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House Science Committee Asked Some Very Non-Scientific Questions at the Astrobiology Hearing

Today, SETI scientists spoke before the House science committee on "Astrobiology and the Search for Life in the Universe," discussing the steps we're taking to search for life in outer space, and fielding questions from committee members that were largely insulting. 

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Today, the House Science Committee held a hearing on "Astrobiology and the Search for Life in the Universe," discussing the steps we've taken to search for life in outer space. Unfortunately, we're not sure how much they actually learned about science.

Committee Chairman Lamar Smith noted in introducing the hearing that interest in astrobiology has spiked in recent years, a notion confirmed by the packed room:

The interest is an encouraging change from the last time the committee met to discuss the possibility of alien life, which prompted much ridicule among science (and Congress) skeptics.

In their remarks, witnesses Dr. Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI institute, and Dr. Dan Werthimer, director of the SETI Research Center at UC Berkeley, described the future of the search for extraterrestrial life, as they see it.

Shostak started off by pointing to three strategies researchers are using to search for extraterrestrial life. The first, he says, is "simply to find it nearby," adding "that's where the big money is." The second is examining planets surrounding other stars to see if they have atmospheres that could conceivably support life, and the third is SETI — Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence — which attempts to pick up signals broadcast by (hypothetical) aliens.

Shostak, notably, said he thinks that the first two areas could lead to results within twenty years, depending on financing. He spoke with confidence about the high likelihood of life on other planets, saying that the "universe is very fecund," and that the history of astronomy shows we're not as special as we think (i.e., the Earth is not the center of the solar system, not the only place with conditions that could support life, and so on.) He concludes "the fact that we haven't found anything means nothing," a rather hopeful approach to our search for alien life.

Werthimer followed Shostak's presentation by pointing out the cool things we've discovered in the process of searching for extraterrestrials, like a diamond planet. He also talked about the specific next steps NASA will take in its exploration, including installing a number of wide-angle, panchromatic telescopes to expand our ability to pick up extraterrestrial signals; using "interplanetary eavesdropping" to try to pick up on any signals that could be transmitted between other planets; and relying more heavily on lasers to try to pick up signals. 

Once the presentation was over, Chairman Smith opened the floor for questions, most of which turned out to be rather insulting.

For the most part, the Representatives took rampant speculations on alien life that gleaned from movies and TV and repackaged them into thoughtful-seeming questions.

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici recalled the question a colleague, Rep. Chris Smith, posed during an earlier hearing. "What do we do when we find life on another planet?" She asked the alarmist question next, "What's the plan? Do we announce it to the world?" Shostak shot back, respectfully, that people have thought for years that the government has a secret alien plan when, in reality, "nobody in the government shows the slightest bit of interest" in SETI's activities. Zing.

Rep. Chris Collins posed the question he thought was on everyone's mind -- "Have you watched Ancient Aliens and what is your comment on the series?" Shostak replied that he takes issue with the premise of the show, which posits that ancient artifacts suggest a long-ago alien visit to Earth. "Pyramids were built by Egyptians," he said, and Werthimer added that "UFOs have nothing to do with extraterrestrials." That was Collins's only question. Rep. Bill Posey asked the scientists to discuss "Project Blue Book," drawing a connection between UFOs and the search for life in spite of Werthimer's note.

It should be noted, however, that some members of the committee made more serious inquiries. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson asked how SETI research had contributed to other areas of science, and Rep. Donna Edwards asked for details on how the panchromatic telescope project would work. But its hard to shake the feeling that, for the most part, committee members stepped into the room with a view of aliens as imaginary humanoid beings waiting to talk to us, and walked out with that same view. Which has more to say about the state of our government than the state of our scientific advances.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.