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Friday, March 20, 2009

Questions About Life

Yesterday I ran an open house at the observatory. I chose to do the Life in the Universe presentation because it's fun, and I haven't been able to do it this year yet. In general, I talk about potential places for life in our Solar System and what we look for when we're searching for life. Then, I talk about the Drake equation, explain each parameter, and do a sample calculation (where we find, using pretty conservative numbers, that there could be 1000 intelligent, communicating civilizations in our Milky Way galaxy alone!!).

It's usually a very interesting presentation, and it gets people thinking/talking about the possibility of life elsewhere in the Universe. I've done it with church groups, Guides/Scouts and school groups. There have been some really interesting discussions, and everyone has respected the opinions and beliefs of others. I generally try to make sure that the audience understands that I am talking about the science of the search for life, and I am no expert on the religious/social implications. However, if someone does ask my opinion, I will answer them honestly and openly, and this usually generates a great exchange of ideas.

Tonight though, a woman really rubbed me the wrong way. In the middle of the presentation, she interrupts me and begins with the dreaded statement of "I'm not trying to be confrontational..." - meaning she knows damn well that's what she is doing. She goes on to basically ask why we think it's necessary to spend "billions of dollars" to search for life elsewhere, when we should be focusing on the people on our own planet and our issues. She went on to say how she just doesn't understand why we think it's so important to search for life on other planets or why we study astronomy in general.

Now, it wasn't really the questions she asked - they are valid, and I understand that much of the public feels the same way (especially in this economic crisis) - it was the way she asked it. She just had this awful attitude about her that made me feel like she was attacking me personally: like because I was talking about it, it's obviously my idea and my fault. Clearly the other members of the audience heard that in her voice too, because I saw many glances, eye-rolls, and other uncomfortable movements.

So, I took a deep breath and answered to the best of my ability. I told her that, in fact, astronomers do not get billions of dollars to study life on other planets. Yes, we use telescopes, space probes and other equipment to search for evidence of life - but that equipment is used for many other things, and we can generate other interesting (and useful!) science from the data.

I went on to say that I understand that some people don't think it's important to find life, elsewhere in our universe, and I respect that. I told her that my opinion is that pure science, although perhaps not always directly applicable to society, leads to much of the technology we use today, and that's why we do it. We also do it because of the pure love of finding things out - that it's just amazingly interesting to find something new; to study something that 99.9999% of the population has wondered about when they look up at the night sky; to advance our knowledge of the universe that surrounds us.

She didn't look convinced, and told me so (in some not so nice words) when I asked if I had answered her question. Sigh - sometimes it's a lost cause I guess. It makes me wonder why she came to the observatory - on a university campus - in the first place. What was she expecting?