A CONVERSATION WITH BILL DIAMOND, CEO OF THE SETI INSTITUTE

By November 19, 2019 Blog

Special Note: The SETI Institute is a nonprofit research organization whose mission is to explore, understand, and explain the origin and nature of life in the universe, and to apply the knowledge gained to inspire and guide present and future generations. They have been a member of 501(c) Agencies Trust since the early 1990’s where they save time and money through state unemployment insurance (SUI) reimbursing.

Bill Diamond, the CEO of SETI, corresponded with 501c.com contributor Lisa Kaplan Gordon to discuss his career and the unique mission of SETI.


By Lisa Kaplan Gordon

Bill Diamond, 63, has always had a passion for outer space. Finally, Diamond has made his passion his profession by working as president and CEO of the SETI Institute. The Mountain View, CA nonprofit supports about 100 scientists trying to answer some big questions: What is life? How does it begin? Are we alone?

During an interview with 501c.com, Diamond talked about the possibility of life beyond Earth, how climate change will transform our planet, and how a “nuclear nudge” could be the last hope for humanity.

So, are we alone in the universe?

We are definitely not alone.

Definitely?

That’s not the same thing as saying we’ve found alien intelligence and technology out there, though I believe there is.

The statistical probably that Earth is the only place where biology has taken hold is zero. There are many scientists who strongly believe that we’ll find evidence of life elsewhere in our own solar system which, in astronomical terms, is not far away at all.

What makes you so certain about extraterrestrial life?

We’ve learned the planets are ubiquitous, that in our own galaxy, tens of billions of those planets are Earth-like, where liquid water can be found. It says that just in the Milky Way galaxy, which is one of hundreds of billions of galaxies, there are billions of places where similar events could have taken place that took place here on Earth, so that life ultimately evolved.

Is life that complex or intelligent or technological? That’s a question that has yet to be answered. But the likelihood that life, at least at its most basic level, exists elsewhere is almost certain.

What is the possibility of intelligent life existing in the universe?

Very high. Remember, intelligent life has been in existence on this planet for millions of years. Technological life has only been on this planet for about 100 years.

From an intelligence standpoint, dolphins, dogs and cats are intelligent. You get to a certain level of complexity where you have a central nervous system, some sort of brain. You also have very tiny animals, like ants and bees, that exhibit swarm intelligence and behave in very complex manners.

I believe that intelligent life has almost certainly evolved in other locations in our galaxy.

You’re certain there’s single-cell life, and almost certain there’s intelligent life somewhere out there. Is there someone who looks like me and you who evolved somewhere in space?

It doesn’t necessarily have to look like us in order to build things like spacecraft.

You’d probably need things like limbs and fingers and opposable thumbs. You’ll need a central nervous system and brain. The shape of such a creature doesn’t have to resemble us. The science fiction world is full of these images of so-called little green men with narrow, slender bodies and large heads, beings that are the stuff of our imagination.

There’s no evidence what technological beings elsewhere look like. They could look more like a lobster.

Do you think humans will ever have direct contact with these technological beings?

It’s very difficult to send living, breathing, biological organisms on long distances. The distances in space are unimaginably large. If you were to encounter a spacecraft from some other civilization, it would more likely have artificial intelligence on board; any moving things would be robotic, not biologic.

The closest star to Earth is Alpha Centauri, and it’s only 4 light years away. But if we took the fastest spacecraft we ever built and headed it to Alpha Centauri, it would take 17,000 years to get there. And that’s our closest neighbor.

Are you saying that “Close Encounters-like” contact is impossible?

No, but if we were to detect a radio signal that was a proxy for intelligence in an advanced technological society coming from 50,000 light years away, that means the signal left that planet 50,000 years ago. And if we answer back, it’s going to take another 50,000 years for them to realize their phone call was answered.

Could technological, intelligent beings visit us in a spacecraft? It’s possible. But wherever they left from, they left a long, long time ago.

That’s what scientists think about when we think about life beyond Earth. Efforts to find that life aren’t geared toward having a conversation. It’s more about what discoveries mean for us and the implications those discoveries have, rather than the interaction.

But doesn’t the popular imagination want interaction with alien creatures?

Absolutely. We would love that interaction. And the reason for that is that most people want the answer to the question, ‘Are we alone?’ And they want the answer to be, ‘No, we’re not.’

Why?

There’s something forlorn and pointless about deciding we’re it, we’re the only place in the whole universe where life has taken hold.

It’s like when you’re a child at home, and you’ve gone to bed, and you’re comforted that your parents are upstairs.

It’s comforting to know that we’re not it. And that life has happened elsewhere, and maybe challenges we’re facing have been encountered by other civilizations in other places. And that when our star blows up, there are other places where life will continue.

Speaking of our star blowing up, some climate change scientists speculate that the end is near.

