Seth Shostak is Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute. He also heads up the International Academy of Astronautics’ SETI Permanent Study Group. In addition, Seth is keen on outreach activities: interesting the public – and especially young people – in science in general, and astrobiology in particular. He has published nearly 300 popular articles on science, gives many dozens of talks annually, and is the host of the SETI Institute’s weekly science radio show, “Are We Alone?”.
Let’s take a look the exclusive interview with Seth by our colleague Lourdes Cahuich:
Listen to the interview here.
LC: Hello, my name is Lourdes Cahuich and I am from the website seti.cl. I am about to interview Dr. Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. Hello Seth, How are you?
Seth: Well, I’m just fine here in lovely California, Lourdes, which is -of course- lovely.
LC: Seth, our first question to you is -How, when and where did you find you wanted to become an astronomer?
Seth: Well, I don’t recall ever making that decision consciously, but I was interested in astronomy since I was eight years old. I recall how that happened because I was sitting on the floor on the diningroom of our appartment and I was looking thru an atlas (because even as a kid I was interested in maps) and it had a funny diagram at the back of the atlas with a bunch of what looked like circles surrounding a little ball, and I asked my mother what that was and she said “oh well, those are the planets” and I didn’t know what those were; but she told me and I found out that very interesting that there might be planets. And that’s what started my interest in astronomy really. By the age of ten -two years later- I built my own telescope and I was trying to take pictures of the Moon and Jupiter and things like that.
LC: What is your daily inspiration to continue working on SETI?
Seth: Well only because I think it’s a very interesting question on one hand: could there be other beings out there that are at least as clever as we are? I think we just have the curiosity to want to know the answer to that. But I actually consider it, really a privilege, to be able to work on that problem, because it is such an interesting question and a very old question; I mean the Greeks certainly thought about it but I bet the Neanderthals certainly thought about it too. When they looked up at the night sky they probably wondered “Are there any Neanderthals up there?” I don’t know if the dinosaurs ever wonder that, but our early ancestors did and they couldn’t answer the question, and now we can (or maybe we can) so that makes this a little bit more of an interesting job than say pumping gas down in your local gas station, because well, that is Ok, you know, there have been plenty of generations that could have done that before, but it comes to looking for E.T. this is really the first opportunity we’d had to do a good search.
LC: What do you think is needed for SETI to be considered as part of general education?
Seth: As a part of a general education? Well I think that SETI falls into the whole question, of course, of life in space; because probably there is a lot of life out there that isn’t very intelligent (and certainly there is a lot of life in California that isn’t very intelligent); so SETI falls into the bigger question of how life got started, are there other worlds that might be good enough to have life, what about the evolution from simple life to intelligent life; these are all questions that are actually quite interesting, and they involve astronomy obviously but also geology, biology, even sociology. These are all things that everybody should know a little bit about, I mean is like general knowledge. It’s saying “why study English literature?” well it’s part of the world’s body of literature but more than that I think it is just good to know such things. And I think any educated person would want to know a little bit of geology, biology, astronomy and sociology.
LC: …then we might consider SETI as a way to incorporate all these areas.
Seth: That’s right, and it is because SETI -the idea of aliens of course, is very appealing particularly to kids, young people in any case; because they’ve seen a lot of movies in which the aliens appear, usually they come to destroy the planet -which seems to be what most aliens are interested in, according to Hollywood but really, they don’t seem to have done it so far. So yes, it is an appealing subject matter, SETI a part of it, aliens. And you can use that to get people to learn something about it: Could there -for example- be aliens on Mars? little tiny ones? Or could there be aliens on some of the moons of Jupiter or Saturn? And thereby learn a little bit more about these other subjects. So it’s a great “hook”, if you will, to get people interested in an area of science that they might, otherwise, never read anything about.
LC: What kind of activities are you doing to inspire young people to work on this area?
Seth: To inspire young people? Well, we give a lot of talks every year and most of those talks are at universities or in public forums, something like that. Every now and then, maybe ten percent of the talks are to school kids; and I enjoy talking with school kids actually because, unlike adults, school kids actually -if they’re interested- they really pay attention, adults only pretend to pay attention. And with school kids sometimes you can change some kid’s thinking; I remember that happening when I was in school. Somebody would come to our school and then they talked about something, and it would “hit me” and then I think “geez, that is kind of interesting, I’d like to know more about that”, so I think that talking to kids is actually more valuable than talking to adults in many ways; so I do some of that. We also produce materials for classroom, and of course we have our weekly radio show (that’s for older kids actually high school and above I would think). So we do a lot of stuff, television shows, all these; so we’re trying to reach out to people and see if they get interested, and they obviously are because the TV people keep showing up here at the Institute to make yet “another show about looking for E.T.”.
LC: On a personal note, how was the reaction of your family and friends when they knew about your unusual working area?
