Is there Intelligent Life in Washington?: Congress holds hearings on ‘Life in the Universe’

By Keith Cowing
July 17, 2001
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Last week the House Science Committee’s Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics held hearings titled “Life in the Universe.” According to the charter for this hearing, the topics to be discussed were “NASA’s space science and astrobiology programs as well as a leading private, non-profit endeavor, the SETI Institute’s Phoenix Program. The hearing will provide Committee members with the opportunity to review ongoing efforts to search for life elsewhere in the universe.”

The panel for this hearing was comprised of three eloquent scientists and one NASA bureaucrat. The topics discussed ranged from the definition of intelligent life (and whether there is any in Washington DC); the odds of finding extraterrestrial life (of any kind) in the universe; the extremes to which life seems to be able to adapt and what this suggests for extraterrestrial abodes; and lastly whether UFOs are indeed piloted by intelligent visitors from another world.

In other words the hearing covered “life, the universe, and everything.” Not your typical Congressional hearing.

Opening Committee Remarks

Subcommittee chairman Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) opened the hearings by reading from a prepared statement:

“I have always enjoyed Hollywood movies like “War of the Worlds”, “Independence day”, and “The Day the Earth Stood Still”. Unfortunately, the popularity of such movies changed our expectations regarding the search for extraterrestrial life in the universe.”

“I don’t know if little green men exist. I do know that the science community is attempting to determine the existence of basic life on planets neighboring Earth, as well as planets beyond our solar system. With the help of scientific methods, we are just now beginning to answer a question that has existed since the dawn of humankind: are we alone? Today’s hearing will review real efforts concerning the search for life elsewhere in the universe. I want to thank the distinguished member from Texas, Lamar Smith, for suggesting that the Subcommittee review this topic.”

“Unlike Hollywood movies, Viking and Mars Pathfinder space probes allowed us to actually view the real Martian landscape, consider the possibility of water for supporting basic life forms on Mars, and search for intelligent life across the universe. Indeed, Earth itself has provided us with valuable insight as to the possible nature of extraterrestrial life. Today we look to our panel of experts to explain how science will help us sort fact from fiction.”

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) then spoke. Echoing Rohrabacher’s comments about the influence of science fiction movies on the public’s perception of alien life he said “every summer it seems we have a blockbuster movie about this topic.” He went on to suggest that “were we to discover life elsewhere in the universe it would be one of the most profound discoveries ever made.”

Lamar then quoted the beginning of T.S. Elliot’s “Four Quartets”:

“We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all out exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.”

Smith added that author Timothy Ferris has said that the fourth line of this poem is “cosmology’s credo.”

Smith said “We should search the sky for evidence fog intelligent life. Not listening relinquishes hope that life exists elsewhere in the universe. We need to search for life elsewhere – this is a centuries old quest. He went on to praise the square kilometer array as well as the Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF) and the Next Generation Space Telescope (NGST) saying that “these tools give us the power to move forward in asking the centuries old question “are we alone.”

Ranking Minority member Bart Gordon (D-TN) spoke briefly echoing previous statements that asking “Whether or not there is life beyond Earth is a fundamental question facing humanity.” He posed a general question for the witnesses ” What are the assumptions underlying your research and why are they valid?”

Rep. Nick Lampson (D-TX) added his voice noting that the recent launch of the MAP mission “will explore the distant past of the universe allowing us to learn things that will make a difference both in our own lives and also as to who we are as human beings.

Witness Statements

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Director of the Rose Center’s Hayden Planetarium, was the first witness to speak. He began by reading from a prepared statement saying that “the search for life in the universe is a fundamentally different exercise than the search for other fundamental truths. While people still use the same tools, the difference is cultural – the public reacts to this in a different way. ” He noted that his experience at the Hayden Planetarium is an example of how popular this is with the public. “Is there life” is a question that is almost always asked of me by reporters. Regardless of why the interview was requested the questions seem to lead to this. That is an important statement – it happens not just in the media but also in everyday life.”

Noting the obvious role that entertainment industry has played in shaping our collective concept of life elsewhere Tyson said “Hollywood has run away with this concept. People have wondered about these things since the beginning of history.” Noting that perception and reality are often at odds he asked “is the public investment (funding) proportional to the public interest? No.

Citing the recent series of discoveries that have fueled the public’s imagination Tyson said “We are living in a time when we have evidence of recent liquid water on Mars, and oceans under Europa. Life as we know it requires liquid water and here we have these examples in our own backyard.” Moreover, Tyson added “the chemistry of life on Earth is one that uses the most common elements in the universe. The public cares deeply about this – they always have. For the first time we have a chance to address this issue. Unlike the 16th century scientist Giordono Bruno who asked if there were other planets – and met his death by being burnt at the stake we live in more tolerant times. We owe this to our species.”

