It was a weekend full of aliens and black hole theories at the Hyatt Regency in Santa Clara, California. Scientists, professors, artists, authors, and science enthusiasts gathered for SETIcon II, a conference organized by the SETI Institute to learn about and celebrate recent developments in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
The conference consisted of a series of panels discussing everything from potential asteroid resources to Hollywood Sci-Fi movies.
Each discussion had a diverse set of panelists that complimented each other—each speaker with a different background, adding different perspectives to each panel. For example, in a panel titled “Black Holes in Space—Hearts of Darkness”, Robert J. Sawyer, Andre Bormanis, Alex Filippenko, and Leonard Mlodinow discussed theories about black holes while also calling upon movies and books to identify and clarify any misconceptions.
Alex Filippenko, Seth Shostak, Richard Rhodes, and Marc Okrand even discussed religion (with much sensitivity… especially because SETI has been accused of being a religion) during the “Did the Big Bang Require a Divine Spark?” panel.
The panelists Cynthia B. Phillips, Mark R. Showalter, and Charles Lindsay informed the audience about planetary art in “The Magnificence and Majesty of the Outer Solar System” while a slideshow of the artfully embellished planets played in the background.
In addition to the regular excitement about science, the conference was heavily fueled by Kepler’s recent success. The Kepler telescope is currently looking for planets in the habitable zone, because these planets are likely to be more earth-like and therefore more likely to be suitable for life.
The telescope has already found over 2,000 transiting planets, an abundance that led NASA to approve the extension of the Kepler mission until 2016. The panelists could not hide their enthusiasm: such success in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is worthy of celebration.
The conference also included an evening honoring Jill Tarter, director of the search for intelligent life and inspiration for Jodie Foster’s role in the movie, “Contact”.
Whether a Battlestar Galactica enthusiast or a NASA researcher, it was truly a conference for everyone.
Alyssa Keimach is an astronomy and astrophysics student at the University of Michigan and volunteers for the Morrison Planetarium.