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Is there anybody out there?

SETI’s senior astronomer Dr Seth Shostak explains how the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence actually works

By Zeeshan Ahmad |
CREATIVE: Ibrahim Yahya
PUBLISHED July 25, 2021

The question of whether there is life outside of Planet Earth is perhaps as old as the discovery of outer space. Ever since it became clear that our planet was just one of the countless bodies in the universe, people have wondered if we, the human race, are all alone in its vastness.

Still, it was only recently that we could start an attempt to find an answer. As humans breached the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere, corresponding initiatives and advancements made some experimentation possible.

The not-for-profit SETI Institute developed as just one result of that. Incorporated in 1984, the institute has been on a mission to explore, understand and explain the nature of life in the universe.

The Express Tribune reached out to someone who is perhaps SETI’s most public face: American astronomer Dr Seth Shostak. In a wide-ranging conversation, Dr Shostak explains how the search for intelligent life out there actually works and how such an endeavour may be important for us to understand our place in the grand universal scheme.

ET: What does SETI do exactly and how did it come about?

SS: Well SETI is a generic acronym. It stands for the ‘Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence’. That was our first project and it still is a project of this institute – the SETI Institute – which is a non-profit.

Now, the first SETI experiment was done in 1960 by Frank Drake, who was a young astronomer at the time, in West Virginia, United States. Since then, SETI has been a sort of ‘sometime activity’ for people. The fact that it is not very large is entirely due to the lack of funding.

When I joined the SETI Institute in 1990, it was a NASA programme. But that stopped three years later and it has not been government funded since 1993.

That means that the number of people involved is very low. The SETI Institute has about a hundred researchers, but the number that are working on the SETI project is one and a half. It is very very small and that is just a money issue.

The rest of the institute, if you walk down the halls here, you would find are doing what is called ‘astrobiology’. They are interested in life in space but probably microscopic life and not that kind that will hold up their side of the conversation.

So, that is what the institute does. It is non-profit and we have a lot of scientists, but we have a small number that are actually interested in the search for extra terrestrial intelligence.

ET: When it comes to searching for signs of life in space, there are some people who become somewhat paranoid. They ask ‘why invite trouble’ if there is intelligent life on other planets. Why is it important for us, both philosophically and scientifically, to determine whether we are alone in the universe or not?

SS: If you ask me why is it interesting to do this, I think it is curiosity more than anything. That is not a superficial uninteresting motivation to do this. I am just doing this because I want to know the answer to ‘is there somebody else out there in the galaxy’.

We now know something that we did not know 2,000 years ago and that is that there are like a trillion planets in the Milky Way. And we can see a million million other galaxies, each with a million million other planets, in the sky.

It is possible that there is indeed nobody out there. But if that were in fact true, then that would make Earth extraordinarily remarkable. It would be like finding one lottery ticket in your pocket and it happens to be the winning one – it could happen, but the chances of that happening are small.

There is a much bigger chance of there being life out there than there is a chance that all of these trillions of planets in trillions of galaxies are sterile. That is very unlikely.

As far as the danger of searching for intelligent life out there is concerned, there is no danger in listening at all. Nobody knows that you are listening, unless you were to broadcast something back.

Some people think that would be dangerous. I’m not one of them, but there are people who say: “oh, you don’t know what is out there and you may threaten the Earth.” Those people do not seem terribly concerned about all the radar or our television and FM radio, all of which are going into space. Those would be alerting the ‘aliens’ too.

ET: That is an interesting way to frame it. Usually, one thinks only about what the discovery of intelligent species or civilisations on other planets would mean for us. But if we were in fact alone in the universe, you say that in itself would be an important discovery.

SS: Yes, but keep in mind that there is no way to prove that. You can point your antennas at all the trillions of planets in the Milky Way and you may not hear anything. But that still does not prove that there is not intelligent life out there. It could mean that your experiment is not good enough.

There is no way to prove that there is nobody out there. It is not a falsifiable hypothesis. But there is a way to prove that there is intelligent life out there and that is what we are trying to do. And again, we do it out of curiosity more than anything.

