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Scientists Strike Back

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Seth Shostak predicts we are likely to make contact with life on another planet in the very near future. Photo by Antennen via Wikimedia Commons

If something—kaiju attack, the rise of a previously undetected volcano, or the arrival of interdimensional aliens—destroys Silicon Valley Comic Con this weekend, there goes my childhood. In the house or in the wings are Batman (Adam West), Kirk (William Shatner), Foxy Brown (Pam Grier), Freddy Kreuger (Robert England), Robby the Robot, the guy who held up the tape deck (John Cusack) as well as a great deal of the Star Trek: Next Generation cast (see page 12).

But while the actors behind the masks, phasers and .45 pistols are drawing the crowds, this year's convention has made an admirable mix of the fantasy with hard science and engineering. If the geekery on the sales floor seems at times puerile, there is a possibility of escaping to learn something.

Five scientists to watch:
Jessica Coon At McGill University, where she teaches linguistics, this Canadian professor works with the Mig'mak First Nation (often identified as Micmac). She's also a regular visitor to Chiapas as part of her efforts to study different Mayan languages. All very interesting, but she may be best known as a consultant on the film Arrival. In an essay she wrote for the Museum of the Moving Image, Coon explained that the human tongues from Polynesia to the Arctic follow certain parameters. So how could one communicate with aliens? Arrival turns on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis—the idea one's language shapes the mind, an argument key to the drama in Arrival. Coon considers the hypothesis a "dangerous" idea—that more harmony than differences exist between the speakers and their tongues. In the absence of getting a Heptapodese For Idiots book, we could face our own serious terrestrial problem of some 6,000 languages going extinct by the end of the century.

Seth Shostak I had a lovely fight with a friend about Stephen Hawking's warnings about "ringing the bell," to use the evil Lex Luthor's phrase, which describes the danger of alerting aliens to our existence on Earth. I told my friend that on this one tiny subject, I knew exactly as much as Stephen Hawking, which was absolutely bugger-all. And like anyone who knew nothing, I was happy to argue that using untold amounts of energy to get here to take what little we have would be like a man deciding that the most efficient way to go out for a pack of smokes was to fly to Singapore. Still, killer aliens make for good movies, don't they? It'd be instructive to hear Shostak, a senior astronomer for the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life. He's been turning an ear to the skies for a decade, and he insists we'll hear from ET sometime in the very near future. This exciting and amusing speaker argues that the technology is getting better (Moore's Law and so forth) so data-sifting occurs with more speed, which is why NASA has lately been finding quite a few Earth-like planets. When some alien does turn up, rather than hiding the news, the word will get out pronto. "The media will be on the story as fast as a weasel on ball-bearings," says Shostak in a TED talk.

Jana Levin "An acute critical mind haloed with generosity" is the way the New York Times described this scholar and novelist. Levin is the author of A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, which weaves the different lives of the ill-fated scientists Alan Turing and Kurt Godel. The Barnard professor's specialty is black holes and the attempt to discover evidence of gravitational waves, the subject of her heralded study Black Hole Blues.

Laetitia Garriott de Cayeux What she does is not rocket science. I lie. Actually, it is. This Harvard Business School alumnus' company, Escape Dynamics, is the private sector developer that has engineered seven round trips to the International Space Station. In 2011, she became the youngest person to undergo neutral buoyancy training (at the Gagarin Training Center at Russia's Star City). Among her research interests is the possibility of using microwave propulsion for space vessels.

Martin Rees Baron Rees of Ludlow, a self-described "astronomer and worried member of the human race ," is a professor emeritus from Cambridge and past president of the Royal Society. In other words, for five years the baron had the job that previously belonged to Sir Isaac Newton, Sir Joseph Banks and Lord Rutherford. A student of deep space, Rees is the author of books warning that scientists need to unite to protest the global follies that seem likely to kill us all. His Our Final Century deals with the hazards of the 21st century and the question of human life in the far future, lives which "will be as different from us as we are from bacteria."