I am a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State and a member of its Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds. In 2018, I launched Penn State’s first graduate-level course in SETI, one of only two in the United States. In addition to my SETI work, I studies stars, their atmospheres, their magnetic activity, and their planets. I am the project scientist for NEID, a NASA project to provide the US community with a premier planet-finding instrument at Kitt Peak National Observatory, a principal investigator of NExSS (NASA’s Nexus for Exoplanet System Science, and a member of The Habitable Zone Planet Finder team at Penn State, which searches the very nearest stars for planets that could host liquid water.

Full press release: https://seti.org/press-release/seti-institute-names-jason-wright-recipient-2019-drake-award

Recent video: https://youtu.be/T5P_eq85gzg

Proof: https://twitter.com/Astro_Wright/status/1125370444398436355

[Edit: Thanks for the great questions, everyone. I'm signing off now to get ready for the ceremony tonight, then the flight back to State College. Cheers!]

Comments: 279 • Responses: 56  • Date: 

WretchedMotorcade92 karma

You can launch one thing into space and it never comes back, what do you choose?

AstroWright197 karma

A 30 meter serviceable space telescope with imaging and spectral capabilities from 0.3-100 microns.

exohugh73 karma

Is the Fermi paradox really a paradox if we've barely even searched a tiny fraction of the radio parameter space?

And if it is, what is your favoured "solution"?

AstroWright173 karma

No, it is not a paradox at all, both in the formal logical sense and in the sense that there is not much to explain, as you say, because we've barely looked.

Keep in mind Fermi's original articulation of the "paradox" was why, if the Galaxy has technological life, they aren't *here right now.* To answer this, I would point to the Earth. Humans have had the time and technology to go to every single part of the planet many times over for centuries, but most parts of the planet have no obvious sign of humans or their technology. Somewhere, an ant analog of Enrico Fermi is in the anthill cafeteria, pondering the existence of humans and asking the table, "where is everybody?".

ShoppingCart9640 karma

What would you say is one thing that SETI could find that serves as undeniable proof of the existence of alien life??

AstroWright64 karma

Persistent narrowband radio transmissions or laser pulses.

JonSolo134 karma

How much did Contact influence you?

AstroWright33 karma

It's hard to say! I was in college when it came out, but I don't remember when I first saw it or whether I related to it at all.

Chtorrr24 karma

What is the very best cheese?

AstroWright150 karma

This is a trick question.

"Best" is a superlative, and so qualifiers like "very" are oxymoronic, implying that there are multiple "best" cheeses, with some being more "best" than others.

Also, cheeses occupy a range of flavor and culinary dimensions, and so the most appropriate cheese depends on a the particular dish or occasion for eating it. So no cheese can be the "best" in a generic sense.

Also, gouda is the very best cheese.

CitoyenEuropeen24 karma

What can you tell us about KIC 8462652 long term dimming?

Edit : For context, the three subreddits pondering this star right now :

r/KIC8462852_Gone_Wild : inclusive forum where folks can propose and discuss highly-speculative and off-the-wall ideas

r/KIC8462852 : exploration and examination of all things related to KIC 8462852

r/KIC8462852_Analysis : discussion of the secular dimming trends using data from Las Cumbres Observatory with focus on data, methods, software, and analysis

AstroWright41 karma

Well, it looks like it's caused by dust because Eva Bodman has shown that the dimming over the past 2 years has been stronger in blue light than red. It's not monotonic though—recently the star got a bit brighter than usual.

Montet & Simon showed that the star definitely got dimmer during the 4 years it was studied by the Kepler mission. Schaefer's claim that it has dimmed a lot over the last century would seem to have held up to me, though there has been a lot of work by Hippke et al. claiming that this conclusion is not robust.

CitoyenEuropeen7 karma

Well thank you for your answer, could you expand on this part a bit more?

claim that it has dimmed a lot over the last century would seem to have held up to me

calboy223 karma

Do aliens live amongst us?

AstroWright46 karma

No, there is no good evidence for this.

calboy212 karma

Is there any evidence of life on another planet?

