Few people these days can call themselves scientists. Even fewer than that call themselves “Alien Hunters”. As one of the few left in this diminishing profession, Seth Shostak, remains one of the most public figures in the hunt for intelligent life outside of our own planet. Seth is a senior astronomer at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute (not to be confused with other SETI projects, such as SETI@Home), and has written numerous books and articles on the subject.
In the spirit of such figures as Carl Sagan, Seth is a vehement supporter of getting the public, and kids more specifically, interested in science. He has appeared on a wide variety panels across the globe (you can see him at Dragon*Con next month) and made numerous television appearances (watch him on the Colbert Report). He also co-hosts the weekly science podcast “Are we Alone?”, which you can listen to here. One of his latest projects is his work on the Allen Telescope Array (ATA).
We sat down with Seth at the SETI Institute in Mountain View for a conversation about creature features, SETI, first contact, and naturally, UFOs.
Growing Up With The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms
ED: After reading a few of your interviews, I know you had a fascination with the stars when you were a kid, but was there anyone in particular who inspired you?
SETH: I don’t think there were any individuals other than public personalities. I read books by Willy Ley as he was writing a lot of popular magazine articles at the time. And of course I had followed Wernher von Braun, whom I met when I was a kid in high school.
But I was much more influenced by things I saw, like the Hayden Planetarium in New York and science fiction movies.
ED: Any particular movies?
SETH: There was a whole slew of films in the 50s that were mostly creature films, like The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. There were also things like It Came from Outer Space, War of the Worlds, and Destination Moon that were very influential to me. I can still remember seeing Destination Moon with my mom in the theater. I later wrote George Pal, who made Destination Moon, when I was in grad school and said, “I’m in grad school studying astronomy because of you!” He wrote a very nice letter back saying that he was pleased to hear that.
ED: In film terms, what were your favorites, present and past?
SETH: I really like the Alien films, the first one in particular really broke ground because Ridley Scott is just a powerhouse director. His films are all about the ambiance.
I also liked the original War of the Worlds. I was a kid when I saw it and I still think it has a terror the remake didn’t have. Spielberg made a mistake with the second one; he made the aliens almost friendly in some scenes. One scene in the earlier version that was absolutely terrifying took place in a barn house while Martians surrounded it. It’s like the nightmares where you have to go down in to the basement. I was hoping to like that film, but I didn’t think it was as successful as the first one.
ED: So you like being terrified when you watch a flick?
SETH: Yeah, I do! That’s a spin-off of the creature feature films I watched when I was a kid. I started making movies when I was 11 years old; I’d go to the movies every weekend with a buddy of mine and see stories where they drop an atomic bomb in the Antarctic which would defrost some frozen monster from the Mesozoic era. Of course the first thing on that monster’s mind was to walk to New York and start devouring the city. They all seemed to have the same sort of plot and we thought we could do something better. We were wrong about that!
I still have a sympathy for these films where I was just absolutely horrified, I would throw up all night back then after watching these movies; films like The Day the Earth Stood Still.
ED: Did you enjoy the remake?
SETH: While I must say it was a privilege to be the science adviser for the film, I didn’t think it was successful to be honest. In the original film there’s a sequence at the end about three minutes long where Michael Rennie stands in front of the saucer on the White House lawn and he lectures to the people of Earth. He’s essentially saying behave or these robots will come down and ruin your whole day. You could say that Michael Rennie could come out and read the Bronx phone book and you would have had the same reaction because he was such a good actor; I didn’t really care what he was saying as it was the way he said it. It was the most powerful thing in the original film and it’s completely missing from the remake. I asked Scott Derrickson, the director, “Where’s the soliloquy at the end of the film?” He said, “Seth, the audience isn’t going to sit there and listen to some guy talk for three minutes.”
ED: That’s a little depressing.
SETH: Exactly my reaction. Surely that’s not true! My [other] question to Derrickson is why remake this film? The first one was perfectly good, and remakes rarely live up to the originals. His answer was that a whole new generation didn’t see the original and they’re not going to see the original as it is. It’s hard to argue with that.
But anyhow, it was nice to be involved in the production as I’ve been always interested in movies as since the age of 11.
Exploring the Future of Humanity
ED: Today space exploration isn’t as glamorous as it once was, what can we do to get youth more excited about space again?