Yeah, we have survival problems for life as we know it.

The Earth is warming. Climate change is real. And if we continue to deny it, we’re threatening the survivability of our species, at least in the way we’re accustomed to.

Are we doomed?

I don’t think that serious scientists look at climate change as an existential threat, in that it will kill all life on the planet. But it could dramatically change life as we know it.

The kind of horror scenarios that come out of runaway global warming are dire. But I think that life, on a certain level, will continue, just like it did for the dinosaurs.

The dinosaurs were wiped out by an asteroid that put a uniformed layer of dust over the entire planet. And it killed off almost all species. But it clearly did not kill off everything. Life continued to evolve and thrive. Ultimately, mammals came along, and here we are.

Do you think humans will survive climate change?

Yes. There may not be very many, and they may be an evolved version of us, but it’s hard to image the human race being wiped out by climate change. But the human race may be altered in ways that seem unrecognizable to us.

Like how?

You’re going to see sea levels rise. And think about the percentage of the Earth’s population that lives along coastlines. You’re going to have climate refugees, massive movements of people; and you’ll have the social unrest and upheaval that’s likely to come from that.

You can paint pretty catastrophic scenarios that make life, as we currently know it, impossible to continue. But does it wipe out every human being? I don’t think so.

One threat that does have the ability to wipe out the population is an asteroid impact.

Oy!

We don’t notice any heading our way, but we study them. We have people involved in planetary defense mapping the asteroids out there.

We have seen small asteroids that are difficult to detect in deep space; but we don’t have eyes on the all the sky 24/7. So, there are small asteroids that escape our detection.

The ability for an asteroid to wipe out an entire city is real. NASA has an ongoing effort to map the hundreds of thousands of asteroids that are out there.

Between Mars and Jupiter is the asteroid belt, a lot of material left over from the formation of planets. We’re concerned about any of that material getting nudged out of that orbital place and get on a trajectory that can affect our planet.

What, if anything, can we do to mitigate an asteroid falling to Earth?

It depends on their size and orbital characteristics and how much time you have.  

 What you need to do is nudge it. If it’s large, you don’t have much of any opportunity to change its orbit; but you can speed it up or slow it down.

How?

One way is gravitational tug. You send a large mass to that object and the gravitational attraction between that large mass is bound to slow down or speed up the asteroid, so that its orbit is no longer intersecting ours at the same point in time.

A more aggressive technique is the kinetic impact, where you take something large and massive and smash it into the asteroid to change its position in the orbit.

And the other is the nuclear nudge, a nuclear explosion near the object that can potentially speed it up or slow it down.

Basically, we’re all doomed.

I feel the same way. (laughs)

You worked in applied science for many years. How did you get to the institute?

I studied physics, and like anybody who studied physics, you also study astronomy and astrophysics. I’ve always loved space science, including science fiction. I grew up reading Carl Sagan.

My career path didn’t take me into astronomy or space science. It took me into applied science in the field of lasers, optics, and telecommunications. But, I’ve always had a passion for and interest in space.

A good friend of mine, whom I worked with years ago at Bell Labs, was on the board of trustees of the institute and approached me five years ago. I had just left my last job and wanted to do something different.

He said, ‘We’ve got some issues here, mostly around business. If you’ve got some time on your hands, can you come help us?’”

You put your MBA from Georgetown to use.

That ultimately morphed into taking over the leadership of the institute, which for me was a dream come true. It’s been an extraordinary experience. To be surrounded by this much brain power is the most fun I’ve ever had.

What are some challenges of running a scientific nonprofit these days?

The largest source of our funding is NASA, which issues solicitations for research they want to get done. People in academia and research institutes can apply for grants by submitting a proposal.

NASA proposals range from the small end, which just supports a scientist’s salary for a year or two, to larger-scale projects, which support large teams for a number of years.

Other sources of our funding include the National Science Foundation, the United States Geological Survey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Institutes of Health.

Government funding is a large part of our revenue. We are in a challenging era for the sciences, for sure. Thankfully, we have not seen cuts to NASA’s budget, which has been very fortunate for us.

Our revenue for last fiscal year was $25 million; 80% is NASA funding. We’ve grown the revenue over time through the quality and success rates of our scientific proposals.

Can you give some proposal-writing tips to other nonprofits?

Here, the scientists are like individual contractors. They write their own proposals; in some cases, they compete with their colleagues.

There are people here with more experience and greater skills in writing and conceiving of proposals. So, part of the effort was to develop a program where the more successful and experienced scientists help teach and train the younger scientists to do a better job writing proposals.

There was some resistance at the beginning. ‘Why should I help my colleagues, who are also my competitors, write proposals?’

What’s the answer?

All ships rise with the tide. If we’re more successful as an organization, everybody wins.

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