The SETI Institute's Seth Shostak on Arrival, first contact and alien megastructures

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Feb 15, 2017

Want to know how the search for life in the universe is going? This is the man to ask.

Seth Shostak is Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, perhaps the world's foremost scientific establishment dedicated to the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence in the universe. While the Institute's main objective is listening to and observing the universe for signs of intelligent life or other civilizations, one of its (and Shostak's) goals is also to educate the general public on how life could come into existence in the cosmos and what that life might be like.

Which brings us to Arrival, one of the most realistic and scientifically-driven films ever made about first contact and its impact. With the movie coming out on Blu-ray and DVD this week, Syfy Wire had the opportunity to speak with Shostak about the film's portrayal of first contact, what such an event might look like in real life and whether recent discoveries like the existence of hundreds of habitable planets and enigmas like Tabby's Star could help the search for other beings in the universe. If the events of Arrival ever did come to pass, Seth Shostak is probably someone you'd want right at the front of the action.

Syfy Wire: You're doing press around the release of Arrival on Blu-ray, so I wanted to start off on that and get your thoughts on the film and its portrayal of first contact.

Seth Shostak: I actually enjoyed the film a great deal, because I see a lot of alien films. It's not that my boss forces me to do that, by the way. I think my job is a consequence of the movies I see, not the other way around. Mostly the aliens come here with fairly malevolent intentions. I was talking not long ago about Battle: Los Angeles. The aliens come to Earth to trash Santa Monica, and you could say if you're a resident of Inglewood maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing, but that's the usual scenario. The aliens come here, they've got one thing on their mind, and it's usually not good for us, and then we take them on, and in the end we usually win. Now, that's totally unrealistic as I'm sure you can appreciate. Any aliens that could come all this way, they're way ahead of us technologically, so the real "Battle LA" would be like the Roman legions taking on the US military.

But Arrival is completely different. Not only are the aliens not so mean-spirited, but they come here to actually help. But that's not the only idea. There's this whole idea of how you would communicate. There's the whole idea of collapsing time, so time is essentially something that's fluid. You can go to the future, you can see the past, that kind of thing. So there are a whole bunch of ideas. I really like the film because of that. It was very creative.

If we were to have actual contact in real life right now, what would you speculate would be the hardest challenge to overcome? Would it be the language barrier? Would it be differences in appearance or biology? Or something else?

Well, when you say "contact," that's a little bit ambiguous. You could have contact like in the movie where they actually show up, and a dozen ships land all over the globe. That's physical contact. That's close encounters of whatever kind that is, I guess the third. You can also have contact in the SETI sense, right? Where what you do is you pick up a signal. The aliens, you know, they might be a thousand light years away or 500 light years away, they could be essentially any distance.

So now, you're not having a real-time conversation. There is a matter of whether we are going to be able to decode what they're telling us, because even if you could do that, they say, "Hi, we're the Klingons, and we'd like you to join our book club," or whatever they say, right, but they're 800 light years away. So you talk back and say, "Yeah, we'd love to do that. What should we read next month?" Then it takes 800 years for the signal to get back to them, and another 800 years for them to come back and reject you or whatever.

That's a different scenario obviously than if they were to land here. If they were to land here, to be honest, they would be so much more advanced than we are that it's a little unclear what the interaction would be like. I mean, Christopher Columbus came over and he met humans, he met more homo sapiens. The encounter was a little bit puzzling for everybody, but they could kind of understand one another, even though they didn't share a language. But suppose Columbus had visited the trilobites or the dinosaurs; you have more than a language problem there. I think if they were to actually land, that's a totally different scenario than just picking them up on the radio, if you will.

Do you think that we've missed signals along the way? That there are possibly signals that are being transmitted in such a way that we're too primitive to pick them up?

