Astronomer Seth Shostak: We'll find ET by 2037!


How hard can it be? My research has determined that all one needs is the following: Record player; Texas Instruments Speak 'N Spell; Fork; Rope; Umbrella; Tinfoil; Coffee can; Saw blade; Fuzz buster; Blender; Coat hanger (and possibly a few other odds-n-ends along with knowing how to put them together correctly).


To be alive when the “Eureka!” moment arrives, when the pivotal, paradigm shifting point in history when all of humanity has to come face to face with the inevitability of life in the Universe, there are few things I wish more. Hell, I’m liable to go out and buy a 20-year old single malt whiskey and several bottles of Veuve Clicquot to celebrate.
But I ain’t holding my breath just yet.


And if he’s wrong, the great unix time_t disaster in 2038 will send humanity back to the stone age anyway, so he can stall by “analyzing data” for a year and he won’t have to pay off on any bets!

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He makes an excellent case for them being out there.

He doesn’t make much of a case for us being able to detect them.

[I work in radio astronomy, but not SETI. What do I know?]

Of course, the big trick is getting the aliens to cooperate with these ambitious predictions. Beware the Fermi paradox…

Am I the only one that feels Lovecraftian like horror when contemplating the Fermi Paradox?

If you imagine humans a few thousand years out (to say nothing of a few million), you see them turning stars off on and on, dyson spheres, and the like. You imagine a civilization that is visible on a galactic scale to anyone idiot with a telescope. If you look at Drake’s equation and fill in the last few parameters that we have not filled in yet with anything but zero, there should be billions of these style of civilizations floating around… and yet we see nothing.

The universe looks empty, or if there is someone out there, they are very quiet. To me, that suggests that intelligence inevitably commits suicide, we are freaks who are alone in the universe, we are a simulation or in a zoo, physics says you will never leave your solar system, or there is something out there that you really should not get the attention of. I don’t know about you, but all of those answers leave me somewhere between sad or filled with dread. Granted, this is the existential kind of dread you don’t deal with in everyday life. If there is something out there snuffing out intelligence as it arises, it is doubtful it is going to whack me personally, but still, the idea that we are just a brief flicker about to be snuffed is sad.


It’s far more likely that there is nothing else out there that is capable or interested in communicating with us than it is that there is some destructive force that actively seeks out and culls intelligence.

What makes me say that? Well, historically speaking, every time we’ve convinced ourselves that there’s been some superior force or being beyond a certain boundary, we’ve been wrong. “Here there be dragons” and all that. Every time we’ve gone beyond the known world, instead of falling off the edge of the earth or being eatten by sea serpents, we’ve instead merely encountered the mundane.

For example, breaking the sound barrier was only exciting because we imagined all sorts of terrible possible consequences of doing so, but it turns out to be pretty boring in reality (aside from some curious Physics involved). What was once beyond imagining, literally the stuff of myth and legend, feared for the remote possibility that it could be poised to destroy us once we crossed the brink, ended up being just one more quirk of the natural world.

Space is big and empty. If there is other life, it’s probably not intelligent. Even if there is intelligent life, it probably can’t detect us. Even if it can detect us, it probably can’t communicate with us. Even if it can communicate with us, it’s probably not capable of space travel. Even if it is capable of space travel, it probably can’t reach us.

And even if, somehow despite the odds, it turned out there was intelligent life close enough and advanced enough and perceptive enough to communicate with us? Can you imagine first contact?

“We’ve received a message from Outer Space, that we can confirm is from aliens! We need to figure out what it says!” So we work it out, we think we’ve decoded the message a little, and we send out our own response. Then we wait. And wait. And wait.

At best, decades pass - at worst, centuries. During that time we might receive further messages, but they’ll have been traveling for a long time, coming in staggered. The conversation is one way until our reply reaches them and they have a chance to reply in turn.

Generations slowly pass. We’ve made a handful of back and forth information trades, but the time lag and the difficulty of understanding each other means the information traded is absurdly small. We’ve parsed each other’s numeral concepts, we’ve maybe traded stellar coordinates, possibly even mutually conveyed a means of swapping the information necessary to contruct images from raw data a la binary, allowing us to trade images.

Meanwhile, how has life on Earth progressed? At best, due to these developments we’ve become more reflective and thoughtful, had some positive paradigm shifts on a philosophical level, maybe reformed some religious beliefs along the way (unlikely). At worst, the confirmed knowledge of other intelligent life in the universe has brought out the worst in humanity, sparking conflict and fear and stupidity. Although it’s also just as likely we’ve simply carried on exactly as before, now aware of alien life but entirely untouched by it.


