[Cross posted from the ideaFestival] Scott Hubbard is The Carl Sagan Chair for the Study of Life in the Universe, which was established at the SETI Institute in 1997. He also attended the first ever KySat conference this past May.
At my request, he graciously agreed to answer a few questions last Monday.
1) Could you explain for a moment your work at SETI? - As the Carl Sagan Chair I provide strategic direction and guidance to about 50 scientists engaged in the broad study of life in the Universe. Those include aspects of space science, planetary ring systems and so forth. My job is to help identify new areas of research, to help scientists diversify their research portfolios, to find funding opportunities and to create a sense of team work.
2) What recent news from cosmology or astrobiology excites you the most? - Finding pure silica at the Spirit rover site and the ongoing discoveries of extrasolar planets. Over 200 planets have been identified so far.
Most are unusual because the "selection effect" limits what will be found. The tool
used most now is radial velocity technique. Because detecting star
wobbles requires a lot of pull, what you will find are large planets
close to their parent star, which makes those systems unlike ours. The Kepler mission will use "transitphotometry," the
eclipse-effect technique to find planets.
The other really exciting finding is pure silicon quartz at the [Mars rover] Spirit site. It only occurred because the rover has a broken wheel, which it drags along the planet surface. Scientists saw the white stuff, which can only be formed by combining heat and water. Seventeen scientists at SETI are also looking for analogs to Mars here on Earth, trying to answer the question "what constitutes the fingerprints of life?"
3) Does SETI plan to participate with NASA in other Discovery missions beyond Kepler? - Our principle investigators are always looking to partner as co-investigators on Discovery proposals. In addition, our education and outreach staff do the same. The proposal process is peer reviewed and very competitive. We're always open to that from a scientific perspective, but also from an education perspective.
4) To what other non-science field of inquiry would you liken the space sciences? Why? - As a (nearly) life long musician, I find great similarities between music and science. The structure of melody and harmony is mathematical in many ways and the discovery of new ways of expressing thoughts within that structure is like scientific discovery.
Many of the scientists I've talked to over the years are also musicians. Sidney Drell of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, for example, is a musician.
In his outgoing address to the American Physical Society, Victor Weisskopf playfully suggested the kind a music one played determined the kind of physicist one was - structured "Bach" types were more structured, rigorous physicists. The more romantic players tended to be more speculative physicists.
5) As philosophy geek, on of the most intriguing questions I remember hearing was this: do we need more to explain more? Have you heard any really good questions lately? - Our big question is "Are we alone"? Combined with "Where did we come from?" and "Where are we going?" those few words combine all of astrobiology.
That's why we're sending up these scopes and observatories. Some people tend to separate out the deep origins of life on Earth. But it would be tough to separate out our experiences from the questions we ask. What constitutes life? What is a living system? What we have are lists of characteristics – living systems reproduce, they're capable of evolving, they respond to their environment.
But 'what is life?' There is no agreed upon definition.