A scientist on a quest to find extraterrestrial life made a pitstop this week in Tempe.
“I will bet all of you a cup of Starbucks, we will find ET within two dozen years,” said Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
For nearly 50 years astronomers at the private, nonprofit institute have swept the skies seeking evidence of intelligent life in the universe, and Shostak has been at the forefront of this research.
He also hosts a weekly radio program, “Are We Alone?” and gives public lectures throughout the country, explaining what the institute’s scientists are searching for and what they hope to find.
Shostak’s most recent lecture was Thursday evening at the Galvin Playhouse at Arizona State University in Tempe.
So what does it take for a person or extraterrestrial to be considered intelligent?
“If you can build a radio transmitter, you are intelligent,” Shostak told the audience. “Ask the person sitting next to you, ‘Can you build a transmitter?’”
Laughter rolled through the full auditorium at that comment.
The institute has taken the approach of searching for signals at home using antennas built by other people.
“We are looking for a needle in a haystack,” Shostak said. “We have some idea how big the haystack is, it is the Milky Way. We now know how fast we’re going through the hay because of Moore’s Law can tell you that. The only thing you really don’t know is how many needles are in there.”
Even though the institute has not found an extraterrestrial signal, efforts in the search have not slowed down. The institute and the University of Berkley in California are building a new telescope, the Allen Telescope named after Paul Allen, who donated half the money for the project.
Shostak said the project in northern California consists of several small antennas. Currently the Allen Telescope consists of 42 antennas, but Shostak said it will eventually have 350 antennas.
He said the institute is progressing exponentially each year because of evolving technology. But the question is, if we do receive signals from space, will we be able to understand the message?
“They’ll send a lot of information at once,” Shostak said. “You won’t be able to talk back, well not immediately. It may take 10,000 years or more to figure out (the signal) on our own.”
David Eluestein, a Houston native and Star Trek fanatic, wondered if that’s the best strategy.
“From what I understand here,” he said, “we are doing a lot of listening, but are we doing any broadcasting?”
Shostak said there have been a few transmitting demonstration projects. The first one was in 1974 by Frank Drake, who transmitted a signal to the star cluster M-13 about 24,000 light years away.
“We’re still waiting for a response,” Shostak said. “The thought is: let them do the heavy lifting, we’ll just listen.”
And with one-third to half of the public believing that aliens are already here, Shostak’s prediction of making contact between 2015 and 2027 does not sound too far off to many people.
After the lecture, the mixed crowd of ASU students, institute members and the general public gathered in the playhouse lobby to get each other’s opinions on Shostak’s predictions.
“From the limited sources we have, I would say it’s plausible,” said Lauren Cook, an ASU junior.