Are we alone in the universe? Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

Are we alone in this universe? This is a fascinating question. While addressing this question Arthur C. Clark said, “two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying”.

In 1940 physicist Enrico Fermi posed a question, “if it seems likely the universe may host other life forms, how come we haven’t seen any signs”. This question is known as the Fermi’s Paradox that acknowledges apparent contradiction between high estimates of the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilization and lack of evidence for such civilizations. Fermi posed this question in 1940, and in 2014 earthlings still don’t have any evidence that there is life out there.

Dr Jill Tarter holds the Bernard M Oliver Chair for SETI Research at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute. Jill Tarter led project Phoenix which studied about seven hundred and fifty nearby star systems. She serves on the management board for the Allan Telescope Array; this is SETI’s new effort to search for extraterrestrial intelligence. She received two public service medals from NASA and was named one of the one hundred most influential people of the world for year 2004 by time Magazine.

I invited Dr Jill Tarter to this episode of Bridging the Gaps.

Question and topics that we touch upon in this podcast are:

  • The origin of the idea of using microwave radio signals to search signals from other solar systems.
  • Establishing SETI Institute: using human technology to detect possible existence of technology of extraterrestrial origin
  • Searching a radio or an optical signal that is intentionally engineered: how do we differentiate a signal that might have been intentionally and intelligently engineered from the signals that occur naturally.
  • Project Phoenix: perhaps the most sensitive and most comprehensive search for extraterrestrial intelligence
  • Cataloguing seventeen thousand star-systems that could possibly host habitable planet.
  • Process of identifying and differentiating those stars that have no possibility of hosting habitable planets from those stars that could possibly host habitable planets.
  • Initially the focus of SETI research was nearby habitable star systems, but now that a number of planets orbiting around starts (exoplanets) have been discovered, how has the discovery of exoplanets changed the SETI research?
  • SETI’s Dorothy Project (2010): a massive observational campaign covering a large number of planets detected by Kepler spacecraft
  • Mining and analyzing data collected as a result of large-scale surveys of sky as part to general astronomy to find ET signals.
  • Why don’t we make the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence an integral part of general astronomy?
  • Dealing with hoaxes: verification mechanisms that SETI has put in place in case a potential ET signal is detected
  • If an ET signal were detected how would SETI announce it? Would it be kept secret or would it be made public immediately?
  • Post detection task force and post detection protocol
  • How would the discovery of life out there impact earthlings? What would it change?
  • Recent research on extremophiles suggests that life at microorganism level has an amazing flexibility for surviving in extreme environments, there is an emerging view that not only life can exist in environments previously considered inhabitable, perhaps it can also travel through space from one planet to another planet.
  • Searching a habitable earth like planet out there
  • Why search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence should be kept going?
  • Future research directions and expected developments in the field of astronomy and search for extraterrestrial intelligence


By |December 28th, 2014|Podcasts|

How much do we think about thinking? Science of Meta-awareness and Mind-wandering.

How much do we think about thinking? How aware usually are we of our awareness, and about what is happening around us? Jonathan Schooler, professor of psychology at the University of California (Santa Barbara), whose research focuses on consciousness, memory, meta-awareness, mind-wandering, and mindfulness, describes meta awareness as our ability to take explicit note of the current contents of consciousness. He notes that when we are not focusing on what is happening around us, we generate imaginative thoughts that are unrelated to external circumstances. It is common to experience such imaginative thoughts and experience moments when our minds have wandered away from the situation at hand. Schooler suggests that mind wandering is indicative of different kinds of attentional fluctuations.

I invited Professor Jonathan Schooler to this episode of Bridging the Baps.

“Meta awareness is our ability to take explicit note of the current contents of consciousness”.

Schooler describes mind-wandering as a phenomenon when a person’s attention is less directed towards external environment and it shifts more towards an internal train of thought. But is mind-wandering an attribute of attention or is this an attribute of consciousness? Jonathan Schooler shares his views on this.

It is interesting to note that substantial research has been done to study how our attention is directed at external objects and external environment; however less research has been devoted to study that how our attention is affected by our internal thoughts. Jonathan Schooler discusses the origin of research on the topic of mind-wandering.

When a person’s mind wanders, the person’s perception becomes decoupled and the person shows reduced responsiveness to the external environment; so what exactly happens during this time and what causes mind-wandering: is this the time when we day-dream, or is this the time we plan for our future or think about our long term goals?

During mind-wandering cognitive resources become occupied by internal activity that is unrelated to the external environment, hence mind-wandering interferes with the primary task that the person is doing at that time.

Research shows that our minds are disengaged from what goes on around us for between 25% and 50% of our working hours. We discuss these findings and I ask Jonathan Schooler how do we measure, study and sample mind wandering under lab conditions.

During mind-wandering a person’s cognitive resources become occupied by internal activity and imaginative thoughts that are unrelated to the external environment, hence mind-wandering interferes with the primary task that the person is doing at that time. We discuss the disruption that mind-wandering can produce. We discuss the impact of mind-wandering on reading, on sustained attention, on mood, on working memory and on general attitude.

Mind wandering is being studied from a neural physiological perspective as well. An interesting question is what happens in the brain during mind wandering activity? Default mode network (DMN), also called default network, is a network of brain regions that are active when the individual is not focused on the outside world and the brain is at wakeful rest. In a number of research publications Jonathan and his colleagues have reported and discussed activities in the default network regions. I ask Jonathan what a default network is and what kinds of increased activities occur in these regions of brain during mind-wandering. Jonathan shares his views and research findings on these questions.

In this podcast, we also touch upon:

  • Mind-wandering: day dreaming vs planning for future and goal setting
  • Measuring frequency of mind-wandering: is there a scale to estimate the level of mind wandering an individual is involved in?
  • What level and frequency of mind-wandering should be considered as a problem and not a tool to plan and imagine our future?
  • Is there any evidence that attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is associated with increased frequency of mind wandering?
  • Can we say that mindfulness is a state when no mind wandering is going on? In their publications, Jonathan and his colleagues suggest that mindfulness training might hold potential for reducing mind wandering. So a question is that what kind of mindfulness training can assist us in reducing mind-wandering?


  • The Meta Lab at UCSB
  • Schooler, J.W., Smallwood, J., Christoff, K, Handy, T.C., Reichle, E.D., & Sayette, M.A. (2011) Meta-awareness, perceptual decoupling and the wandering mind. Trends in Cognitive Science 15, 319-326
  • Schooler, J. W., Mrazek, M. D., Franklin, M. S., Baird, B., Mooneyham, B. W., Zedelius, C., & Broadway, J. M.. (2014). The Middle Way: Finding the Balance between Mindfulness and Mind-Wandering. In B. H. Ross, Psychology of Learning and Motivation (Vol. Volume 60, pp. 1 – 33). Academic Press.
  • Casner, S. M., & Schooler, J. W.. (2013). Thoughts in Flight: Automation Use and Pilots’ Task-Related and Task-Unrelated Thought. Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society.
  • Mrazek, M. D., Broadway, J. M., Phillips, D. T., Franklin, M. S., Mooneyham, B. W., & Schooler, J. W.. (2014). An Antidote for Wandering Minds. The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Mindfulness, 153.
By |December 26th, 2014|Podcasts|