Conversations with an Alien Hunter


OK, the book is actually called Confessions of an Alien Hunter: A Scientist’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence by Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI institute, but it could have equally been called Conversations with an Alien Hunter…  because of its relaxed, informative, conversational style.

And this raises an interesting point about the 21st Century. Never before have so many had such direct access to the relatively few pioneering minds of our time. Today, you can follow scientists like Seth on Twitter or like them on Facebook.

Seth is one of the brave few that still has his direct contact details on the Internet and gets flooded with emails and phone calls. With hundreds of new emails every day, he’s gone from senior astronomer to chief correspondent as he juggles public demand against his professional inquiry in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. I’m sure there are some days where he’d be glad to find terrestrial intelligence, while anything beyond that would be a bonus. And this brings us back to Confessions, as it is, in a nutshell, the opportunity to sit one-on-one with Seth and listen to what he has to say on the subject of intelligent alien life. Its soft, easy-going, conversational style makes it enjoyable to read.

In an age where communication moves at close to the speed of light, zipping around the planet through copper wires and fibre optics, bouncing off tin cans in the sky and through cables running along the sea floor there’s rarely the chance to have a sustained, in-depth conversation any more, but, ironically, books are filling that niche. Rather than superseding and replacing the written word, the advent of the Internet has ensured books have a place of even greater prominence in that they are the sole repositories of comprehensive knowledge. Catch something interesting in a tweet? Read some titbit in a news article and want to know more? Head for the books.

And Confessions delivers in style. It’s everything you wanted to ask after seeing the movie Contact, but didn’t know who to approach.

It is fascinating to have the search for extraterrestrial intelligence put in context. Yes, it’s been going for decades and they haven’t found anything, but do you realise how big space is? I mean, we all know space is big. But do you know how big it really is when you start searching for ET? Seth points out that if you were sitting in orbit around Alpha Centauri, the closest of over two hundred billion stars to our sun, looking for mankind, then spotting the Earth would be like noticing a mosquito circling a light-bulb from 10,000 miles away. The clincher, though, is the mosquito circles some 25 feet away from the light-bulb and never gets any closer. And that’s the view from our closest neighbour!

Searching for extraterrestrial intelligence is, then, perhaps the most adventurous undertaking in the history of science.

The Arecibo telescope, made famous by the movie Contact, is located in Puerto Rico with a dish measuring 1,000 feet across. It’s capable of holding 373 tennis courts and is so sensitive that the dish can detect signals one-trillionth the energy of an ant taking a single step. These guys may not have found ET yet, but it’s not for lack of trying. The reality is, our galaxy is astonishingly big. Shostak points out that if the largest, most comprehensive SETI search to date had been conducted on a haystack, we would have made a particularly thorough search through roughly a tablespoon’s worth of hay and determined there were no needles…yet…

So patience is the order of the day, but, as Shostak points out, Moore’s Law not only ensures ever faster computers for our home office/study, it means our ability to trawl through millions of frequencies is growing exponentially. Within the next couple of decades we’ll have gone through a sizeable portion of our haystack and, as we suspect there are thousands of needles buried within it, we should end up pricking our finger.

There’s a whole bunch of extraordinary insights throughout the book, but I won’t spoil it for you, suffice to say, Hollywood gets it all spectacularly wrong. If you enjoyed Contact, you’ll love Confessions.

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