Archive for SETI

Do you believe there is intelligent life out there?

Posted in Astrohype, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on February 15, 2021 by telescoper

Following on from yesterday’s post and inspired by this tweet

I thought I’d try a quick poll on what people think about the existent of intelligent life “out there”. In my experience, and in contrast to the tweet, most astronomers are actually quite open-minded about the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence. My own view is that while it is entirely possible that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe, scientific belief* should be based on evidence and we simply don’t have any evidence to support the idea. I would therefore say that I don’t “believe” but am agnostic. Sometimes “I don’t know” is the only rational answer.

You might ask me as a cosmologist whether I believe in the Big Bang theory. My answer would be “yes” because I think the evidence supports this description of the Universe. If evidence came along to change my opinion I might believe in it less or not at all. I might also change my mind if a different model came along that fits the observations better.

*In a Bayesian sense I would interpret “refusing to believe” as meaning setting a prior probability of zero, so that no amount of evidence would produce a non-zero posterior probability.

Anyway, setting aside the issue of whether there is even any evidence of intelligent life on Earth here is a poll:

How not to behave in a Zoom discussion…

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on February 14, 2021 by telescoper

A couple of days ago, on February 12th, there was a ‘Golden webinar in Astrophysics’ one of a series that seeks to bring forefront research in astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology to the public in the English and Spanish languages. The speaker this time was Avi Loeb and the full title of his talk was  Extraterrestrial Life: Are We the Sharpest Cookies in the Jar? A video of the entire event can be viewed here.

Avi Loeb is a very distinguished theoretical physicist, with broad interests in the fields of astrophysics and cosmology who has done excellent rather mainstream work on the formation and evolution of black holes, the first generation of stars in the universe and the epoch of reionization, as well as high-redshift gamma-ray bursts. He has also produced a large number of much more speculative articles in areas such as extra-terrestrial life (including SETI) some of which, in my opinion, is rather flaky. Loeb was a long-serving Chair of the Department of Astronomy at Harvard University and is the current Director of the Institute for Theory and Computation there.

The following is a short excerpt from the panel discussion following his talk. I was surprised to Avi Loeb adopt such a dismissive and confrontational attitude towards Jill Tarter (who has worked in the field of SETI for over 40 years). I’m also surprised that there was no intervention by the moderator of the discussion.

Many members of the astrophysics community have worked very hard to ensure that conference talks, seminars and panel discussions (whether in person or virtual) are conducted in a collegiate and cooperative manner. I don’t think Loeb is setting a good example in this clip, especially for someone who is an experienced former Department Chair. We all have strong feelings about certain things, but there’s no need to adopt such an aggressive tone. No wonder so many people find academia a toxic environment.