AstroWright54 karma

Not any evidence I find very persuasive, but there are people who think all of the hints of evidence of life on Mars (purported nanofossils, methane cycles) are starting to become more than just suggestive.

mrpotatomoto20 karma

What's your favorite scifi novel related to first contact? (if you have such a favorite)

AstroWright41 karma

I always liked Childhood's End and Rendezvous with Rama.

FishingPerson19 karma

What do you think of Flat-Earthers? How much do you hate them? (If you do)

AstroWright49 karma

I don't really understand the Flat Earth phenomenon. It's not the only such myth that a group of people find community in believing against all evidence and against strong public mockery. I presume similar groups have always existed, and that there is a lot of sociology and psychology that goes into understanding the phenomenon.

I can imagine how it would be very powerful to believe that you are a member of a small community that is wise and brave enough to understand the real truth about the world.

ladypembroke16 karma

Why a graduate course in SETI? Do you have trouble filling seats and what topics do you cover?

AstroWright47 karma

Because SETI needs to mature as an academic discipline, and formalizing it as a curriculum with a canon is a time-tested way of doing that. My hope is that we can standardize the field and give researchers a roadmap for learning it.

No trouble filling seats, it's a popular subject! Even SETI skeptics enjoyed it. Keep in mind, though, that a typical graduate course in our department is 5-10 students.

pshawny15 karma

Does Drake hand out the award?

AstroWright6 karma

Yup!

Rough_Idle15 karma

How close are we to measuring exoplanet magnetic fields? Pop science lists of possible Earth cousins lack this info and it seems like a really important feature for a habitable world.

AstroWright17 karma

Yes, it could be an important feature of a life-bearing planet. There is some evidence for magnetic fields of gas giant planets orbiting close to their parent stars from the bow shock the field makes with the star's wind. There is also work at Penn State and other places to figure out how the magnetic fields of even more massive objects work.

But it will be very hard to measure the magnetic field of terrestrial worlds. I'm not even sure how to go about it. I suppose we could try to find auroral emission, but that would be extraordinarily weak.

JustHere4RedditPorn12 karma

Thank you for this AMA. How far off do you think we are from being able to study the atmospheres of distant exoplanets for signs of a biosphere or artificial emissions?

AstroWright14 karma

Artificial emissions like radio or laser emissions we can look for now (and are looking for now!).

Atmospheres of terrestrial exoplanets are hard, but we have a good shot with the James Webb Space Telescope to try.

Arch359112 karma

Hello Jason!

Thank you for taking the time to do an AMA. I have several questions, actually.

  1. What do you think is the likelihood of us finding life on one of the icey moons (Enceladus / Europa) within our solar system or possibly within the methane oceans of Titan beyond the form of a microbe? And if there are any chances, what form do you think it would take?

  2. If/when we discover life outside of our solar system farther in the future, what form of life would you be most interested to learn about? (Avian, Aquatic, Predatorial, etc)

  3. And Finally: I'm a graphic designer and looking to move into a more scientific role with bringing communication/information design to the complex nature of science. I want to be able to illustrate and convey challenging concepts and data to a wider ranged audience for better educational means. What would you suggest is the best route or starting steps I should take to move my design to a more professional science setting?

Thank you for your time!

AstroWright17 karma

1) I don't know! But I'm looking forward to NASA missions to find out.

2) Technological life

3) Graphical design is an important part of science communication. Space art and infographics both do a lot to make scientific ideas penetrate into the popular consciousness. I don't know how to pursue these specialties formally, but you could ask for informational interviews with successful practitioners like Laure Hatch or Katie Peek. You could also ask editors at popular science maganizes like PopSci or SciAm for advice.

Birdmeistr12 karma

I would like to go back to school to study math and physics, and eventually get into research/academia. The logical part of me says I shouldn't because of student debt, limited earning potential, etc. But the idealist in me says that when I'm 70, I'll regret not doing what I really wanted to do.

What would you say to convince me to pursue my dream and passion for science?

