Dan WerthimerDan Werthimer

by Tucker Hiatt

UC Berkeley astronomer Dan Werthimer delivered a seductive break-out session at SkeptiCal 2011 entitled "XXX Astronomy: Exoplanets, Exobiology, and Extraterrestrials."

On that May 29th date at Berkeley's Double Tree Hotel, some 50 eager space cadets heard Werthimer talk about all aspects of SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

Werthimer is the chief scientist of the SETI@home project, Earth's most popular search for ET. SETI@home gathers data from the planet's most sensitive radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, and then shares those data with some five million participants worldwide. The participants' personal computers analyze the data for any trace of unnatural radio signals. Collectively, SETI@home computers constitute the most powerful parallel processor ever created.

Werthimer's presentation covered the past, present, and future of SETI: from the Giordano Bruno's heretical -- and fatal -- 16th-century assertion that other inhabited worlds exist, to the latest high-tech search for optical laser beacons between the stars.

Audience questions at the end of the Triple-X talk were well-informed, provocative, and even inspiring. To Werthimer's relief, no one claimed to have been abducted by space aliens. In fact, among the questioners was NASA luminary David Morrison, senior scientist at the Astrobiology Institute. Many of us set our skepticism aside in order to believe that Morrison was just a "typical" SkeptiCal attendee!