Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence comes to DePauw

Dr. Donna M. Jurdy. Photo courtesy of LinkedIn.

After “War of the Worlds” was released in 1938, movies involving alien invasions have frequented cinemas. While each movie takes a spin of its own on what the first encounter will entail, there is very little factual basis behind it.

On Feb. 12, DePauw’s Geoscience department hosted Dr. Donna M. Jurdy from Northwestern University. The subject of Jurdy’s presentation was the search for extraterrestrial intelligence from the perspective of an earth scientist.

In terms of extraterrestrial movies and books, Jurdy claimed to have seen and read them all.

“I really recommend the Charlie Sheen movie [‘The Arrival’], it is very interesting and creative,” Jurdy said.

The influential role of alien movies on the public is one of the reasons why senior Kaleb VanArsdale chose to attend the presentation on extraterrestrial intelligence.

“My initial interest came from watching the movie ‘Signs’ and grew as shows like ‘Ancient Aliens’ became popular,” VanArsdale said.

While popular media has long fantasized about the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, Jurdy is one of many scientists around the world who has dedicated their life to the search.

But what does extraterrestrial intelligence have to do with Earth science? Earth’s oldest rocks from four billion years ago show evidence of life. Many of the clues to extraterrestrial intelligence can be found in rocks dated from four billion years ago. Jurdy said that a planet’s habitability depends on three things: a solid surface, atmosphere, and liquid on the surface.

Scientists have calculated a habitability index. Earth scores the highest with a .96, but Titan, the big moon of Saturn, scores the next highest with an .84.

Based on the above requirements, Titan is a possible candidate to support life. The liquid found on Titan; however, is methane which can be found there as a solid, liquid, and gas.

The role of geology in this search is one of the reasons why sophomore Rachel Moore wanted to hear Jurdy speak.

As a woman inside of the geoscience department at DePauw, I was pleased to see the representation of successful women in geoscience in professional settings,” Moore said. “A lot of times at DePauw, especially career fairs, I feel as if there is a severe lack of not only applicable information for my field of study, but also a lack of women in these fields as well.”

Although there is extensive research being done on the search for extraterrestrial life, there is very little government funding.

“I think it is a fear thing,” Jurdy said. “For Congress, this is just not something they want to do.”

The severity of the lack of funding for space programs is one of the main takeaways from the presentation for VanArsdale.

“Beyond exoplanet research, little progress has been made in recent years; however, all signs point to the existence of extraterrestrial life being a likelihood,“ VanArsdale said.

After the moon landing in the 70s, space research and the excitement surrounding it was at an all time high. “In the 70s, we had people saying that we would have people on Mars in 20 years,” Jurdy said. “But where are we in 50? Nowhere.”

Although extraterrestrial intelligence has yet to be found, Jurdy remains hopeful and excited about the advances that may happen within our lifetime.

“What we’ve seen on Earth is that life moves very quickly,” Jurdy said. “But of those planets, how many go on to be intelligent life?”