Dr. Jack Farmer, an astrobiologist at the Arizona State University’s Astrobiology Institute, spoke next. In reading from a prepared statement, he began with a short description of the emerging discipline supported by NASA of “Astrobiology”. According to Farmer, astrobiology “is defined as the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and destiny of life in the universe.” He noted that “interest in astrobiology is growing and is having an impact on the way in which we look for life in the universe. Some of the more important advances in astrobiology have occurred in the field of Biology and understanding what constitutes our biosphere here on Earth. We are also using genetics to examine species and the relationships between them. ”

Placing these recent discoveries into context Farmer said “we live on a microbial planet. The higher forms of life are really an afterthought in biosphere development.” The relevance to astrobiology is that “microbial processes have an impact on how we view live on our planet – and perhaps how life works elsewhere.” The diversity in form and function that microbes have attained on Earth is staggering – with wilder examples being found on a regular basis. “Microbes have found a wide array ways to make a living.” Farmer said. “They have expanded to fill every environment imaginable. There are really no barriers – not even the pH scale. Life has been found in the most acidic and alkaline conditions – as well as at the highest temperatures wherein organic molecules can hold together. They have also been found at very cold temperatures as well. ”

“Life has expanded to fill any niche where liquid water and source of energy and nutrients are available. This has implications for how we search for life. The range of environments wherein we can look has thus expanded greatly. These are very exciting times. Water has been found on other planets – this has opened up a new way of viewing exploration. Indeed NASA has adopted the motto “follow the water” as its theme for current Mars exploration.”

Dr. Edward Weiler, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Space Science, was next. Reading from a prepared statement, he opened his summary by posing the questions “we can prove that there is life here on Earth. Did this happen anywhere else? Are there other planets and solar systems where life can develop? The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has started to show that the processes of producing solar systems are common.” Moreover, many large extrasolar planets have been found. “Large planets have been found first – this is explained by the fact that they are the easiest to find.” Weiler went on to say that he is certain that smaller planets will be discovered as new and more powerful telescopes are brought into service in the coming years.

Weiler showed a picture of the “Hubble Deep Field” exposure – an image taken by pointing the telescope at an apparently empty portion of the sky. (Rep. Smith later noted that he had this picture hanging on the wall in his office). “To everyone’s surprise it was found to be teeming with galaxies” said Weiler. According to Weiler, in order to depict the entire universe at the same scale as the Deep Field image (which has millions of galaxies) 200 million photos like this would be required. Moreover, these images would depict a universe which is thought to have 1022 stars.

Weiler described the Space Interferometry Mission (SIM) which will take the first SIM – ” census of nearby solar systems and will detect planets down as small as a few Earth masses.” He added that the “cornerstone of NASA’s Origins Program is the Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF) whose sole purpose is to image Earth-like planets and look for evidence of biology. ”

Weiler showed spectra taken of Venus, Earth, and Mars. The spikes due to oxygen, water and other unique features of Earth’s atmosphere were apparent. Weiler said “If we find a spectra similar to Earth’s there is a very good chance that there is biology on that planet because it takes life to get atmosphere this way. We may also look for the effects of industry – lights at night, air pollution, etc.:

In closing, Weiler said “this century will be the time when we can answer the question ‘are we alone in the universe?’. Life is not a quirk – but a cosmic imperative.”

Editor’s note: During the course of this hearing the word “astrobiology ” was used multiple times by the other three witnesses – as well as members of the committee. Yet, with the exception of the several mentions of the word “astrobiology” in his prepared statement, Dr. Weiler did not use the word in his spoken comments or answers to questions. Moreover, he made no spoken mention whatsoever of NASA’s astrobiology programs, its Astrobiology Institute (one whose members Jack Farmer was representing) or of the fact that the Astrobiology Institute is headed by a distinguished Nobel Laureate Baruch Blumberg. It is quite an honor – and a rarity for government-sponsored research to have someone with Blumberg’s stature on the job 5 days a week.

Instead of mentioning NASA’s Astrobiology programs, Weiler (an astronomer) chose to focus on NASA’s upcoming telescopes and their ability to search for extrasolar planets. To be sure, detecting the signatures of possible distant biospheres is part of Astrobiology – but there is so much more than that. Alas, Weiler made no mention of the broad range of investigations underway that look at the specific question of life in the universe. It is rather odd that the person sent to speak formally on NASA’s behalf at a hearing titled “Life in the Universe” would make such a blatant omission such as neglecting to mention NASA’s Astrobiology programs.