AstroWright22 karma

Are you thinking about an undergraduate degree or a graduate degree? Graduate degrees in the sciences and engineering are often debt-free affairs, with programs (which are competitive) offering tuition waivers and stipends to their students.

If you do not yet have a STEM undergraduate degree but are a strong student you could prepare at state schools to save on tuition for the undergraduate degree.

But yes, it will not make you rich to be an academic. But once you get a permanent position, the lifestyle can be comfortable if you're doing funded research.

domino79 karma

If we find evidence of intelligent life out in the universe, do you think we should try to make contact, or would you suggest we just turn off the lights and pretend nobody's home?

AstroWright21 karma

My guess is that we will discover them at great distance and that it will not really be "contact." I also suspect we will just keep doing what we're doing because we've already been pretty obvious, and at any rate we can't really hide the fact that there is life on Earth.

HugodeCrevellier8 karma

Once, a long time ago but in this here galaxy, I took an undergrad bioastronomy course. It fit the description 'fascinating fun!' perfectly. But fun was also the only reason I took it. Would a student today have to be similarly motivated? Are you optimistic about the field?

AstroWright14 karma

Very optimistic. Astronomy continues to be popular with students, especially Life in the Universe classes. It's a question that drives a lot of people to want to work in the field.

CitoyenEuropeen7 karma

Was WOW an FRB?

AstroWright10 karma

I don't think so; my understanding is that it lasted far too long.

snormie6 karma

[removed]

AstroWright24 karma

I hate to even hazard a guess, but when I plan for the future of the field, I have to be conservative and assume that we will not succeed by then.

hops4beer5 karma

What do you think about season 8 so far?

AstroWright18 karma

I actually haven't been watching at all. I read the first 2 or 3 books so I generally know what it's all about. I read the recaps by Matt Yglesias so that I can at least nod along when it comes up in conversations like this.

GillyCharles5 karma

What advice do you have for a current undergrad student (electrical engineer) trying to pursue a career at the SETI institute?

AstroWright11 karma

I can't speak for SI (I work at Penn State), but I would start with the SETI Institute REU program:

https://www.seti.org/research-experience-undergraduates

Most researchers at SI study various parts of astrobiology and planetary science, so getting involved in those fields would help, perhaps through aerospace engineering or instrument design.

UC Berkeley also has a program for undergraduate students interested in SETI, and I imagine they'd be very interested in students with EE backgrounds:

https://seti.berkeley.edu/Internship.html

Riplyn1 karma

Woot woot Penn State! Do you live in State College?

AstroWright2 karma

think

Yes (well, technically I live in College Township).

shacharlevy5 karma

Who’ll we find aliens or will aliens find us? Will they be friendly or on a conquest?

AstroWright16 karma

My guess is that we will be noticed (and have been noticed) before we notice anyone else. I don't think "conquest" is likely—if they had wanted to settle the Earth and make it theirs they could have done that long ago.

anAlaktrician4 karma

When do you think we will be able to start imaging exoplanets that we believe have the makings for a earth like plant. Maybe with the James Web telescope?

AstroWright10 karma

If by "imaging" you mean separating out a point of light distinct from its star, I hope that happens in the next couple of decades, perhaps with something like NASA's HabEx mission concept. If you mean image the surface and make a map or something, the way we can do with the moons of Jupiter, for instance, that is much harder and may take a lot longer.

pfcfillmore4 karma

I also have a friend named Jason Wright who works in the lumber dept at Lowes. Are you the same person?

AstroWright9 karma

Probably not.

ChingShih3 karma

Hey, I'm a long-time participant in the [email protected] project using BOINC (/r/BOINC shout-out). Have any of the projects you've worked on utilized the [email protected] distributed-computing software and yielded useful results?

What else can be done, through the use of distributed-computing or citizen science and education, to better make use of volunteers or volunteer computing time and reduce the direct costs of publicly funded scientific research?

AstroWright5 karma

I've never sent data to [email protected] (as far as I know), but I think and the Zooniverse programs are great ways to harness public interest in science. Our Kickstarter with Tabby Boyajian was also really valuable.

