How did life originate and are we alone? Perhaps the two most intriguing questions that have puzzled mankind since the dawn of civilization. Countless science fiction stories and movies speak to our infatuation with the possibility of intelligent alien life but so far such accounts remain firmly in the realm of science fiction. But for how long? Famed science popularizer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan expressed his wonderment at the vastness of space and time with his conclusion that “the total number of stars in the Universe is larger than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the planet Earth.” Since those stars likely have planets orbiting them, it stands to reason that some of them would have conditions conducive to life. Even if intelligent life occurs on only a minute proportion of these planets, there could be numerous civilizations in our own Milky Way galaxy alone. So far we have discovered no evidence of their existence. It isn’t for lack of trying.
Investigators of unidentified flying objects (UFOs) have found no sign of aliens despite thoroughly scrutinizing numerous sightings. The Center for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has been scanning the heavens with its alien-hunting radio telescopes since the 1980s without any success. On the other hand, since the 1990s a number of “exoplanets,” that is planets around other stars, have been detected by space telescopes. At least one, Kepler-186f, has caused a great deal of excitement because of its presence in the “Goldilocks zone,” a habitable orbit that is “not too hot and not too cold” for the presence of liquid water. That planet is practically in our back yard, being only 490 light years away, but that still makes it far enough to make visiting it out of the question. However, taking the next step into space to look for signs of life is a possibility. That would be a trip to Mars. Our astronauts will not be encountering any Martians, but unmanned exploration has already suggested that the “red planet” may at one time have fostered some sort of microbial life. Star Trek may have been science fiction, but real science stands ready to take up the challenge to “explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations and to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Our expert speakers will fascinate us with research that is simply out of this world.
Dr. Joe Nickell
Well into his fourth decade as an investigator of historical, paranormal, and forensic mysteries, myths and hoaxes, Dr. Joe Nickell has been called “the modern Sherlock Holmes” and the “real-life Scully” (from the X-Files), believing that mysteries should actually be investigated with a view towards solving them.
Nickell is the world’s only full-time professional paranormal investigator, travelling around the world investigating strange mysteries at the very fringes of science which he then recounts in the “Investigative Files” for the science magazine, Skeptical Inquirer. Nickell’s work as a former stage magician, private investigator, and academic has helped him succeed in this role.
Nickell has exposed many forgeries, including the notorious “Jack the Ripper Diary,” and has authenticated many treasures. He also has many books on the subject, including Pen, Ink, and Evidence and Detecting Forgery.
Dr. Jim Bell
Jim Bell is a Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Astronomy at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and a Distinguished Visiting Scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
Jim is an active planetary scientist and has been heavily involved in many NASA robotic space exploration missions, including the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR), Mars Pathfinder, Comet Nucleus Tour, Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, Mars Odyssey Orbiter, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover mission. Jim is the lead scientist in charge of the Panoramic camera (Pancam) color, stereoscopic imaging system on the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, and is the Deputy P.I. of the Mastcam camera system on the Curiosity rover.
Jim is also an extremely active and prolific public communicator of science and space exploration, and is President of The Planetary Society. He is a frequent contributor to popular astronomy and science magazines like Sky & Telescope, Astronomy, and Scientific American, and to radio shows and internet blogs about astronomy and space. He has appeared on television on the NBC “Today” show, on CNN’s “This American Morning,” on the PBS “Newshour,” and on the Discovery, National Geographic, Wall St. Journal, and History Channels. He has also written many photography-oriented books that showcase some of the most spectacular images acquired during the space program.
Dr. Sara Seager
Professor Sara Seager is a planetary scientist and astrophysicist. She has been a pioneer in the vast and unknown world of exoplanets, planets that orbit stars other than the sun. Her ground-breaking research ranges from the detection of exoplanet atmospheres to innovative theories about life on other worlds to development of novel space mission concepts. Now, dubbed an “astronomical Indiana Jones”, she on a quest after the field’s holy grail, the discovery of a true Earth twin. Dr. Seager earned her PhD from Harvard University and is now the Class of 1941 Profesor of Planetary Science and Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Professor Seager is a 2013 MacArthur Fellow and was named in Time Magazine’s 25 Most Influential in Space in 2012.
Dr. Jill Tarter
Jill Tarter holds the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI Research at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California and serves as a member of the Board of Trustees for that institution. Tarter received her Bachelor of Engineering Physics Degree with Distinction from Cornell University and her Master’s Degree and a Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of California, Berkeley. She has spent the majority of her professional career attempting to answer the old human question “Are we alone?” by searching for evidence of technological civilizations beyond Earth. She served as Project Scientist for NASA’s SETI program, the High Resolution Microwave Survey and has conducted numerous observational programs at radio observatories worldwide. She is a Fellow of the AAAS, the California Academy of Sciences, and the Explorers Club, she was named one of the Time 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2004, and one of the Time 25 in Space in 2012, received a TED prize in 2009, public service awards from NASA, multiple awards for communicating science to the public, and has been honored as a woman in technology. Since the termination of funding for NASA’s SETI program in 1993, she has served in a leadership role to design and build the Allen Telescope Array and to secure private funding to continue the exploratory science of SETI. Many people are now familiar with her work as portrayed by Jodie Foster in the movie Contact.