Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Seeing Ghosts?


Here's the photo allegedly showing the ghost of Toys R Us, the tale of whom we cover in "Ghost of a Chance". Legend has it that the crew of "That's Incredible" shot several rolls with both infrared and regular high-speed cameras. The ghost is said to be the figure leaning in the background of this infrared image, and is not present in the high-speed version of the image. None of the sites I visited featuring this photo supply the non-infrared version. Go figure.

Aliens, Seth and more on "The Day.." on WNYC Studio 360

Can't get enough of "The Day the Earth Stood Still" redux? Check out: WNYC's program "Studio 360:"
"Alien Fact-Checker. Kurt asks Dr. Seth Shostak about how he advised the filmmakers on the set of the new movie "The Day the Earth Stood Still." As the Senior Astronomer for SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, Shostak believes that aliens will contact us, and he can’t wait."

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Does "Day the Earth Stood Still" Get the Science Right?


Seth was one of the science advisors on the re-make of "The Day the Earth Stood Still." What were the results? Find out in today's New York Times:
"PASADENA, Calif. — Of all the movie promotions in all the towns in all the world, Keanu Reeves had to walk into this one: a California Institute of Technology forum at which he was asked, “How could an alien being grow so fast without violating standard mass- and energy-conservation laws?”..." Read the rest.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

"The Day the Earth Stood Still" Redux




Picture this: Our environmental depredations have cheesed off nearby aliens, and they decide to send one of their own to Earth to save the planet.

Sound reasonable? Well, that’s the premise of The Day the Earth Stood Still, a remake of the 1951 classic sci-fi film of the same name. The alien is played by Keanu Reeves, and his right-hand robot, Gort, is played by some computer graphics.

It’s going to be a film you won’t want to miss. And Seth was technical adviser on the film, so if you find any science errors, you can direct your fury to him.
Check out his description of what it was like to be on the set with Keanu, John Cleese, and Jennifer Connelly here.
Klaatu barada nikto!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Confessions of a Spore Addict


An overview of Spore from the game's creators



As you'll hear in this week's show, "Got Life?", Seth and Molly gave me a copy of Spore to play so that we could get a better understanding of the game. Well, a few hours turned into a week, and a cell turned into a galactic empire, just as the game's creators promised. I actually decided to start over as an herbivore, and made it through each phase as a friendly, diplomatic species, who are currently under attack by the Wirbleflubby, a species from a nearby star system whose requests for communication I accidentally ignored. Oops.

I also ran a carnivore through the first 3 phases, eating and destroying everything I could. They're about to start the Civilization phase, which should be interesting, as they're anything but civilized. In another game, I ran a carnivore through the first three phases as a friendly diplomat. Getting through the creature phase without killing anything was hard because I could only eat corpses. Fruit bad, corpses good. Go figure. In yet another game (yes, even eating and sleeping were annoying interruptions last week) I found the rare omnivore mouth type during the cell phase, and I'm working on getting through the Tribal stage both hunting and gathering.

If anyone has any questions about Spore, I'm the most likely one here to have answers. And if you know how to win over the Wirbleflubby without selling all my artifacts, please let me know!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Seth's Talk in Monterrey, Mexico

Seth has been participating in an astronomy conference, RNAA 2008, in Monterrey, Mexico. You can listen to his talk by visiting our Spanish language partner, RadioKosmos, and clicking on the AudioBlog link on the right. Then select RNAA 2008. Seth's talk is being translated into Spanish as he goes along. You can also find Are We Alone? episodes partially translated into Spanish in the audioblog.

View photos of the event, including some of Seth, by visiting www.astronomos.org and clicking on "fotos de la XIX Reunion de Aficionados a la Astronomia..."

Thanks to Lourdes Cahuich for all her work with our show and Seth's visit!

Hey, baby, got a light?



Yes, even babies were fair game in the cigarette advertisments of the 1950s. Oh, and this man isn't really a doctor. But - hey - anything goes when it comes to peddling tobacco.
Find out how cigarette companies manipulated images and twisted the truth to get Americans to light up.

Kinoki Pads: Withdrawing Toxins or Just Your Money?


Our Hollywood Skeptic turns guinea pig as he tests the claims of body-purifying Kinoki pads.


"No amount of Kinoki pads would have a chance cleaning out the Super-Fund site inside my body."


Find out if he's right: "Skeptical Sunday: I'll Buy That!"

Thursday, November 6, 2008

BIGFOOT SUIT SOLD ON EBAY: $250,000


Expensive Rubber Suit


It seems that a rubber suit stuffed with dead animal carcasses has just been sold on E-bay for a quarter of a million dollars. This isn’t just any rubber suit of course, but the one that was touted as being the body of a Bigfoot back in August of this year.

According to the descriptive copy on E-bay some of these monies will go to settle various lawsuits that have burgeoned in connection with this, one of the most egregious frauds of 2008. None, apparently, will go to the perpetrators.

“Are We Alone?” was at the now-infamous press conference at which the Bigfoot body was announced. Be sure to check out what we heard, and what various people involved with this bizarre affair (including the man who made the quarter-million dollar costume) have to say on our August 25 show, which you can find by scrolling down here.

