small logo Editorial

An Interview with Dr. SETI
conducted by Nilanjana Sarker (nilanjana_s @
Department of English, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania

We conclude this year's series of Editorials by posting a recent dialog between Ms. Nilanjana Sarker and SETI League executive director Dr. H. Paul Shuch.

Ms. Sarker: The government is spending billions of dollars on making nuclear weapons which could wipe out the whole human race at once. On the other hand NASA stopped the funding of SETI. Do you think this was a right thing to do?

Dr. Shuch: That's rather a loaded question, framed to elicit an emotional, rather than a rational, response. Nevertheless, I will endeavor to answer it rationally.

By "the government" I presume you mean the US government. I was not aware that, with the cold war having ended, they were still spending "billions of dollars on making nuclear weapons." It may be true, but I'd want to check the facts before accepting that statement at face value.

I don't think SETI funding should have been cancelled. On the other hand, I don't think science funding should be predicated on whether or not we engage in weapons programs. If it were my choice of budget items, I would favor science over weapons of mass destruction, to some extent. But I am not Congress, just one voter out of a hundred million.

The fact is, Congress had the power to cancel NASA SETI, and they exercised it. There's nothing we can do about that, unless we choose to become political lobbyists (we're not; we're scientists). What we can do is make sure that SETI survives, despite the lack of Government funding. And we've modestly successful in that pursuit.

Ms. Sarker: How is the professional search done by SETI League different from the amateur searches done worldwide?

Dr. Shuch: First off, The SETI League does not do the "professional search" -- that's done by our colleagues at the SETI Insititute in California, and other groups. We (The SETI League) are the ones coordinating the amateur efforts. Next, the amateur searches are just as you state -- worldwide. No other SETI observing project has ever boasted our more than a thousand participants in 63 countries, or over a hundred radio telescopes on five continents. It is the global nature of our search that makes The SETI League unique among scientific organizations.

Ms. Sarker: Why is SETI League in the grassroot scale?

Dr. Shuch: As a grassroots organization, we can tap an incredible resource, one which has never before been properly exploited: the world's radio amateurs. This is an amazing pool of talent, ideally suited to the SETI task.

Ms. Sarker: What kind of prospect does SETI League have?

Dr. Shuch: Do you mean specifically our prospect for detecting extraterrestrial intelligence? About as good as any other SETI organization has. If there is no technological ETI living within our timeframe, then none of the searches is going to detect it. If it exists, and generates the kinds of signals all SETI searches are concentrating on, then we have about as good a chance of detecting them as anybody.

Ms. Sarker: Is SETI League getting private fundings at present?

Dr. Shuch: Yes, but far too little, in these difficult economic times. During the past year, we have seen our private donations drop an alarming ninety percent!

Ms. Sarker: What do you think are the chances of finding intelligent lifeforms who would be capable of communicating with us?

Dr. Shuch: Pretty good, actually, if life is as common in the universe as we suppose it to be. There is an evolutionary imperative for communicating, and that suggests that any civilization, given adequate time and resources, will eventually develop the kind of technology which makes communication possible.

Ms. Sarker: How do you plan to decipher the signals if you find any?

Dr. Shuch: We don't. SETI is about existence proof, not content of communications. We are looking for clear, unambiguous evidence that other intelligent beings exist. To determine that, we need not decipher signals, merely determine that they are indeed of intelligent extraterrestrial origin. A SETI message, to be successful, need contain only one bit of data: "here I am!"

Ms. Sarker: Different people have estimated different numbers at different times. In your view how many intelligent lifeforms may exist in our galaxy?

Dr. Shuch: The key word here is "may". We can make good scientific (not to mention philosophical) arguments for life abundant, but unless they come here to shake our hands, the only way we'll ever really know is to do the experiment. SETI has the power to answer one of the most fundamental of human questions, definitively and unambiguously.

It is my opinion that a huge number (perhaps in the millions) of intelligent, technological civilizations have existed in the fifteen thousand million years or so since the Big Bang. The key question is, how many of them exist now (or close enough to now to be of interest to us, at this brief moment in human history)?

Ms. Sarker: Do you want to commit to a number?

Dr. Shuch: No.

Ms. Sarker: Then would you side with a higher number or a lower number?

Dr. Shuch: I opt for the higher estimates. Ward and Brownlee (in their book Rare Earth) argue for humanity's uniqueness in the cosmos. They base their argument on the improbability of the long chain of random events that led to our existence. Well, they're right that the chance of another "us" evolving exactly like we did is just about zero. Where their reasoning is flawed, in my opinion, is that we need not find another "us" to find an interesting communications partner. Beings who have evolved in the light of distant suns, who have nothing physical in common with us, can still easily be intelligent, and may have mastered electromagnetic communication technologies.

