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December 22, 2014

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Searching for Little Green Men

Confessions lays out SETI’s mission in layman’s terms

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According to the Roper Center, most Americans believe extraterrestrials have visited our planet in UFOs and that the U.S. government is covering it up. A smaller percentage of Americans believe that aliens exist, but that we haven’t found them yet (or vice-versa). Seth Shostak falls into the second group.

Shostak heads up the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), a privately funded research organization that scours the universe for signs of extraterrestrial life. So far, Shostak’s team has come up short. But in their defense, they’ve only been given enough funding to check out 0.0000005 percent of a single galaxy.

Shostak’s new book, Confessions of an Alien Hunter: A Scientist’s Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, chronicles his quest to find radio signals broadcast by Little Green Men (LGM). Scientists like Shostak use the term LGM ironically; if the SETI enterprise were to find an extraterrestrial, it’s extremely unlikely he/she/it would resemble that of Hollywood cinema.

According to Shostak, the reason SETI spends most of its time looking for alien radio signals (as opposed to sending out spacecrafts) is that even the closest stars are several light-years away.

“It seems unlikely on statistical grounds that [aliens would] be any closer than a few hundred light-years,” Shostak writes—and if the real aliens are as hostile as the ones in the movies, well, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. “Any extraterrestrials who come here can be safely reckoned to be centuries or more ahead of us, technologically speaking. Any earthly defense against such a society would be like the armies of the American Civil War making plans to battle the U.S. military of today.”

But if aliens are out there, and so technologically advanced, why haven’t they contacted us, befriended us or destroyed us yet? Shostak proposes several answers:

The Details

Confessions of an Alien Hunter: A Scientist’s Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence
Three and a half stars
Seth Shostak
National Geographic, $27.
Amazon: Confessions of an Alien Hunter: A Scientist’s Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence

“[One scenario] is that the galaxy is settled—even to the point of urbanization—but we just happen to have the bad luck to reside in a dullsville suburb ... [Another] is that we’ve been singled out for special treatment—we are an exhibit for alien tourists or sociologists. Our world may be known to the extraterrestrials, but they observe us through a sophisticated type of one-way mirror.”

Shostak simplifies complex science for lay readers. But sometimes he goes too far—like when he uses similes (“Life is as durable as Christmas fruitcake”; “Planets seem to be as common as freckles in Ireland”). These similes don’t come naturally to Shostak the way they come to, say, Dan Rather.

The funnier Shostak tries to make his similes, the more annoying they become (“For two dozen years UFOs were subject to more scrutiny than Lindsay Lohan’s social calendar”; “Finding clues to life’s earliest moments on Earth is tougher than overcooked road kill” ).

Confessions of an Alien Hunter has more cheesy similes than Nevada has foreclosures. But aside from that, and a couple of technical passages that run a few paragraphs longer than they needed to, I enjoyed Shostak’s book. If the 1997 Jodie Foster movie Contact piqued your interest, you’ll enjoy Shostak’s book too.

And as for Shostak, he’s still at SETI, still hunting for LGM. He realizes SETI might not find them within his lifetime, but he’s come to terms with that: “I’m frequently asked if such an uncertain endeavor can make for a satisfying career ... [but] it’s a privilege to work on a problem of such consequence.”

If Shostak and SETI should make contact, don’t worry about them covering it up. They’ll make a big deal of it. They need the funding.

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