At SETIcon 2012: Planetary Spit-Swapping, Dark Energy As a Singularity and Other Bizarro Space Science

This is ground control to SETIcon

Space Cocktails

The cocktails at the convention bar were crafted with space cadets in mind.Rebecca Boyle

SANTA CLARA, CALIF. — I'm huddled outside the Hyatt hotel entrance, shivering with a notepad in hand and half listening to the pop music coming from "Christia and Derick's wedding reception," when Erika Dunning breaks the news. "The International Space Station is passing overhead in four minutes," she says, reading her NASA iPhone app. "Thirty degrees above northwest, 66 degrees max elevation."

Heads turn, and we all gather around the only telescope at this parking lot star party. "This will be a good view," Erika assures her fellow SETIcon attendees. She's 12 years old. A couple minutes later, the hodgepodge group of science fiction fans, aspirational rocket scientists and self-affirmed space nerds all stare skyward, watching as the unmistakably steady and surprisingly bright ISS sails over the hotel. A small cheer rises. "Sweet!" says Nick Orenstein, 29, capturing the moment pretty much perfectly. "I've never seen this before."

Never doubt the power of exploration to bring people together.

That's the goal of the second SETI Institute Convention — hundreds of space enthusiasts and science evangelists came together to ask questions, buy and wear awesome T-shirts, and talk with breathless, uninhibited glee about the crazy science that keeps them up at night. Luminaries like Frank Drake and Bill Nye, along with planetary scientists, "Star Trek" actors and educators, filled two days of talks. Topics included antagonistic aliens, panspermia ("planetary spit-swapping happens," SETI scientist Dale Andersen said), robot rights and the 100-Year Starship. It's the only convention, as Institute for the Future researcher Ariel Waldman said, where people will be glad to tell you which of Saturn's rings is his favorite, or which extremophile is the best.

"Scientists need to allow a wider range of people to be excited about space, and things like this really help with that," Orenstein said. "This is a good mix between scientists and enthusiasts — the enthusiasts are glad to see the scientists, and the scientists are glad to see the enthusiasts."

I was also glad to see the attire, and the general aspect, of the people in attendance. These people love this stuff, if the sales of Romulan Ale and other similarly-themed items gives any indication. But I'd venture a bet that many of them dampen their enthusiasm Monday through Friday, 9 to 5. When they're surrounded by fellow lovers, however, the smart-yet-nerdy-person armor falls, and it's liberating. (I'd be lying if I didn't include myself in this generalization.)

Consider the T-shirts: One reads "And God Said Gauss's flux theorem and then there was light." Another commemorates the last shuttle launch. Another, sported by C.J. Smith, shows all the telescope mirrors of Mauna Kea in increasing size. This is the souvenir T-shirt Smith brought home from Hawaii, mind you — no hibiscus flowers or surfboards for her. "I love how excited everybody is," she said of the conventioneers.

The look isn't limited to cloth. Scientists and science geeks love tattoos, as we know, and there's an array of them at SETIcon. I was distracted during a Doomsday 2012 panel by the Hourglass Nebula (MyCn 18) covering Renee Park's right calf. She was 11 when Hubble photographed it, and she decided at age 13 it would be her first tattoo; now she has five depicting stars or nebulae, she said. This was her second SETIcon, and she credits the 2010 inaugural with setting her down a new career path — she just started a second bachelor's degree in physics at the University of Nevada-Reno. The former political scientist wants to do a Ph.D and work on SOHO, studying our own star.

As it happens, this was not an uncommon story. Tattoos and T-shirts are just outward manifestations — lots of SETIcon people are embracing their love of space science in official, professional ways. I talked to Park Saturday morning, and by the end of the convention I had talked to at least a half dozen others who had switched careers or study programs toward space-related avenues. Kira Lorber, 30, was a nurse before taking a job on a lark with the Mars Institute, and now she spends three weeks a year in the Arctic studying rocks. Orenstein went back to school to study astronautical engineering, and so on. "There are a lot of enthusiasts-turned-doers," Orenstein said. "If we could all find ways to pay the bills thinking about and doing stuff like this, most people in this building would do it."

This has to be great news for the SETI Institute; SETIcon is meant to raise funds and awareness, and it seems to be working.

For scientists, the sessions may have been light on substance, but they were still an opportunity to hear questions from dedicated followers and critics, and to share their research with a wider audience. The braver ones wore yellow tags encouraging attendees to ask them questions at "fireside chats," which occasionally turned into sprawling discussions of fish on Europa or the interstellar implications of the human tendency for conquest. Jill Tarter, who is retiring as head of the SETI Institute to focus on fundraising, was the source of many such extraordinary ideas. My favorite: "What is dark matter and dark energy? Do we not understand gravity, or is it a manifestation of some super-singularity of an alien civilization?"

Out-there thought experiments aside, there was plenty of practical discussion about the difficulties of space travel and of searching for life on other worlds with humans or with robots. It was quite serious, grounded in reality. This is interesting, because compared with space science generally, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence has long been on the fringes, considered the realm of tinfoil-wearing conspiracy theorists or science fiction lovers. But events like SETIcon evince a turning tide.

Sessions that included the Kepler Space Telescope, finder of planetary plenitude, drew enormous crowds. Thanks in large measure to that telescope, we now know planets are everywhere, so the possibility of life on them — and potentially looking for it, and finding it — is not so bizarre.

And neither, then, is being totally, nerdtasically stoked about it.