As far as distributed computing, there are lots of great projects including [email protected], [email protected], and more.

jaycatt73 karma

How do you respond to the argument that there’s probably nobody out there with extensive space development, because if there were, we’d see their swarms of solar collectors dimming their stars?

AstroWright8 karma

Seems like a big logical leap. Swarms are good things to look for but not seeing them is not dispositive.

The_Hunter892 karma

What is your opinion of the show “Big Bang Theory?” Do you enjoy watching their portrayal of your job?

AstroWright17 karma

I don't watch regularly. I think the acting and writing are strong and the show is often very funny (I especially enjoy the nerd humor), but I really dislike the reliance on harmful stereotypes and the misogyny.

Groovyaardvark2 karma

Imagine you can land a rover on ANY of the currently known planets regardless of distance.

If you could only pick one or a few which planet(s) to physically land on which would you choose and why?

What are the most important things you would want to test for with limited scientific instrument capacity on the rovers?

AstroWright5 karma

This question is better aimed at a planetary scientist. I think the TRAPPIST-1 system is pretty cool and it would be nice to have a rover with telescopes on it to study all 7 of its planets. Titan and Europa and pretty amazing, too.

mrpotatomoto2 karma

The Kardashev scale seems to assume that civilizations (and thus their energy requirements) will grow exponentially, from using an entire star's worth of energy to using an entire galaxy's worth of energy.

What is the basis of this assumption? Is there any good reason why they would actually want to grow to galactic scales?

AstroWright9 karma

I don't see it the way Kardashev did, as a natural or inevitable progression.

Rather, it's useful as a parameterization that translates to observables: if they use so much energy, then we would be able to detect them. Since we don't, there is no technology using so much energy in around this star/galaxy.

jaber22 karma

I've been meaning to ask someone at SETI this question, why would you think an advanced beings who have the means to travel millions or billions of light year away from home planet would use anything other than quantum communication? wouldn't you think they've have gone past these limited communication method we use now? in the next few hundred year we could possibly are able to travel farther and faster, don't you think there has to be a faster way to communicate? and instead of spending all of our efforts in finding alien signals it would have been better spent on improving ours?

AstroWright3 karma

Quantum communication still requires a carrier like photons, which already travel at the maximum possible speed. Also, if there are beacons designed to get our attention we would expect them to be a simple and as simple to detect as possible.

PurpleSi2 karma

Where do you think is the most likely candidate for extraterrestrial life in the solar system?

AstroWright9 karma

Don't know; I'd place even bets on Mars and Europa, with Enceladus and Titan not far behind.

HugodeCrevellier2 karma

Personal pet peeve about Oumuamua (1I/2017 U1).

This was the first and only interstellar object ever detected to pass through the Solar System. It also behaved peculiarly. All we could see of it of course was a mere blinking point of light.

But all the illustrations in pop publications showed close ups of some cigar-shaped rock, which were widely believed by the pubic to be an accurate representation of whatever Oumuamua was. It seems that these renderings and illustrations, which were conjectural and preconceived, may have harmed public understanding of how interesting an object it actually was.

Thoughts on Oumuamua?

privateprancer2 karma

How do you feel about METI? Do you think it's dangerous at all?

A_Pool_Shaped_Moon2 karma

Hi Dr. Wright, and thanks for answering the questions here! Do you have any opinions on the proposed LUVOIR/HABEX missions? How much of LUVOIR's potential mission could be covered by HABEX? Do you think surface/atmospheric mapping would be possible with these missions?

AstroWright2 karma

I like big multipurpose missions that survey big swaths of sky. LUVOIR isn't quite that but would still be amazing.

eldarandia2 karma

What sort of practical or everyday utility do you foresee for the work done by SETI?

I ask because I have a personal love for the work people like you do but am sometimes at a loss for an answer to the question 'How will this benefit humanity'?

I understand that finding even signs of life elsewhere in the universe is a noble task and is likely to be a monumental discovery when it happens but I just cannot explain to others the everyday utility of this work.

I understand, for example, that the image processing algorithms developed by the Event Horizon Telescope researchers will come in useful one day or that technologies that we cannot yet imagine might be developed as a result of your work but how do you communicate this?