ET: When we talk about bodies in space, there are obviously distances that even light takes thousands if not millions of years to travel across. How does that affect the search for extra-terrestrial life? How does the SETI project account for that when performing its experiments?

SS: Well, it is true that everything you see in the sky is via ‘old light’. If you look at the moon, you are not seeing it as it is ‘now’. You are seeing it as it was one and a half seconds ago. That does not really matter as the moon has not changed much in the interim.

I think you could make that same argument probably for any alien signal you pick up. Yes it is true that we can see things and galaxies from our telescopes that are billions of light years away. But we are not looking at those for SETI. We are looking nearby, in our own galaxy.

And if you just expand the search to 300 light years, to give a number, then there are more than a million star systems within that distance. So, even if you think the chances are one in a million, you will have success if can look at all those star systems within 300 light years.

Of course, that would mean that the signal is 300 years old. But even then, it would not be uninteresting to us. There are plenty of people who study the 18th century on this planet.

It does make conversation very difficult if there is some civilisation that far away. But who knows, there could be some intelligent life that is much closer. Our nearest star, for instance, is only four light years away. That would mean tedious conversation but it is not impossible.

ET: The term extra-terrestrials, usually, evokes conspiracy theories about UFOs and alien visitors. What would you say to those who confuse the scientific search for extra-terrestrial life with conspiracy theories?

SS: Well, there are certainly dozens of conspiracy theories that I hear from people every day. Some of them are nuts, but most of them are not. They are just citizens who have seen something.

As it turns out, I have a background in photography so I ask them if they have made any photos. And you know, maybe half the time they say yes. I have them send me the photos if they are willing and I can usually tell what they are.

In most cases, they can be explained by photographic effects, or just the fact that they are using their cellphone cameras, pointing them at the sky at night. The cellphone camera does not know what to focus on, so it goes in and out of focus, and they think they are seeing aliens. There are many interesting optical effects that many people interpret as being alien spacecraft.

Now, one third of the American public believes that we are actually being visited and that some of these UFOs are real interstellar objects. That is the same in Europe. I don’t know what it is on the Subcontinent but I would be surprised if the numbers were very much different.

So, that means for a hundred million people in the United States and another hundred million people in Britain, Europe and Japan and so on, this is true. It is really a lot more fun to think this is true.

It is a lot more fun for me to believe in angels, just for example, and one-third of the population believes in them too. But you say “okay, that is fine but what is your proof?” They give you whatever they have, but it does not convince many scientists.

The same is true for the UFO phenomenon. There is just no good evidence in my opinion. Not to mention all sorts of problems with getting here and why are they here now and other things, other arguments you can make.

But the bottom line is, if they are here now, why do we not see them with our airport radars, for example. Or our radar fences that extend across the entire United States? Or the fact that there are satellites up there and they are not all American satellites. There are plenty of satellites that are just photographing every part of the globe today and they do not see them either.

ET: There is this idea that the appeal of ‘conspiracy theories’ comes from people’s need to convince themselves that there is an order to the chaos they observe in life. Do you think that explains why the public interest in UFOs has been so enduring?

SS: I think the whole UFO business in the United States – I think its safe to say for the world actually – began in the late 1940s and it started with an observation made in the state of Washington by this fire equipment salesman. The government did actually cover up some of the information around those early UFO experiences, if you will. In particular in the case of Roswell, because there was actually a classified experiment being conducted at the Roswell Army Air Force Base involving balloons. The government did not tell the truth on that until 30 years later.

So that precipitated a kind of distrust amongst the public here in the United States that the government was not being honest about what it knew. Ever since then, there has been this idea of a conspiracy or cover up.

I have worked for the federal government. I even had Top Secret clearance given I worked in a research lab, and well, I have never been convinced that the federal government could cover up anything. But there are still plenty of people who do think that and, for its part, the federal government here does occasionally keep things quiet. It certainly does that when it comes to military information.

But the reason that when you go down to a science museum you do not see any stuff about UFOs is not that the museum directors are thinking ‘no one wants to see that’. Of course the public would be very interested. The reason you do not see that in a science museum is because there really is no science to it. Nobody has come up with any real science connected to the UFO phenomenon.

