This is point of inquiry for Friday, October 20th, 2006.
Welcome to Point of Inquiry. I’m DJ Grothe. Point of Inquiries, the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank collaborating with the State University of New York at Buffalo on the new science and the public master’s degree. CFI also maintains branches in Manhattan, Tampa, Hollywood and Washington, D.C. and 11 other cities around the world. Every week on this show, we try to look at some of the central beliefs of our culture through the lens of the scientific outlook, focusing mostly on three research areas. First, pseudoscience and paranormal. Second, alternative medicine. Third, secularism and religion. The intersection of religion and science in our society. We do all this by drawing on the Center for Inquiry’s relationship with the leading minds of the day, including Nobel Prize winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers and renowned entertainers. Before I get to this week’s guest, Dr. Jill Tarter of the SETTI Institute. I want to welcome to new CFI campus groups since last show. These are groups of college skeptics and humanists who work with the Center for Inquiry to Advance Science and Reason at their school. A new group at Flagler College in St.. Augustine, Florida, and a new CFI campus group at the University of California, Santa Cruz. If you want to work with us to advance science and reason at your school, go to Campus Inquirer dot org. Now, Tom Flynn is in the studio to ask us, did you know? Hello, Tom a.D.A.
So did you know that NASA used to have its own program of Setit, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence? But in 1993, Nevada Senator Richard Bryan successfully introduced an amendment that eliminated all funding for it. The cost of the program was less than point one percent of NASA’s annual budget. It amounted to about a nickel per taxpayer per year. The senator cited budget pressures as his reason for ending NASA’s involvement with Setit. Did you know that many observers feel that NASA’s 2007 budget shift funding away from scientific research? Meanwhile, the City Institute, a nonprofit corporation, gets much of its research sponsored by NASA. Its support for the emerging field of astrobiology and the upcoming fiscal year 2007, though, has been cut by half. Did you know that the signal processing techniques developed and used at Setit have already been applied to the detection of breast cancer? And did you know that according to the Drake Equation, the number of intelligent civilizations existing in our galaxy alone. That might be broadcasting signals could be in the millions. Among the factors multiplied together are the number of sunlike stars in our galaxy and the number of habitable planets orbiting around them and the amount of time it takes a civilization to develop advanced technology. I’ll bet you didn’t know any of that.
Hi, I’m Barrie Carr, executive director of Psych up here at the Center for Inquiry with celebrating our 30th anniversary this year, making the world safe for science and skepticism and dealing with fringe science and paranormal claims. We publish what I think is an essential magazine, The Skeptical Inquire. This is the magazine for Science and Reason. Subscribing to the Skeptical Inquirer helps us continue to advance science and reason in our society. And so sure that you love this magazine that I want you to have a complementary issue to see what we’re all about, to get your sample copy. Just call one 800 six three four one six one zero. I mentioned the point of inquiry podcasts that ask us for your free copy. We’ll get it right out, too. And you can begin enjoying the Skeptical Inquirer. Thank you.
I’m really happy to have today’s guest on Point of inquiry, Dr. Jill Tarter of Saidy. The Search for extraterrestrial intelligence. If you’ve ever seen the movie Contact written by Carl Sagan and Andrian, you’ll be familiar with the work of today’s guest as it was portrayed by actor Jodie Foster. Jill Tarter holds the Bernard M. Oliver chair for Saidy at the Setit Institute in Mountain View, California, where she also serves as the director of the Center for Saidee Research. She served as project scientist for NASA’s Setit program, the high resolution microwave survey, and has conducted a number of observational programs at Radio Observatories Worldwide. Since funding for NASA’s SETTI program was cut in 1993. She has served in a leadership role to secure private funding to continue this kind of research. And in today’s interview, she’ll talk about the private funding that said he is trying to get together for the new Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe, which has just announced a couple days ago. Jill Tadas work has brought her wide recognition in the scientific community, including the Lifetime Achievement Award, from women in aerospace to public service medals from NASA and many, many others. She was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2002 and a California Academy of Sciences fellow in 2003. In 2004, Time magazine named her one of the time 100 Most Influential People in the World, and in 2005 she was awarded the Carl Sagan Prize for Science Popularization at Wonder Fest. The San Francisco Bay Area Festival of Science. Tarter is very involved in childhood science education. She spearheaded the creation of two curriculum development projects funded by the National Science Foundation, NASA and others. Dr. Jill Tarter, welcome to Point of Inquiry.