AstroWright7 karma

I don't think "practical or everyday utility" is the right metric for deciding why we should spend resources on something. More in my comment below:
https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/bm753f/i_am_jason_wright_the_winner_of_the_seti/emui32b/

DiManes2 karma

Why do you think SETI is worth money, when there so many more pressing issues here on Earth?

Not trying to be shameful, just a discussion point.

AstroWright19 karma

We should certainly allocate our collective resources more intelligently than we do, but we should not put all of our resources to the most pressing issues and zero out the others. Exploration, discovery, science, art, and other non-essential activities deserve some funding, too, and SETI should be part of that.

Robert Wilson put it best when justifying Fermilab to the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. Responding to the question "Is there anything here that projects us in a position of being competitive with the Russians, with regard to this race?"

He responded: "Only from a long-range point of view, of a developing technology. Otherwise, it has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about.

"In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending"

isleepinahammock1 karma

How did you go about creating the curriculum for a course in SETI? There are so many potential avenues to explore in a course like that. How did you try to nail it down to a specific curriculum?

AstroWright3 karma

I tried to span all of SETI, and to find foundational papers on each major topic. Where there were no good didactic papers, I wrote up notes, but in almost every case ended up publishing those notes as a paper!

jesus2k161 karma

What is the possibility of life on exoplanets that are tidally locked to their home star? If the side facing the star is permanently too hot and the side facing away is permanently too cold, theoretically (of course), would there be a habitable “strip” in which could liquid water could exist?

To add, would extreme winds (due to the temperature difference) play a factor in liquid water’s existence?

AstroWright9 karma

Tidal locking is tricky. Mercury and Venus are both not tidally locked, even though they are close enough that they could be. A thick atmosphere around a potentially habitable exoplanet could both even out the temperature and prevent tidal locking (as does Venus's) in a way that makes a planet more habitable than you would otherwise think.

Then there's the possibility, as you say, of "ribbon worlds" where life lives in a "twilight zone" along the terminator.

pluto_nium8891 karma

What’s your favorite space-based telescope /observing instrument (or what’s a work-in-progress instrument you’re excited for?)

AstroWright6 karma

I think missions like IRAS, GALEX, Gaia, WISE, and the upcoming SphereX are great. These missions survey the entire sky in a way that we'll be using their data for decades to come for purposes the designers of the instruments didn't dream of.

1999_yadwade1 karma

Hi Jason. Thanks for joining us.

How close do you think we have come in finding extra terrestrial life?

And what do you teach in your SETI course.? Course must be containing very interesting subjects.

AstroWright5 karma

I don't know how close we are, just that we can get much closer.

Course syllabus and reader is here:

https://sites.psu.edu/seticourse/

Cleanclock1 karma

Did you always know what you wanted to do, or was it more a series of figuring it out along the way? How is your time divvied up (% teaching v. research v. mentoring v. writing grants etc), and how would you prefer it to be?

AstroWright3 karma

I always wanted to be an astronomer. I spend most of my time mentoring and managing projects (i.e. writing emails and having meetings with advisees) I teach 1 class per semester or less. I enjoy writing papers (and proposals, if necessary) and so try to keep that fraction of my time as high as I can. As a faculty member I also spend a lot of time on service the university and the profession, and traveling to conferences and other meetings.

jayfeather3141 karma

Penn State undergrad here:

What's your favorite bar downtown?

AstroWright4 karma

I like the Sunday jazz brunch at the Deli/Z Bar. Spats at the Grill is wonderful. I and my kids like Mad Mex when it's not too crowded and noisy.

Chaflesarang1 karma

What is the single most useful thing you use daily while working?

AstroWright6 karma

My computer and big monitor. I spend most of my day writing and reading so I'm glad for the writing courses I took as an undergraduate and my 7th grade teacher who insisted on teaching us to diagram sentences and memorize the prepositions.

Lumcakes1 karma

Do you like rollercoasters?

AstroWright3 karma

Once upon a time I did. I'm not such a fan any more.