ET: When one usually thinks of alien life or when it is depicted in popular media, what comes up is very humanlike in terms of shape and thinking. But in looking for extra-terrestrial intelligence, there is no reason to expect any potential life out there would be similar to us. When experiments are developed in SETI, is there any kind of speculation about what an intelligent extra-terrestrial life-form would think and behave like?

SS: It is true that in movies and in television that when it comes to aliens, what is shown is very similar to humans. I have consulted for some films and television shows too and of course, you can argue that maybe life out there looks nothing like us or maybe they are machines, and so forth.

But yes, in media, they always go back to the idea of humanoid aliens and the reason is just in the storytelling. If you show a humanoid alien, with the big eyes and the grey skin, for example, the audience immediately knows who that is. It does not require a back-story. If they decide they are not going to do that anymore and the aliens look like frogs or grizzly bears, you have to establish who they are and that requires screen time. So in the interest of the story, they usually do not do that and go back to the humanoid aliens.

But yes, there is no reason to think that life out there would look humanoid. If the dinosaurs made movies, all their aliens would look like dinosaurs. It is just wherever you are in history or evolutionary history.

As far as SETI experiments are concerned, however, we do not really account for that. We do not even make the assumption that whatever is out there is alive – I think machine intelligence is a much better guess. All we hope for is that whatever is actually out there, no matter what they look like, they do produce evidence of their existence. Not necessarily deliberately, but even accidentally, just from the thermal heat or whatever else they do or use, like computers.

We do not make any assumptions about their behaviour or what they look like, their lifestyle or what they like to eat. None of that matters.

All we care about is “did they build a radio transmitter and is it on?”

ET: In recent months, there has been some interest in a US government report concerning UAPs. What thoughts do you have about that?

SS: For the last several weeks, I have been dealing with people who are interested in this report about UAPs – Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon, which used to be called UFOs, but the government has changed the terminology for some reason.

The thing about that argument is that to begin with the intelligence services did not even mention aliens in their analysis. That was not even up for consideration and there was not even any evidence of that.

But what I find really interesting is the highly emotional nature of this particular issue. That to me is both interesting and puzzling.

I have gotten a lot of hate mail over articles I have written saying the ‘aliens are not here’. That gets some people very upset. Many say it is great, but many others accuse me of being closed-minded, make ad hominem attacks on me and even berate my ancestry.

The interesting thing to me is why? Why are these beliefs so closely held? It reminds me of wars and conflicts over religion. You wonder why people cannot say, ok, you have your religion and I have mine. It does not work that way and people get very emotional. The same is true with the UFOs. Either you think the aliens are here or they aren’t.

ET: Talking about the report, some people have suggested that the UAPs could be drones or other small aircraft used by some other nation, maybe China or Russia, to spy on US installations.

SS: I don’t believe any of that actually. To begin with, all these Navy videos were shot in the Pacific Ocean, off of San Diego. Now, the fact that these videos were made by the military explains why these events are taking place close to where the Navy has ships.

I suspect these are just observational artefacts. I mean, there are people who say well, the UFOs are spending a lot of time looking at our missile silos. And I think if they have the technology to come all this way from another star system, why would they be interested in our guided missile systems. That would be like you going back to the Roman Empire and telling Julius Caesar that the first thing you want to look at is where they make their spears. It does not make any sense.

As far as those videos are concerned, there are very prosaic explanations too. For instance, in one, you are just looking up the tail pipes of those Navy jets a hundred miles away using infrared cameras.

You could still say, no, I am wrong and what the videos are showing is a Klingon spaceship. But if you don’t have any convincing evidence of it being an alien spacecraft, it is probably better to go with the more prosaic explanation.

ET: There is also the suggestion that such reports before US lawmakers are actually aimed at securing more funds. Do you think that is the case with the UAP report?

SS: Having worked for the Navy myself, they are always interested in getting more of the federal pie. The government report, like I mentioned before, does not have the word aliens or extra-terrestrials anywhere in it. It just says we couldn’t explain these 144 or 143 incidents. But it also says that these are worthy of additional study. It’s a nothing statement, which is not really wrong, but it is something you will need new money for. So maybe it is just that, a ploy to get more money. But I’m not that cynical yet.