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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, July 28, 2006

Astronomer hoping to hear ET phone home

By Chris Oliver
Advertiser Staff Writer

Seth Shostak

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By Chris McKay, NASA Ames Research Center and Seth Shostak, SETI Institute

7.30 tonight

Art Auditorium, University of Hawai'i-Manoa


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Is there life out there? SETI senior astronomer Seth Shostak thinks so.

NASA library photo

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Are we alone? Seth Shostak doesn't think so.

In May's Discover magazine, the scientist, broadcaster and author reviewed the famous Drake Equation, which calculates the probability of life elsewhere in the universe and asks whether life is a "onetime fluke or a near-inevitable phenomenon."

"More and more, the evidence points toward the latter," said Shostak, senior astronomer at the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence Institute, or SETI, in California, made famous in the 1997 movie "Contact." Shostak is part of a team that uses radio telescopes to try to eavesdrop on alien broadcasts.

Shostak and fellow astronomer Chris McKay will bring us up to date on the hunt for life elsewhere tonight in "Searching for Life in the Universe," at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa Art Auditorium. We asked Shostak five questions:

Q. What are the chances of finding extra-terrestrial life within your lifetime?

A. Eavesdropping on space is not a new idea; it's been around for decades. Today the march of technology is just so much faster, and though no one knows for sure if intelligent life is out there, we remain optimistic about finding it, certainly in my lifetime.

In the 15 years I've been with SETI, we've observed around 750 star systems (potential homes for life). Think of it as like looking for a needle in a haystack. The new Allen Telescope Array, under construction by the SETI Institute and University of California at Berkeley, is like being given a really big spoon, and in 10 years, this instrument will be so fast, we'll be using the equivalent of a skiploader.

Q. If we are contacted, these extraterrestrial beings could have technology beyond any on Earth; does this frighten you?

A. Well, it would certainly upset my calendar for the week, but remember, they're not going to suddenly land in the backyard. Any signal will be from a very great distance away, something Hollywood conveniently forgets. Even if we pick up their signal, (the aliens) probably wouldn't know of our existence. Would the world panic? Well, it would be a shock to the system. Knowing that another life form exists is a bit like being told you have a sibling you didn't know about.

Do I think other life forms exist? Yes, or I wouldn't do the job. However, personal conviction does not count for anything it's the experiment that counts. Imagine sitting in an English pub in the 17th century trying to decide if Antarctica exists. You have to build the ships and go there to be sure.

Q. How do we respond if the cosmic telephone rings?

A. We pick up signals from space all the time, so first we would decide if it really is from another star system and not chatter from the din that surrounds Earth. Also, it's most likely to be a signal we have to decode to understand, so we may have to build a different receiving system. It's a bit like giving Neanderthals a copy of The Honolulu Advertiser; they might learn something ... if they understand our written word. Most likely they won't. So I'm not sure we will understand the extra-terrestrials.

Sociologists have attempted to understand the global reaction to such news, some by looking back to, say, Copernicus' (then-astonishing) theory that the Earth revolved around the Sun, or Galileo's discovery of Jupiter's moons. Their discoveries hardly improved their standing in the community. We would not like the same fate as some of the early visionaries. Besides, at least one-third of the population in the U.S. believes we are already being visited by aliens regularly.

If we are contacted, the most important discovery is that other life forms are part of everyday life of the universe, and life itself is not a miracle.

Q. What else does SETI do, and how successful has the UC-Berkeley data screensaver been?

A. SETI conducts many experiments within our solar system and beyond, into how life began and under what conditions: most life is actually microbial (pond scum) and not necessarily intelligent.

Since 1999 (when the screensaver came out), there have been about 5 million downloads, making it the biggest computer in the world; it's still scrunching away.

Q. I heard you were a contestant on "The Dating Game" in the 1970s. Would you accept a blind date with an alien?

A. I am indeed a "Dating Game" alumnus and was once picked by a young lady and won a five-day trip to Acupulco, Mexico ... their weather is better than in space. But a blind date with an alien? Hmmm ... only if they had DNA.

Reach Chris Oliver at coliver@honoluluadvertiser.com.