Inside Base Camp
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 moviesjust 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 biologymaybe 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 folkswhatever we want to call themwhat 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 problemsyou 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.
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