SETH: That’s a very good question. If I knew the answer to that, I’d probably have a better paying job at the National Science Foundation! They are keen on getting kids interested in science as polls recently released show that space is very low on the priority list for Americans. Why is that? Are kids today more interested in doing things on the internet, playing video games, or something more internally focused?
You could say it’s because we don’t have a larger space program, but on the other hand, when I was a kid we didn’t have a large space program either. All they were doing was talking about going into space. Willie Ley and Wernher von Braun made these big articles that would appear in Life, Colliers, and Look with artist’s conceptions of huge space stations. For some reason, that resonated back then and I don’t why that was. Before WWII there were rockets, but they were small, experimental things. After the war everybody had seen films of the V-2, and suddenly going to the Moon, which had always been just a story, was doable.
But there wasn’t a big program until Kennedy came into office so I don’t know that just having a big space program would help. It’s a chicken versus the egg scenario: it’s hard to get a big space program if Americans don’t want our money going in to it, given other concerns.
Magazine articles, the planetarium, and other kinds of public outreach can be influential too, but science fiction movies were a huge influence for me. If I go to the multiplex today there are plenty of science fiction films, but they’re no longer “Let’s go to Mars!” or “Let’s go to the Moon!” They’re much more fanciful than that.
ED: Like Star Trek.
SETH: Yeah, you can’t realistically do that. It isn’t a matter of increasing NASA’s budget by 20% and then you have the Starship Enterprise. On the other hand, the characters in Destination Moon made a rocket in 1950 by a private consortium, not the government, and sent a bunch of guys to the Moon who walked around and came back. That was basically the storyline, and it was also something you could do. Within 20 years they had actually done it.
Today the NSF has a list of scientists they try and put in touch with politicians and Hollywood because they recognize that Hollywood can get kids interested in science. The stories are probably bonkers, the science is wrong, but it doesn’t matter if it hooks you emotionally.
As a kid I was into HAM radio and building things; kids today don’t seem to be into that either. When you build something, you learn. Today they’ll buy it instead, and it distresses me. You could say that kids today have different interests than you do whereas you had different interests than your parents, so what’s the big deal? Maybe that’s all it is.
ED: I do get that people don’t actually make things physically as much, but on the other hand people are making things virtually. Maybe that’s the logical progression.
SETH: That may be the argument: today’s kids are just as creative and what they do is create software. That sounds good, and when you look around the Silicon Valley that paradigm seems to work. On the other hand, when I was in China for the solar eclipse, I was standing on the deck of a ship going down the Yangtze river and saw hundreds of miles worth of industry lining the river, any 10 miles of which just blows away anything in the United States.
You can’t help but wonder if it’s right that we don’t actually build physical things at all anymore. Is that the natural progression of things? You might say we’ll just design it and they’ll manufacture it, but that’s very naive. The Chinese don’t need you to design, market, or anything else and now that you’ve given them the manufacturing end, it means they’re better designers. They know what’s involved in manufacturing it.
ED: But maybe Kurzweil is right: the singularity is near and all of us will just end up as information.
SETH: Well, yes, if that happens all of this is irrelevant. If we upload our consciousness into machinery and invent our successors then it doesn’t matter whether kids are building paper airplanes. After all, they are just machines. He may be right ideologically, but I’m not sure if it’s going to happen as quickly. That it can happen is a very reasonable argument to me. It means that everything will change in ways that are very unpredictable, so I’d say enjoy life now (laughs).
ED: As life will probably be something completely different.
SETH: Yes, if you invent your successors it’s going to be different indeed! Go to an Artificial Intelligence conference and they aren’t talking about whether or not you can build a machine that can teach high school chemistry; it’s considered a settled matter that eventually you’ll be able to build something that is as competent as humans. What they were interested in was if you could give it moral behavior, which is another way of asking if you can pull the plug if it got out of control. That sounds like a hard thing to do.
Finding E.T., Technically Speaking
ED: So how long before we find an Earth-like planet?
SETH: It’s going to be 1,000 days or less. That’s a pretty sure bet, because now you have the Kepler mission which is in it’s first month of getting real data. At first they’ll find hot Jupiter-like worlds, which orbit around so fast that you can find them quickly. In the first six months, you’ll hear about all these uninteresting planets.
