Jill Tarter's talk at TED on SETI and using analogy to show the vastness of the universe

Monday, February 15, 2010

For some reason I never got around to seeing Jill Tarter's talk at TED last year on SETI until today, and after having watched it I can say that it's absolutely excellent. The video is over 20 minutes in length, and part of what makes the presentation so powerful (besides the presentation itself and her excellent speaking voice, which I can only describe as one with a kind of rhythmically stumbly but fluid and ever forward-moving kind of lilt to it) is her use of analogy to explain some of the vastness of the universe, something I attempt to do so here from time to time such as:

-this post on the distance from here to Alpha Centauri,

-this one on visualizing the surface area (not just the diameter) of planets and asteroids, and

-this one showing the difference between the distance from the Earth to the Moon compared to the Earth to Mars.

Since numbers involved in space are so immense it's very important that we are able to put them into a picture that is easy to understand. This post showing the difference between military funding vs. national space programs is also very important, as whenever the subject of funding comes up (e.g. "there's enough funding to do X" vs. "there's not enough funding to do Y") we need to remember that this is only based on the assumption that we are using but a sliver of our total potential to explore space. NASA for example only receives 0.55% of the total US federal budget. The average household in the US makes $50,000 a year so 0.55% would work out to $23 there, or taking the family out to dinner at McDonalds once a month.

And countries like Canada spend even less. In spite of having budget surpluses throughout the 1990s and up until about two years ago, the Canadian Space Agency only received $375 million a year, or 0.14% of the total budget. That's the equivalent of $6 a month for an average household, or one fancy cup of coffee at Starbucks. The Canadian Space Agency was formed in 1989 with a $300 million budget, and since then has pretty much drifted with budget increases pegged to inflation. It certainly has made contributions in niche areas, but Canada could easily have tripled the budget a decade ago and barely noticed.

In addition to comparing numbers in this way, imagery is also effective. Jill Tarter mentions the Kepler space telescope (back then it hadn't been launched yet; now it's in the middle of its mission and has already detected five extrasolar planets) in her talk but it's also good to remember just how small an area even this impressive telescope is currently surveying. Here is how much of the galaxy we're able to see with it:

Now add to that another 200-400 billion other galaxies or so, and we have the entire known universe.

So with some of that in mind, enjoy the talk if you've never gotten around to seeing it either. Subtitles are available in Russian, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, and Spanish if that's your mother tongue or you are studying one of them.


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