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Aliens, NASA and Hollywood: A Visit to SETI with Seth Shostak

Seth Shostak on site at SETI, interview with Recursor.TV

Senior Astronomer and all-around great guy Seth Shostak showing us around SETI

Interested in the search for extraterrestrial life? Recursor is. And so is Senior Astronomer Seth Shostak of The SETI Institute, whom we’ve had the pleasure of interviewing before. Recently, we were treated to a visit to SETI with Seth Shostak at its HQ in Mountain View, CA. While we were there, Seth explained SETI’s role, a bit of its history, and of course, his unvarnished opinions on the accuracy of science fiction in Hollywood.

Searching for alien life

Seth has been a part of SETI since the early ’90s while it was still part of NASA. He fills several important roles there including, of course, conducting an ongoing search for intelligent life in the universe (other than what we already know exists on Earth). Much of his research centers around the Allen Telescope Array and the hunt for life around red dwarf stars, which Seth believes to be among the more likely places where we might detect alien life.

Allen Telescope Array at SETI, interview with Seth Shostak on Recursor.TV

Allen Telescope Array

Driving NASA projects

SETI researchers have played a role in many NASA-sponsored projects, including helping to discover planets and moons in connection with Hubble and Kepler. SETI scientists have also been at the forefront of the search for evidence of life on Mars, which now seems to have plenty of water — an important ingredient for life on this planet.

Sharing science in a fun way

To bring science to the public, Seth co-hosts the awesome weekly broadcast of Big Picture Science(also available as a podcast). Listening to it is a great way to stay current on the latest discoveries and debates in the hunt for alien life. Past guests have included astrobiologists, astronomers, physicists and quite a few writers like Andy Weir and filmmakers like James Cameron.

Science vs. Hollywood — an epic battle

SETI Institute display, visit to SETI with Seth Shostak on Recursor.TV

SETI Institute display

So, does Hollywood ever get the science right? Seth has consulted on several Hollywood films, including CONTACT with Jodie Foster. And he has a decided opinion on it, saying that while most productions only take about 30% of his input, he really doesn’t think accuracy in entertainment is all that important.

Seth points to his own experience as a kid watching DESTINATION MOON on the big screen. Seeing it was the primary reason he decided to enter his field of work, and the film instilled in him a lifelong fascination with space exploration. Seth believes his experience is not unique and that many current astronomers were inspired by a film or television series that connected with them emotionally and inspired them.

Will we ever meet E.T.?

So, what will ET look like when we finally meet him/her/it/them? Seth believes organic brains (including ours, unfortunately) are limited in how much they can be improved with machine interfaces and implants. He compares neural processing limitations to trying to put a 4-cylinder engine on a horse. Yes, it might make the horse faster — but why not start with a Maserati?

Seth believes that eventually, all organic-based intelligence human or alien will evolve into AI. So, when we meet an extraterrestrial intelligence, it’s probably not going to be “soft and squishy.”

Seth Shostak

Seth claims to have developed an interest in extraterrestrial life at the tender age of ten, when he first picked up a book about the Solar System. This innocent beginning eventually led to a degree in radio astronomy, and now, as Senior Astronomer, Seth is an enthusiastic participant in the Institute’s SETI observing programs. 

In addition, Seth is keen on outreach activities: interesting the public – and especially young people – in science in general, and astrobiology in particular. He’s co-authored a college textbook on astrobiology, and has written three trade books on SETI. In addition, he’s published more than 400 popular articles on science including regular contributions to NBC News MACH, gives many dozens of talks annually, and is the host of the SETI Institute’s weekly science radio show, “Big Picture Science.”