The last witness to present opening remarks was Dr. Chris Chyba from the SETI Institute (SETI – the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). In reading from a prepared statement, Chyba began by noting that “the last decade has seen an extraordinary rebirth in our search for life: organic compounds have been found in space, the presence of a deep biosphere has been found on Earth; extrasolar planets have been confirmed; the Mars Global Surveyor has provided evidence of the recent action of water near the surface of Mars; and evidence has been presented for an ocean below Europa’s crust with the potential of containing twice the water found in Earth’s oceans”.

Chyba then gave a quick overview of the SETI Institute itself. The SETI Institute is a private institution with 120 employees. The mission of the SETI Institute is to use science to investigate the nature of life in the universe. There are two main parts of the Institute. One, the Center for the Study of Life in the Universe. (which Chyba directs) performs a broad range astrobiology research. Chyba said that this is important since SETI research needs to be set in an astrobiology context.

The other main activity of the SETI Institute is Project Phoenix, a privately funded search for artificial signals from extraterrestrial sources. Project Phoenix picked up this search in 1994 when congress terminated NASA’s program (hence the name “Phoenix”). The large radio telescope dish at Arecibo has been used to search nearby stars for signals. This is being done at a cost $4-5 million a year – all privately funded. Project Phoenix seeks to study 1,000 nearby sun-like stars by monitoring 28 million channels at a time.

Project Phoenix has looked at approximately half of its target stars since 1995. Since Project Phoenix has to share radio telescopes with other users, this search is limited to around 500 hours per year. The SETI Institute is now moving to move the search into a new realm embodied by the new Allen Telescope Array. Pursued in partnership with the University of California Berkeley, this telescope (now under construction) will be an antenna farm composed of 350 low-cost antennas 18 feet in diameter which will be networked together so as to function as a large radio telescope.

The unique design of this telescope is pushing the boundaries of radio telescope design by allowing more than one observing project to be carried out simultaneously. The Allen Telescope will look at the nearest million stars over the coming decades at a cost of $30 million. This cost represents only 20% of what it would cost to construct a conventional radio telescope with the same surface area and capabilities. The cost for the bulk of this project came from generous donations from individuals associated with Microsoft – Paul Allen (co-founder of Microsoft) and Nathan Myhrvold (former Chief Technology Officer for Microsoft).

Despite the progress in enhancing SETI listening projects, Chyba put the true scale of things into context by showing one arm of a spiral galaxy and a small sphere – that sphere represented the area within which current and proposed search programs would cover. The sphere represents 1/1000 th of one percent of the stars in our galaxy. The message being that there is still a vast amount of real-estate left in our galaxy to cover – to say nothing of the rest of the universe. “This is how little of our galaxy we have observed thus far. We have hardly begun to look.” Chyba said.

In closing, Chyba address the stigma which often accompanies a discussion of the scientific credibility of SETI research. Much of the credibility issue surrounds the fact that the U.S. Congress cancelled funding for NASA’s SETI program in FY 1994 – and the stigma that goes with something that has been cancelled – whatever the reason. Chyba said that “SETI science is at the cutting edge of radio astronomy. Termination of SETI funding in FY 1994 leaves a misimpression that this is an area of science that should not be funded. This perception can take on a life of its own.”

Chyba also noted that “SETI fits within the heart of NASA’s Astrobiology Roadmap map. As NASA’s Astrobiology program moves forward I would like it to integrate SETI into that program. I am not asking for the earmarking of any money. The SETI institute can compete for funds on its won. I am just asking for the chance to compete for funds for SETI as we do in other areas.”

Questions from the Committee

Rep. Smith asked Weiler if the fact that funding in FY 2002 for the NGST is $20 million short of the President’s request will adversely impact the project. Weiler replied that funding is increasing such that an RFP can be issued for hardware with a launch in the 2008-2010 time frame. He said that funds will be shifted from a focus on Hubble Space Telescope operations to NGST such that the HST can be decommissioned in 2010. This $20 million budget decrease will cause a slip of 6 months or so in that transition process.

Smith then asked Chris Chyba if it is true that SETI’s goal has matured “exponentially” over the past 10 years. In asking the question, Smith noted that people had a hard time trying to understand what SETI was about in the past but that it has since become a more credible activity – at least as viewed by the American people. Smith said that he thinks that people realize that SETI’s ultimate goal is one that is “achievable – and practical” – one that “seizes their imagination”.