To find the Earths will take on the order of three years (around 1,000 days), because you’ll want them to go around three times before you believe them. It could be that Earth-like worlds are very rare, in which case you won’t see them, but most people who’ve thought about this have figured Earth-sized worlds are going to be fairly plentiful.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of competitors to Kepler on the ground, who have thought of clever schemes for finding Earth-size worlds without putting a spacecraft into orbit. These things could work in principle: timing the orbits of stars, directly imaging them, or taking improved radial velocity measurements, and so forth. Based on that, it just may be less than 1,000 days.
Unfortunately, if we haven’t found them in 1,000 days we’re probably not going to find them.
ED: If we do find them, where does SETI come in?
SETH: I’m sure we’ll set up an observation program to go look at all the Earth-like worlds. Maybe there are 20 of them, and it won’t take very long to look at 20 worlds. Just finding 20 Earth-like worlds, while extremely interesting, that per se doesn’t help SETI too much.
The exception would be if you could say that the kind of stars that have Earth-like worlds are of a certain category. If that turns out to be the case, now you know how to pursue your query better and improve the efficiency of SETI. I don’t expect that to happen, but who knows? In astronomy what you expect and what you get are not always the same thing.
Obviously if it came back that Earth-like worlds are very rare, say 1 in 100 billion stars has one, then that would be discouraging news. That would have an effect on SETI, and probably not a good one.
ED: But there are still trillions upon trillions of other stars out there…
SETH: Yes, but now you’re looking at other galaxies, and the distances are very far. Why would anybody in the Andromeda send you a signal that takes 2 million years to get here? By the time you respond, they’ve evolved and probably don’t care.
ED: Let say then, you find a signal, confirm it, translate it to say something like “Hello world!”
SETH: …in C++!
ED: In C++, maybe. What then? What’s the protocol for first contact if there’s one at all?
SETH: We’re in the process of trying to change that. The one we have dates back to the Cold War and it was motivated by political considerations more than anything else.
The protocol itself doesn’t have the force of law; it’s merely and agreement amongst people doing SETI. First, you confirm it. Second, you announce it. The third thing is that no response will be made without international consultation.
Some people have tried to change it so that no transmissions, whether or not we pick up a signal, should be made without international consultation, but now that puts NBC and CBS on the spot. Personally, I don’t think it really matters what we say as they’ve already got our response in some sense since they’ve been listening to our radios. Even if they haven’t, it still probably doesn’t matter very much.
One of the main motivations for changing this protocol is that we’ve had false alarms, and the idea that the scientific community is going to follow a protocol just doesn’t hold water. As soon as you find a signal that looks interesting, the media’s all over it. There’s no secrecy in this business. SETI wouldn’t have a press conference until they’re 99% sure it was real, and that might take a week. Meanwhile the story has been written about.
But you’ll know some things: where in the sky is it and what frequency it’s at. You could withhold that information, as some people advocate, but that’s stupid because you’ve already asked people at another observatory, probably in another country, and say look at this thing and tell us if you see it too! Those sorts of things will be known, and at that point any Joe who has an antenna pointed at the sky can do their own experiment. There’s no hiding the evidence.
ED: It’s public domain.
SETH: It’s called the sky!
ED: Let’s say SETI has all the money it wants, what would they do with that money?
SETH: Well if you had all the money you could possibly eat, to begin with, I’d hire myself an administrative assistant. That’s step one for me.
But from the standpoint of the science, you’d want finish the Allen Telescope Array. If I had semi-infinite funds, I’d talk seriously about putting a radio telescope on the back side of the Moon. The far side of the moon is shielded at all times from the Earth’s radiation. Now you have an instrument that would be very fast and very sensitive, and you could make it as big as you want, since the gravity on the moon is very small.
The project I’d really like to see us do is either (1) an optical SETI experiment on the ground that could monitor as much of the sky as possible or (2) something in space or the Moon that works in the infrared. It’s hard to observe infrared on the ground here because water vapor in the atmosphere absorbs all the infrared. Plus, infrared goes through the gas and dust in stars, whereas optical does not. If you don’t want slow dial-up, your galactic DSL is likely to be at infrared frequencies. And we don’t do any SETI in the infrared, and it’s such an obviously good channel.
The one other thing I’d do is raise everyone’s salary 20%, maybe more. Price of living here, you know!
ED: A lot of SETI critics are particularly critical about it’s focus on radio transmissions. Is it really just practicality and cost concerns?
