Bill Diamond, president and CEO of the SETI Institute, talks to Mission about (extraterrestrial) life, the universe, and everything.

By Daniel Lismore.

Daniel Lismore: Can you explain SETI first? Because people reading this might not know about it.

Bill Diamond: Sure. SETI stands for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, which is an idea put forward back in 1959 by a couple of Cornell astronomers and a Harvard astronomer who were speculating whether there were other intelligent technological beings out there, that had also begun to take advantage of the laws of physics and were able to do things like manipulate the electromagnetic spectrum and create radio transmissions, and so on. They realized we might be able to detect them from great distances that would not be possible with conventional means like optical telescopes. Radio has the advantage of travelling interstellar distances. The very first SETI experiment using the radio telescope was performed by Frank Drake in 1960. So, the SETI Institute was established in 1984 to do this work in an organized fashion and get funding. In its early days, the research expanded into a broader topic called astrobiology, which is the study of life and the universe, meaning life of any kind. So a lot of scientists at the institute are involved in planetary science, astronomy, astrophysics, climate and geoscience, exoplanet research and, of course, SETI.

DL: What made you enter the world of ‘searching for aliens’?

BD: My background is in physics. If you study physics, one of the core parts of that curriculum is astronomy and astrophysics. I’ve been a wannabe astronomer for a long time, probably just never smart enough to be an actual astronomer. I’ve known about SETI, about the institute, about the endeavor since I was a kid and reading science-fiction books. A dear friend and former colleague from my days at Bell Laboratories is on the board of trustees at the institute and he contacted me six years ago to ask if I could help at the institute. I jumped at the chance to help with some business-related issues and that morphed into, “Would you consider staying on and running the organization?” I have the coolest yet least-lucrative CEO job in Silicon Valley.

DL: What do you think we should expect life forms from other planets to look like?

BD: One of the things we always try to be mindful of in this work is looking for life as we don’t know it. Given that the laws of physics, as far as we know, are the same throughout the universe, there’s reason to believe the laws of chemistry, and therefore the laws of biology, are similar. Life took hold on this planet with very basic building blocks, the lowest numbered elements on the periodic table. A fundamental expectation is that if biology has taken hold elsewhere, it was with similar building blocks. Now that doesn’t mean that the life created is going to look or behave like us or other species on Earth. But if you think of the biodiversity of species on this planet, it’s all from the same basic building blocks. So there are some basic commonalities that help us narrow the search. 

DL: Have you had any revelations about how our life began?

BD: Absolutely. When we’re studying basic life, one of the aspects is that the origins come under the heading of astrobiology. Look at the three primary science questions—“How does the universe work?”, “How did we get here?, and “Are we alone?” We are motivated by trying to understand how life began, how it evolves, and the only laboratory we have for that is our own planet. We learn a lot about the origins of life, the processes of evolution, and what we call the co-evolution of life and environment. The Earth has oxygen in the atmosphere because early biology created it and put it there. Interestingly, we do not have a good working definition of what life is. We go back to the earliest, most basic life forms and we’re very close to understanding how they came to be in the first place, but we still don’t know. There’s lots of debate that, for example, you need a rocky planet in a habitable zone with pooling water and a hard surface in order for life to take place. There are lots of questions still to be answered, but we’re getting closer.

DL: What do you think is the nearest we’ve come to discovering life forms elsewhere in the universe? 

 BD: The Venus discovery was scientists looking at spectroscopic data. Spectroscopy is a tool or technique that allows you to understand the composition of what you’re looking at. It could be liquid, gas, etc. So these scientists discovered the presence of spectroscopic lines that indicated the presence of a gas called phosphine in Venus’s atmosphere. As far as we know, the only way to produce phosphine on Earth is through biological processes, so it gave rise to speculation about whether there’s biology that was able to create it. A couple of issues are still standing—it was on the edge of the sensitivity of the instruments being used, so it was a very weak signal. And there’s the question of whether it’s impossible for phosphine to be created by a natural process other than biology. It’s intriguing. It’s clear there’s no life on the surface of Venus, it’s too hot and toxic. However, as you go up into its atmosphere, just like here on Earth, the temperature drops, and there are places in the clouds on Venus where it’s more or less room temperature. There’s speculation from scientists that, in a thick atmosphere like Venus’s, suspended biology may be possible—that life forms could exist, just tiny molecules.

DL: How are photonics broadening the landscape for innovation? 

BD: Photonics is an interesting technology, because everything from supermarket scanners to communications technology to medical surgery applications are laser-based technologies. Photonics has been extraordinary in the breadth of applications that have come from it. In 1960, when the SETI program got started, there were no lasers, it wasn’t until much later that powerful lasers were produced. And now we know about potentially using lasers for the propulsion of spacecraft. Lasers suddenly became another sign of technology that can be looked for in the SETI world. A program at the institute called Laser SETI is building a network of camera systems all over the world to look at the sky 24/7 and look for laser pulses, which stand out from nature because they’re very bright, very intense, but also a very narrow wavelength of a particular color. 

