“Are We Alone?” Speaking at the Trottier Symposium

October 27, 2014

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In early October I spent a few days in enchanting Montreal, on two of which (the 6th and 7th) I participated in the annual event, The Loren Trottier Public Science Symposium at McGill University. (Dr. Trottier—an engineer, co-founder of the famous graphics and imaging group Matrox, and recipient of many prestigious honors and awards—makes this event possible by his vision and generosity.) The Symposium moderator was McGill’s indefatigable Joe Schwarcz, Director of the Office of Science & Society and a well-known author, skeptic, and CSI Fellow. This year’s theme was “Are We Alone? (The symposium was recorded and posted online.)

Two speakers were featured each evening. On Monday the 6th, Jim Bell, President of the Planetary Society, opened with “Postcards from Mars: Using Rovers to Search for Evidence of Life on the Red Planet.” He shared many striking visual images and some favorite stories from “inside” NASA mission operations, describing major scientific findings by the rovers Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity. He also discussed future explorations of Mars by NASA and others.

Jill Tarter, Bernard M. Oliver Chair, SETI Institute—famously played by Jodie Foster in the movie Contact—spoke next. She closed the evening with “Searching for Extraterrestrial Intelligence,” delivered with her usual verve. Pointing out that the I in SETI stands for intelligence and that technology is the “proxy” for intelligence, she explained how—for half a century—SETI has put the tools of astronomy to work in an attempt to detect evidence—hopefully someday indisputable evidence—of another, distant civilization’s technology. If they survive the equivalent of our “unstable technological adolescent phase,” she observed, we would know it was possible for us as well.

The second evening was opened by Sara Seager, professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a planetary scientist and astrophysicist. Dubbed an “astronomical Indiana Jones,” she searches for exoplanets, those that orbit stars other than our sun. She seeks the holy grail in the form of a true Earth twin—one with the suitable conditions for life. She described the fascinating science and technology involved in “the search for Earth 2.0.” (Sara is going places—if not straight to Mars: A 2013 MacArthur Fellow, she was named in Time magazine’s 25 Most Influential in Space in 2012.)

Finally, I spoke on “UFO Mythologies.” As my published abstract reads: “When most people think of mythology, they typically recall the ancient Greek and Roman myths, or other ancient stories of super beings. Yet we are living in the midst of two relatively modern and robust mythologies: those of, first, Sasquatch/Bigfoot, and second, of extraterrestrials. Both are living mythologies, and both involve folk entities that are versions of ourselves: one imagined from the past (a hairy man-beast type), the other having evolved in popular culture as futuristic (with tiny body and large brain case). Interestingly, both involve, to a greater or lesser degree, UFOs. Here, on our fragile, shrinking planet—often feeling endangered but looking toward unknown frontiers—we find ourselves at a mythological juncture.” Powerpoint slides illustrated my detective work on bears as Bigfoot, recreating the ancient Nasca geoglyphs (re “ancient astronauts”), the Roswell crashed-saucer story, extraterrestrial iconography, and much more.

In addition, we all had media duties. I was interviewed by The McGill Tribune, The McGill Reporter, CJAD Radio (“The Tommy Schmurmacher Show”), CTV (Canadian Television), and the podcast “Within Reason.” I was also included in a symposium discussion, which included additional participants like astronaut Julie Payette (another star in our galaxy), and there were luncheons, VIP receptions, dinners, book signings. . . .

Many thanks to Joe Schwarcz and Emily Shore for patient arrangements and shepherding, and again to Joe for taking me to two historic Houdini locations and a “miracle” site! I also want to thank McGill Provost Anthony Masi, Science Faculty Dean Martin Grant, and Trottier Chair Victoria Kaspi, as well as the manager of our excellent hotel (the high-rise Best Western Ville-Marie) who—wonderfully straight-faced—promised me the going exchange rate on my Wooden-Nickell business card!