Seth Shostak has always been a great public face for SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) – he’s enthusiastic, witty, and knowledgeable. Apart from my (previously mentioned) concerns over his willingness to embrace the CSICOPian line, and make fun of other ‘fringe’ ideas – such as those in ufology – I’ve always enjoyed hearing Shostak’s thoughts on the search for alien intelligence.
Aliens are big in America. Whether they’ve arrived via rocket, flying saucer, or plain old teleportation, they’ve been invading, infiltrating, or inspiring us for decades, and they’ve fascinated moviegoers and television watchers for more than fifty years. About half of us believe that aliens really exist, and millions are convinced they’ve visited Earth.
For twenty-five years, SETI has been looking for the proof, and as the program’s senior astronomer, Seth Shostak explains in this engrossing book, it’s entirely possible that before long conclusive evidence will be found.
His informative, entertaining report offers an insider’s view of what we might realistically expect to discover light-years away among the stars. Neither humanoids nor monsters, says Shostak; in fact, biological intelligence is probably just a precursor to machine beings, enormously advanced artificial sentients whose capabilities and accomplishments may have developed over billions of years and far exceed our own.
As he explores what, if anything, they would tell us and what their existence would portend for humankind and the cosmos, he introduces a colorful cast of characters and provides a vivid, state-of-the-art account of the past, present, and future of our search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
The Amazon page also features a ‘video trailer featuring Seth Shostak discussing SETI and alien creatures, and the Washington Post also has a favourable write-up on the book. Astrobiology Magazine also has a feature with Shostak discussing various SETI-related topics, in which he offers this justification for the search:
Many scientifically literate critics point to the Fermi paradox, or some variant thereof, and pronounce that the verdict is already in: Our galaxy is, at best, only sparsely inhabited. Even those who accept SETI’s mission frequently opine that it may take generations to succeed, if success occurs at all. So… why would I spend my one-and-only brief moment on the stage of life chasing this particular rainbow? … [It] is the fact that SETI addresses a truly big-picture question. This is exploration on the scale of those European sailors who plied and plotted the world at the start of the 16th century. Unless our concept of the cosmos is gravely in error, SETI is the beginning of the last major foray into the unknown.
Imagine being a member of the Spanish court in the late 15th century, counseling Columbus. You might suggest he give wooden ships a pass and hang fire for 500 years, after which he could cross the Atlantic in hours eating low-grade meals off his lap. Yet Columbus discovered an extraordinary new world, and his wooden ships were (just) good enough to find it.
I do find it ironic that many of the justifications for investing time in SETI apply equally to the fringe topics that Seth Shostak seems to take issue with. We’re not that bad Seth – you’re more than welcome to join us ‘whacky science’ folks anytime…
Previously on TDG: