This is a continuation of my interview with astronomer Seth Shostak. I encourage you to read Part 1 (FutureDude Visits Seth Shostak at the SETI Institute).
FutureDude: So, what motivates you to search for extra-terrestrial intelligence?
Seth Shostak: Well, it’s really just the excitement. I mean, it’s a very exciting question, obviously. Everybody has some opinion about life in space. Either they think it’s there or they don’t think it’s there. Or they think it’s here. Or whatever! They have some opinion, and I think we’re hard-wired to being interested in other beings that are sort of like ourselves.
This is an old question, people have wondered about life in space for some time, but no time in the past did you really have any chance of finding it. They were talking in the 19th century about maybe finding Martians. You know, flashing mirrors in their direction or flashing beams of light. Anyhow, that wouldn’t have worked.
Now we have the technology and you could say maybe our technology isn’t adequate, either. But we don’t know that. It works on paper. It’s possible to send radio signals between the stars. So, it’s in a sense, it’s just a lucky opportunity that have been born in the generation where we had enough technology to actually do a search.
Virtually all humans ask questions. Are we alone? Is there life out there? But a lot of people will say, “Yeah, but why does it impact me if we did discover a signal or we did discover that there’s life out there.” “So what?” “Why does it matter?” “Tell me why it matters!” Those are question I get when I talk to people about the sort of thing. What would you say?
Yeah. I get that question, too. How would it impact everyone’s lives? To begin with, let me say you would know about it if we found something. There’s no keeping it quiet. And whenever we have false alarms — and we do get false alarms — I look around for those Men in Black. You know? They’re going to show up! Shut it all down!! But you know, Jeffrey, they’re not there! No visits yet.
But, how does it affect the world if we did find something? I think that depends. I mean, if you can actually find a message in that signal, and you can understand it, maybe you’re in touch with an intelligence beyond ours. So, then perhaps you could learn some really important stuff, man! Maybe we could get to those futures we never seem to get to. But, I don’t know if that would happen.
What I do think would happen for sure is that it would change the way we look at things—in the same way Copernicus changed the way people looked at things. Copernicus, 400 years ago says, “You know, Earth’s not the center of the cosmos.” He said the Sun was and he wasn’t right about that. But at least he moved the center away from the Earth.
But people still went to work, still got married, or worried about their incomes, doing their taxes, or whatever. But on the other hand, things really were changed. Philosophically they were different. I think if we discovered a signal, it would have a big impact.
Surely the idea of this sort of human–centric universe, something I notice our society seems to revolve around, it’s not just about life on our planet or the planet itself. It’s really about humans, right? For most people, this planet is the Universe in terms of how they seem to look at the world.
I often think about if you somehow convince people it’s not just about your neighborhood, or your city, or your state, or your country, or your football team, or whatever ultimately small trivial thing that are focused on, you could radically shift our culture in a positive direction.
If we could drive home the fact that we actually inhabit a planet with other humans and other life forms, and that it is really just infinitesimal. We live on a dot in a huge universe — possibly even a multiverse! So, I think it would be a quantum shift if we were actually able to discover extraterrestrial life. It could be the catalyst to change thinking.
I agree. Mind you there are some people who think, “Ohh. You find a signal from ET, we’ll all realize we’re all just humans here on this small blue dot and we got to get along. World peace will break out and brotherhood and all that stuff.” I mean, I’d like to think that would happen. Might give another kind of edge to this world. However, I don’t think that would happen any more than happened after Copernicus. But, it would change things. Life would never be the same. The species would never be the same.
That makes sense. Well, what’s coming up with you guys? What are some of the new things you’re working on?
Well, a lot of what we do here is either designed to raise sufficient monies to keep the project going. That’s kind of a life and death thing. This is not a government project and we have to raise private funding to keep it running. It’s difficult to find a few million dollars a year for this sort of thing. A lot of the effort is dealing with that. While that is not a lot of money or terribly interesting, it is essential.
The other thing however, is developing technology. Better equipment for listening to make it more sensitive or do the search more quickly. So you can go through the list of target stars more rapidly. Finding ways to look at more of the radio dial as it were. We are always working on that.
We have this bubble of electromagnetic radiation that is expanding away from the Earth. It has a radius of say about 70 light years or so.
Indeed. Since the Second World War — to be at high frequency or high power — the kind of frequency that does effectively make it into space.
In that vein, are we expecting an intentional signal or to tune into the entertainment signals from another civilization. All of the sudden we’ll start picking up alien TV shows or something?
When a lot of people think about this they expect a beam that’s been sent to us from another world. But the truth is we mostly beam communications and entertainment ourselves.
To the extent that it can be called entertainment, yes…
(laughs) That actually is a pretty disturbing thought if you ponder it too long!
True. (laughs) But you are right. That’s really a good point. So if the aliens are more than 35 light years away there hasn’t been enough time for them to pick up our signals and thing “that little blue ball out there is kind of interesting” and then they send us invitations to buy their used cars or whatever and send a deliberate signal back to us.
It’s hard to understand why they would unless they were that close and the number of stars within 35 light years is not very far. There are only a few thousand stars within that distance, which is a small number. It’s hard to say, but there is this:
The Earth has oxygen in its atmosphere and it has had it for several billion years thanks to photosynthesis (thank your neighborhood plants for that). And that is unusual and the aliens with a big enough telescope might be able to see that oxygen line could know that I would know that Earth has biology.
If aliens were watching the Earth and they knew this, they may think, there is potential for life there and send a ping our way every once in a while to see with something intelligent sends an answer. That might be the way we would receive an intentional signal.
That is interesting. That would definitely be something to keep and eye or an ear out for!
Exactly. We have our own antenna array — the Allen Telescope Array in the Cascade Mountains — of 42 antennas. It was supposed to be 300, but you go with what you’ve got. We keep adding computers and technology to keep trying to speed up the search. That means that if you speed things up, the sooner you have a chance of actually finding something.
Well, Seth, I really appreciate you talking with me today. You gave me some serious insights into your world. I know you are going to succeed.
Thanks. (laughs) Alright, Jeffrey! If not, I’ll by you a cup of coffee. It was my pleasure to be here!
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