Chyba replied that understanding the prospects of finding intelligent civilizations in the galaxy “hinges upon an understanding of the prospects of life elsewhere. We know that life arose early on Earth therefore it may arise elsewhere easily once the conditions are present.” The question follows that if life’s origin is easy – would intelligence arise also? – and will it (the intelligent species) utilize technology that allows it to be detected? “We do not know if intelligence is rare or common” said Chyba.” If you do not search you are making a decision not to find out. You won’t know if you don’t search.”

In describing the tools to be used to enhance the search for artificial signals (of intelligent origin) Chyba said “SETI researchers are actually driving the development of the next generation of radio telescopes. The Allen Array is the most impressive example. The telescope is expected to come online in 2005 – on time and at budget.”

Chyba said “The technology is now matching our aspirations. We have a working group which serves to ask what we should be doing. The Allen telescope was the first thing on their list. The next thing we should be doing is an omnidirectional search of the entire sky – and to do so all the time.”

Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN) had two questions for the panel. The first had to do with the difference between life (in a generic sense) and intelligent life.

Ed Weiler said he was “not sure how to answer.” Neil Tyson said simply that “we define ourselves as being intelligent and not others” sort of in the fashion in which humans once held the view of geocentrism – that the Earth was the center of the universe. Jack Farmer said “the question of intelligence is hard to handle.” He then took a stab at a definition by suggesting that an intelligent species is one ” that is able to modify its environment and to have control over its destiny.”

Gordon sought to clarify his question a bit by saying “there seems to be an enormous difference between discovering “life” and “intelligent life.” Chris Chyba commented that it was important to note that by 30 million years ago – well before human like creatures appeared on Earth – several species of dolphins already had brains larger than those found in contemporary primates.

Gordon then moved to his next question asking the panelists to give their “own gut feeling of the odds that there is extraterrestrial life – and intelligent extraterrestrial life.”

Tyson replied that there is a “near certainty” (I his mind) that there is life elsewhere. He cautioned that he remains “more skeptical about intelligent life.” Jack Farmer agreed and added that he thought that “technical intelligence is rare.” Farmer then cautioned that it is “hard to give odds. There are estimates all over the map. I think there are possibly hundred of civilizations.

Gordon interrupted and said “I am asking for a specific percentage.”

Ed Weiler cautioned “never underestimate the ability of humans to make themselves special.” He went on to say that he felt the odds of life in our solar system are “50/50.” As for the prospects of intelligent life in the universe, Weiler said “I think there must be intelligent life elsewhere. There are far too many stars for there not to be.” Chris Chyba replied by saying that he is “almost certain that life exists elsewhere. We just don’t know about intelligent life. The only way to know is to search.” When asked by Gordon to provide a percentage likelihood for intelligent life, Chyba replied “Mr. Gordon, I just don’t know.”

Editor’s note: Rep. Gordon repeatedly interrupted each witness several times as each of them spoke – each time trying to pry specific numerical odds for and against finding extraterrestrial life – and intelligent extraterrestrial life from them. Gordon pestered each witness for some numbers well after if became clear to the audience that none of the witnesses had specific numbers to provide.

Rep. Dave Weldon (R-FL) (an M.D.) then asked if was to be assumed that the presence of liquid water is required for life. Jack Farmer replied “water is a fundamental requirement for all life. Weldon moved on to the funding source for current SETI efforts. Chris Chyba replied that the SETI Institute receives private funds. “In the Life in the Universe portion of the SETI Institute we compete for grants. Half of my current budget is NASA funds – the other half is private funds.”

Weldon then asked if there was anything that others could learn from the SETI Institute’s fundraising techniques. Chyba replied “Yes. Our donors tend to have a technical background and understand the science.” He also said that the SETI institute relies heavily upon outside panels of experts to guide their various activities.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) opened by noting that she was not a member of Congress when NASA’s SETI program was de-funded. In reading back to the comments made during the discussions at that time she said that is was “disappointing”. She continued “I would not have voted to de-fund it. It occurs to me that the lack of federal funding has actually benefited SETI. Things that have been done that are very cool. I have visited NASA ARC and U.C. Berkeley. The Allen Array is a new and innovative away to proceed.” She noted with some pride that she has the SETI@home screen saver on her computers in both her Washington and California offices as well as those in her home. Rep. Smith later added that he too had the screen saver on his computers and that the 3 millionth participant in that program had recently been signed up.

Lofgren then said to Chris Chyba “now might be a good time to partner in productive ways – yet there has been a lack of interest on the part of the NSF. Can you address that? Chyba replied “I would say that it is true that a misimpression arose about SETI. Up until a year ago there was a specific prohibition by NSF that it would not entertain SETI proposal. NSF Director Rita Colwell has now removed that prohibition. My hope is that there would not be a similar perception (and prohibition) in other agencies.”

