Seth Shostak, the senior astronomer at the SETI Institute in California, talks about his agency’s search for extraterrestrial life.
Ted Simons: Is there intelligent life elsewhere in the universe? It's a question many consider, but few actively try to answer. One of those working and wondering is Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETi institute in Mountain View, California. That's where scientists are looking for radio signal evidence of life beyond earth. Shostak recently wrote a book about his efforts titled "Confessions of an Alien Hunter: A Scientist's Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence." I recently spoke with him about his search for E.T. Thanks for joining us.
Seth Shostak: It's a pleasure, Ted.
Ted Simons: Seti institute, what are you looking for? Are you looking for noise? Are you looking for beings? What are you searching for?
Seth Shostak: What we're really trying to do is prove that we're not the smartest things in the cosmos. That there's not only life out there, but there's life that's fairly intelligent. The way we're looking for that life is by looking for signals, mostly radio signals, maybe flashing lights, that would tell us there's somebody out there clever enough to build a radio transmitter.
Ted Simons: So you're looking for radio signals per se. Have you had false alarms? I know there was -- was it the wow incident at Ohio state? Talk to us about that.
Seth Shostak: The wow signal. 1977, Ohio state had an antenna that was just scanning the skies, 24 hours a day. Just sat there and collected static from the cosmos. And one morning one of the astronomers, Jerry Amon, came in, he looked at all the computer print out, in 1977 that's how you recorded the data, on paper, and he went through the printout and saw this big signal. And he wrote "wow" next to it. So it's become famous. But this is the triumph of marketing over product. This just happens to have a good name.
Ted Simons: Do we know what the wow was?
Seth Shostak: We don't. But the instrument was designed to that it would look in the same spot on the sky a little over a minute after anything had happened. So the signal was found, 70 seconds later it was looked at again, and nothing was found. So maybe that was E.T. and he went on vacation, took a coffee break, who knows? You can speculate until the bovines come home. But the facts are that you couldn't claim that as a detection if you didn't see it again.
Ted Simons: Without that prerequisite, how otherwise do you decide where to look? That's a big sky out there.
Seth Shostak: It is. The universe is vast. That's fairly trite statement. Most people recognize that. The number of planets in our own milky way is estimated currently to be on the order of a trillion with a T. That's a lot of real estate. Most of those planets are pretty lousy, but some of them might be, you know, like earth. So how do we choose where to point the antennas? Fundamentally we look at stars that we think might have planets like the earth, and we start with the nearest ones, because of course it would be more interesting to find E.T. nearby, and the signals would be stronger.
Ted Simons: So the signals are basically, what, something out of the ordinary? Something that suggests there might be something other than everything else out there?
Seth Shostak: Yeah. You have to look for a signal that's clearly artificial. We're not worried so much about the message. A lot of people think, you're looking for the value of Pi or something like that. We're not doing, that but we're looking for a signal that's restricted on the radio dial. It's that one frequency more or less. And it turns out nature does not make signals like that. Nature makes radio noise, but it doesn't make a signal that's just this spot at the dial. If you find something like that, and if it also happens to be coming from a spot on the sky that's just rotating around the earth with the stars, you say, OK, I don't know what they're saying, but there's somebody out there clever enough to be-to-build a transmitter.
Ted Simons: If there were something or someone out there, you would detect it by way of radio signals? Is there any way they could skip around those signals?
Seth Shostak: They may not be using radio. Those are the only kinds of signals we look for. We also look for very brief pulses of light. Maybe they have big lasers and they're trying to get our attention. That could be. So there are some experiments. There are other experimenting as well. But radio one is the traditionally the most important search.
Ted Simons: Talk about the Allen telescope array in California and how important that is to your ideas.
Seth Shostak: Well, the Allen telescope array is a new instrument, a new set of antennas being built by the seti institute, but also together with the University of California Berkeley. And it's up in the cascade mountains, 42 antennas, the idea is to have 350. It's called the Allen telescope array because Paul Allen, the cofounder of Microsoft, supplied most of the money to get that started. But the real point is speed. We've been always having to borrow somebody else's antennas when we do a search. So that's sort of like trying to do cancer research, but always having to borrow a microscope. So by having our own instrument, this search will speed up in the next 10, 20 years.
Ted Simons: I mentioned, where do you focus and how you decide S so far, how much of the sky have you searched?