Ms. Sarker: If we find intelligent lifeforms somewhere else in the Universe, do you think they will be carbon based lifeforms?

Dr. Shuch: Maybe not carbon based, but certainly water based. Life, based on anything, is not going to exist absent a solvent. The ideal solvent on which life can be built will be polar, and have a high surface tension, and have a wide freezing point to boiling point spread, and have a higher density in the liquid state than in the solid. Water is the only solvent I know which fits all four of these conditions. It is as though water were deliberately designed with life in mind! So, we search for water-based life primarily, whether it practices hydrocarbon chemistry or not.

Ms. Sarker: Do you think they will have DNA backbones?

Dr. Shuch: Unless life is immortal, it needs to reproduce. To reproduce, it needs to pass along genetic information. DNA is one mechanism for doing so. But it probably isn't the only one. If exolife evolved independently of life on earth, it probably is not DNA based. If, on the other hand, Hoyle's and Wickramasinghe's theories of panspermia are correct, then life on earth was seeded from beyond. In which case, we, and they, and all life in the universe, may well be related. That would suggest that DNA (and, in fact, hydrocarbon chemistry) might be somehow universal.

Ms. Sarker: According to the recent findings, do you think there is any bacterial niche in Mars?

Dr. Shuch: I've believed so since before the recent findings. For me, ALH-84001 merely reinforces that belief.

Ms. Sarker: Do you think within the next 20 years we would find ET (not neccessarily intelligent) under Europa or subterranean Mars?

Dr. Shuch: Probably not within the next 20 years; it takes too long to plan, fund and launch interplanetary missions. Most assuredly within the next 40 years.

Ms. Sarker: Where are they?

Dr. Shuch: Thank you, Enrico Fermi! (If you don't know about the Fermi Paradox, look it up.)

Ms. Sarker: If intelligent lifeforms do communicate with us, do you think they would be biological lifeforms or artificial lifeforms? Is there a possibility that artificial lifeforms may take over biological lifeforms, and the signals that we get are generated solely by the artificial lifeforms and have nothing to do with their biological ancestors?

Dr. Shuch: I consider artificial lifeforms to be the next step in human evolution. Our technological creatures may well be our decendants. Given that we're going in that direction, it wouldn't surprise me at all if other civilizations are composed of the technological decendants of organic beings.

Ms. Sarker: Do you think there is any danger if the intelligent lifeforms elsewhere in the galaxy know of our presence?

Dr. Shuch: There is danger if they know about us. There is danger if they don't know about us. The Universe is a dangerous place. Of course, that's no reason to hide under a rock (or to remain on our own rock). It is human (and, I presume, alien) nature to confront danger head-on, in the pursuit of knowledge.

Ms. Sarker: In the next 5 years where do you think SETI League will go?

Dr. Shuch: We are at a fiscal crossroads; without a respectable infusion of funds, the privatized SETI organizations (including The SETI League) will probably not survive another five years. I optimistically believe that five years is long enough for the economy to recover, for the political winds to shift, and for our society to recognize the value of continued SETI research. If I am wrong in this, SETI will in about five years recede into the footnotes of history.

Ms. Sarker: Would we even know if the signals we are receiving are artificially generated? They may even be hidden in the background of natural sounds.

Dr. Shuch: Oh, absolutely! SETI seeks the hallmark of artificiality: signals that cannot be produced by nature, through any mechanism which we know or can imagine. We know a great deal already about the natural electromagnetic environment, and are learning more every day. Separating the natural from the artificial requires tremendous computational power, but that's only getting better. Since raw computer power seems to double every year, if we don't have the means to recognize an artificial signal today, surely we will tomorrow.

Ms. Sarker: Besides radio or optical search is SETI League thinking of doing any other kinds of search?

Dr. Shuch: The entire electromagnetic spectrum is likely turf for communications. Today, we search the microwave and optical segments. As our technology improves, we will expand the search to include the far and near infra-red, ultra-violet, X-ray, gamma ray, and cosmic ray spectra. Moving in the opposite direction, once we learn how to detect and process gravity waves, we'll be wanting to search that spectrum as well. There are no wrong frequencies for SETI, merely frequencies that we don't yet know how to monitor.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in editorials are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The SETI League, Inc., its Trustees, officers, Advisory Board, members, donors, or commercial sponsors.

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