The Luncheon Society/ Jill Tarter and SETI Research/SF-Fior d’Italia February 21, 2013/LA-Napa Valley Grille December 17, 2013

Jill TarterJill Tarter only needs to be right once.  In a universe where there are more stars in the sky than grains of sand on our beaches, is does intelligent life exists out there?

As a longtime member of The Luncheon Society, we were pleased that she was able to join us in both San Francisco and Los Angeles for an update on SETI as well as the latest findings from the Kepler spacecraft.

As the retiring Director of SETI Research at the SETI Institute and the winner of the 2009 TED Award, Jill believes that time is on her side.  We concur.

Jill served as the model for Jodie Foster in the Robert Zemeckis movie Contact , a fictional account of what might happen should an alien message find its way to our home planet, based on a novel  written by Carol Sagan. Much is to be discovered.

It is a good bet that microbial life will be found within the moons orbiting the gaseous outer planets of Saturn and Jupiter.  As you read this, there is a hunt for microbial life or existence of past life on Mars, especially since unmistakable signs of ancient rivers and lakes have been discovered.

Kepler’s planet hunting probe studied a section of sky no larger than your extended fist and found 134 confirmed exoplanets in 76 stellar systems, with another 3,200 potential planets that are awaiting further study.  With that in mind, NASA has concluded that there might be as many as 40 million earth-sized planets, with roughly a quarter of them orbiting around star not unlike our sun.  Astronomers have identified 1,055 exoplanets, and more are on the way.

It all boils down to what is called “scientific listening.” Kepler is NASA’s first step in exoplanet hunting in search of other earthlike planets and catalogued a whole series of candidates within a small stretch of space.  It would take an estimated 400-500 Kepler spacecraft to map out the entire night sky.  Even though Kepler has experienced a mechanical breakdown, the mission is in the process of being potentially repurposed to study the cosmos for further study.

To see Jill’s deck, please link to her presentation.

ContactIn a world where Hollywood has shaped our perceptions on this subject, SETI takes a scientific approach to otherworldly intelligence.  By partnering with NASA on missions like Kepler, SETI sticks to the science while others meander on to fiction.

According to Jill Tarter, In order for a modern “Contact” to emerge and take place, somebody will have to reach to us, perhaps not directly, but hail a message into our general direction. While there have been several heart stopping false-positives over the years, the scientific community has done a wonderful job focusing on those exoplanets that have the characteristics of what might be found within earth’s twin.  By standing on the shoulders of past efforts in this field, astronomers can look with sharper eyes through radio telescopes.

There have been several heart-stopping “false-positives” that have taken place over the years.  However, upon further study, they turned out to be garble from satellites or nearby airplanes. With the Allen Telescope Array , a privately funded group of telescopes focused solely for SETI research, astronomers can continue their study without being marginalized by other scientific pursuits.

When we talk about “intelligent life out there,” it will exist at great distances from Earth. Distances of hundreds of light years might separate intelligent civilizations, and according to Tarter, any chatter might amount to one conversation per lifetime.  As for all of the urban legends surrounding UFOs and their ilk, there is no proof any of it.  For Jill Tarter, that chatter only makes the work at SETI that much more difficult.

In order to find the “hit” that confirms intelligent life “out there,” these societies will have to reach a state that humans have only experienced in the past 80 years—the ability to communicate outward beyond the planet. Until the first wireless crystal sets were tuned to the first radio stations in the 1920’s, earth remained mute and silent to those who might have caught our attention. This means that from the time when the first multi-celled creatures emerged from the primordial soup until the first radio signals were sent from Point A to Point B, we operated under the cover of darkness.   How many other civilizations are quietly churning along, not unlike life on Earth during our Renaissance, Enlightenment, or further back during the days of Ancient Rome and Greece?

Also will these civilizations survive their own technological challenges?  Will they blow themselves up or survive their own nuclear adolescence. For most of the second half of the last century, it was the question that hovered over our own planet. However, nothing is guaranteed.  Our messages outward might consist of a mishmash of radio and television traffic that moves at the speed of light but after a final burst then forever followed by total silence.   By then we might already be a dead society, either having blown ourselves up or having succumbed to a long, slow decline of overpopulation and over-consumption, like the once-proud residents of Easter Island, empty and barren.

As we look to the night skies, we must wonder if intelligent life is far more plentiful than we think.  When we look back at earth in the now famous Voyager Family took the famous photo of our own solar system, we seem so insignificant—even within our own solar system.  As we look back at the pale blue dot, it represents the sum total of everything we know and everything we are.


As more exoplanets are discovered and as the focus zeroes in on those rocky planets within the habitable zone, we get closer to “Contact.” Even from our own home planet, we can detect a glimmer of methane in these far away exoplanets and that alone might present the prima facie case for life.

As time passes on, the odds will only improve in Jill Tarter’s favor.  Her colleague, Seth Shostak, boldly predicts that we will hit pay dirt within the next two decades. Such moments have been dramatized by Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemiecks and others.

Technology is better and exploration methods are getting smarter. Our ability to hunt for exoplanets since the first was discovered in 1992 has improved immensely.  When that happens, life will change dramatically.

luncheon-logo-fcThe Luncheon Society ™ is a series of private luncheons and dinners that take place in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Manhattan, and Boston. We essentially split the costs of gathering and we meet in groups of 20-25 people. Discussions center on politics, art, science, film, culture, and whatever else is on our mind. Think of us as “Adult Drop in Daycare.” We’ve been around since 1997 and we’re purposely understated. These gatherings takes place around a large table, where you interact with the main guest and conversation becomes end result. There are no rules, very little structure, and the gatherings happen when they happen. Join us when you can.

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