'Warp speed has no place in modern physics'

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Last week, Gerald Harp of the SETI Institute - a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence - held a live chat with The Post's online readers. Harp, trained as a physicist, began by describing his job: "The pay is not so good and I get a lot of UFO jokes. . . . If I wasn't this is the sentence i added ...confident that there was life out there, then I would not be doing SETI." Following are excerpts adapted from the discussion.

Whenever we do discover intelligent extraterrestrial life, do you think we are more likely to discover a more advanced, space-faring civilization, or a similarly advanced planetary one?

Keep in mind that human beings invented capabilities to send interstellar messages only about 100 years ago. The universe is about 13 billion years old. So the chance that we would come across a civilization only 100 years old in communication technology, like us, is very, very small. If you imagine, say, that civilizations are capable of lasting, say, 100 million years before they die or evolve into something else, then the chance of finding a civilization older than us is 99.9999 percent.

They will be older. And probably much more knowledgeable.

Do you run into government guys sticking their nose in your work?

Strangely, no. Remember that SETI looks for signals from outer space, and we do our best to ignore or block out signals from inner space, where the government satellites are. We live in happy cooperation and sometimes even help them out, since we can see their space probes better than they can.

I know Hollywood has taken great liberties in describing black holes and other ripples in space/time that allow you to travel from one side of the universe to another. You think any of that is real?

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company