Well, thank you, T.J. It’s my pleasure to be with you.
The movie Contact really put your research into the limelight. And you were named, as I just mentioned, one of the most influential people in the world by TIME magazine. Let me ask you. Does this kind of recognition, does it change how easily you get things done in science or how easily you get science funded? Are there any downsides to all this attention?
Well, I don’t think it hurts at all to be recognized and become more familiar to the general populace. It hasn’t overwhelmingly made fundraising any easier. We we got no funds from the movie Contact, partly because of our naivete, but also partly because we were in the scientific advisory capacity, which is what we should do as scientists to tell the world about what we’re doing. So fundraising remains a challenge. And it’s nice when people know our name and can spell it.
I want to talk to you about the kind of research you do it CETI and maybe talk a little bit more about science funding in a bit, too. But before all that, I’m curious about the whole study project in general. I’m curious about why you think there could be intelligent life in the universe in the first place. Is it just a numbers game, considering how vast the universe is? Or do you have other reasons for thinking there’s life elsewhere in the universe besides, you know, on this planet?
Well, numbers play a huge part, right? There are hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way galaxy and hundreds of billions of galaxies like our own in the observable universe.
So it looks like there’s a bunch of real estate out there. Now, whether any of it is habitable or indeed inhabited. That’s still an open question.
Since I left graduate school embarrassingly long time ago, we’ve been learning a lot of things that we didn’t know before. We used to think that there were planets that would be orbiting nearby and in the distant stars in the galaxy. It was a good theory.
Now we know that in fact, it is correct that there are many other planetary systems. They’re real. They’re not just a good theoretical model. And life as we know it is a planetary phenomena that is life seems to have evolved on the surface of this planet. To have been profoundly affected by the environmental conditions on the planet and in turn. Life has changed the planet profound, but so life and planet seem to be very intimately linked, at least life as we know it. Therefore, the fact that there really are other planets out there is a very positive development.
So how many possible alien civilizations do we have reason to think may exist?
As many as there are out there. I don’t know the answer to that question.
Many people ask if there is a very famous equation called the Drake Equation, which attempts to estimate the number of civilizations that could be communicating with us out there in the Milky Way galaxy. On the other hand, as you go through this equation. You end up putting in guesses. So it is really not something that you can use as a tool to calculate anything meaningful. It is a wonderful way to organize our ignorance, and it’s a very useful tool in that sense. But any answer you get out is just based on the biases and the guesses of the person who’s using the equation and trying to get an answer.
And so I don’t know the answer.
I think that it’s possible that there are other civilizations out there. The other thing that we’ve learned since I left graduate school is the extraordinary tenacity of life, a whole new branch of microbial organisms or a study of them called extremophiles. Basically, we’re giving the microbes the respect they really have always deserved.
But we tended to see ourselves as the pinnacle of life and forgot about all of the other forms of life.
Indeed, we now know that perhaps there’s as much as 10 times the biomass in microbes in the surface of the earth beneath our feet than there is on the surface of the earth and in the atmosphere. And these microbes are making their living, living on hydrogen. Essentially, there’s no sunlight. They’re totally different forms of life than I was studying when I was a student.
And it’s really amazing how we have extended the range of environmental conditions through which life can not only survive, but in fact, is very, very happy. I mean, there are organisms that love living in boiling battery acid or in radiation environments where they get millions of rads of dosage or they live in salt without water. They live in incredible environments. And this is all new since I was a student. And it has the effect of at least making the universe appear perhaps to be more bio friendly than he is. The real estate out there that might be habitable is greatly increased because it’s not just the environmental conditions that are comfortable for astronomers.
So it’s at least possible, maybe even likely, that life exists elsewhere in the universe. I want to step back a little and ask why is it important for us to even know in the first place? Why is it something that should concern humanity? Aren’t there more important science projects that merit our attention, say, work in the life sciences or medicine?
