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Is there anyone out there? SETI chief explains why 'we still haven't found ET'

Photo: Universal Pictures

What would Enrico Fermi do?

For those unfamiliar with the name, Fermi was a famous scientist who postulated that if intelligent life on other planets actually existed, we would have found them by now — or they certainly would have found us. It's an idea that resonates, especially with vast sums of public and private money being thrown at space travel, accompanied by rapid advances in modern technology.

Approximately a year ago, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner gave a $100 million gift to over a ten year span to the University of California to aid in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Since then, the SETI Institute has been occupied with its prime directive—understanding the universe and trying to contact aliens.

Milner, a venture capitalist who was among the early investors in tech giants like Twitter and Facebook, is convinced that — given the billions of Earth-like planets and even more galaxies that exist — it's all but inconceivable that the human race is alone.

SETI is flush with new riches and interest in outer space has reached a crescendo unseen since at least the 'Space Race' of the last century. Yet for years, skeptics have argued that attempting to explore the outer reaches of space was a waste of time.

So it begs the question: Exactly why does discovering intelligent life outside of Earth remain so elusive, and why can't they (as in the aliens) be coaxed out of hiding?

"We haven't found E.T.," Dan Werthimer, SETI's chief scientist and an astronomer at University of California at Berkeley, joked to a panel discussion at "Star Trek: Mission New York" on Saturday.

E.T., of course, is a reference to the classic 1982 Steven Spielberg movie where an alien falls to earth, bringing a combination of delight and trouble to a group of kids.

As Werthimer explained in more sophisticated fashion to the legions of Trekkies assembled to commemorate "Star Trek's" 50th anniversary, maybe E.T. doesn't want to phone home — or maybe he can't.

Even with the morale and logistical boost $100 million can bring, it's quite possible E.T. may not exist.

"Maybe they're [aliens] waiting for us to stop killing each other," Werthimer said in response to a question about why extraterrestrial life hadn't yet reached out to the human race. He posited that they themselves could be lower than earthlings on the evolutionary and technological scale, or perhaps we're beneath them.

"There [are] a lot of different scenarios but the other possibility is that we really are alone and that's why we don't see them zooming around the galaxy," the scientist said.

According to SETI, on any given day there are at millions of volunteers around the world working on various projects to prove there's life outside of earth. On Saturday, Werthimer joked that at least a million of them "bounded by optimism leave their [computers] on" in the hopes of intercepting a message from another world.

"We've only had 100 years, but we'd be kind of lucky to find [alien life] now because we don't know what frequency to look at, we don't know if they're broadcasting radio and we can't cover the whole spectrum. But I'm optimistic because the technology is changing so fast."

Side gigs mining bitcoin

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According to Werthimer, some SETI volunteers, perhaps impatient waiting all these years for E.T.'s arrival, are moonlighting by mining for Bitcoin, the cryptocurrency that's can be 'mined' using special software and solving complex math problems.

Although numerous SETI volunteers take on side projects, digital currency mining is not a side gig Werthimer would recommend.

Bitcoin is attractive "because you can make money that way. Although you can't make much [because] I think your power bill is more expensive," he said. "I dont think it's a good idea."


All of which brings us full circle to the estimable Fermi. With all the technology surrounding human civilization andbillions being invested in space exploration, what exactly is preventing E.T.'s eagerly anticipated arrival?

One answer may be that aliens haven't yet caught up to humans technologically. "We don't know how to find them if they are more primitive than we are," Werthimer said. "What's the chance we can find a civilization that's just invented radio? It's kind of small in the 4 billion years of life on this planet."

The scientist added that same optimism keeps him reasonably hopeful that extraterrestrial life would eventually be found, as Earthlings were "just getting in the game" of trying to locate life on other planets—but no one should hold their breath.

"I think it's not going to be in my lifetime [that we find aliens], I think its going to be my students or my students students...it will take a couple of generations," Werthimer added.

"It's hard to predict but my guess is that it's going to be a generation or two" before the discovery is made, he said.