LarrySmithing1 karma

What is your estimate as to when contact is made with intelligent life in the universe? 10 years? 30 years? How close are we?

AstroWright5 karma

I don't know.

raprakashvi1 karma

How do we decide the factors which could potentially support life when a while back we thought nothing could survive in boiling water or say sulphur eating bacteria ( I may be wrong with terms, but you get the idea)?

I mean, does having water mean it could support life? It worked out for us but doesn't have to be the same for everyone, right?

AstroWright4 karma

Phoenix Wright

We need to keep an open mind about what life out there might be like, of course. But we also need to think hard about how to pursue the only lead we have in the hunt, which is life on Earth. I favor a balanced approach of a lot of effort focused on Earth-like planets, with less but nonzero work on more exotic possibilities.

DirectlyDisturbed1 karma

Would you say that famous science communicators, like Carl Sagan, played a big part of your decision to get into astronomy? Or did they have little, if any, factor at all?

AstroWright9 karma

Actually, I did not see Cosmos or read any Sagan until quite recently. The science communicators that had the biggest influence on me in my youth were James Burke, Roy A. Gallant, and George Gamow.

Straightup321 karma

This question might be too personal and if that’s the case feel free to disregard. Do you believe in god? Or if not god directly then a higher power. What’s your scientific reasoning behind your choice?

roar85101 karma

Perhaps a more fiction-oriented question -- it is often said that planet xyz can support life "as we know it". Are there active investigations into finding life we don't know (but can hypothesize) about? Say a life form which is Germanium based and breathes Selenium.

AstroWright5 karma

Sure, but it's hard to look for "anything that might be life." We design missions to meet certain search parameters, and it's reasonable to set those parameters to match the only lead we have in the hunt.

mmm_butters1 karma

Hey Jason, in your opinion do you think it's most likely that when we discover life elsewhere that it will be out of range to actually observe/study, but we technically still know it's there? Or do you think it will be close, like Mars, where we could actually go there and check it out?

I can't help but think on the flip side of things, that there may be another ET civilization looking in our direction, know we are here, but are just so far away it's impossible to communicate in any way.

AstroWright2 karma

I don't know if we'll find life first at interstellar distances or in the Solar System. Both are good places to spend some effort.

murchelon1 karma

What if we really encounter them.

1 - What do you think sould be the first steps on communication ?

2 - Do you belive that we should be afraid to meet them ? (like: they will destroy us)

AstroWright2 karma

I think we will discover them, not encounter them. We don't travel very far or very fast. If we were to have some sort of contact with them, it would be because they had come close enough for us to have communication with them, in which case they probably already know we are here. Given how long life has been on Earth, apparently unmolested, I am skeptical that we have anything to fear from contact.

SaulJones0 karma

What do you think of the recent Oxford study that analyzed the Fermi Paradox and concluded that it is most likely we are alone in the universe? The study itself is really interesting.

https://arxiv.org/pdf/1806.02404.pdf

AstroWright3 karma

They found that it's possible we're alone in the Universe. My take here:

https://twitter.com/davidmanheim/status/1051423317259890688

billdietrich10 karma

I've always thought the notion of some faraway aliens detecting our stray radio or TV signals is nonsense. Most of our signals never get out of the atmosphere. More are degraded by the magnetosphere and its interactions with the solar wind. More are swallowed up in the noise of the solar wind. Then there's the fact that our signals are fairly directional, and the Earth is spinning relative to anyone who might be listening. Finally, the inverse-square law dilutes the signal to nothingness. Our signals are not "getting through" to anywhere.

Do you agree ?

AstroWright18 karma

No, I don't agree. Most of our radar and communicative microwave and radio transmissions escape the Earth just fine, and would be detectable above the background noise of the Sun and planets. The rotation of the Earth means that these signals sweep across the sky every day, so we actually are pretty close to omnidirectional.

It's true that these signals are quite weak at interstellar distances, but Drake and Cocconi & Morrison showed that we have the technology we need to detect ourselves at interstellar distances. In fact the most obvious signature of life on Earth is these radio signals!