Dale Andersen, an aquatic researcher at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, dives deep below Antarctic ice to understand what the Earth may have looked like millions of years ago.
How did you get started with SETI?
In 1978 we were the first people to dive in the lakes down in Antarctica. The question at that time was, what’s living on the bottoms of these lakes? Nobody knew. Because of the thick ice covers, most people thought there probably wasn’t anything: The light levels would be so low that photosynthesis wouldn’t take place. We proved that wrong. It’s one of the few places on the planet where you can find a microbial ecosystem that’s pretty much growing on its own. There’s no disturbance from larger animals that you have today. So when you can find a few examples around on the planet today with these microbial communities, it can give you a glimpse of what early Earth was like, and perhaps even early Mars.
A lot of the work that we do seems incredibly esoteric: “These guys are swimming under a lake looking for microbes. What the hell does that have to do with anything else in the universe?” We end up not just looking at the little microorganisms, but a lot of it deals with things like climate change. In our case, we monitor climate over time because we have to understand how the climate effects these ecosystems.
What is it like working at an institute famous for searching for aliens?
I like being in that group of people. It pushes on boundaries and on imaginations really hard. It’s a great way to start a conversation, especially when people get past the flying saucers and little green men to trying to understand the questions a little more deeply.
Do you think extraterrestrial life is out there?
I think it’s a pretty good bet that there is life everywhere in the universe. We just haven’t had the opportunity to see it yet because we’re stuck here and it’s all so far away. We didn’t even know that there were planets outside our solar system until 1995. Pretty soon we’ll be able to start looking at these planets more closely. If you see water, oxygen and ozone, it’s like this planet is screaming out, “Life! Life! Life!” Hopefully within our lifetimes we will identify either direct evidence of life — say we go to a place like Mars and see fossil evidence — or we detect planets that scream out with billboard signs that “Life is here!” I’m an optimist. I think it would be sad if we were the only living organisms in this entire universe. It would be hard to believe.