, researchers from top universities, and the odd Star Trek actor. Talks were oriented towards a general audience.
The event was organised by the SETI Institute, a respected non-profit investigating extra-terrestrial intelligence. It is far from the lunatic fringe: the institute has administered over a quarter-billion dollars of research funding.
Indeed, the conference was notable for its sobriety. The institute’s CEO, Tom Pierson, said this kind of science is less of a magnet for eccentrics than it once was.
“Fifteen years ago, if we’d have held this conference I’m certain I’d have had many more conversations of which I’ve only had one here: ‘Why are you doing all this hard work looking out there? Who cares if there are microbes on Mars or not? [Aliens are] already here.’”
“We call it the little-green-man effect,” he said.
(A few attendees were still somewhat wacky. “Are you saying it won’t matter if my brains get melted?” one conference-goer was overheard saying to another.)
Douglas Vakoch, director of interstellar message composition at the SETI Institute, spoke about how we might make ourselves understood to visitors from other worlds, perhaps via mathematics. We could convey our ideas of beauty by referring to the Fibonacci sequence and the golden ratio, for example.
As he noted, his field has recently become a little contentious: Stephen Hawking has said we should avoid seeking out alien species lest they try to raid Earth for its resources.
Rusty Schweickart, a former astronaut, discussed how Earth could be protected from a devastating asteroid impact. It wouldn’t take a ballistic missile to divert an approaching body of rock, he said. If a spacecraft can dock with it, it might be able to push it off course.
Meanwhile a panel that included the daughter of science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov, Robyn, considered portrayals of aliens in movies. All agreed that Hollywood has got to do better. Directors can’t seem to imagine aliens as anything other than giant insects or deformed humanoids.
Despite the largely rational tone of the proceedings, many of those in attendance spoke with unrestrained exuberance about the possibility of finding life beyond our planet. Star Trek actors included.
“It would be the greatest discovery of humankind,” Tim Russ, who played a Vulcan named Tuvok, told Monocle. His ears were their normal human shape; he was there to give a talk on his love of amateur astronomy.
He said: “I’m waiting with bated breath.”