FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — A University of Arkansas professor wants physicists
to bring extraterrestrial life into the classroom as a tool so they can
teach their students basic scientific principles that will enhance their
scientific literacy and allow them to make sound decisions about current
scientific issues.

Art Hobson, professor emeritus of physics, will present a paper titled
“Enlivening Introductory Physics with SETI” on Tuesday, May 1, at the
American Physical Society Meeting in Washington, D.C.

For years Hobson taught physics and human affairs for non-scientists, and
he has written a textbook, “Physics: Concepts and Connections,” that
addresses “the kind of physics that everyone needs to know in order to
understand the world around them,” he said.

Hobson’s book includes chapters on nuclear power, global warming and SETI,
the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, among other things.

“SETI includes all sorts of questions and issues that pertain to physics,
biology, astronomy and humanity,” Hobson said. “Why not teach physics using
the things that students are naturally interested in?”

Instead, university physicists tend to become specialized and research
oriented, especially at large research institutions where pay raises,
promotions and even being hired may be tied primarily to research, not

“There are few incentives to spend time on undergraduates or reaching out
to non-scientists,” Hobson said.

Yet physicists ignore these groups at their peril. Physics majors have
declined at universities across the nation, and high school physics
enrollment has also dropped nationwide. Issues affecting society that
include physics, such as global warming and nuclear energy, require at
least a rudimentary understanding of the subject.

No matter what profession these non-scientists enter, they become parents,
they vote, and they influence legislation on scientific issues, Hobson

“Physics has been losing support in our culture,” he said. “We need
more ways to encourage physicists to get out in public, get out in the

Many people who might ordinarily shun physics express an interest in the
possibility of extraterrestrial life, so it becomes a way to introduce
many physics concepts that may resonate with students. Although SETI is
highly interdisciplinary, physics must be used to help explain the origin
of the solar system and of Earth, the layout of the universe and of
galaxies and what we know about recently discovered planets around other
star systems.

“There’s physics all over the place in this topic,” Hobson said.

SETI also provides a good backdrop for discussing the differences between
pseudoscience and evidence-based science, so students can learn to
discriminate between the two.

In the classroom, Hobson divides the study of SETI into four parts: What
is the expected number of Earth-like planets? On Earth-like planets, what
is the likelihood of life arising? If life arises, what is the likelihood
that it will develop intelligence? And if intelligent life arises, what
is the likelihood that it will develop technology?

The first question leads directly into contemporary physics, and its use
in discovering and observing extra-solar planets. The second question
leads to an examination of the 1953 Miller-Urey experiment, and the
hypothesis of chemical origins of life on earth.

The third and fourth questions require speculation, but few conclusions.
Hobson uses these questions to look at the speculation of Enrico Fermi, a
physicist at Los Alamos in the 1940s and 50s. Fermi asked the question:
“Don’t you ever wonder where everybody is?” He followed up his question
with calculations that led him to conclude that Earth should have been
visited by extraterrestrial beings long ago and many times over. He gave
three possible reasons for this: that interstellar travel is impossible;
that is possible, but judged not to be worth the effort; or that
technological civilization does not last long enough for it to occur.

“This last suggestion is a sobering perspective on the sustainability of
Earth-based civilization,” Hobson said.

“My interest is in science for everybody,” he continued. “I want people
to consider the big questions and how they affect the human race.

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Editor’s note: The American Physical Society conference will be at the
Renaissance Hotel in Washington, D.C. The telephone number there is
(202) 898-9000.