DL: If we find another life form, what would it mean? 

BD: Starting with life in its most basic form, which is what the Perseverance rover is looking for on Mars, an interesting question would be whether it came about on its own. Mars and Earth have swapped spit, if you will, over the eons. We have meteorites on Earth from Mars that are a result of an impact on Mars, particularly during the early heavy bombardment period of the formation of the planets. There has also been speculation that life on Earth was seeded from Mars, which was a wet ocean world in its early days. Ultimately, what we’re curious about is whether there are other intelligent technological beings. If life has taken hold in other worlds, has it taken time to evolve? Developed species like ourselves—advanced, intelligent, technological? We know there are lots of possible places for life to take hold, so if we see it taking hold somewhere else, even in our own solar system, then we know it is quite common. And because we’re only 100 years into our technological age as a species, if we found evidence of another civilization, they’re likely far more advanced than we are. We’re already observing problems in terms of the long-term survivability of our species, we’ve got some serious challenges ahead of us… If we were to find evidence of a more advanced civilization elsewhere, the assumption is that they went through the same trials and tribulations as we are, and came out the other side. We like to think that SETI is a hopeful endeavor, that if we find evidence of advanced life beyond Earth, that bodes well for our longevity.

DL: You’ve mentioned before that the chance of finding another life form could be “one to infinity”. 

BD: I don’t know if it was me who used this notion of “one to infinity” but I like what that implies. Basically, if you find one other place, potentially even nearby, where life has sprung forward uniquely and independently from life on Earth, then the implication is that life is everywhere. Statistically speaking, every star in the sky has one or more planets around it, which means the planets outnumber the stars. We know that 20 percent of all planets are Earth-like, meaning they’re rocky, solid planets, [roughly the same] size as Earth, and are present in the so-called “habitable zone” of their host star, where the temperature should be just right to support liquid. So, 20 percent of hundreds of billions of planets is tens of billions. I think the discovery of an independently originated life form nearby would pretty much suggest that life is plentiful and all over the place. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to find! 

DL: If we discovered what that life is, do you think we could create an instrument that could detect it? 

BD: Perseverance has a laser onboard called a Raman spectrometer, which is assigned to look for organic molecules and do other analysis. It can tell you the composition of soil samples or material brought up from the surface or from below the surface. It’s a technology that we developed specifically to look for life that we know and understand. If we discovered how life begins and what ingredients and environment conditions are required, we could more specifically look for them. Laurance Doyle, a scientist at the institute, is conducting research with a marine biologist colleague to understand the communication between humpback whales by applying information theory, which was designed in the 1940s to understand human communication. The idea is to understand whether there’s an underlying universal set of rules that, regardless of how information is being translated—whether through whale sounds, bee dances, or human voices—or how it’s picked up, we can tell that there’s information in the signal we’ve detected. If we can discern that information follows certain fundamental rules, it makes it easier for us to search.  

DL: What are the implications of finding extraterrestrial intelligence?

BD: If we discover life beyond Earth, it’s likely to mean there’s life everywhere in the universe. If we find evidence of life more advanced than we are, it gives us hope that we can overcome some of our self-induced challenges and survive into a more advanced stage. There’s an interesting debate about whether we should send messages to or do things that would attract attention from other species out there. Many people, including Stephen Hawking, have thought we shouldn’t, that it’s risky because you don’t know other beings’ intentions. My feeling is that, if a civilization has overcome the challenges we face, there has to be a certain amount of benevolence in their intelligence. If and when we find evidence of technological or intelligent life beyond Earth, even basic life, it will be a transformative moment in human history.  

DL: Is there a sequence of events that would happen if that were to occur?

BD: In any formal or internationally agreed manner, no. There isn’t a protocol. Some people have thought, “The government wouldn’t let you tell us and they’d shut it down right away.” As far as we know, that’s not going to happen. Firstly, it would be very hard to keep a secret of that magnitude. Secondly, we’re not part of any government agency and we’re not compelled to report things to the government. Step number one is verify. If we were to pick up a signal from one of our radio telescopes we thought was indicative of an intelligent life source beyond Earth, we would ask other observatories to verify using the same thing. If we could verify it, the second step would be—and the odds are pretty small that a signal [would be] from fairly close by—we’d let the world know, and then we would conduct follow-up investigations. There would then be more instruments suddenly looking at that piece of sky. It might also change the funding picture. Maybe the government would say, “Maybe we should fund this kind of work instead of leaving it to the private sector.” I think we would ultimately go public, and hopefully the general public would be fascinated by and in awe of this and not scared, and we’d continue to study that source and learn what we could.

DL: Thank you—you give me hope.

BD: That’s why we’re doing this [Laughs.].