ET or AT&T? Seth Shostak on life as an alien hunter

Alien hunter Seth Shostak phoned in from his SETI office in California to talk about what it takes to eavesdrop on radio broadcasts for signs of intelligent life.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor on

Alien hunter Seth Shostak gets crazy emails all the time.

Recently, he answered a letter from a woman who claimed she was an alien.

He wrote her back, asking her why she thought so.

She said, "You can see it in my eyes."

Well, when you are a professional alien hunter, it comes with the job.

But Shostak insists, his scientific endeavor of finding intelligent life somewhere in the universe is pretty routine.

Well it is by his standards. Shostak's colleagues at The SETI Institute, spend their time searching for life on other planets and the universe.

Shostak's team is nimble, consisting of just a handful scientists and engineers, who look for intelligent life.

Shostak has clocked in 20 years of alien hunting. From his desk in California, he phoned in to communicate about his life as an alien hunter.

Okay, so what do you do as an alien hunter?

If you've seen the movie Contact then you will get an idea of what we do. In the movie, they waited for the aliens to come here. But in real life, we can't do that. You can use antennas and pick up radio signals. With very sensitive antennas, you can pick up signals from other worlds.

Essentially, you want to eavesdrop on alien broadcast.

So, in the movie Jodie Foster plays Eleanor Arroway, who puts on headphones to hear intelligent aliens sending a message for a mysterious machine. So do you wear headphones all the time?

No, it's not like the movies. First of all, I don't look like Jodie Foster.

All the listening is done by computers. I'm not sitting around watching my computer screen and listening to signals with my speakers blasting.

How do you know if the signal is coming from space?

Good question: Is it ET or AT&T?

You track it across the sky. If it's coming from one spot on the sky, then it will move as the earth rotates. If it's something on the ground like a telecommunications satellite, it is fixed with respect to the stars.

How do you search for life?

The experiment keeps getting faster. The march of technology doubles in speed every 18 months. The other thing is we are addressing the big picture. We are looking to see if we are the smartest thing in the universe.

So you must imagine what aliens look like.

I would say that 999,999 out of a million aliens will be microbes. Single-celled critters aren't that interesting at a cocktail party. Hollywood likes to pick aliens that look like us. They are sort of like us, but don't have our imperfections like moles.

My own view is different. Marchese Marconi, helped invent the radio 100 years ago. We invented the computer in this 100 years. And 100 years from now, we will probably have thinking computers. So if we hear from aliens, we will be hearing machine intelligence and not from soft and squishy intelligence beings like you. The aliens won't have the dirty chemistry.

What would happen if we received an alien message?

I think that depends on if we can understand the message. If we can understand the message, it can be profound. It would be like giving the Neanderthals an education at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

If we don't understand the message, then all we will know is that we picked up some message from some critter.

So you claim alien hunting isn't as glamorous as Hollywood makes it out to be. What's a day like for you?

Most days are normal. I give talks and attend conferences. I design experiments. And I sit behind a computer at a desk.

You must travel too, right?

I was a tour guide in China for the ellipses last year. I do give lectures on cruise ships and give tours for magazines like the The Smithsonian and Scientific American.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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