The old assumptions about how easy it would be to detect intelligence are becoming obsolete.

Remember that as we move from analog to digital, and to more efficient use of electricity generally, our globe’s inadvertent RF transmissions have been becoming progressively less recognizable as intelligence and more like a random natural process. Data compression and spread-spectrum and packet transmission and so on remove exactly the information which would be most useful in recognizing that something is signal rather than noise. We’re also moving much more to media other than full-sphere RF, for reasons ranging from bandwidth to efficiency to privacy.

There may be a surprisingly short window in the evolution of technology when a culture can be detected at a distance “by accident”.

OK, what about deliberate transmissions? Well, how many centuries are you going to keep the transmission going in the hope that someone else is looking and picks it up? (We’ve managed what, a few weeks total?) How wide an angle can you afford to transmit with how much power? (Our deliberate transmissions have been on a fairly narrow angle.)

And remember that technology-using sapience is an extremely recent development. We’re biased in favor of it, being the local examples thereof, but on evolutionary timescales it really has yet to prove long-term survival value. Homo sap is darned good at killing off other forms of life, but our culture has been driven by the energy tied up in random concentrations of resources, and we’ve been busily serving thermodynamics by scattering those. There is no guarantee that our civilization – or any civilization – really can last long enough to have reasonable odds of overlapping with someone else’s.

I’m certain there’s other life out there. But technological life may be rarer than we’ve wanted to believe, and harder to find than we expect. I have to consider any claim that we’ll have a clear answer on anything like human timescales wildly overoptimistic.

I’ve been a science fiction reader since 3rd grade if not before; I’d love to have another set of minds out there to compare notes with. But at this point I have to count finding them as thought experiment and wishful thinking – while continuing to hope that someone proves me wrong.


There is a lot more to be detected than RF transmissions. Where are the stars blinking on and off, strange physics, and other things that you would expect from a technological civilization that has been around for more than a few thousand years?

Now, it could be that they are out there and that once you get a certain level everyone say “fuck it”, builds a dyson sphere, loads themselves up into computers, and live a happy immortal experience only ever moving once every few billion years when their sun is out of fuel. That is a possibility, but for a flesh and blood human, that is almost as a mildly horrifying thought. Just imagine a vast universe filled with nothing but civilizations quietly running on a server, never growing, shrinking, or really interacting with the physical world. It makes the entire universe one massive tomb where civilizations exist for an eyeblink before they migrate to computers and effectively vanish. Even that answer to the Fermi Paradox kind of freaks me out a little.

Don’t get me wrong, I would sell my soul for the answer to the Fermi Paradox, but I have a feeling that all the answers are soul crushing to a flesh and blood human who dreams of expanding into the stars.


Or not!


To be fair to the aliens, I’d be waiting until we stop making movies that feature them invading us and us murdering them.

So, basically Galactus seems to be out there.

Or the ones were the aliens are here to take our planet/resources (and then we murder them).

Of course “those” aliens aren’t just going to drop a few beeps on a satellite dish…they’ll rain fire down from the heavens and that’ll be that.

Which of course is bullshit, cause if I was the advanced alien race and wanted to conquer Earth I’d abduct humans, figure out a biological weapon, and unleash it from a far.

I’ll be 62…not that old, but I’m sure my aged bones will enjoy the free cup of delicious, warming coffee. Because while the idea of discovering other (hopefully more) intelligent life in the universe would make me very happy…I have complete certainty that it will never happen.

Life? Sure…gotta be more life out there; some when, some where: giant space jellyfish or lunar lichen, maybe some fairly smart creatures (like parrots, dolphins, sympathetic llamas); perhaps in unusual forms with unique behaviors. But the giant reptiles had upmteen millions of years to evolve on this planet: birds, insects, giant mammals too: and evolve they did. But not a one (as far as we know) was self aware, built anything greater than a nest or a bone pile.

While I respect the speakers enthusiasm, his playing fast and loose with the numbers (Pi is 1, 75% is 100%) confused me…easy to do: IANAM. IANAA. IANAP. (math, astronomy and physics, respectively). But while the incredible numbers back his theory; IMO the incredible distances make it moot…you could have an Armada of Death Stars laying waste to galaxy, after galaxy, after galaxy…how could we know? 10,000 Billion Billion is…unfathomable.

