Saturn’s moon Titan was observed by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft and likely harbors an underground ocean of liquid water, was a topic of conversation during the Sept. 19 Lyceum lunch. NASA/JPL | Courtesy

“If there is intelligent life out there, how does that change how we see ourselves?” Assistant Professor of Physics Timothy Dolch asked during the first Lyceum lunch of the year, held Sept. 19 in the nook of the Knorr Dining Hall.

Students gathered to discuss the “positive fad or probable fact” of extraterrestrial life with Dolch and Associate Professor of Physics Paul Hosmer. Over the course of an hour, discussion ranged from the scientific and factual to the philosophical and speculative.

Dolch discussed National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Cassini spacecraft and its observation of Saturn’s moon Titan, which likely harbors an underground ocean of liquid water.

“If there is a warm ocean there, you have to ask whether there is biological life there,” Dolch said. “We’re actually making decisions of financial consequence based on whether there is life outside our solar system.”

Dolch also discussed the the implications of extraterrestrial life.

“If there was intelligent life out there, does it reduce our humanity? Does it reduce our dignity?” Dolch asked.

Later, Dolch answered students’ questions about the possibility of extraterrestrial life in the universe. Students asked a variety of questions, such as why any intelligent extraterrestrial beings, if they exist, have not yet made contact with humans despite the size and scope of the known universe.

“This is called the Fermi paradox,” Dolch said. “If there is intelligent life out there, if they come to the point of being able to travel across the galaxy in a short amount of time, if they’re anything like us, they will try to colonize.”

Dolch further clarified the Fermi paradox and why no colonization has occurred. He said in the context of a universe billions of years old, it may take a long time to come in contact with any extraterrestrials.

“In a galaxy, everyone is hidden for a long period of time and then in a very short period of time are revealed to each other,” Dolch said.

Dolch said this means that if humans make contact with extraterrestrial life, it could be thousands or millions of years in the future. Dolch left it up to the students to decide whether coming into contact with intelligent extraterrestrial life could ever happen or if it is beyond the realm of possibility. He said there is certainly the possibility of life, even if it is only small microbes under the surface of a distant moon.

“We have discovered thousands of planets outside our solar system,” Dolch said. “If you do the mathematics, there may be 10 billion earthlike planets in our galaxy.”

Sophomore Gregory Bonvissuto said the most fascinating aspect of the talk was “the fact that finding extraterrestrial life is in fact possible and even probable in the future.”

The Lyceum will continue its series in October featuring a lunch discussion with Associate Professor of History Matthew Gaetano, who will speak on the intersection of multiculturalism and classical education.

“I think the chance to discuss interesting questions over lunch with a professor embodies what we’re really here at Hillsdale to do,” junior Ellen Friesen said. “Nobody came to that lunch because it would help their GPA or enhance their resume. They came because they care about asking the hard questions and seeking answers.”