Deep in the Santa Susanas, in the cradle of the space shuttle's giant engines, a crowd of about 45 scientists and a few of the merely curious had gathered to consider one of the Big Questions:
Is E.T. really out there? Is he waiting for us to phone him?
It's a question that worried the pharaohs of ancient Egypt and still titillates modern, technological man, said the speaker, Carolyn Mallory.
She believes that E.T.s are alive. She may not have seen them, but she says her logic tells her they're out there in the universe listening for us. Unlike the editors of the sometimes spaced-out National Star--a recent headline: "E.T.'s Alive!"--she has credentials to back up her opinions.
Mallory is a professor of astronomy at Moorpark College. She is also moderator of a monthly series of talks on science and technology given at the old Energy Technology Engineering Center in the hills above Chatsworth, a mini-Lawrence Livermore Lab ensconced in Rocketdyne's well-guarded Woolsey Canyon rocket facility, where the shuttle engines are tested.
If you don't mind signing in at a guard station and following a guided caravan across the still semi-secret Rocketdyne facility, you can catch a talk on "Santa Monica/Santa Susana Mountains Flora & Fauna" on Aug. 19, or the conclave on "Household Hazardous Materials" Sept. 10.
But perhaps the best civilian reuse gathering occurred when Mallory lectured there recently on that age-old fixation, the possibility of life on other planets.
Being a teacher, not a Hollywood huckster or publisher of the weird, wacky and outlandish, Mallory wove her thesis from history, chemistry, physics and astronomy.
Apollo the sun god, the Egyptian sun god Ra, Old Man Wind cracking his cheeks, the comets believed to influence ancient rulers--these were the extraterrestrials of the ancients.
On a roll now, Mallory hurtled through time and space with the cosmic ebullience of Carl Sagan. Think of that infinitely dense glob of matter and energy exploding in the Big Bang, catapulting subatomic particles into space, and those particles coalescing into hydrogen and helium. Think of the furnaces in the bellies of stars cooking hydrogen into carbon at 20 million degrees Kelvin.
"I like carbon," Mallory said.
Think of stars spinning according to the laws of physics.
Planets spinning out from stars in a flat plane.
So there you have it: the building blocks of life everywhere, planets circling a minimum of one in every 200 stars, billions of stars.
All that's missing is the spark of life. And wouldn't you know, a couple of scientists a few years back put water, hydrogen, ammonia and methane in a flask and bombarded it with ultraviolet light. In two weeks they found precursors of RNA and DNA--known as the building blocks of life until they became known as the curse of that O.J. business.
And, handily enough, Mallory noted, 300 tons of cosmic debris fall to Earth each day, most of it bearing amino acids from space. So life could have come from the void. And if it did, why wouldn't the same thing happen on other planets in other solar systems, with similar results? (Except maybe without an O.J. trial.)
"Earth does not have a lock on the chemicals necessary for the life process," Mallory said.
So this leads to the Drake Equation, named for astronomer Frank Drake of the U.S. Naval Observatory, which reduces to a simple algebraic formula the odds that we will be able to communicate with intelligent beings on other planets.
The formula is:
N=R*f p n e f l f i f c L
To fill in the slots, N is the number of planets suitable for communicating with Earth. Then there's some really dense stuff, but after that, f l is the fraction of habitable planets on which life already exists and f i is the fraction of those life forms that develop adequate technology and choose to send messages into space.
Even if you can't work it out yourself, you can surely foresee the answer.
For those who need help, the formula says (trust us on this) that, yes, the little guys must be out there somewhere, billions and billions of miles away. And they are listening for us and maybe trying to speak to us.
The only doubt Mallory has is whether the E.T.s out there are entirely captivated by the flood of communications from planet Earth.
The electromagnetic waves carrying every "plop-plop, fizz-fizz" since the dawn of radio 95 years ago and every talk show banality since TV came on the scene are out there somewhere, pulsing toward infinity. That means Oprah's and Geraldo's guests will be baffling and disgusting intelligent, sensitive beings in distant star systems as long as time endures. Whatever must they think of us?
Whether there's intelligent life on other planets is not the question, she concludes hopefully: "If we keep an open mind, we are eventually going to be able to prove the presence of intelligent life on Earth." We certainly hope so.