Lofgren replied “one of the values [of this hearing] is for the committee to make it known to federal agencies that a bias against this type of research is not something we approve of.” She hastened to add “nor are we earmarking funds for it.” She said “I don’t think that any member of this committee would want to show a bias against good science.”

Lofgren returned to the topic of the SETI@home screen saver. She asked “what if I am the lucky one? If that happens how will you deal with that? How will you notify the world? Chyba replied SETI@home is operated by U.C. Berkeley. We [The SETI Institute] underwrote Project Serendip. We are no longer involved with SETI@home. As for how potential candidates for extraterrestrial signals are identified Chyba said “we have a set of requirements that any signal has to satisfy. As an example, we know that narrow bandwidth signals are not seen in nature (at least not yet).” As for the protocol that would be followed incase a signal was detected Chyba said “we would make an announcement of the phenomenon. However , we would make this after the signal has been highly verified. I suspect that the public would hear quickly.”

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) then popped into the hearing room long enough to say “there is a lot of importance in understanding life in various environments. I am not a proponent of earmarking for this at this point. It is important that the applications teach us things here on Earth. When I speak of the ISS and the Space Shuttle I talk about HIV/AIDS, diabetes. When we sent John Glenn into space it was done on the question of aging.”

Chris Chyba replied “I agree with your comments on earmarking. But I think that the benefits are both concrete and less concrete. The more we understand about the universe, the better. This research can inspire young people and students. NSF grants to the SETI institute currently fund programs to teach young people about physics, biology, and chemistry in an integrated way so as to make everything more compelling.” As for practical applications Chyba said “The Allen Telescope will have spin-offs – one example – we will be synthesizing images – medical imagery – cancer research imaging.”

Rep. Rohrabacher then brought up an issue many people associate with the topic of life in the universe: UFOs. “Are there some intelligent life forms visiting this planet?” In asking this question (one he admitted that no one else would ask – so he would) Rohrabacher cited a story presented to him by two police officers back when he was a newspaper reporter in Orange County. Rohrabacher described this eyewitness report as being very credible.

Neil Tyson replied “among all the forms of evidence you can bring forth eyewitness testimony is the least reliable. “Just saying ‘I saw it’ is not enough. I spend my life working in a museum where artifacts matter.”

Rohrabacher replied: “I have seen pictures. Have you seen any evidence?” Tyson replied “I visited the UFO museum in Roswell. It is filled with newspaper accounts of people’s eyewitness reports. This falls short of being proof and is not compelling evidence to me.”

Jack Farmer then joked “with regard to human abduction, I would like to sign up and go!” Otherwise, with regard to the existence of UFOs Farmer said “I have seen no compelling evidence.” Ed Weiler then said “I used to be a ground-based astronomer. In looking at the sky I was always been able to identify moving objects. I am certain that there is alien life out here. But the physics that I understand suggest that it would take hundred or thousands of years to make trip to the nearest star. The idea of someone visiting us frequently is hard to contemplate.”

Chris Chyba then said “In the film “The Day the Earth Stood Still” the aliens did the obvious thing – they landed in Washington DC. Why do the buzz all of these remote places?” He then went on to say that we need to have an open mind coupled with skepticism. In response, Rohrabacher joked about the fictitious landing in Washington saying “yea, so they could see all of the interesting people here!”

Rohrabacher then said “this chairman does not dismiss all of these [UFO] reports. These cops saw something. I know that there are ‘black programs’. I worked in the White House. There were things going on in the next office that I did not know were going on.” He then reiterated the need for people to keep an open mind. Tyson replied jokingly “your mind should not be so open that your brains fall out…”

Editor’s note: Rohrabacher’s office in the White House was next door to Col. Oliver North’s (Iran-Contra) office – hence his comment about “not knowing what is going on in the next office”. From Rohrabacher’s comments – and discussions with people who know him – I do not get the sense that he was suggesting that the White House is hiding anything about UFOs. Rather, he is not as willing as the scientists on the panel (and others) to dismiss the possibility that there is more to the UFO question than perhaps we’re all aware of.

Related links

  • 12 July 2001: “Life in the Universe”, Hearings before the House Science Committee’s Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics

    • Opening Statement of Chairman Dana Rohrabacher Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics
    • Hearing Charter
    • [Statement] Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Hayden Planetarium
    • [Statement] Dr. Ed Weiler, NASA
    • [Statement] Dr. Jack Farmer, Arizona State University, NASA Astrobiology Institute
    • [Statement] Dr. Chris Chyba Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute

  • SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.