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Tech Q&A

Jeffrey Bennett

Describe your latest project.
Nearly everyone is fascinated by the possibility that we are not alone in the universe, and many people believe we are already being visited by aliens in UFOs. I'm not yet convinced that is the case, though I'd love to see it proven true. Meanwhile, even without proof of alien existence, we can learn a great deal about both ourselves and about the possibility of finding others by moving beyond the usual arguments about whether UFOs are real, and instead focusing on the amazing things that we already know and can already infer through the power of science. My goal in Beyond UFOs is to draw in readers of all stripes, from the most enthusiastic believers in UFOs to the most skeptical practitioners of science, and help them not only to think about what alien life might be like, but more importantly to think about the astonishing ways in which the search for life may alter the future of our own civilization. Or, as I put it in the first paragraph of Chapter 1:

This is a book about possibilities. It is about the possibility that, within a decade or two, robotic or human explorers will drill into the Martian surface and discover microscopic life in subterranean pockets of liquid water. It is about the possibility of landing spaceborne submarines on Jupiter's moon Europa, where they might melt their way through miles of ice and observe life swimming in a volcanically heated ocean. It is about the possibility of strange, cold-adapted life forms on Saturn's moon Titan, a world on which we have already landed a robotic emissary, despite its being located nearly a billion miles away. It is about the possibility of SETI researchers detecting an unmistakable signal coming to us from a civilization that has grown up around a faraway star. It is about the possibility that we may already be surrounded by a galactic civilization, populated by beings who surpassed our own current level of development millions or even billions of years ago. Most of all, it is about the possibilities that await us, if and when we learn that we are not alone in the universe.

  1. Beyond UFOs: The Search for Extraterrestrial Life and Its Astonishing Implications for Our Future
    $8.50 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "[C]ogent and entertaining language....This political message is couched in fascinating and completely accessible science. Bennett does a wonderful job of explaining the conditions necessary for simple life, how we might discern its existence and where we should be looking." Publishers Weekly (starred review)
  2. On the Cosmic Horizon: Ten Great Mysteries for Third Millennium Astronomy (Mysteries for the New Millennium)
    $11.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist

What inspires you to sit down and write?
I believe we are at a crisis point in human history, faced with many challenges that are scientific in nature. We can meet these challenges only if we understand them, and understanding depends on education. I've therefore dedicated my career to trying to help in the cause of global education. Through good fortune, I now have the opportunity to reach many people through my writing. I therefore write with a sense of urgency, fearing that if I and many others do not work fast enough to educate the world, it may soon be too late.

Describe your favorite childhood teacher and how that teacher influenced you.
Rather than reaching back to childhood, I'll note two people who probably had the greatest influence on my career. The first was an elementary school teacher in San Diego named Anne Earlywine, for whom I worked as a teaching assistant while I was a college undergraduate. She was an incredible mentor, and I believe it was my time working with her that helped me learn how to teach.

The second was the late Carl Sagan. Though I only got to meet him personally on a couple of occasions, his writing and his Cosmos series were what inspired me to focus my teaching on astronomy and the "big picture" ideas of human existence.

Have you ever taken the Geek Test? How did you rate?
I've never heard of it.

Chess or video games?
Neither; I don't have the patience needed for games.

What do you do for relaxation?
My family is the focal point of my life, so I try to do as much as possible with them. We do family trips, family hikes, and even family runs (being from fitness-crazed Boulder, both of my elementary-age children are already veteran runners of 10K races). On my own, I participate in Masters swimming, and also love to bike.

Douglas Adams or Scott Adams?
That's a tough one, as I love both of them. The Hitchhiker's Guide series is hilarious and also shows a lot of scientific literacy. Scott Adams often does the same with mathematical/quantitative literacy.

What was your favorite book as a kid?
I can't really recall a single favorite, but I started to like science fiction very early, and read a lot of it.

What new technology do you think may actually have the potential for making people's lives better?
I think almost any new technology has the potential to make people's lives better if it is used in the right way. And therein lies the rub: Too often, we use technology in ways that tend to hurt us rather than help us. Again, education is the key to improving this situation, since we can use technology properly only when we really understand it and its implications.

What was your best subject in high school? Your worst?
I was best in math and physics; worst in foreign languages (which sadly makes me typical of most Americans).

What are some of the things you'd like your computer to do that it cannot now do?
Accurate translations of languages.

Describe the best museum of science and/or industry you've ever visited and what made it great.
Many are excellent, but for kids I especially like the Exploratorium, because they have such a great set of interactive exhibits that really engage kids.

By the end of your life, where do you think humankind will be in terms of new science and technological advancement?
Assuming we don't have some sort of global collapse of civilization — which is something I think everyone should be greatly concerned about — then we'll be more advanced than we are today. More than that I can't really say, because I think pretty much all predictions of future technology beyond about 10-20 years are bogus. We cannot know what new discoveries will be made.

Which country do you believe currently leads the world in science and technology? In ten years?
The United States is clearly still the leader, but largely because so many people from so many different nations come to work together here. I doubt that this basic situation will change a lot in 10 years, but what I really hope is that people will decide it's no longer an important question. That is, I'd like to see international exchange and cooperation increase to the point where national boundaries are no longer a defining characteristic of progress in science and technology. Or, as I describe it in my book, I hope the human race will start to grow up.

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Jeffrey Bennett is an astrophysicist, author, and educator. He is the author or coauthor of leading college-level textbooks in astrobiology, astronomy, mathematics, and statistics, including Life in the Universe. He is also the author of On the Cosmic Horizon and the children's books Max Goes to the Moon and Max Goes to Mars.

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