SETH: Well it’s also historical. We invented radio before we invented lasers. If we invented lasers first, maybe everyone would be doing optical SETI and people would be screaming “Hey, you guys are so fixated on optical, what about radio?” Radio is actually good because the photons are cheap. If you can focus it and you have big enough instruments, then you have the lowest cost per bit transport mode. I gave a talk in San Francisco the other day and at least three questions were essentially your question: “Why aren’t you using gravity waves, or why aren’t you using neutrinos, or why aren’t you using hyper-dimensional physics?” But I don’t know what hyper-dimensional physics is…
ED: Well, nobody does.
SETH: Yes, so it’s hard to build an instrument to take advantage of it if you don’t know anything about the physics (laughs). With radio they’ll say it’s so primitive and they’ll have something much better. Well what should we do about that, just sit around on our hands and say we can’t do anything because they have something that’s much better? That’s not a call to action, it’s a philosophical remark.
If they say things like gravity waves and neutrinos, then at least I can say I don’t think either of those make sense. Gravity waves are very hard to generate; it would take a star, something huge to shake around. But with a radio transmitter the size of one parking, you’ve got something powerful enough to reach the stars. That sounds a lot easier to me.
It’s a very legitimate statement to say that we’re being too conservative, why don’t you try something more exotic, and I think the main reason for that are (a) historical and (b) and the fact that we have such small budgets. It’s very hard to do anything completely radical because that will cost you much more than something that’s already established.
As it is, it’s like Christopher Columbus coming up to the King of Spain, who says he likes your idea, but can’t afford three ships. What he can do is buy you a couple of bottles which you can put notes in, and then you can throw them into the Atlantic. Maybe you’ll discover something, who knows?
So, we could really use those ships!
Not-so Unidentified Flying Objects
ED: Have you heard of groups like Open SETI that are very suspicious of what the SETI Institute does? There are even others that claim you’re a highly classified black-ops program.
SETH: I get emails about how we’re keeping something secret here, that we’re a disinformation group. That wouldn’t be so bad. If we were a disinformation campaign orchestrated by the government to cover up UFOs, we’d probably have bigger budgets. Wouldn’t they want to fund us? Sounds good to me.
All I can tell you is it’s not true, so of course they’re not going to believe me. Anybody who works here knows that there’s nothing secret about what we do.
ED: So there’s no UFOs here, right?
SETH: Not that I’ve seen, although there’s that photo right there of the flying saucer. That’s a photo I made here in Mountain View. I found a lamp shade in an abandoned shopping cart, drilled in a few holes, attached some LEDs and shot that in my garage. So that UFO you can see here! But no other UFOs.
Everyday I get several emails from people who send me photos. If I thought that any of them looked real it would be a lot cheaper than building these radio telescopes! It’d be great if they were visiting (or might not be, depends on what their intentions were). I think most scientists would agree: if the evidence were compelling, we’d spend a lot more time looking into this.
ED: And it’d be cheaper.
SETH: Much cheaper. You could learn more if they’re here.
It’s been 62 years since Roswell, and some believe they’re here, but all I have to say is if they are, it’s been pretty benign so far. I don’t hear a whole lot of planes crashing because of UFO activity, or a whole lot of people getting abducted; nobody seems to mind much.
ED: I’d like to think if they came all the way over here they’d be a little more discreet.
SETH: Who knows, they come some hundreds of light years, and in the last 50 feet they make a navigational error and smash into the sands outside of Roswell! That guy should lose his license. There are perfectly good explanations for what happened at Roswell that don’t involve UFOs, but it’s much more fun to believe in them.
These phenomena have been looked at over and over again, and they always come to the same conclusion: 90% of them they understand and 10% are in the “we don’t know” category. People will always point to that 10% and say that’s where the aliens are, but how is that proof? What about the murders that are unsolved in San Francisco? Are they committed by aliens because we didn’t solve them? Seems like a stretch.
As far as I can tell everybody is being honest. They’ve seen something or they’ve experienced something and they don’t know what it is so they think it’s aliens. Sometimes they’ll send me photos; most of the photos I can figure out what they are since most of them are just blobs of light and these ghost-y things which are almost always internal reflections in the optics of the camera.
It’s here we close our interview. We’d like to thank Seth for taking time to talk with us.
Seth has recently released his latest book, “Confessions of an Alien Hunter”, which you can find on Amazon.
You can also follow him on twitter: @sethshostak.