Monday, November 13, 2006

Seth Shostak: Life is Abundant in The Cosmos - Evidence is Forthcoming!

Astronomer tells Athens audience: E.T. liable to phone any day

By Andrew Tillotson
The Athens News

Seth Shostak Cropped SETI     Intelligent life is likely abundant in the cosmos, and we will find evidence of it soon, according to one of the world's top experts on the ongoing search for extraterrestrial life.

Seth Shostak, the senior astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., gave a pair of talks in Athens last week about what his organization does to search for alien life, why he believes it is out there, and what might happen when we find it.

SETI is a general acronym for "Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence" that can apply to any group that does such work, and does not exclusively refer to Shostak's institute.

"The bottom line is we will find E.T. in the next two dozen years," Shostak said. "I'll bet you all a cup of Starbucks on that." "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," of course, was the name of Steven Spielberg's popular 1982 film about a lovable alien.

His prediction of such a specific timeframe relies on statistical projections of how many intelligent civilizations lie within our Milky Way Galaxy, as well as how his institute's searching capacity will continue to grow exponentially in the coming years.

In fact, he said each SETI experiment usually gathers more data than all the previous ones combined.

Shostak compared our generation to the generation of Australian aborigines whose 40,000-year "watchglass of isolation" was shattered when Europeans arrived in the 18th century. He predicted that ours will be the generation to have our planet's 4 -billion year watchglass shattered in similar fashion.

Shostak asked those who doubt the existence of life elsewhere in the universe to consider just what that would mean statistically.

He said the currently accepted estimate of 100 billion galaxies in the universe, each containing 100 billion stars, means there are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on all the beaches in North America.

"[Those] who think that we're the only grain of sand where anything interesting is happening, you have to admit that that's a very audacious point of view," Shostak said. "And if there's one thing that astronomy's taught us in the last 500 years, it's that every time we thought we were special, we were wrong."

He said that Earth was bombarded with meteors up until 3.8 billion years ago, and that the earliest known evidence of microbial life has been dated not long after, around 3.5 billion years ago.

"Life got started on earth essentially as fast as it could, and that suggests to me, if not to you, that life must be very probable...very easy to get started," Shostak said.

And if life is very easy to get started, then it stands to reason that it may also be very common, he said.

A theological argument he offered, which he said is not made anymore, is sort of a "real-estate developer theory of God."

"Why would God have made that galaxy with all its stars, all its interstellar mediums, black holes, all that stuff, if there's nobody there to enjoy it?"

Shostak said that while his organization's desires are often hampered by a lack of funding, and while NASA seems content to focus on searching nearby planets for microbes -- "pond scum," as he put it -- there are several sound strategies that no one is employing to search for intelligent life.

He said that a common practice now is to "look at random stars for a few minutes, once, and that's it." If nothing is found, that star is deserted for the next, and never returned to.

He suggested it might be better to focus on the same area for longer periods of time and look for very short signals that are repeated every few hours or days.

Another tactic he said has never been tried is focusing on two-star solar systems.

Of all the possible intelligent civilizations in the universe, he said, it's probable that some exist in two-star systems. Shostak reasoned that such civilizations would have inevitably explored and perhaps begun to colonize the other side of their system. At the very least, they would have established outposts on other planets as we have in places like Antarctica.

Such a setup would mean, of course, that the two ends of the system would be constantly engaged in some sort of communication. Therefore, if we knew to be looking in that direction when the two stars were lined up from our vantage point, we could reasonably expect to detect their communication.

But even if we do detect some transmission in the near future, Shostak said that asking us to understand whatever communication we receive will be comparable to us giving Neanderthals the end of our modem cord and asking them to understand it.

UFO abduction theories and similar conspiracies are mere fantasy, he said, as there is no way an alien civilization could even know about us yet, let alone have already arrived.

As he explained, the human race has only been transmitting signals powerful enough to escape our atmosphere for the last 60 years. For a civilization to have picked up our signals and reacted to them at this point, it obviously would have had to have been no more than 60 light years away, and probably no more than 30, to allow time for a response.

He said it is far more likely that intelligent civilizations are hundreds, thousands, or millions of light years away from us.

And as for what the aliens might look like, he said the best guess is what we might look like in our near future -- machines.

Regardless of what happens in outer space, he implied, the prospect of having machines that can out-think us here on earth by as early as 2020 is far more ominous:

"You may be the last generation to run the planet, ergo I suggest a hedonistic lifestyle."

More . . .

See Also: Shostak Responds to Recent "SETI Politics" Article


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