There are many, many exciting and important scientific questions, but you can’t get away from the fact that this. Are we alone? Question is perhaps the oldest of them all.
It’s not something that I got my HD and started thinking about. Right. It’s something that we have been asking ourselves since we crawled out of the cave. We look up and we wonder and we somehow can’t help but ask whether there’s anyone else out there that’s wondering as well. Mm hmm. And so it’s fundamental. It is a large, big picture question that potentially could change everything in the sense that if we can understand our place in the universe from a much more cosmic perspective to know whether indeed we are singular, whether we’re unique or whether we are one among many. And exactly where we fit into that community of other intelligence species. It would profoundly change our point of view. Just as Copernicus changed our point of view, as Darwin changed our point of view. So it’s probably not going to be one of these things that happens overnight.
But humans will have a different view about being human.
If and when we know the answer to the are we alone? Question.
So, Saidy, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is not just happy go lucky, exciting science. It has some amazing and maybe even some frightening implications for humanity if it pans out. If we find life elsewhere in the universe, if your work and others work, does discover intelligent life in the universe, couldn’t that threaten, directly threatened the received religions and traditions of the past? Wouldn’t we have to not only rethink our importance in the universe, but actually reexamine every assumption, almost every assumption that we have about our place in the universe today?
Well, it does, in fact, give us a different position. We know that either we’re singular or we’re not. That’s that’s a bit of knowledge that we don’t have now.
So I think it will require that many things be reinterpreted in the light of that new understanding. Some things some people, some belief systems already encompass the idea that life is probably prevalent throughout the cosmos.
Others find it very difficult to to accept there’s an answer out there. And I don’t know what the answer is, but the answer is, in fact, unaffected by what one group or another on this planet chooses to believe. So it’s a question we can try and answer it. I can’t guarantee that I can answer it in my lifetime or in the next few generations. But it is a very posable question and there are techniques for trying to answer it.
All right. Let’s talk about those techniques a little about exactly what you do at CFI. We care deeply about science, the scientific outlook. We care about finding things out. But few of us actually do science. We’re philosophers here or writers or activists, organizers, et cetera. But you are on the frontlines. You are using science to explore the universe firsthand.
So how do you do that? Exploring. What do you do yourself at Setit?
OK. One of the most exciting things that I do every day I raise funds. But the real exciting thing that I do is, is work on building a brand new radio telescope called the Allen Telescope Array, because the technology development and first phase of construction, we’re funded by Paul Allen of Microsoft. This is a new kind of telescope. We’re building it as a huge array, 350 small dishes, all working together to study the universe for traditional radio astronomical queries, as well as at the same time looking for these signals of technological origin. And so the way we built the telescope, the radio astronomers, the study researchers, they all get to use that telescope 24/7. So it’s a really exciting time for us. It’s a new way of doing things. I think we will very likely change the way telescope, they’re built all telescopes in the future with this concept. And it will allow me to search far more rapidly than I’ve ever been able to do across the radio spectrum and through vastly expanded list of of target stars. So I’m really excited about it. But then we come to the end of the day, which is Paul Allen funded the technology development and the first phase of construction. And I still got to raise the funds for the next three hundred and eight telescopes.
So we’re on our way. We’re starting to do science. It’s a really exciting, but we still have to raise some more money.
I’d like to let our listeners know that if you want to get involved with the second phase that Jill Tarter just mentioned, you can do so through our website point of inquiry, dot, or you’ll find said his home page and how you can become a member or otherwise get involved with Setit. So, Dr. Tarter, you just told me what you do at Saidy. What else is going on there?
Well, the City Institute as an entity has a large quadrant of scientists working here. And we work across this very vast suite of scientific exploration that’s recently been named astrobiology. So we have scientists here who work on trying to understand the origins of life on this planet. Other scientists who try and understand whether there might ever have been or in fact still be life on Mars, perhaps in liquid aquifers beneath the surface or or maybe in those fantastic oceans underneath the ice of the moon, Europa. It’s possible that there might be some form of life. So we have scientists that are addressing all of those questions. And then I get to work at one end of the spectrum, which is, well, what about life that uses technology, intelligent life?
