SETI Institute in the News June 21 - 27, 2018

SETI Institute in the News June 21 - 27, 2018

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The Frontier of AI Technology and Space Exploration: Frontier Development Lab at the SETI Institute

Datanami highlighted the start of Frontier Development Lab (FDL), an applied artificial intelligence research accelerator hosted by the SETI Institute as a partnership with NASA Ames Research Center along with private sector partners:

SETI was an early adopter of data analytics, machine learning and signal detection technologies.

SETI Institute hosts the NASA lab focused on accelerating research on applied AI. The lab was launched in 2016 in partnership with the NASA Ames Research Center. It aims to accelerate development of applied AI to help fill “knowledge gaps in space science and exploration,” SETI said this week.

By leveraging new AI technologies and multidisciplinary expertise in a collaborative environment, FDL seeks to generate meaningful applications to the problems of space programs, such as uncovering the presence of biosignatures, predicting solar storms, and detecting exoplanets. You can read more about FDL 2018 on our website,


Molly Bentley and Seth Shostak, co-hosts of the Big Picture Science radio show.“Big-Picture Thinking” – The Washington Post reviews the Big Picture Science Podcast and Radio Show

The Washington Post described Big Picture Science, the SETI Institute’s weekly radio show and podcast, in glowing terms in a recent review:

The SETI Institute is perhaps best known for its ongoing search for extraterrestrial intelligence, but its podcast, which is partially funded by the NASA Astrobiology Institute, isn’t all aliens and speculation. Instead, it’s a concrete look at topics that could feel inscrutable or dull in other hands.

The thematic episodes cleverly explore a range of topics in modern science, and feature interviews with experts breaking down the latest research ideas. The Washington Post noted that “the show tells great stories, but it’s also devoted to helping you debunk fantastical ones”, devoting one episode a month to critical thinking in a feature dubbed “Skeptic Check”. Hosted by the SETI Institute Fellow and Senior Astronomer, Seth Shostak, and science journalist Molly Bentley, the show strives to educate and entertain through humor and smart storytelling.

The SETI Institute is proud to see the Big Picture Science team receive this well-deserved praise! You can find episodes on your favorite podcast carrier and many local radio stations.

two girls looking at the skyGirls Across America are Reaching for the Stars

“Reaching for the Stars: NASA Science for Girl Scouts”, a cooperative initiative between the SETI Institute and NASA, inspires girls and young women across the U.S. to explore the sciences through engaging, hands-on experiences. At Pine Mountain Observatory in Central Oregon, 10 girls will have the opportunity to operate telescopes, collect data, and participate in observations. KTVZ, a local news station, spoke to Pamela Harman, Acting Director of the Center for Education at the SETI Institute and Principle Investigator for the "Reaching for the Stars" program:

“This is an exceptional opportunity to embrace the Girl Scouts of Oregon and Southwest Washington and Pine Mountain Observatory into our scope of work,” says Pamela Harman, Acting Director of Education at the SETI Institute. “The local Girl Scout council will deliver an excellent camping experience, the Observatory will deliver dark skies and observing opportunities, and the SETI Institute will lead the girls through activities they can take home to their local troops and councils.”

The efforts of the Center for Education are central to the SETI Institute’s mission of sharing knowledge as scientific ambassadors to the public. The Girl Scout Stars program is fantastic opportunity to nurture a love of space science, foster enthusiasm for STEM fields, and encourage girls to pursue their passion for the sciences.

Dr. Victoria Meadows in her gardenThe Garden of Dr. Victoria Meadows, 2018 Drake Award Recipient

Quanta Magazine recently profiled astrobiologist Victoria Meadows, who received the SETI Institute's 2018 Drake Award in recognition of her contributions to the field of astrobiology. The article opens with a stunning photograph of Dr. Meadows in her lush Seattle backyard:

“Being in nature kind of drops you into a different state of thinking,” said Meadows, who heads NASA’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory and has been awarded the 2018 Drake Award for her contributions to the search for extraterrestrial life."

Meadows has led important work in determining how to detect and interpret “biosignature” gasses on other worlds, and spoke with deep affection about her backyard garden and how it feeds into her love of biochemistry:

She said she’s pleased to have “come full circle,” joining her original loves of astronomy, biochemistry and plants by studying oxygen as a biosignature gas. “I love photosynthesizers,” she said. “I mean, who wouldn’t? We wouldn’t be here without them.”