Well, I don't know if we're too primitive, but I agree with you. I'm sure we've missed signals. I'm sure there's signals coming from somebody that we're totally unaware of because we're not aiming the big antenna in the right direction, tuned to the right frequency, and all that sort of stuff. I mean we can easily miss that. The universe is 13 billion years old, right? There's been plenty of time for intelligence to pop up on lots and lots of worlds out there, and there's lot of them that are older than the Earth, so they may have a tremendous head start. So yeah, I'm sure we've missed a lot of clues.

Do you think it's feasible at all that we could be alone, or do you think the odds are just against it?

I think the odds are against it. I gave a talk at the Griffith Observatory less than a week ago and I started off by asking how many people thought aliens were really out there, and essentially all the hands went up, but not all. Then I asked how many people thought they were probably not out there, and there were a couple of hands that went up. But the reason I don't agree with them is because, if we've learned anything over the last 20 years, it's that essentially every star has planets. We didn't know that 20 years ago. We know it now. So that means the number of planets that are kind of like the Earth, the kind where you might want to make a real estate investment, where you might have an ocean or an atmosphere -- the kind of things that would be useful for biology -- that number in our galaxy is maybe 50 billion or 100 billion.

It's tens of billions, and I don't want to bore you with big numbers but that's a lot of planets. And that's just our galaxy. You can photograph a hundred billion other galaxies, and each of them might have a hundred billion planets like Earth. And so what that means is that if Earth is the only place where anything interesting is happening, you're living in a miracle! And you may think you're living in a miracle, but if you think that in science -- if you think you're really, really special -- it's usually not true.

It seems that we're finding planets every day that are either in that habitable zone or that have Earth-like conditions as far as we can tell. The kind of research that the Institute does, do you sort of track along with that and zero in on those planets and those systems?

Yeah, we definitely do. But it's becoming less and less relevant maybe, because the first time they found some stellar systems with planets they thought maybe to be habitable, of course we zoomed in on that. And we've looked at things like Tabby's Star. But now we know that maybe one in five stars has a planet that could be suitable for life, so you just look at as many as you can, and 20 percent of them might be winners in the old sense. The trouble is it's really, really hard to determine a) whether a particular star has planets, and b) anything about those planets so they know which ones you ought to focus on. So you can just sort of take the wholesale approach and look at as many nearby star systems as you can. So it's kind of moving in that direction actually.

It's funny you mention Tabby's Star because I wanted to ask you what you made of the debate around that phenomenon?

Actually I talked to Tabby, she's really a very nice person, by the way, and she deserves her star. But there was a suggestion by this guy Bradley Schaefer that maybe there's an alien megastructure around it and all that. We've looked at Tabby's Star with the Allen Telescope Array and we didn't find any signals, but it's a pretty far-away star. It's like 1,500 light years, so you could easily miss a signal because it wouldn't be strong enough for you to pick it up. If it's an alien megastructure ... between you and me, I'll buy you a good cup of coffee if it turns out to be an alien megastructure. I think it's going to turn out to be something astronomical. That's usually what happens. You find something weird in the sky and everyone gets excited, it's little green guys, and then it turns out to a pulsar, a quasar, or something we've never thought of before. So on the basis of history that's my bet.

With the world the way it is now, do you subscribe to the idea that we need something like contacting another civilization to bring us together? Do you think it could have that kind of potential impact on the human race?

At my age I get cynical, and I don't want to be cynical, but the idea that next week we pick up a signal and it turns out to be coming from some civilization 500 light years away, it's in all the papers, it's on the nightly news, and now everybody around the world starts singing "Kumbaya" and there's world peace and everybody loves one another ... I don't know. I don't see it happening. People are naturally combative. I mean that's Darwinian evolution, right? It pays for some people to be kind of aggressive. If everybody's aggressive, everything falls apart, but only two percent of the population is very aggressive and it pays off for them. That's just Darwin. So, I don't know. You may think that something like The Beatles would bring everybody together too, but, you know, they sold a lot of records but it didn't bring everybody together.

Arrival is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.