Seth Shostak - ET, Call SETI

October 31, 2011

Host: Karen Stollznow

Dr. Seth Shostak is the Senior Astronomer at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI). Seth is the author of Confessions of an Alien Hunter: A Scientist's Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, and is well known as one of the hosts of the popular radio show Big Picture Science. (Formerly known as Are We Alone?)

Seth is a science communicator who performs public outreach; especially to young people, about science in general, and astrobiology in particular. He has published hundreds of popular articles on science, and gives dozens of talks annually. He is also a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

In this Point of Inquiry interview with host Karen Stollznow, Seth discusses the "three-pronged effort" to find extraterrestrial life. He believes that while no one can be certain, there is a chance of success within one or two decades, and he explains how this prediction can be made. Seth then explains why, if we find that life, we would need to tread carefully.

Seth talks about SETI's past and present projects, critics and the Fermi paradox, and whether the organization spends more time searching for funding than ETs. He discusses current findings in astronomy, and how these discoveries may affect the SETI search. Lastly, Seth talks about outreach and education, and tells us exactly what the public knows (and doesn't know) about astronomy.

Books Mentioned in This Episode:


Comments from the CFI Forums

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Here we go again. (deep breath) Life on Earth, or elsewhere, isn’t striving to become like us. The failure of people to comprehend this has plagued Darwin’s intellectual descendants and the very existence of SETI shows how much work CFI has to do even among those who boast about their love of science. Fermi hypothesis aside, Intelligence is not an inevitable consequence of life and, on our little planet, 99.9999% of life is doing just fine without it. Why don’t the stargazers or radiotelescope listeners understand this? Take a biology class. I have no problem with privately funded efforts to search for ETI but I also have no objections to privately funded searches for Bigfoot. It would be cool to find either one, but the efforts should be spent in accordance with probability and the searchers don’t seem willing to examine the heavy influence of their own wishes.

People would laugh at an effort to find extraterrestrial firefly flashes, but SETI is only a little less absurd. Intelligence is but one survival solution that evolved on only one tiny branch of Earth’s enormous tree of life. Humans, you are special (not in a mystical/creationist way) but you really need to get over yourselves.

Posted on Nov 01, 2011 at 3:09pm by shawnpat Comment #1

The point is that a search for signals from a technologically advanced civilisation is eminently doable.  There might well be microbial life out there, but we don’t have the technology to detect it, and Special Relativity being what it is, we might never be able to.  I don’t think that SETI supporters are less open-minded or more chauvinistic than SP about what extra-terrestrial life must be.  But with today’s technology it’s a straight choice between SETI and doing nothing.

Posted on Nov 01, 2011 at 5:34pm by keithprosser2 Comment #2

Intelligence is not an inevitable consequence of life and, on our little planet, 99.9999% of life is doing just fine without it.

This is an absurd objection to the SETI project.  First, you have no idea about whether intelligence is inevitable or not, nor does anyone else.  But it doesn’t require an assumption of inevitability to make the search reasonable; all it takes is knowing that intelligence is possible, and we do know this.

Posted on Nov 05, 2011 at 10:53am by Taylor Comment #3

Here we go again. (deep breath) Life on Earth, or elsewhere, isn’t striving to become like us.

I have yet to me one pro-SETI person who says that it is striving so. Strawman.

The failure of people to comprehend this has plagued Darwin’s intellectual descendants and the very existence of SETI shows how much work CFI has to do even among those who boast about their love of science. Fermi hypothesis aside, Intelligence is not an inevitable consequence of life and, on our little planet, 99.9999% of life is doing just fine without it.

No, but neither does that mean it will never develop elsewhere, either. False dichotomy.

Why don’t the stargazers or radiotelescope listeners understand this? Take a biology class. I have no problem with privately funded efforts to search for ETI but I also have no objections to privately funded searches for Bigfoot. It would be cool to find either one, but the efforts should be spent in accordance with probability and the searchers don’t seem willing to examine the heavy influence of their own wishes.

Blah blah blah. You are not the arbiter of any of “useful”, “worthwhile” or any of the other adjectives that might attach to SETI with a “non-” prefix.

People would laugh at an effort to find extraterrestrial firefly flashes, but SETI is only a little less absurd. Intelligence is but one survival solution that evolved on only one tiny branch of Earth’s enormous tree of life. Humans, you are special (not in a mystical/creationist way) but you really need to get over yourselves.

Not to mention that your “humans and terrestrial life are not special” argument contains the implication that because of this non-specialness it probably happened somewhere else.

Posted on Nov 05, 2011 at 6:34pm by Bytor Comment #4

SETI is really looking for a needle in a haystack… and I just love ‘em for it.  :)

Posted on Nov 09, 2011 at 9:04am by jump_in_the_pit Comment #5

SETI is really looking for a needle in a haystack… and I just love ‘em for it.  :)

Agreed. I stopped listening to PoI a long time ago, so I am not really sure what the discussion here is all about. Even if SETI was a complete waste of money and resources, it is, IMO, a goddamn good way to waste that money and resources.

Posted on Nov 09, 2011 at 10:06am by George Comment #6

“I have yet to me one pro-SETI person who says that it is striving so. Strawman.”

The landmark SETI conference (1961) included Drake and estimated fi at 100%. They assumed that life, once established, inevitably leads to (will strive for) intelligence.  I don’t know what evidence you need, but I imagine that a similar bias will prevent you from retracting the “Strawman” charge.

Posted on Dec 10, 2011 at 12:19pm by shawnpat Comment #7