Dr. Meadows was the first woman to accept the Drake Award, which she received from the SETI Institute in a ceremony on June 14. You can read more about Dr. Meadows’ work and the 2018 Drake Award on our website,

Jill Tarter looking at the skyJill Tarter Answers 10 Questions

Dr. Jill Tarter, co-founder of the SETI Institute, Chair Emeritus for SETI Research at the SETI Institute, and President Emeritus of the California Academy of Sciences Board of Trustees, recently spoke with Kurt Manwaring of From the Desk. They discussed her work as a scientist and SETI pioneer, her passion for encouraging young girls to pursue STEM careers, her experience with pop-culture fame as the inspiration for Jodie Foster’s character in the film “Contact”, and why she still gazes at the stars:

A very dark sky in an isolated place can remind you of what the word ‘awesome’ really means. For me, as I continue to look up I become more and more comfortable with the notion that all life as we know it is intimately connected to those faraway places and long ago times that my eyes are in the process of exploring.

It truly takes a cosmos to make a human.

You can read more about Jill Tarter’s life and work on our website,

Nelly Ben Hayoun sitting in a chair at NASA HQ“Total Bombardment”: The Methodology of Nelly Ben Hayoun

The “Willy Wonka of Design and Science” and the SETI Institute’s Designer of Experiences, Nelly Ben Hayoun, was featured recently on Creative Review. The head of Nelly Ben Hayoun Studios has worked with scientific institutions such as the SETI Institute and NASA to create unique events and experiences. Hayoun credits her tenacity with successfully bringing forth the International Space Orchestra, a group of amateur musicians from NASA and other space agencies that has gone on to collaborate with artists such as Sigur Rós and Beck. Hayoun described overcoming logistical hurdles and resistance with her signature “hammering technique”, or theory of total bombardment:

“For most of us, when someone tells us no we believe that this person doesn’t want to do it, but the reality is that this person really wants to do something with you and they just don’t know how to say yes,” says Hayoun. “The hammering technique is turning every single no into a yes, so that means going back again and again and inventing a new strategy each time, so that the person eventually says yes to coming on board with the project.”

You can read more about Nelly Ben Hayoun’s projects with the SETI Institute on our website,

frank drake writing his equation on a whiteboardThe Fermi Paradox: Are We Alone?

A recently published study appears to paint a pessimistic picture for the odds of finding extraterrestrial life in our universe. The study, by Anders Sandberg, Eric Drexler, and Toby Ord of Oxford, proposed a reexamination of a probabilistic tool used to estimate the number of extraterrestrial civilizations in our universe capable of communication, known as the Drake Equation, on the basis that considerable uncertainties remain in our scientific knowledge of the factors involved. The Drake Equation was developed by Dr. Frank Drake, the “father” of modern SETI research and Chair Emeritus of the SETI Institute’s Board of Trustees, as a way of considering the factors needed for life – and crucially, detectable technology – to develop.

Despite the headlines, the study isn’t claiming that E.T. cannot exist in our universe; rather, current scientific knowledge builds substantial uncertainty into any estimate. The mission of the SETI Institute is to explore, understand and explain the origin and nature of life in the universe and the evolution of intelligence, and as the authors of the study told Universe Today, the research spearheaded by the SETI Institute and others remains essential:

“What we are not showing is that SETI is pointless – quite the opposite!” said Dr. Sandberg. “There is a tremendous level of uncertainty to reduce. The paper shows that astrobiology and SETI can play a big role in reducing the uncertainty about some of the parameters. Even terrestrial biology may give us important information about the probability of life emerging and the conditions leading to intelligence. Finally, one important conclusion we find is that lack of observed intelligence does not strongly make us conclude that intelligence doesn’t last long: the stars are not foretelling our doom!”

This seems to mirror what Dr. Seth Shostak, the SETI Institute’s Senior Astronomer wrote in a 2016 article for Nautilus:

SETI is not a traditional science problem in which a hypothesis can be falsified. We can never prove that the aliens are not out there, only that they are. But our ability to search improves with every technological innovation. I compare the situation to the year 1491. European civilization had been around for 2,500 years, yet the Americas were not on any map. Mesoamerican civilization, for its part, had been around for about as long, but also was ignorant of what lay over the oceans. With a glimpse and a shout from a sailor on the Pinta, everything changed.

Dr. Drake’s tool for sparking conversation and curiosity about the universe will likely continue to draw debate, and the SETI Institute remains committed to furthering the high quality research needed to illuminate the factors of his remarkable equation.

image of an 8 mile diameter crater infilled by the medusae fossae formation on marsAn Alien Crash – or Volcanic Ash?

Is a strange rock formation on Mars the remnants of an alien spacecraft? According to the SETI Institute’s Senior Astronomer, Seth Shostak, “It's a lovely and intriguing idea. It's also unlikely to pan out.”

The strange protuberance on the side of an eight-mile span of soft rock deposit, called the Medusae Fossae, has sparked UFO and conspiracy claims by individuals that pore over images released by NASA looking for signs of extraterrestrial civilization. But, as Dr. Shostak explained in an article for NBC News Mach, a recently published paper in the "Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets" shows that the formation is the result of layers of volcanic debris. Dr. Shostak spoke to SETI Institute research scientist, Ross Beyer, about the “saucer artifact”:

According to Ross Beyer, a research scientist at the SETI Institute, the supposed spacecraft is "just a hill." It's some elevated topography that was swamped billions of years ago by all that volcanic debris, he said, a "lone small hill or knob that existed before the ash blanketed a lot of real estate. This may be the tip of a taller hill that was buried, and there may be other hills in this region that were not as tall and are buried completely, leaving only this one standing above the debris."

