The Big Idea: Seth Shostak
Science fiction writers such as myself live in a state of wariness about the concept of alien intelligence truly existing. On one hand, how cool would it be to finally know we’re not alone in the universe — every science fiction writer in the world would be vindicated. On the other hand, we’d also be out of a job, or at least have to change our job title, and “science fact writer” already means something else.
Seth Shostak, for example, qualifies as a “science fact writer,” even though he’s writing about aliens in his new book Confessions of an Alien Hunter. That’s because Shostak is in fact the Senior Astronomer for the SETI Institute, which devotes its time and efforts to searching the skies for evidence of extraterrestrial life. His book, which has garnered great reviews (“compelling and thought-provoking” — Washington Post) talks about that task, separating the fact and the fiction and presenting a state of the search. Yes, this guy is trying to put me out of a job. But I’m not holding it against him.
And what is the state of the search? Here’s Shostak to give you a brief overview.
In my heart of hearts, it just seemed reasonable that the public would want the low-down on aliens.
Not the Fox TV low-down. Not the conspiracy-blog low-down. Not the new-agey I-can-see-their-auras low-down.
No, I figured the great unwashed, as well as their better-bathed brethren, deserved to hear the tweed-jacketed, gray-haired academic low-down. Call me deluded.
Of course I have a canine in this fight. After all, I am one of those tweedy, barely hirsute academics. And my day job is to participate in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI. So writing about the hunt for cosmic company is tantamount to penning an extended job description for myself.
But personal involvement aside, there’s no doubt that the subject of extraterrestrial life plays well at dinner parties. That’s because space aliens have invaded our literature, our cinemas, our televisions and – according to many – our airspace. Aliens are the modern equivalent of centaurs and Cyclopes. But they’re actually better than those fabled fauna, because you can’t prove they don’t exist, and you might prove they do.
Indeed, astronomers, paleontologists and biologists have – in the last two decades – provided a lot of backhanded support for the idea that worlds with life are about as plentiful as mosquitoes in Minnesota. To cite an obvious example, note that a dozen years ago we didn’t know whether planets were commonplace or rare. Now you can safely wager that there are a trillion or more planets in our home galaxy. (For the unaware, note that there are a hundred billion other galaxies.) That’s a lot of real estate, and while much of it might be fiery, fumy, or frozen, some worlds – simply by chance – will have conditions that could provoke the emergence of life.
Another relevant science tidbit is the fact that living things have glazed the Earth for almost the entire history of our planet. It doesn’t sound as if getting life started was a tough project. Rather than being some sort of improbable happenstance, life may be an irresistible chemical phenomenon that festers on any world boasting liquid water.
These facts don’t prove that the hidden recesses of the night sky are filled with thinking creatures. But the possible niches for life are stupefyingly plentiful. So when I talk to the public about our search for aliens, I’m always intrigued by the handful of audience members who, despite my presentation, prefer to think we’re alone. These people are special, because they believe in miracles. In a cosmos that is achingly vast, in which stars and planets are strewn like snowflakes in the arctic, they contend that only our world has organisms able to know things, to comprehend their environment and to chart their destiny. What a pitifully impoverished creation that would be.
Such a barren cosmos sounds unreasonable, not to mention lonely. Nonetheless, the convictions of science aren’t based on what seems reasonable, but on what we observe. Learned people can argue the possibility of space aliens until the heifers come home, but in the end, the debate will only be settled if these beings are found. And that’s what SETI is all about – picking up radio waves or laser flashes from other worlds. Either type of signal would divulge the presence of technological intelligence.
SETI is not big science; it isn’t the Large Hadron Collider. It’s a back-burner experiment involving – world-wide – fewer people than work in a pit crew. It’s funded, at least in the United States, by private donations. Given the limitations of budget and manpower, it’s hardly surprising that – so far – we haven’t found proof of cosmic company. But if the effort can be sustained for another two decades or so, improvements in technology will allow SETI researchers to examine millions of star systems. To my mind, that’s the type of effort that could lead to success.
Much of my book explains how SETI stalks its prey – the nuts and bolts of the strategies used to scan the sky. There’s also a lot of history, both institutional and personal. But I was keen to do more than merely gratify the interests of propeller heads, because – as noted – aliens are appealing (or unappealing, depending on their demeanor and intentions) to nearly everyone.
This popularity results in phone calls and e-mails every week from people who want to share their ideas about E.T. Sometimes these communicants offer technical advice: why don’t we look for gravity waves or neutrino communications? What about searching for signals sent our way using hyperdimensional physics (whatever that is)?
But for much of the public, such technical details are less interesting than SETI’s sociology. Three questions routinely dominate my correspondence: (1) what happens if you find a signal, (2) are aliens visiting Earth, and (3) will E.T. be similar to us in appearance and construction?
These are matters of immediate and personal concern. If I talk about the algorithms used to sift through cosmic static, many people’s eyelids lower to half-mast. But when I assure the public that the government won’t hide information about aliens – that everyone will hear the news right away – their ears perk up like a starched bunny. Both SETI policy and practice ensure that any interesting signal will show up in your favorite blog within days.
What about UFOs? Half the populace is convinced that the aliens are already here, flitting above the landscape in their saucer-shaped craft, and amusing themselves by hauling people out of their homes for some non-consensual experiments. Well, the evidence for this is as flabby as a sumo wrestler gone to seed. Consider the famous Roswell incident of 1947. Should we believe that aliens trundled hundreds of light-years to Earth, and then botched the landing? If you look carefully at the facts, the claim that extraterrestrial craft cart wheeled into the New Mexico desert is no more credible than the assertion that leprechauns are camped out in the forests of Ireland.
Then there’s the matter of what the aliens will look like. Will they be similar to us, creatures built of squishy protoplasm, and having some alien variant of DNA? That’s possible, but I think there’s good reason to expect that any aliens we discover will be highly evolved artificial intelligence. That’s right: machines. This despite the fact that everyone seems to expect little gray guys, sporting big eyes and flat personalities.
My big idea is to explore what I believe is a big fact – that a remarkable occurrence could take place well within your lifetime: the discovery of thinking entities far beyond our solar system. As our knowledge of astronomy grows, this idea seems less and less fanciful: no longer merely an intriguing construct of fiction, but a plausible possibility. The technology of the 21st century could provide the proof. Proof that the biology on this planet is not something miraculous. Proof that we have company.
Since its beginnings, terrestrial life has lived alone, cloistered and unaware. In “Confessions of an Alien Hunter,” I explain why four billion years of isolation may soon come to an end.