Well, we we call it the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
But all we really can do is look for evidence of someone else’s technology. Now, if we find it, we will certainly infer that there were some intelligent technologists, at least at some point, that created the technology that we can’t even guarantee finding the technology that those technologists are still around. We may someday detect evidence of their machines, but not direct evidence of them. Nevertheless, we will have answered the question in the negative, and that is that we are not alone in the universe. And that will be a fundamentally important and I think historic answer and a particular point in time that we will never face again.
All right. Maybe the biggest discovery or the most important discovery if it happens that we’ve ever had.
Well, I think it could be very important. That’s right.
Again, right now, we are curious about cosmic company, but we don’t know whether any is there having discovered it. It seems to me that we will not be able to avoid using another technological civilization as a kind of a mirror with which to look at humans on Earth. Mm hmm. And I think we will be absolutely unable to avoid the conclusion that they are very different and we are all the same. So it will trivialize the differences among humans on this one planet that we find so difficult to deal with today because we will have an example of something that is truly different. And that is, again, it’s a shift of perspective. I think a very hopeful one and one that I’m eager to see the human race adopt.
So how is it that you actually do the looking for extraterrestrial intelligence? You point telescopes out into the universe or talk to me a little about exactly how you do the looking.
OK, at the moment, the searches for extraterrestrial technology take two forms. One is to use radio telescopes, large telescopes around the world. And indeed, we’re building our own at the Sydney Institute in partnership with the University of California at Berkeley. That’s called the Allen Telescope Array. So we listen for radio signals and we listen for radio signals whose character will tell us that indeed, it’s artificial. It’s technological. It isn’t astrophysical.
How will you know it’s artificial and not. Well, not just naturally occur.
You start by looking at what nature does.
And the universe, as we currently understand it and given the physics that we possess knowledge of at the moment, we cannot explain a radio signal that is actually occurs only at a single frequency, seeing a single tone, a single tone that really compressed in frequency.
So like a dial tone, nature seems to be able to do many things, but not that. So should we find such signals out there? And we’re building equipment that is optimized to finding that kind of the signal frequency compressed. Then we’ll either have detected another technology or we will have discovered a new form of astrophysics that we currently don’t think is possible. So in the radio part of the spectrum, long wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation, we’re looking for signals that are compressed in frequency. But we’re also using optical telescopes. So in one sense, you could say we were listening in the optical. We’re looking. We’re using telescopes and we’re looking again for signals whose characteristics are such that we don’t think they can be made by nature. And this is another type of signal which is not compressed in frequency, but compressed in time. So we’re very, very short, very bright pulses from something like a laser, from a distant technology. And so those two classes of signals are what are currently being thought. If tomorrow we wake up and invent a new technology and we say. Huh? We could use that technology as a diagnostic for extraterrestrial intelligence and go looking for that sort of thing out there in the universe. If we if we discovered something new like that tomorrow and it made sense to use it for study, we certainly would. But at the beginning of the 21st century, we’re sitting here looking for signals with a lot of artifacts in them. Either they’re compressed in frequency or they’re compressed in time. And they’re not very noisy, like because it’s easier to find such signals. We’re not confused by astrophysics and because we’re really the dumbest kids on the block that can play in this league. And so we look for the easy things first.
I’d like to talk to you again about funding. We talk just briefly about that earlier. And I also want to talk about the new Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe. You’ve been very successful at finding private funding for this kind of research. But most important, science in America since the mid 20th century, anyway, has was done through universities and other taxpayer funded research centers. The government was paying for it. Do you think the recent cut in funding at NASA is because of the kind of science that NASA does? Saidi’s funding’s cut because of said kind of science? Or is all science getting less funding? I guess what I’m asking is, should all scientists turn into fund raisers and become skillful like you are at securing private funding? Is that what’s needed at the new Carl Sagan Center?
