[dropcap]’I[/dropcap]n a sense, we’ve run that experiment,’ says Seth Shostak, chief alien hunter at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
After a day off recovering from jet lag, which I somehow end up spending whizzing up and down the hills of San Francisco on a Segway, I head off down Highway 101 to Mountain View to record the first interview in my Little Atoms road trip. I’m meeting Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the Seti Institute and presenter of their excellent Big Picture Science radio show and podcast.
Seth is the public face of Seti, he’s the SETI GUY. At least that’s what it says on his car registration plate. Seti is an abbreviation of Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence, and that’s what Seth does. He’s a full-time alien hunter.
Founded in 1984, for 10 years the Seti Institute was initially part of a wider Nasa-funded search for alien intelligence, until the space agency’s project fell victim to budget cuts. Since then the institute has relied on private donations and endowments to keep it going, and judging by its headquarters, they are doing ok for funding. The institute is in the middle of a huge industrial estate, albeit the richest, most innovative and manicured industrial estate in the world, otherwise known as Silicon Valley.
The search for alien radio signals is only a tiny part of the work done by the Seti Institute – most of its scientists are astrobiologists who are looking for life of a less intelligent, more microbial kind elsewhere in the solar system, mainly on the moons of the outer planets.
However, it’s the image of a scientist listening out for a message from the cosmos, perhaps one who looks a bit like Jodie Foster, which tends to catch the public‘s imagination.
I meet up with Seth in his office (he doesn’t look like Jodie Foster). He asks if I’d like to record the interview in the institute’s own recording studio. This is where Seth, Molly Bentley and the team record Big Picture Science, of which I’m a huge fan, so I’m delighted to take him up on the offer. It later transpires that Seth is something of an audiophile and has built this studio himself, so don’t expect the rest of the recordings on this trip to match this one in sound quality!
“The modern idea of using antennas to eavesdrop on ET goes back to Frank Drake‘s original 1960 experiment called Project Ozma,” Seth tells me. That’s Frank Drake of the eponymous Drake Equation. He’s still a part of the institute, and although he’s not in on the day of my visit, I later get a glimpse of his office.
Drake’s Project Ozma focused on just two nearby stars, Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani. Nowadays, SETI uses the Allen Telescope Array, f