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My Embarrassing Moment at SETIcon

by Brian Dunning

July 3, 2012

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Donate Last week over at SkepticBlog, I wrote up a piece about my trip to SETIcon, the annual space exploration conference put on by the SETI Institute. No need to repeat here all my gushing about how awesome it was, but it was really awesome.

There were a couple of firsts for me. It was the first time I've been to a conference as a regular attendee (not a speaker) for at least ten years, which provided a welcome chance for relaxation. And it was the first time I've ever seen an expert panel totally, completely, stumped speechless.

It was, of course, my dumb question that did it. The session was "Humans vs. Robots: Who Should Explore Space?" and the panelists included space entrepreneur, Lunar X Prize guy, and Singularity University co-founder Bob Richards; four-time shuttle astronaut and U.N. advisor Tom Jones; planetary geologist and Space Exploration for Dummies author Cynthia Phillips; Star Trek: Voyager actor and Planetary Society advocate Robert Picardo; and the moderator was Antarctic astrobiologist Dale Andersen. My question, which I thought was a good one, was:
Do any of you see any realistic application in space exploration for Von Neumann machines or Merkle machines?
And then, an extraordinary (to me) thing happened. The panelists stared at each other in absolute silence. After about 20 seconds of excruciating awkwardness, the moderator simply said "Let's take another question right down here."

Also, nobody really talked to me the rest of the weekend. They gave me a wide berth if they saw me coming down the hall.

It required my daughter to explain to me that probably nobody knew what the hell I was talking about. I had just finished the research for my Skeptoid episode on nanotechnology and nanobots, and I just naturally assumed that everyone was already familiar with the two types of self-replicating robots, Von Neumann machines and Merkle machines. I especially thought the panelists on robotic space exploration would know them. Evidently not.

Anyway, I made myself look like an idiot. I've never before seen a panel so stunned that they couldn't even stammer out a syllable or two.
[Just to be clear: I post this only as a humorous anecdote, and not as a criticism of the panel.]

by Brian Dunning

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