While an alien spacecraft certainly would have been an exciting find, the paper finds that the Medusae Fossae Formation is believed to be the largest known deposit of volcanic debris in the Solar System, demonstrating that the red planet continues to provide researchers with surprising discoveries.

An artist's interpretation of a Dyson sphere, made up of satellites that can collect energy from a starA Caged Star

It sounds like science-fiction, but Dan Hooper, a senior scientist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois, suggests in a new paper that intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations would eventually find the need to capture stars as an energy source. Using a theoretical structure called a Dyson sphere, this speculative alien race would construct solar panel satellites surrounding and encompassing a star, and even gravitationally bind it to a civilizations territory to protect it from the expansion of space. Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute, believes those who might find the idea too fanciful are "not thinking big enough", according to

Because of dark energy, the universe is expanding, and this process continues to speed up, the paper noted. And "there's no limit on how fast space can expand," Shostak told

At least with humans, "almost all the energy here on Earth is a result of the sun … with the exception of nuclear energy," Shostak added.

So, as space expands and stars grow farther away from civilizations, those communities would likely need to find a way to capture and store that stellar energy, whether such aliens are the squishy, gray variety we see in movies, or less-human-like machines, Shostak said.

If intelligent aliens are anything like us, "they're going to run out of energy," Shostak said, adding, "I don't think there's anything crazy about that."

Though the paper is speculative, it certainly sparks the imagination.

portrait of Dr. Seth ShostakSeth Shostak Discusses E.T. With Students in New Zealand

SETI Institute Senior Astronomer Seth Shostak was a guest speaker at the 2018 Australasian Astrobiology Conference at Novotel. Described as “the world’s most famous alien hunter”, by the organizing committee director, the Rotorua Daily Post reports that Dr. Shostak gave a talk titled, "Why haven't we found ET?":

"Does that mean that we're the smartest things in this part of the universe, or that they've decided to deliberately keep a low profile? Could there be a universal 'great filter' that prevents the emergence of intelligence? We consider the modern efforts to discover other intelligence in the universe, and what – if anything – our failure might be telling us."

The conference gives postgraduate students an opportunity to learn more about the development of life on earth and beyond and interact with leaders in the field of astrobiology.

Big Picture Science

In last week’s episode, rediscover the creatures that ruled the Earth for nearly 165 million years (and the screen in the blockbuster Jurassic Park series) in Free Range Dinosaurs. Our previous week’s episode examined the role of emotions in human behavior and compassionate computers, in an encore of "Perpetual Emotion Machine".

Facebook Live

On our most recent episode of Facebook Live, SETI Institute CEO Bill Diamond spoke with senior research scientist Matt Tiscareno about this year’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program, a nine-week summer internship that pairs students with SETI Institute research scientists.

Videos of all past Facebook Live events can be found on our Facebook page:

  • In Saturn’s Rings: July 5, Seattle, WA A new film exploring Saturn’s rings is being shown at the Museum of Flight. Nathalie Cabrol, Senior Research Scientist and Director of the Carl Sagan Center is an executive producer of the film.
  • Spacefest IX: July 5-8, Tucson, AZ Seth Shostak will be a featured speaker
  • International Conference on Environmental Systems (ICES): July 8-12, Albuquerque, NM SETI Institute Senior Scientist John Rummel will participate in a panel discussion on July 10
  • A Cosmic Perspective: Searching for Aliens, Finding Ourselves: July 12, University of Austin, TX  Jill Tarter, Chair Emeritus for SETI at the SETI Institute will present
  • 14th Quadrennial Solar-Terrestrial Physics SymposiumJuly 9-13, Toronto, Canada Meng Jin, SETI Institute Research Scientist is one of the invited speakers
  • COSPAR 2018: July 14-22, Pasadena, CA Numerous SETI Institute researchers will be offering talks including Rosalba Bonaccorsi, Michael Busch, Seth Shostak, David Summers, Jeonghee Rho and John Rummel
  • SETI Talks: July 19, Menlo Park, CA VR/AR in Space: The Next Revolution? Timoni West of Unity Labs, Amaresh Kollipara who serves on the SETI Institute Board of Trustees, and SETI Institute scientists Franck Marchis and J.R. Skok will present
  • WorldCon 76: August 16-20, San Jose, CA Franck Marchis to participate in a panel discussion.
  • International Astronomical Union: August 20-31, Vienna, Austria Franck Marchis, SETI Institute Senior Scientist will speak about adaptive optics and the Unistellar eVscope