Wednesday, April 21, 2010

UFO studies and a TED talk on SETI

The Guardian had this headline recently: UFO studies should be 'legitimate university subject', claims American professor. Well, first of all, Hellllo!! I have been teaching Aliens: Close Encounters of a Multidisciplinary Kind at Hampshire for the past couple of years (pdf syllabus here). We look at the history of UFO and alien abduction claims, look at psychology of human perception and the fickle nature of our memories, scientific search for life in the universe, and the social and cultural context of UFO-based religions. And I think all of these are still in the broad umbrella of "legitimate". But no love from the Guardian. Oh - wait. But this American Professor that the Guardian found is an anthropologist who seems to think that UFOs might be, or are, actual spaceships from other planets. Hmm...the evidence regarding that is a wee bit thin. On the contrary, evidence for the belief in UFOs is quite real, and that can be the source for a "legitimate" university subject. But to make it into the Guardian, I may have to crazify my course a bit more ;)

While we are on the subject, here is Jill Tartar's TED talk from last year. However, it was posted on CNN today alongside her article. If you are familiar with SETI, then you won't find anything specifically new in here. However, I liked her strong insistence on letting go of our species-specific ego and, what it would mean to us as humans, to look into an alien eye (of course, assuming that the evolution of our contactee aliens have also resulted in an organ for visual perception. Reasonable guess - but who knows). Much of this is in between 9 and 13 minutes of this 20min talk. Enjoy!


Dr. M. Akbar Hussain said...

I just happened to read Prefessor Stephen Hawking's comments about aliens:

I have immense respect for the gifted genius, but there is a time when everyone should "retire", and Professor Hawking is no exception.
Secondly, it left me wondering if exactly the same had been said Iranian scientist or a Muslim scholar, or a Jewish Rabbi, and the world wouldn't have been tired making a mockery of it. Remember, we all share the same amount of knowledge about extraterrestrial life, let alone, intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe, from peasant to professor, from mullah to astronomer, that is, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!
That is why I say being an astronomer or a physicist or a biologist does not give me a privilege to discuss about extraterrestrial life or intelligence and get away with it, let alone be praised and appreciated. To me, the topic of extraterrestrial life, or intelligence, or astrobiology, or SETI and all the related crap is nothing but a pseudoscience. We still have ABSOLUTELY NO SINGLE EVIDENCE at our disposal just as any other pseudoscience.

Salman Hameed said...

Actually if had said that there are aliens here without any additional evidence - then yes, a mockery would have been in order. But, to a certain degree you are right - there is no way to say much about alien sociology or psychology (i.e. if they exist, what kind of actions will they be taking). This is a really hard problem - but people have tried to think about it because we are actively engaged in searching for alien intelligences.

Is astrobiology a pseudoscience? can't be more wrong than that. There is a systematic approach to the problem all the way from searching earth-sized planets in habitable zones to finding limits of biological life here on Earth - all mainstream scientific research. Even if we end not finding any lifeforms elsewhere, it has still served advanced our understanding phenomenally.

Dr. M. Akbar Hussain said...

There is no such thing as extraterrestrial life...hence astrobiology loses its meaning. Prove that I am wrong.
If a team of....say...Iranian scientists, start setting up instruments (like VLA) to detect yet undiscovered signals from Angels far out in the universe, what would be your reaction? Why not start a new science, say, Astro-theology or Search for Supernatural Creator of Universe (SSCU)?

Salman Hameed said...

There is no such thing as extraterrestrial life...hence astrobiology loses its meaning. Prove that I am wrong.

So, anyone who was searching for extrasolar planets 1996 was not doing science? After all, they had not found any extrasolar planet. But there was good reason to believe conditions existed that would favor the formation of planets. In the same way, the field of astrobiology looks environments where life can potentially be found (hence also learning for extreme environments here on Earth). It is as much science as science of extrasolar planets was...

Dr. M. Akbar Hussain said...

I am myself a big fan of astrobiology when it talks of terraforming Mars etc. and possibility of discovering biospheres where we can possibly settle in distant future. But a few scientist take the discussion too far, into the irritating and unpleasant realms of aliens, ET intelligence and SETI etc. This time it was great genius himself to spread the nonsense...phew!
Too strong a perception of finding life beyond Earth is a little too big a leap of favourable environment does not guarantee beginning of life in the environment in question. If it is so, why there is no existence of any active region on Earth where life can still be seen froming out of non-living matter even though conditions are more suitable than we can actually think of finding on any other planet? Life on Earth is only following a grand continuum that was triggered billions of years ago on a "planet" which had nothing in common to present day Earth except for the gravity.

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