Well, I’ll tell you, if we all have to turn into fundraisers, we’ll do a lot of the science. So I’m hoping that that isn’t the road that everyone has to go. Certainly the termination of NASA’s steady funding in 1993, for whatever reason, that was a single senator who was responsible. We’ve never understood the rationale. The current situation, however, where the entire field of astrobiology is threatened with a 50 percent cut is the result of administrative or. Executive, let’s say, decisions. Which is that NASA is mandated to keep the shuttle and the International Space Station running. They are mandated by the exploration vision to send humans to the moon and perhaps Mars beyond. And then the third piece of the portfolio is their science program and their aeronautics. And there isn’t enough funding allocated to NASA to do all of these jobs. And so in order to accommodate the executive mandate, decisions have been made essentially to raid the science accounts. They already rated the aeronautics accounts last year. So it’s the science accounts that are under pressure this year in order to provide funding for the human exploration. And that’s unfortunate. A much better world would be one in which NASA was given these enormously exciting challenges and funded to do the job. So it’s it’s really always a terrible decision to have to decide which of your children you’re going to eat, right? Mm hmm. But there are politics at work. They would not be my choice of politics. But that is what is in play. And the unfortunate thing is, once you undo something, given the nature of the funding cycle and the lead times, you kind of talking about eight years to recover from any kind of really disastrous decisions with respect to funding for astrobiology to lose 50 percent of the funding for a field that NASA has been building from the ground up for the last 10 years.
And it has just now gotten our first bona fide astrobiology P. D graduating looking for a job. And the message is, well, sorry, funding’s going elsewhere. So these wonderful bright students are going to go elsewhere as well. And that’s that’s a real loss to to the country. The astrobiology, the cross disciplinary nature of it. These fundamental questions, where did we come from? Where are we going? Are we alone? They’re working in the same way that Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series did to capture the imagination. And it’s bringing in the best and the brightest graduate students to the program. They’re really amazingly effective and they’re being trained unlike the multitudes of generations of students before them, to use the tools, the thinking styles and the techniques of multiple different disciplines. So they’re at home with microbiology or chemistry or geology or astronomy. And they’re perfectly facile at poking at a particular question and going outside their own expertize and discipline to find solutions. And I think that is the kind of student we want to produce for the future that we can’t lay out other than to say we’re pretty sure it’s going to be different than what we’re seeing now. So encouraging this kind of adaptability and flexibility, as well as the same kind of scientific rigor that the PHC program has always demanded is, I think, the good thing for the future. And I’m really sorry to see it threatened with the 07 proposed budget cuts. Now, having said that, I need to say that at the Sydney Institute, we’ve been doing astrobiology since 1984 when we incorporated the institute before there was even a word for astrobiology. And we’ve had consistently within the Study Institute two different centers, the Center for Setit Research. That’s my job. And then the Center for the Study for Life in the Universe that’s been there and associated with it has been the Carl Sagan endowed chair. So what we’ve done or actually rather what Scott Hubbard, who is the former director of NASA Ames Research Center and often viewed as the father of astrobiology, when Scott joined us earlier this year as the Carl Sagan endowed shareholder for the Study of Life in the Universe, Scott realized that what we needed to do was to create a focus. So the Center for the Study of Life in the Universe. It’s here. It’s been great. It has wonderful scientists who do fabulous work, but nobody knows about it. And so God has pulled together a lot of different pieces and a lot of different research threads. And he. Has created this newly named Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe. And we were delighted that Andrian could join us yesterday to to celebrate the launch of this center. And Scott has undertaken the job of, in addition to federal funds, trying to diversify the portfolio to find other funding sources for the excellent scientists here doing astrobiology. And it’s not just the individual philanthropic opportunities that we’re looking at. We’re really looking at a lot of amazing commercial potential. Studying extreme organisms that have capabilities of repairing their DNA could be extraordinarily useful in finding treatments for cancer. The pharmaceutical industry actually is is potentially a very excellent source of funding for studying life that’s almost in the range of life as we don’t yet know it. All right. It’s these extremophile. We have a wonderful, serendipitous result of cracking open rocks here. One of our researchers splitting open rocks and looking at the organic chemistry that takes place when that fracture happens as a tool to study how life might have started on the earth. Well, very long, circuitous path, but perhaps the end result of that may be a significant predictor for earthquakes. Well, you’re talking about hours or days of knowledge about an earthquake precursor. And so we could we could perhaps in the future manage risk in a different way.
