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Them is not hip to Us yet.
-- Tjames Madison


Interview with Seth Shostak —Reported 2001-12-21 19:42 by Siduri

The Face on Mars

"The aliens aren't contacting us because we're so bad."

The Face On Mars

Face? or pile of rocks?

TCS: Well, what about alien visitation thousands or millions of years ago? What about faces and pyramids?

Seth: You mean on Mars?

TCS: On Mars.

Seth: Well, they look like faces, until you take high-resolution photos, and then they look like mountains. And mountains on Mars are not quite as remarkable. I have to admit that certain individuals have gotten a fairly decent living out of this idea. I can't begrudge them that too much. But really, have you seen the high-resolution photos of the face on Mars?

TCS: Yes, I have.

Seth: And what did they look like to you? A face?

TCS: It looked like a bunch of rocks.

Seth: Doesn't it? Maybe that's what it is. I know it is radical.

TCS: I have associates who would swear that with the high-resolution photos it looked more like a face. I didn't see it.

Seth: I don't see it either. People send me pictures of clouds and they say, "Look what's in this cloud! It's a picture of a guy sitting on a horse. This is clearly alien activity." People do that. And indeed, if you sit around and look at clouds you will see things. But it's a big step to say that it's alien activity.

I have to say, when the local paper, the Mercury News, called me up the night before the Mars Global Surveyor was going to take its first high-resolution photos of the face on Mars, they said "Well Seth, what do you think they're gonna find?" "Well, I don't think they're going to find bulldozers all around or whatever. I think that this is akin to going to Safeway and buying a ten-pound bag of potatoes and looking at those potatoes. And you'll see faces in there, but it would never occur to you that this is an attempt by the spuds to get in touch." And she ran it just like that too, by the way.

Mark: So you see faces in things. Do you think that's something that humans are hardwired to do?

The Face On Mars

You may see a face
here, but it's only because
you're hard-wired to imagine
faces where there aren't any

Seth: You're wired to do that. Of course you are. Because it has a lot of survival value, to be able to quickly recognize faces. If not, you could get hit on the head, someone's going to bop you on the head because you're futzing with their wife or whatever. Clearly, in any social situation, you've got to be able to recognize individuals. Look at monkeys; they can recognize individuals. Ants probably can't. But they don't have to very much. But in a real social environment there's tremendous survival value in it.

You know, they do experiments. In Scientific American they did this years ago, where they take a picture of Lincoln or something. Everybody knows this guy. And what they did is they just pixellated it, they just reduced it to, like, 16 pixels or 25 pixels or something, some small number of pixels. They made a 128 pixel version and a 64 pixel version, and they would show this to people and they'd say, "Can you tell who that is?" "Oh, it's Lincoln." Okay. Then they'd give them the low-resolution version, see how many could tell that was still Lincoln. And it turns out you could tell it was Lincoln even when the number of pixels was really small; I don't remember the number. Which means that your brain is really good at recognizing faces.

So the fact that you faces on the rocks on Mars, that doesn't surprise me. If anybody saw vacuum cleaners on the rocks on Mars, that would surprise me. Because you're not so good at that. But they don't, they find faces. They find the one thing that we're really good at finding.

Siduri: Do you think SETI is a service to society?

Seth: Is it a service? No, I don't think of it as a service, but I think that it's something that's very human. In the sense that one of the few things that distinguishes us perhaps from other animals, to some extent, is curiosity. We certainly are driven a lot by curiosity. And there are plenty of animals that have a certain amount of curiosity, because curiosity has survival value. But we turn curiosity to our advantage. When we learn something, we take advantage of that knowledge, because we can pass knowledge on. It's like any other basic research. It's knowledge for its own sake, and for the curiosity of wanting to know.

Why does anybody want to know how the maria on the moon got formed? Who cares? But the fact is that people are interested, and in the end, that knowledge in the aggregate always pays off. In that sense it will be a service, if you found something. Either you would be in touch with a very advanced civilization, which is one possibility, or you don't understand anything but at least you know that there are others out there, and that gives you perspective.

Sort of like the Copernican revolution. What do you care whether the Earth goes around the sun or the other way round? Didn't make much difference in the prediction of the planets in the night sky, actually. So it didn't have much practical benefit right away. But it turned out to be a service, if you will, to humanity to know.

Mark: If an advanced alien society were to come in contact with us, would you be embarrassed about humanity in its current state?

Seth: No. No, no, no, no. That's sort of a provincial point of view, that the aliens aren't contacting us because we're so bad. Why didn't they contact us back in the year 1100—we weren't destroying the environment then? "Well, we were bad, because we were conducting the Crusades." Okay, okay. How about back in the time of Julius Caesar—nobody was destroying the environment then; there weren't enough people to have any effect on the environment. "Yeah, but they were at war with the Phoenicians, those bad guys." We're always doing bad stuff. So to say now it's the environment, well, I mean, there's plenty to worry about as far at the environment, but I don't think they'd be too worried about what we do with our earth. Remember Michael Rennie?

[general noises of dissent]

Seth: The Day the Earth Stood Still? Well, you're all too young to remember him. It was a film, back in...

TCS: "Michael Rennie was there the day the earth stood still, and he told us where we stand." That's right.

Seth: Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly. He stands there up at the end and says [in tinny voice] "What you people do with your own planet is of no concern to us. But when you threaten the galactic..." Whatever. And you get these big robots coming down and they're like mom, they're going to take you in hand. No, I don't think they care so much what we do. It's like, why do we care? I don't care what the ants do in their own anthills. They're probably wrecking things down there but it just doesn't really phase me much. So I wouldn't be embarrassed.

At this point the tape ran out. But for the record, Seth Shostak denies ever smoking up with Carl Sagan.


Over.  End of Story.  Go home now.


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