WEEKEND catches up with Astronomy professor Michael Faison who says there’s a 50 percent chance that scientists will find extraterrestial life in the next 20 to 50 years.
Q. What issues does your seminar “Search for Extraterrestrial Life” look into? What do you expect from your students?
A. One of the fundamental goals of the seminar is to hold basic discussions about how science works on a topic that is really timely and interesting. We look at astrobiology, which is an interdisciplinary science that allows us to talk about a lot of different areas of science without necessarily focusing on astronomy. It’s also a rapidly evolving science, which is really exciting because things you talk about in your classes come up in the news, like the discovery of the exoplanet Gliese 581 g two weeks ago.
Q: What makes the discovery of this exoplanet so significant?
A. The planet is right in the middle of the habitable zone — unlike most of the planets discovered, which are at the edge. A lot of these planets are too massive, so you wouldn’t expect the conditions for life to be present. Also, the information we have about these planets is very limited. We usually don’t know much of their atmospheric composition, so we might find a planet which looks promising but it might turn out to be extremely inhospitable for life. But we’ve only been looking for these planets for 10 to 15 years and the fact that we have already found so many of them suggests that we are going to find many more of them in the future.
Q: Do you believe that the research for extraterrestrial life should be focused on finding microbial life or intelligent life?
A. Well, given the one example we have — life on the Earth — it looks like simple life got started early and intelligent life took a long time to evolve from it. In short, the Earth is a very special case and even though there are a lot of Earth-like planets in our galaxy, it might be that the conditions needed for intelligent life are very rare. We might, in fact, be the only intelligent life in our galaxy. To search for intelligent life all you have to do is listen. It doesn’t really take much effort, so there are private organizations that spend time on radiotelescopes, listening to artificial signals from other stars. It’s very easy to do, it’s really cheap, and the payoff if we found something would be very great. At the same time, we think that microbial life is present in nearby Earth-like planets. It’s harder to find, but I’d say that within the next 20 to 50 years there’s more than a 50 percent chance that we will discover simple life on another planet.
Q: In case there is intelligent life, what are the potential dangers of encountering it?
A. There is no danger. If there is intelligent life in our galaxy the closest intelligent civilization in our galaxy would be thousands of light years away. Perhaps an advanced civilization has figured out a way of travel which is faster than light, but if this were true then they would be much more advanced than we are. If they had any hostile intentions there would be nothing we could do about it. The level of technological sophistication will be so different that other intelligent species might as well be gods to us.
Q: One of the most prominent exposures that the public has to extraterrestrial life is through public testimonies of people who claim to have made contact with aliens. Does this interfere with the way that people perceive research on the subject?
A. Maybe it does, because even though it doesn’t affect the work that the scientists do, it could affect public perception. I do think it’s pretty compartmentalized. I believe that people understand the difference between scientists who look for life in other planets and pop culture.
Q: Speaking of pop culture, what about crop circles? Do you think they where made by “intelligent life”?
A. Yeah, they were made by humans, which you could call intelligent life.
Q: Astrology. Discuss.
A. Astrology is a very important part of the history of astronomy. Early astronomers tried to make models of the planets due to astrology. This was because they believed that the way planets lined up in a particular way was indicative for individuals or the future. So, culturally, astrology is really important and I think it is not emphasized how important astrology is to the history of astronomy. However, astrology is not a science and I don’t think it has anything to do with modern astrophysics.