So there’s a real payoff to all this kind of research and consequently, private funders are stepping up and seeing that potential.
Well, we’re certainly hoping that they will. This is this is a challenge that Scott Hubbard has. And as he likes to say, the really exciting innovation takes place at the boundaries between fields, places which are often neglected. And here at the City Institute and within the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe, a whole lot of exploration at the boundaries is taking place.
I’d like to remind our listeners that if you want more information about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, you can get it through our Web site, point of inquiry, dot org.
Before we finish up, I want to ask you about evolution and teaching evolution. You have a long history being an ardent defender of science education, even developing curricula yourself for spearheading the development of curricula yourself. The Life in the Universe series for grades three through nine, The Voyages through Time, which is this series teaching evolution in six modules. Let me ask you about evolution and science education. Most people think of biology when they think of evolution. Evolution of life on this planet. But you’ve done work on the evolution of the whole universe from the simplest beginnings of the universe to this big, expansive universe today. So obviously, you believe in the theory of evolution. Here’s the question. Why do you think that it’s so threatening to some people in our society? I mean, why is it not unsettling and threatening to you? All right.
Well, from a scientific perspective, you look around you. And over time and over space, everything evolves.
Everything changes over time. That’s all evolution means. It really isn’t so terribly threatening. Nevertheless, certain groups have decided to stigmatize evolution if you wish to to make it in conflict with a religious belief.
And that is what has at the base of all this discussion. Created the problem.
There are other religious traditions. Which can fully absorb the concept of everything changing over time, including life. Humans. As well as molecules and microbes and in stars and galaxies.
Well suited to certain religious traditions, and it is in fact celebrated by some of the oldest traditions. But there are other traditions which find it necessary to make humans absolutely the pinnacle and special in this universe.
And the universe is special for them. And those are the religious belief systems which come in conflict with this idea of change over time and there being ethics where we’re humans did not exist. And looking into the future at a time where once again, humans may not exist, that’s very uncomfortable for them.
And I think as a scientist, when I can look at the detailed evidence for the interconnectedness of everything that we call life. On this planet. I can find no argument that supports the specialness.
Of humans, which would need to set them aside and outside of this scheme of change over time and evolution. So it just is a hot button topic because now you’re talking about what people believe, not what is or what isn’t, but what people believe. And belief systems have always been there. Science is not science is a new way of knowing. And a very effective way because it allows us to make predictions and to test those predictions and to decide what particular outcome is the most likely and what explanation is going to be the most correct that we can come up with at this time, irrespective of the beliefs of the scientists.
That is true. And yet the scientists are perfectly capable and many do, of holding their own separate belief system. So science is what science is. Some other people hold other belief systems and that’s fine. The problem is when you say that a particular religious tradition or belief system should usurp.
The teaching of science should be substituted for or even taught as the same as because they are different.
So speaking of the fear of science that we find in some quarters of our society, this this anti science bias, especially among those who try to organize against the teaching of evolution in the public schools.
Do you think all of that fear people being threatened by science? Do you think that has anything to do with the cuts in scientific funding that we’re seeing today?
Well, you’re asking a very interesting question.
If if we were not in the apparently most religious epic of the United States history today, would we be funding science more robustly? I actually think if we weren’t fighting a war, we’d be funding science more robustly, to put it bluntly.
Yes, I worry and I’m concerned about the inappropriate influence of religious ideas over science.
But in fact, when it comes to the bottom line of what we as a nation can afford. In terms of funding our curiosity and keeping us at the cutting edge of science and technology, the bottom line is we can’t fight a war and do that to.
Thank you very much for joining us on Point of inquiry. Jill Tarter, thank you.
Well, I wish you luck because you’ve taking on a huge challenge and I really am very pleased that you included me.
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Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiries. Music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Quailing. Contributors to today’s show include Sarah Jordan, Debbie Goddard, Tom Flynn and Very Carr. I’m your host DJ Grothe.