Interview with Senior SETI Astronomer Dr. Seth Shostak – March 15, 2010
By Peter Burkey
Dr. Seth Shostak is a self described alien hunter. Author of the book “Confessions of an Alien Hunter: A Scientist’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence”, Dr. Shostak is the Senior Astronomer at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute and host of their weekly radio program “Are We Alone”. But you won’t find him looking in Roswell or Area 51.
In fact, Shostak, like most astronomers, does not believe we have been visited by flying saucers or abducted by aliens. In his talk “When Will We Find the Extraterrestrials?”, given last night at GVSUâ€™s Pew Campus in Grand Rapids, he described the attempts by scientists to detect a signal from outer space that has its origin from an intelligent source, such as an advanced civilization on a planet orbiting a distant star. His group’s efforts focus on radio waves (like in the movie “Contact”) although others have attempted to detect signals in the form of bright laser light.
You may be surprised that astronomers have been carrying on such searches for about fifty years although modern technology has made today’s millions of times more efficient. This in itself has caused some to wonder why we haven’t heard anything yet. During my interview prior to his talk, Dr. Shostak explained that there are several hundred billion stars in our own galaxy (and we now know that most have planets) and we have only looked carefully at about a thousand, so not finding anything is just what you would expect. As he put it, “you can’t just walk into your back yard, not see any big, furry critters and decide there’s no bears in North America”.
Unlike the discovery shown in “Contact”, which was accurate in many ways, the technology in use only allows us to detect weak but very narrow band signals of a specific frequency, easily distinguished from the normal radio static that permeates the universe. This would indicate that the radio waves were being transmitted rather than originating from a natural source, such as a pulsar. Only after we build more sensitive equipment would we be able to glean any information from the signal. Also, Shostak would be disappointed if the massage were merely a series of prime numbers, for example. He believes that if the aliens were going to send us a message, it would contain lots if information about their civilization.
When I asked Dr. Shostak what he thought would be the public’s reaction to the discovery and confirmation of an alien message, his answer surprised me. Rather than panic he said, “we’ve been through that . . . (with the Mars meteorite) . . . and they don’t go nuts. Seven percent of the population thinks that people are routinely being abducted by aliens. You’d think that would cause a certain amount of civil disquiet”. But there is no threat since “these guys are very, very far away, they don’t know we’re here and all we’ve done is pick up their signal”.
I am reminded of what Jodi Foster said in “Contact”, the universe is so vast that if we’re it, it sure seems like a waste of space.