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Aliens "Absolutely" Exist, SETI Astronomer Believes

Tom Foreman
Inside Base Camp
April 1, 2003
 
Many of the great hoaxes of the past 50 years have involved reports of UFOs, extraterrestrial visitors, and contact with distant space civilizations.

Even on the week of April Fools' Day, however, Seth Shostak is seriously listening to the stars. As a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, Shostak spends endless hours analyzing bursts of electronic noise drifting through the cosmos, captured by radio telescopes. SETI stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

He and his colleagues have never found proof anyone…or anything… "up there" is trying to make contact. He readily accepts the jokes that shower down on his efforts. But when this smiling, easygoing man ambles into my studio, he is clearly out to make believers of us all.


Tom Foreman: You believe something is out there?

Seth Shostak: Oh, absolutely! The usual assumption is they're some sort of soft, squishy aliens like you see in the movies—just a little more advanced than we are so that we can find them. But the galaxy is two or three times that age, so there are going to be some societies out there that are millions of years, maybe more, beyond ours. So they may have proceeded beyond biology—maybe they've invented thinking machines and it could be that what we first find is something that's artificially constructed.

Tom Foreman: What if it is life form, though, let's talk about that. Will it look anything like us? Will we even recognize it?

Seth Shostak: You're not going to see them in person, I don't think. To go from here to the nearest star is a project requiring a 100,000-year trip. And that's longer than you're going to want to sit there eating airline food.

Tom Foreman: So even if we're reduced to sending inter-stellar post cards, and we get a picture of these critters, these people, these folks—whatever we want to call them—what do you think: Are they going to be the same size as us?

Seth Shostak: It's unlikely that they're gonna be, you know, the size of a thimble, or something like that, because by definition they're going to be intelligent, otherwise we're not going to find them. And in order to be brainy, at least on this planet, you need a certain minimum brain size. It's also unlikely they'll be very large, because you get into other problems—you can't stand up so easily, it's hard to wield tools, you use too many resources. So they'll be bigger than a breadbox and probably smaller than an elephant, would be my guess.

Tom Foreman: Is it possible that they're out there right now and they've been bombarding us (with messages) for years, and they've concluded that we are a bunch of idiots because we never got the message?

Seth Shostak: Yeah, it's possible they're using some sort of technology of which we're unaware. Carl Sagan, in fact, used to talk about the inhabitants of Borneo, you know, they're communicating with runners and drums. Meanwhile, there are all these radio shows going right through their bodies and their villages, of which they're totally unaware.

Tom Foreman: You have suggested that if they (extraterrestrials) were coming here, there may be reason for us to be nervous.

Seth Shostak: I would personally be very nervous.

Tom Foreman: Why?

Seth Shostak: Well, certainly, the experience on Earth has been that when explorers come to visit you, that's usually bad news. You know, I'm thinking of the Native Americans, when the Spaniards landed on the coast. People often say, "Oh, they're gonna come here and help us solve our environmental problems." Well, I'm not solving the environmental problems of the ants in my backyard, although I know the ants are there. I don't expect them to come here, however.

Tom Foreman: Are you then utterly dismissive of the idea of people who say that they've been here?

Seth Shostak: I'm not dismissive of it, but I challenge them to come up with better evidence.

Tom Foreman: What's it like when you're in there (at a radio telescope) and something comes through?

Seth Shostak: When you do get a signal that looks like it might be the real thing, I still feel the heart rate go up and I usually get out of the chair and watch the screens with great intensity

Tom Foreman: And you think you're going to hear something?

Seth Shostak: I think it may take a few decades yet, but it's not a question of waiting centuries. I really think it's within sight.

Inside Base Camp's Tom Foreman on Work, Guests

Presidents and prisoners; scientists and soldiers; the heroic and the hated—all have sat down with National Geographic Channel Senior Anchor Tom Foreman as he has traveled the globe for the past 25 years. Starting out in small town radio in Alabama, he progressed through local television to join ABC Network News when he was 30. For a decade he covered virtually every major news story for World News Tonight, Nightline, 20/20 and Good Morning America.

Now, as host and managing editor of the Emmy Award-winning Inside Base Camp with Tom Foreman, he brings his years of experience—and dozens of riveting guests—to the National Geographic Channel at 12:30 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, and Sundays at 11:00 a.m.

As the show's name implies, Foreman asks the intimate, revealing questions that cut to core of the passions that drive his guests.

Read an interview with Tom Foreman>>

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