April 3, 2020

Review: Confessions of an Alien Hunter by Seth Shostak.

Seth Shostak has a unique tale of scientific inquiry to tell. At its heart are questions that some of the greatest thinkers of our time such as Jill Tarter and Carl Sagan have pondered; are we alone? Why are we here? How common or unique are we as a species?

Only very recently has the topic and field of exobiology become a respectable science, and Confessions of an Alien Hunter by Mr. Shostak and out by Nation Geographic Press reflects on how far we’ve come in this very elusive field and where we might be headed. Dr. Shostak opens with a heart-pounding scene that has since been re-enacted in such films as Contact, but for him was all too real; a tantalizing signal from YZ Cetus received by the Green Bank radio telescope on June 24th, 1997. “This might be the most important day in the history of Homo Sapiens,” the author writes, in which case, “my schedule for the week is going to be completely messed up.” Alas, this signal didn’t pass one of the most stringent criterion for an extraterrestrial message; that of verifiable repeatability. But that hasn’t stopped Dr. Shostak in his quest, as he relates in this engaging book. Confessions can be seen as a commentary on SETI (the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence), its state of affairs, how thinking on the subject has evolved, and where SETI as a science may be headed. The book traces the very glimmerings of thought concerning extraterrestrial life by Kepler and Herschel up through the first tentative searches conducted by Frank Drake and Project Ozma in the 1960′s, and continues through current searches online and proposed today. Proposals in the late 1800′s to build large signal fires and mirrors to hail inhabitants on Mars seem quaint by today’s standards, but serve to show how far our thinking has come in only a little more than a century. Do advanced aliens still care about monitoring radio waves? Are they just now watching our reruns of I Love Lucy and The Outer Limits that we broadcasted into space? Dr. Shostak raises some thought provoking possibilities as well as providing no less than a history of modern radio astronomy.

He also serves up treatment of the now famous Drake Equation,  that Frank Drake first proposed to outline how many intelligent civilizations might currently be out there for us to talk to. With the discovery of the first extrasolar planets in the 1990′s, some of Drake’s variables are now becoming known to a higher degree of accuracy. I would place a small bet that the big “if” is the life span of the average intelligent civilization factor, as we ourselves are relative newcomers on the block…

Dr. Shostak doesn’t shy away from the UFO conspiracy theorists that flood his inbox. Several have accused SETI as a waste of time, as they claim that the aliens are already here. Apparently, we should be looking in Burbank instead of Bootes… but Dr. Shostak rightly points out that while he’d love to be proven wrong, even the most compelling close encounters aren’t very convincing.

Dr. Shostak also gives treatment to what might be the second biggest question in the field after …Are we alone?… what happens when they call? Dr. Shostak points out that we may find ourselves in an oft overlooked scenario; “they’ve called, but we don’t know what they’re saying!” this could be the situation for some time…I bet the exasperated media and the Internet will have a field day with that! Still, one wonders what the true level of cultural impact would be. Dr. Shostak points out that for most of the 18th and 19th centuries, it was a given that the Moon, Mars, and virtually every heavenly body was thought to harbor intelligent life, and yet we still fought wars, joined political parties, and otherwise went on with our everyday lives. Of course, if they land on the White House lawn with ray-guns ablaze, that might be a different story…

So, where is SETI now? Although SETI has received sporadic government funding in the past, it remains almost solely in the realm of private sponsorship. All of THAT would change the day E.T. starts calling; right now, the biggest hopes of the SETI Institute are with the Allen Array of radio telescopes being built north of Mount Lassen in California. The brain-child of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, this will eventually incorporate 350 antennas arranged over a half mile. More exotic searches are also already underway or proposed, such as optical SETI, or the search for millisecond laser pulses aimed our way, or even more exotic methods such as messages sent via gravity waves. The author points out that this may not be likely as it would consume a huge amount of energy, but we should be on the look out for this none the less. We can easily imagine some super advanced network of civilizations that consider the ability to manipulate the vibrations of a pulsar or black hole as minimum prerequisites for entry into the galactic “club”… could we coin this as the “Studio 54” hypothesis?

Of course, this line of thought leads us to the Fermi Paradox,  the question of if life is common throughout the cosmos, then where are they? Dr. Shostak gives some thought on what a continued negative return of SETI may mean. Certainly, if we continue with no results for another half century or so, that ether says something about the scarcity of intelligent life in our tiny patch of the cosmos, or perhaps our search strategy is in need of a fundamental overall.

Read Confessions of an Alien Hunter and marvel at what the implications of a discovery tomorrow might mean. Also, be sure to follow the SETI Institute’s outstanding weekly …Are We Alone? podcast, as well as join in the search from your desktop with SETI@Home, the original and longest running distributed computing program out there. Will E.T. Come a-callin’ tomorrow? Watch this space for what would be the breaking astro-blog post of the century!


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