Seth: Well, I don’t remember any particular reaction, it is somewhat fun at parties, when people ask you: what do you do? -And you say: “I look for aliens”, and of course they assume I’m joking, and that’s probably because they have been talking to me for a few minutes beforehand they notice that I do joke a lot, so they probably figure out that’s another joke. But then it turns out that it’s not a joke. Do you get a reaction there, which is just sort of fun. Everybody that I know think there is value on this, in the sense that, they believe that it might happen, that it’s possible. Some would said: “Well, I don’t think you are going to find anything” and other would say: “it’s going to take 100 years”, something like that, but I never run into people that might say: “It’s impossible, they can’t be out there”, that’s very seldom the case, so maybe they are saying bad things about me behind my back, but they don’t say it to my face, usually, unless is in the email, in which case they will.
LC: In your opinion, what has been the impact of UFO’s TV shows and movies on real science, particularly SETI?
Seth: Well, that’s hard to judge, I think that the one impact, it’s been that is got in the public interest in the subject, and the public is interested in the subject, I suspect that it helps us, because SETI in this country -in the United States- it’s all privately funded, it’s not goverment funded, so we depend on the interest of the public to do the research, and so, when there is another movie involving aliens, even though the aliens of the movies tend to be usually pretty bad, that is to say evil, they are good as aliens but they are evil to humans… I think that helps because it estimulates interest in the subject, even though it’s not very responsible scientifically if you will. So I don’t think that’s a bad thing, obviously we try to make clear the difference between the kind of alien beliefs that the many of the public has, one third of the public think that the aliens are here, on Earth; and their flying sources are pulling people out of their bedroom for experiments that really they shouldn’t do that, that’s what I consider pseudo-science and it’s unfortunate that some many people seem to think than that’s true. But on the other hand, the good side of all that people think: yes, there must be life out there.
LC: How can you balance your time beetween research and outreach and at the same time, answer to people whom contact you to tell you about their UFO-related experiences?
Seth: Yes, I spend a lot of hours at the office that’s the answer to that. That’s hard, but I get about 2 or 3 emails everyday from people who either think that they have seen the aliens, I got several phone calls yesterday and 2 emails from somebody who was sending me all these photos, he could see the aliens in the clouds. Lots of people send me photos of the clouds and say: “Look at it, just turn it this way and you will see an astronaut, or turn it to the other way and you will see a turtle”, or whatever. But sure enough, you can sort of see these things -or the Virgin Mary she is in the clouds too – there are a lot of things in the clouds, but that’s a trick of our brains, it doesn’t prove to me that the aliens are here, just because the clouds looks like some guy’s head. So that’s takes a little bit of time, because I usually respond to all these people and tell them what I think about it. Of course it’s not our job to investigate UFO’s, we are not the organization that does that, there are some. So I can’t spend too much time investigating UFO’s. But I do try to answer people, they usually seem to be happy enough that I even bother to answer. So, maybe that’s not a bad thing to do, it doesn’t take very much time. There are 5 people who write me who think there are aliens. By the way I point out there are all women, I don’t know if that means anything, but they all seem to be women. It’s only five, so many it doesn’t mean anything.
LC: Which are your future plans or projects related to SETI?
Seth: Well, we are doing an experiment now, in fact I’ll be observing tomorrow night at the Allen Telescope Array, what that means is I’ll just log in at home at my own computer to make sure everything is working -I don’t actually have to go to the telescope anymore, it’s all automated-. But we are looking in the anti-sun direction, which is to say, if the sun is up here, we are looking there, looking at the exact opposite, because in that direction if there any aliens out there among those stars, who are looking back at our sun system, they will see our sun slightly dimmer, because the Earth is moving in front of it, and they may say: “Ok, that’s the time to send them a message, so it may have time to the message to arrive here as we are blocking our sun -from their point of view-, because that tells us: where to look (the anti-sun direction) and when (when we are crossing the sun from their point of view) so that makes maybe setting up some kind of communication it could be a little bit easier, it’s just an idea -an old idea- I think the Soviets had this idea, like 25 or 30 years ago. But we are trying it with the Allen Telescope Array, it’s just some sort of test experiment. What we are hoping is that the Allen Telescope Array it will continue to get bigger and more powerful, so we can do a wider range of experiments.
LC: Is there something you want to tell to your Latin American listeners to remember the importance of SETI?
Seth: Well, only this: I have had a great deal of interest in Latinamerica, I have spend a lot of time in Mexico, but also in Southamerica, in fact in another two weeks I’ll go to Argentina, there is going to be an eclipse there. I have been in Chile, Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil and so forth. Not only the cultures are interesting, historically is very interesting. But it’s also the case that something like 10% maybe 20% of the correspondence I get of SETI is coming from Latinamerica. There seems to be quite of an interest there. And that’s a good thing. For a long time, the only SETI experiment being done outside the United States was being done in Argentina. A very small effort made by one person in an university in Argentina, in Buenos Aires. I think than that again, shows this is an international kind of thing. It’s just a good thing that people are interested and I particularly welcome the interest from Latinamerica, because afterall, we are all Americans.
LC: Well, this is the end of our interview. Dr. Seth Shostak, thank you very much for talking to us.
Seth: Thank you very much Lourdes, for a very expert interview.
For more information about Dr. Seth Shostak, you can listen to his radio show: Are we alone?