I believe we are alone in an uncaring universe…and if ever there were or shall be alien eyes that look to the stars and pontificate over the possibility of our existence: ‘like two ships passing in the night…’

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I bet not making movies like that anymore is a requirement for consideration into the Galactic Federation.

Nobody’s going to give us future tech and invite us into space if our first cultural thought is to look for trouble!

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Perhaps all the Other civilizations have kept their NSA in check, so that their communication is indeed looking like random numbers to us.


Of course there is other life out there, it is ludicrous to think that we are a single unique anomaly in such a vast universe. If we’ve observed anything it is that patterns repeat over and over and very little is truly unique anywhere.

It is prudent to keep in mind what a short short time we’ve had any technology capable of searching for other life and how truly primitive that technology still is, especially when considering how incredibly vast the distances are. The magnitude of any observable signal or event, and the time it would take to reach us, and the narrow timing/viewing window to observe it in, make this a task beyond our current capabilities unless we get very very lucky.

If you went back in time and the very moment primitive man invented written language and sent out a massive signal at the speed of light, it wouldn’t even have crossed 1/20th of our own galaxy yet.

If there is interstellar communication going on between sentient species over such vast distances, it most like is being carried out using technologies that we have not yet begun to imagine.


I find it fascinating that the scale of time in every one of these predictions does not matter until it comes time to determine when we’ll find intelligent life elsewhere.

If a few hundred to a few thousand years doesn’t matter, then this entire prediction doesn’t either. It’ll be just as valid in 100 years when another astrophysicist posits the same prediction.

David Brin’s recent novel, “Existence,” deals with exactly that. The basic idea being that there are a lot of pitfalls, from nuclear war to runaway greenhouse effect, and many others, that could prevent a technological civilization from becoming a spacefaring civilization, and that the Fermi paradox implicitly assumes that those bottlenecks are in our past, rather than our future.

What happens if somebody develops a singularity that you can bounce back and forth between?

Because that’s probably how it happens. Nobody’s going to download themselves into a computer on a cultural scale until it’s reversible, right? Maybe a few individuals, but we’re not talking mass adoption with anything like the psychologies we know.

Once there’s the chance of a non-reversible singularity, there’d be a MASSIVE push from all directions, people trying to figure out what it means, are they still people in there, and so on. There’d be a huge resource impetus to making it reversible, right? That’s the obvious proof. Not the FIRST person to try it, but once it’s happening a lot, and people are hopping back and forth and they’re obviously convinced they’re still themselves then eventually mass adoption happens.

That technology doesn’t get forgotten, right? Especially in there. So sure, there’d be lots of people who are ‘purists’ and lots who flip back and forth but are only ‘human’ for a short period of time.

Meanwhile, obviously research goes ballistic in a singularity, so you’ve got more opportunities to hack DNA and make a smaller, more sustainable population (or even a large sustainable one) on a planet that’s got no good reason to broadcast to space. . . though they may think to bootstrap probes.

Right. So you add the above with the fact that space is a MASSIVE barrier. It’s not just a barrier in space, but in time as well. There’s no reason for YOU to travel in space, unless you can be on a probe . . . but who’d want that job? Odds are most probes never find anything, ever. So instead there’d be AIs on probes until they actually find something.

And then time is a factor. We know we can broadcast at the speed of light but we sure can’t travel at it. Unless one’s particularly close then we’re talking GENERATIONS to get actual bodies from one place to another. A tiny travelling singularity becomes an option then. . .we’ll pretend it’s a viable one for a subset of the population, however don’t forget that they’re missing out on ZILLIONS of cool things the people in the big singularity can invent and discover, so it’s likely a big sacrifice!

And even if they are looking, why would they look HERE? There are several other parts of the galaxy that might be much better hotbeds of life-finding adventures. Maybe everybody heads to the core, especially if they do have singularities . … because then energy = yum!

So there’s just as likely plenty of them out there, but either they’re not looking out that much, aren’t bothering sending anyone until they get something good back from a probe or else they’ve got a singularity out there right now and are waiting VERY impatiently for us to get our acts together, because we’re obviously really paranoid culturally right now and they probably had sci-fi too, right?

If there are tiny travelling singularities out there, they’d kind of have to have rules. Maybe they’d interfere if we’re about to go nuts with the nukes, but anything other than that and it’s probably better to wait it out. Heck, maybe they’ve set something up to ‘download’ each of us into their singularity just in case.

There aren’t many plausible scenarios that involve us knowing anything until we’re good neighbors.