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

They Mostly Come At Night, Mostly

"I think that if you had real physical contact—I can't imagine that would be good."

Mark: There was another question Zach had.

Siduri: Zach has great questions.

Mark: Essentially the gist of his question was: by sending out radio signals into space, we may be able to alert other civilizations, other intelligences, that we are here.

Seth: Mm-hmm.

Mark: Is that a good idea?

Seth: Well, depends on how you regard the aliens.

Siduri: [quoting Zach] "Do you believe that the aliens would be friendly, and if so, why?"

Do you believe that the aliens would be friendly, and if so, why?

Seth: Yeah. Well, who knows, I mean I'm not a specialist on alien psychology, but then again who is? Nobody is. Nobody knows what the aliens would be like. About all you can say is that on Earth, aggression pays, a certain amount of aggression. And if you sort of look at the history of, you know, being found by more advanced civilizations, it usually doesn't work out in your favor. I mean, the Indians kind of welcomed the Europeans at first, but then they all got smallpox and things like that, I mean it wasn't a good deal. They got wiped out. And it wasn't just the disease, they got wiped out, you know, culturally.

The South Sea Islanders was always of interest to me. James, Captain James Cook's explorations. And he was under orders from the admiralty not to hurt anybody, and he by and large didn't. He almost never hurt anybody, and only when they did something pretty atrocious. He was only there to collect information. Nonetheless, when he lands in Tahiti or Fiji or whatever, these guys are sitting around, they're happy worshiping red feathers and rocks and things like that. And these guys sail into their bay, and they've got these big ships, and they've got cannons, they've got metal, they've got the wheel for goodness sakes—they've got all this stuff. And somehow after you've seen that, worshiping these red feathers just doesn't seem, well, that interesting anymore. These guys are clearly way ahead of you technologically, and they must be ahead of you spiritually as well, so whatever religion they've got is clearly better than what we've got.

You know, that kind of thing so rapidly destroys your culture. Now that's a situation where these guys weren't there to hurt anybody. So I think that if you had real physical contact—I can't imagine that would be good. And even in some sense, getting information might have some negative effects, if you understood it. Because if suddenly they're saying, "hey, here's all this science, here's all this physics, so guys who are doing all these research projects at Stanford Linear Accelerator, you can keep doing that if you want, but maybe you want to read this. Oh, the cure for death, yeah, that's over here too in this section, you might want to read that." That would be somewhat discouraging for a lot of people. But I don't think it will come to that. I don't worry about any of that.

Siduri: Why not?

Seth: Well to begin with, we are broadcasting out into space. You could say, hey, that's a dangerous thing to do. But SETI isn't doing that, I mean, that's not us. That's ABC and NBC, and if you're really worried about it, you should petition the networks to shut off their transmitters, because they may be only ensuring the destruction of civilization as they know it. I mean, you could do that; maybe you should. But I wouldn't worry even about that. To begin with, most of those signals are very diffuse. TV is on all the time, of course, and they are high-powered transmitters, but it turns out they don't deliberately broadcast in the direction of space very much. Advertisers don't see a whole lot of benefit.

So they don't do it. The military radar does broadcast out into space, that's much more detectable. But even so, we've been on the air for 50 years. The galaxy's been here for 10 billion years. Fifty years is a very small fraction of that. And in another 10 or 20 years we won't be broadcasting into space very much, because everything will be—you'll have a fiberoptic line coming into your house, you'll get your TV that way. So this is a very temporary problem.

Mark: But if we assume that an alien civilization is more advanced than us, and has done away with the need for this wasteful broadcasting using radio waves...

Seth: Then what are we listening for?

Mark: ...and has more efficient means of communications, might they also think that it's a bad idea to broadcast out, because there might be someone bigger and tougher than them? Might there be thousands of civilizations that are remaining silent for that reason?

Seth: Yeah, right, exactly, everybody's intimidated. Yeah, could be. That's been proposed as an explanation for why we haven't heard anything. They said, "Yeah, well the reason you haven't heard any aliens is because it's not a good idea to shout in the jungle." Right? Cause there's things out there that are bigger and have longer teeth than you do. It's not a good idea. There may be some truth in that, but again, this is sociology, so what do you know. But I do find it difficult to believe that all civilizations are that way.

You might say, "Okay, look. Broadcasting from our planet is not a good idea. We don't know what's out there. But putting a radio beacon over there, right, so that we can navigate over these short distances that we want to cover in our galaxy, that's not so horrible. I mean, they may find a beacon, but the beacon isn't where we are, the beacon's over there." Or you just send robotic vehicles out into space, and they don't transmit until they get very far away, or something like that. There are lots of ways to beat this rap.

And it may be that you feel you are the meanest dog on the block, you know, you just don't worry about this. You're the Galactic Federation, so you've got a license to do what you want. It's like the British navy. They're not afraid to take to the high seas. I don't know. It's all very interesting, and obviously very speculative. And you could say, you could talk yourself out of this, and say, "Nobody's ever gonna broadcast, it's entirely too dangerous." So then what do you do. Just don't listen? You don't get anywhere that way. At least if you listen, you have the chance of proving this thesis wrong in some way, and you have very interesting information if you find something.

So it's sort of like sitting around with Chris Columbus in 1492 and saying, "Forget the wooden boats, Chris. They probably won't work, and you won't find anything interesting anyhow." You could probably talk him out of it. But, you know, it probably was worth trying the experiment. But obviously, I work for the SETI Institute. We think it's worth trying the experiment.

Next page: How to Outshine the Sun

 

Over.  End of Story.  Go home now.

yungstud@pigdog.org


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