05/01/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Extraterrestrial Intelligence?

America has a fascination for extraterrestrials (ET). ET, the 1982 movie, was the most financially successful film of all time released to that point. Thirty-two years ago -- can you believe it was that long -- Steven Speilberg wrote and directed Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Monsters vs. Aliens, Knowing and The Race to Witch Mountain were #1 at the box office the past three weeks. These flicks have entertainment value, but what is the reality of extraterrestrial intelligence (ET) and flying saucers?

First how do Americans feel? Remember, 90% of us believe there is a God and the majority does not think it is responsible for global warming. There is a plethora of polls, but, in general, 60% feel there is ET life somewhere in the universe.

Are there UFOs? Absolutely, for any flying object that cannot be identified is by definition a UFO. However, what about flying saucers piloted by some extraterrestrial? Anywhere from one third to one half of Americans think they are real. In comparison, one half to three fourths believe in angels, yes, the kind with feathered wings. Religion is dominant in the USA.

Most scientists don't want to even be associated with UFOs because the odds are far too low to warrant their attention, not to mention the potential of sullying their credibility. Consider this: light, which in one second can travel around our globe 7.5 times, takes 100,000 years just to get from one end of our little ole Milky Way galaxy to the other. Us, Homo sapiens, only appeared 100,000 years ago. Then, if you want to get to Andromeda, our closest galaxy (the latest guess is there are 500 billion galaxies up there), a spaceship traveling at the speed of light would take 2.2 million years. Plus, what form of energy will enable a craft to travel such distances? Sure, you read about wormholes and stuff like that, but, for now, it is best to be rational and consider becoming a nonbeliever of flying saucers.

In Chapter 4 of Simple Solutions for Humanity, I relate my experiences in this field, starting with Project Cyclops, and also Orion, a short stint I had at NASA's Ames Research Center. The question then was, are we the only planet in the universe? I interacted then with Barney Oliver, Jack Billingham and Carl Sagan, and actually proposed a project to detect earth-sized planets. The concept rested on the principle that for life to occur, there needs to be an atmosphere, and starlight (sunlight) causes population inversion (a condition which induces lasing), meaning that spikes of monochromatic light can be detected, both proving that a planet exists and providing the gas composition. I took cues from Charles Townes, who had just moved from MIT to Cal-Berkeley and wrote on this subject in Science. NASA tossed my proposal aside and remarked that the Hubble Telescope would soon fly and will then accomplish this task. Well, earth-sized extrasolar planets are beyond the capability of Hubble.

So, a little more than two years ago, the European Union launched CoRoT to find extrasolar planets similar in size to ours. The principle had to do with these planets transiting (moving across the star) and measuring any diminution of light. On March 6, NASA placed into space Kepler, at a cost of nearly $600 million, to do almost exactly the same thing.

The key question I ask is, why do we need both? Secondly, as the atmospheric composition will not be determined through this copycat photometric technique, so the potential of life as we know it cannot be determined, for so much money, couldn't we have somehow adjusted the mission to provide more useful answers?

Okay, anyway, now we know that there are more than 300 planets out there somewhere. Currently, most "seen" (we have not actually seen them, we have mostly measured wobbles in stars, surmising that the movement must have been caused by a planet or more) have been Jupiter-sized or larger, but just the fact that there are other solar systems answers the original question: yes, there are a lot of planets around other stars.

Now that we have proven that there are probably billions of planets out there, with odds that some of them could, perhaps, have intelligent life billions of years more advanced than ours (the Universe is slightly less than 14 billion years old and our solar system has been around for less than 4.5 billion years), let us get on to detect possible signals, as Jodie Foster did in Contact. Yes, I know that was a movie, but this is an life posting, not a scientific publication.

Oh,by the way, did you know that historically, NASA was prohibited from doing SETI research? Yes, there is a privately funded SETI Institute (the Paul Allen Telescope Array is one of their projects), but Congress did not allow the federal government to directly spend money on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. That is, until 2003, when congressional attitudes somewhat shifted, and NASA actually began to provide a few bucks to this activity, but only a very few.

In this time of economic turmoil, can funds be justified for SETI? If we can spend $600 million for Kepler when Europe already was doing that, will expend $8 billion for our next nuclear aircraft carrier (which is by any current war standards already obsolete), and provided $150 billion of bailout money to AIG, sure, a justifiable amount would be worth the investment, for, perhaps, streaming in from space could be the answer to world peace, cure for cancer, solution for global warming and resolution to our global financial crisis.

Our civilization will survive recession, Peak Oil and Global Warming, as we did the Cold War. Can our next few billion years, though, be more progressive and successful than our past 100,000 years? Through SETI, I suggest that it would be well justified to seek the wisdom of far more advanced societies from our common universe. The worst case result would be no signal, but a lot of useful science, at a cost far less than the AIG bailout.