Seth Shostak: Trivial. It's a very, I have tiny amount of sky. The number of star systems we've looked at carefully over of a wide range of frequencies, it's like 750. This is in a galaxy which has a few hundred billion stars, we've looked at 750. That's like sailing to Africa saying, we're going to look for megafauna, you land and you look at one square yard of real estate and say, I don't see any rhinos, no elephants, I guess there are no megafauna here. But the new instruments will be so much faster than what we've done in the past, I think it's not at all unlikely in the next two dozen years we'll hit a signal.
Ted Simons: That kind of brings to mind the idea that maybe we don't have the instruments yet to figure out what we're being -- there could be a bombardment of messages right now. We're just incapable of detecting it.
Seth Shostak: True. Maybe they have some physics we don't have that's important for this problem, and they're signaling some of the way that we can't detect, or maybe they're signaling even with radio or light in ways we can't detect. All that's possible. But what you try and resist, at least I try to resist, is the item takes to say, there are lots of ways we can fail, so we won't try. If you don't try, you're almost guaranteed. So we figure, this is a bit like saying to Chris Columbus, forget the wooden ships, wait 500 years, you can cross the Atlantic eating bad food.
Ted Simons: What happens if you try and succeed? What do we do if someone says "hey, hello!"
Seth Shostak: Responding is I think sort of a secondary consideration. Because it's very likely that anybody you hear they're going to be hundreds of light years away, maybe a thousand light years away. Which means that any response you make is going to take hundreds of years to get to them, maybe a thousand years, and then it's another wait before you get their response to your response. If they respond. So there's no hurry to grab the microphone in some sense, and this television program and many others are going out into space right now anyhow. So in some sense we've already respond at some level. I think that they'll recognize that. They will know that this is one way communication really. And consequently I think if they deliberately target us, if they want us to understand them, they'll just sends everything at once so we'll get a whole encyclopedia of information.
Ted Simons: Back here on earth, are we ready in case someone does respond?
Seth Shostak: Well, I don't think that we're ready. I also don't think there's any particular worry there if we respond. As I say, we have -- in particular we have television, FM radio, all of these signals are going out into space. But actually the most powerful signals we're sending are radars. And we are sending those into space. You might want shut down the local airport, because you're worried about the radar signals going into space, but honestly I think you'd rather land at night with radar.
Ted Simons: I guess my question isn't so much are we ready for them, because it doesn't really matter if we're ready for them or not, they'll be ready for us. Are we ready amongst ourselves? Are we ready to deal with the idea that after all these centuries of thought and religious thought, idealistic thought, that we would not be alone -- we're born and raised to think we're alone in the universe.
Seth Shostak: We find that otherwise, that could be a jolt to the system. But I don't think it's such a big jolt. Maybe I'm wrong. I have to say, polls have been made of the American populous, and something like 80% of them think that extraterrestrials are out there. About a third think they're already visiting earth, hauling them out of their bedrooms on these unauthorized experiments. So I think if they were to pick up the newspapers tomorrow, or hear on the news a signal had been found coming from 500 light years away, I don't think they would panic, because I think most people actually already believe that the extraterrestrials exist, and all you've done is substantiate something they already believed was true.
Ted Simons: How do you respond to folks who not only believe it, but say it actually happened? We were visited, whether it's New Mexico or somewhere in the woods of Arizona, they've been here, the government is hiding it, you know better but you're not telling us the truth?
Seth Shostak: This is the same government that runs the Pohl Service, and they've managed to hide extraterrestrials? If you want to believe that, that's OK, all I would say is show me your best evidence. Even though these claims have been made, tens of thousands of them everybody year, tens of thousands of sightings and things, what difference has that made in our lives? What have we learned from that? I think the answer is not too much, it's provided a lot of entertainment on fox television, for example, but have we learned anything from that? No. And I think if we have a really being visited, this would not be just the subject for late-night radio chat. We would know we were being visited.
Ted Simons: Yet on the other side of those critics are those who say this entire enterprise is a colossal waste of time. Why bother looking for life out in the great beyond, you're going to get nothing from now until the last syllable of recorded time.
Seth Shostak: They could be right. But they can't promise me that they're right. They can't guarantee that we'll be right. And I think that in the end this comes down to curiosity. It's like, wanting to know how the universe began. How will that affect your daily life? There's something philosophically profound about asking questions you're just curious about the answer to. That's what makes us different. Just knowing that what's happened on this planet is not a miracle but just something that's happened many times in the history of the cosmos, I think that would be very interesting to know.
Ted Simons: So the search goes on.
Seth Shostak: The search goes on.
Ted Simons: Thank you for joining us.
Seth Shostak: My pleasure.
Seth Shostak:Senior astronomer at the SETI Institute;