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Report from SETIcon

by Brian Dunning, Jun 28 2012

Kepler orbiting observatory

Last weekend I had the great fortune to attend SETIcon II, probably the world’s foremost conference on space exploration. I met more astronauts than you can shake a stick at, top aerospace journalists, space entrepreneurs, astrobiologists and exobiologists doing cutting edge stuff, got all the latest news from the Kepler planet-finding satellite, slapped five with Bill Nye and Robert Picardo, and find out straight from the horse’s mouth what’s coming up next from the private sector that’s about to put people into orbit and onto Mars faster than any government space program. It was rocking. The panelists were terrific, and every single one of them had something new to share.

My overall impression of the conference? SETI has a branding problem.

In all the decades that we’ve been listening for E.T. to send us a signal from outer space, how many have we heard? Zero. While there is, in reality, a lot of really neat stuff under the hood, the public’s impression of SETI is pretty dull. I sent numerous tweets and Facebook posts from SETIcon, and nearly all of the replies were humdrum. Despite the amazing stuff I described that I was actually doing at SETIcon, people tended to reply instead to the #seticon hashtag that I used. Replies were things like “Not much new at SETI” or “A big waste of time and money” or “Skeptical of listening for E.T.?”

SpaceX on Mars

This unspeakably awesome conference was hidden under a cloak of “listening for E.T.” In all the sessions I attended, I don’t recall a single mention of the SETI program, although it is still alive and well. The vast, vast majority of the work done by scientists at the SETI Institute is not about listening for E.T. It’s about the latest, newest planetary science. It’s about what we’ll find in the oceans of Europa. It’s about how soon Elon Musk plans to land people on Mars. It’s about the newest discovered planets residing in the habitable zone. It’s wild, wild, stuff; it’s real; it’s here now. And it’s brought to you by THE people who are doing it.

My own podcast Skeptoid suffers from a similar branding problem. People hear “skeptic” and they respond “Oh, you’re the people who think 9/11 was an inside job, and who think global warming is a big hoax.” Not so much; as anyone who listens to Skeptoid knows, the content is incredibly rich and deserves a much larger audience. In the same manner, SETIcon (and perhaps to some degree, the SETI Institute as well) fails to capture the public mindshare that it deserves because it is misperceived as being primarily about listening for E.T. If Skeptoid was called something more blatantly descriptive like “The Urban Legends Show” I’ve no doubt that it would have a larger audience; and if SETIcon had been called something similarly obvious like SPACEcon the hotel probably would have been overrun with space geeks, as it should have been.

When Mike Melville first rode SpaceShipOne into space, I was there with a VIP press pass. I had access to a comfortable lounge, food, drink, and front-row seating for one of the greatest space achievements of our day. I’ll always remember how startlingly spectacular was that airborne drop and launch. The funny thing is that I’d been given two press passes so I could bring a friend. I invited everyone I knew, and nobody would go with me. Nobody knew what it was; nobody cared what it was. Of course, today they all want to kick themselves in the pants. Don’t make the same mistake. Send an email to seticon@seti.org and make sure you’re on the mailing list for the next conference. Don’t miss it.

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24 Responses to “Report from SETIcon”

  1. Max says:

    Do they think there was intelligent life on Mars?

  2. Old Rockin' Dave says:

    “I invited everyone I knew, and nobody would go with me.”
    Next time you get something like that invite someone you DON’T know, namely me. I would have walked all the way from New York and crawled the last mile over busted glass to get to something like that.

  3. David Hewitt says:

    I’ll take the next extra press pass!

  4. Daniel says:

    There were “astrobiologists and exobiologists doing cutting edge stuff”? Were they discussing the scientific plausibility that the creatures from the four Alien films could actually exist? (Let’s not talk about Prometheus. That would be downright silly). Without any test subjects, that seems like the most they have to offer.

    • MadScientist says:

      The astrobiologists I’d known were concerned with things like:

      1. what possible measurements could indicate that there is life on Planet X (for example, the presence of oxygen)

      2. what conditions can support life on other planets (based on observations of life on earth)

      Now ‘exobiology’ – until alien life forms are actually found and studied up close (like Martian Microbes) that’s no better than cryptozoology.

      Hmmm… astrobiology does sound a bit thin though.

  5. RoboSapien says:

    So.. it is the convention that has a branding problem and not SETI itself, is that correct? Everyone should leave their suggestions for better names in these comments, and Brian should collect them all in a week and send it to the commissioners.

    So how would one brand a convention for astro-science enthusiasts without giving the impression of tin foil hats and Giorgio Tsukalos hand gestures?

    • Daniel says:

      Don’t mess with Giorgio. Ancient Aliens is hands down the best show on TV. Did you know Zeus was an alien and that Mt. Olympus is a alien spacecraft landing spot?

  6. tmac57 says:

    I’ve been a SETI member for 2 years now,and I almost went to SETIcon this year.Now I wish that I had.
    For those who don’t know,they do a fun and informative podcast called Big Picture Science weekly,with a ‘skeptic check’ once a month featuring Phil Plait. Check it out.

