Wonderfest Ponders Extraterrestrial Life, San Jose Mercury News

Published Sunday, August 16, 1998, in the San Jose Mercury News

Otherworldly life questions

Wonderfest ponders extraterrestrial life

Mercury News Staff Writer

Richard Zare, a Stanford University professor of
chemistry, broke the news gently to the crowd of
60 people gathered Saturday to learn the latest
about life on other planets.

If there’s life elsewhere, it probably won’t be
intelligent, said Zare, who made headlines last
year after his laboratory did tests that claimed
organic carbon was on a meteorite from Mars. And
it most certainly won’t look like humans.

But don’t be disappointed, Zare told participants
at Wonderfest ’98, a two-day symposium on
scientific questions held simultaneously at
Stanford, UC-Berkeley and UC-San Francisco.
Science is in the process of testing questions
about the origins of life, helping to determine
how the universe was created and where life might

At the science festival, which continues today,
academics, scientists and researchers address
questions people may think about but don’t have
the time or inclination to investigate. The idea
driving the event is to give the general public a
look into current research in fields such as
astronomy, chemistry, medicine and psychology.

Some topics are of the late-night variety: Do we
understand consciousness? Do genes determine
human behavior? Others are more ethereal: Will
Einstein’s dream of a unified theory of
everything be realized in our time?

These questions might not be quite as burning as
what President Clinton will tell the grand jury
in Washington, D.C., on Monday. And in some
cases, the scientists assumed a level of
knowledge so high that it was difficult for the
uninitiated to understand what they were talking
about. But their enthusiasm came across.

One audience member asked scientists for help.
“I’d like to be an expert creationism buster,”
he said.

Don’t even bother, Zare said. Scientists lose
debates with creationists because “science can’t
prove anything,” he said. “It can only disprove

At a Saturday afternoon session on “Would life
on other worlds be like life on Earth?” Zare and
David Deamer, professor of biochemistry at
UC-Santa Cruz, talked about the chances of life
elsewhere. Given that life is probably created by
stars exploding, which happens all the time, life
should exist on other planets. But the chances of
finding another human are truly remote.

“Either way, it’s fantastic,” said Deamer,
speaking like a true scientist. “We’re alone in
the universe, or there are others.”

Deepest fears

Then the scientists aired some of their
inner-research lab concerns, the kinds of worries
that keep researchers up at night. What if they
skipped over life because it didn’t look familiar
to them? And even if scientists could create life
in test tubes, they might never be able to
understand how life began on Earth. “Those
traces are probably gone,” Zare said. But
finding life, Zare said, “has entered the world
of the testable — science in the strictest sense
— and our minds should be filled with wonder.”

The festival continues today with an afternoon
session at Berkeley on “Is the search for
extraterrestrial intelligence dangerous?” and at
Stanford, “Is there more to the universe than we

The festival was sponsored by San Francisco’s
private University High School, with support from
Chiron Corp., Yahoo Inc. and Wind River Systems,
an Alameda software company.

For more information, see the festival’s Web page
at www.wonderfest.org .

©1997 – 1998 Mercury Center