  7. John K. says:

    As a lay-person, I must admit that my impression of SETI was all about listening for radio waves from extraterrestrials. I personally suspect that alien life quite likely might not be creating radio waves, or might not have anything to say to us even if they did. Chimps are very close to humans as far as DNA goes, and we have very little to say to each other. Life that originally formed on other worlds would only be immensely more different from humans and chimps alike, likely not having DNA as we know it at all. It all seems very human centric to me, the entire idea that life on other worlds would eventually evolve to do human things like communicate speech via radio waves. Having only ourselves as an example of intelligence, it is baseless to assume what other intelligences might be like.

    If this is indeed a very small part of what SETI does, they do have a branding problem. I suggest dropping the “I” that stands for “Intelligence” in favor of something general like life, or emphasizing the search for worlds habitable by humans, or even just regular extra solar system investigation. The way of thinking in my first paragraph paints them like cooks meticulously searching for leprechaun droppings to validate the existence of leprechauns, having found nothing in decades, but holding out hope because there is still a lot of ground to be searched. I am pleased to learn that SETI does much more than what I had thought.

    • Janet Camp says:

      I’m with you. We have no business on Mars or anywhere we didn’t evolve. SETI is nothing but human conceit. I hope to the Big Bang that there is no other life as stupid, selfish, and arrogant as we humans in the universe.

      If silly people want to spend their money enriching already rich entrepreneurs to orbit around the earth in near space, go for it, and I’m all for investigating the universe–with probes and telescopes, but Mr. Denning, with all due respect, sounds like a groupie at a rock concert.

      • Student says:

        Wait, what? Sorry, but Mars is a barren, apparently lifeless wasteland. Most planets tend not to be overburdened with life, they don’t have any at all. So why shouldn’t we go there? The human population is expanding, surely we’ll need the space one day? And why shouldn’t we explore, spread out? And how is it that attempting to understand our universe is an arrogant pursuit, yet attempts to understand other things, presumably, are not? Is Nuclear Physics arrogant? Is Medicine arrogant? Why is trying to learn more arrogance?

        And how is it that SETI is entirely conceit, and stupid and arrogant? I mean, there’s not even the beginning of a reason to say that.

        If Dunning sounds like a groupie at a rock concert, you sound like the kid who was caught out with the fake ID and wasn’t let in. “With all due respect”.

      • double-helical says:

        Dear Student,
        Thanks for saying what I would have said. I would like to add this: Even though the odds of finding any life at all are vanishingly small, what’s wrong with looking? As for “surely we’ll need the space some day”? You are more right than most people may realize. Tsiolkovsky said, “Earth is the cradle of mankind, but one does not live in the cradle forever.” Fictional DD Harriman said, “It’s raining soup; grab yourself a bucket!” http://academicvc.com/about-stephen-fleming/other/go-get-an-asteroid/
        The point is, a huge number of Earthbound problems can be addressed by a huge human presence in space. For example, asteroid mining can be profitable — and it can also save us from the next dinosaur-killer. Check out G. Harry Stine’s venerable but still applicable book, “The Third Industrial Revolution.”

    • Peter Groves says:

      “Chimps are very close to humans as far as DNA goes, and we have very little to say to each other.” How do you know, given that it’s impossible to hold a conversation with a chimpanzee? Don’t you think it might be interesting if we could?

  8. Max says:

    “In all the sessions I attended, I don’t recall a single mention of the SETI program, although it is still alive and well.”

    I’m confused. The SETI program is the one that’s listening for E.T.?

  9. d brown says:

    As one atomic scientist said maybe there is no one out there because once anybody can kill everyone, somebody does.

  10. MadScientist says:

    “…about to put people into orbit and onto Mars faster than any government space program.”

    According to Foghorn Leghorn, “Two nuthin’s is nuthin’”; Foghorn’s corollary is that half of never is still never. I can’t imagine a business case developing for manned missions to Mars. Maybe some people will go on a suicide mission to be the first there, but Mars will remain as inaccessible as ever and someone has to shuck out the money to send the crazy schmucks there. Maybe an aged Richard Branson or Elon Musk would fork over the cash to get there? Getting there is the easy part, getting there alive is harder, returning alive even tougher, and safely landing and returning is an incredible feat. In the meantime the folks who want to get it done need to earn a living. Let’s see if SpaceX and others can make a decent profit without charging like ULA or ESA. I have numerous reasons to be skeptical although getting to Mars and back is not technically impossible.

    • tmac57 says:

      Just landing them safely on the surface would be a daunting task,let alone getting them there through the extremely hostile space environment.Returning them is probably a much more monumental challenge.

  11. Karolus says:

    So, Brian, I guess for the next one you’ll need like a few thousand extra passes to accommodate all of us ;-) ?

  12. application iphone says:

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  13. Timmeh says:

    I guess they should stick with the name SETI because it’s already fairly well-known, but actually the mission is slightly broader: SETL.

    Any extra-terrestrial life, intelligent or not, would be an amazing discovery and arguably the biggest science news story ever.

    • Max says:

      SETI is the ultimate goal. The other things are baby steps: planets, Earth-like planets, water, carbon, life, complex life, intelligent life.
      Listening for alien radio signals skips the steps to intelligent life.

  14. double-helical says:

    Thanks, Mr. Dunning, for the great blog. I love Skeptoid, also, and I’m one of your paypal micro-contributors.

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