- Seth Shostak

Friday, October 24, 2008

The "Monty Hall Problem"

One of our listeners has proven it true!

In our recent show What Were You Thinking?, we discuss why – despite your likely gut feeling – it would be much better to switch doors if you hope to win the big prize on the erstwhile TV show “Let’s Make a Deal.”

To recap, here’s the scenario: Monty Hall, the program host, presents you, the contestant, with a choice of three doors. Behind one is a new car, and behind the other two are goats. You pick a door (say, number one). Monty then shows you what’s behind one of the other doors (say, number three), and it’s a goat.

Now, to churn up a bit of excitement, Hall asks if you would like to switch your bet from door one to door two. Should you? Would it increase the chance of driving home a Chevy rather than a bearded ungulate?

As mathematician Deborah Bennett explains on the show, your best strategy is to switch – to choose the other closed door. In fact, doing so will double your chances of winning.

Sound counter-intuitive? Well, listener Massimo, a Baltimore astronomer, wrote a small computer program that allowed him to play “Let’s Make a Deal” 30 thousand times in what’s called a Montecarlo simulation. Here’s what he had to say:

“I generated 30,000 random cases. As it happens the prize was behind the first door 9,942 times, behind the second 9,984 times, and behind the third 10,074 times. These numbers are well within statistical uncertainties, and confirm the expected one-third chance of the car being behind any given door.”

“Then the program chose a door at random, and I kept track of how often this original selection was correct (9,982 times) and how often switching led to the correct selection (20,018). Thus, the simulation confirmed the two to one ratio; that you double your chances of winning by switching doors. This Montecarlo experiment really forces you to disregard your intuition, and makes it clear that the two to one improvement described by Bennett was correct.”

Seth Shostak

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Seth Gets Wired

On the program "What Were You Thinking?" the company Neurofocus captures Seth's brain waves by electroencephalography (EEG) to determine whether he is paying attention. Let us know what you think the new field of "Neuromarketing..."



Seth with Quentin Baldwin at Neurofocus



Seth's brain is found to be operational



Seth models his new line of hip-hop headgear

Monday, October 20, 2008

The $100 Switch-A-Roo: Answer to Brainteaser

At the end of the program “What Were You Thinking,” Professor Debbie Bennett left listeners with a brain teaser, the answer supplied here.

Dr. Bennett writes: “The problem involved two identical envelopes--one with two $1 bills in it and the other with a $1 bill and a $100 bill. The envelopes are mixed and you choose one to keep. But before you get to keep it, I randomly remove a bill from your envelope and show it to you. It is a $1 bill. I return it to your envelope and offer to switch envelopes with you. Do you keep your envelope or switch with me? In other words, is your envelope more likely, less likely, or equally-likely to contain the $100 bill?
ANSWER: You should switch. My envelope is twice as likely to contain the $100 bill. If your envelope has the two $1 bills, there is a 100% chance that when I remove a bill, it is a $1 bill. If your envelope has the $1 bill and the $100 bill, I have only a 50% chance of removing a $1 bill.
Since I did remove a $1 bill, it is more likely to have come from the envelope with the two $1 bills. Considered another way: Since you saw me remove a $1 bill, there are three possible scenarios:

1) You have the $1 and $100 and I removed the $1.
2) You have the two $1 bills and I removed the first one (the second remained hidden).
3) You have the two $1 bills and I removed the second one (the first remained hidden).
In 1 out of 3 equally-likely scenarios, you have the $100 bill and in 2 out of the 3 scenarios, I have the $100.”
Any questions? Send a $100 to “Are We Alone?” and we’ll answer it for you (or, leave a comment and Dr. Bennett will)!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Astrobiology Rap

Think astrobiology is boring? You haven't been paying attention!

Listen to the Astrobiology Rap by Oortkuiper



And to Are We Alone?, of course!

Monday, August 25, 2008

Debris from Seth's Attic

"The Turkey that Ate St. Louis" (1969)


A real Turkey that Seth and Molly found in Seth's Attic - an old 16mm movie made in Seth's salad days. It's hard to believe that this was the main course.

video

Seth comments:

One of the many doubtful activities of my youth was making films. I started doing this at age 11, and by the time I was a teenager, my buddy Jerry Rebold and I had already constructed a sound system that occasionally worked with our wind-up, 16mm camera.

In 1967, while in grad school, fellow student Bob O’Connell, Jerry Rebold and I made a half-hour film entitled “The Teenage Monster Blob from Outer Space, Which I Was.” This parody of 1950s sci-fi films starred six pounds of Play-Doh.

The film bombed. It was, as O’Connell called it, “a turkey.” This disgusting failure prompted us to change our cinematic strategy in two ways: (1) our next film was just going to be a trailer, rather than a complete film – that way we could save money and just put in the good parts, and (2) if we were making turkeys, why not make a REAL turkey?

Ergo, this short “preview” film, shot mostly at Caltech and at that school’s Owens Valley Radio Observatory. Observant viewers will note then-department chair Jesse Greenstein in the role of Walter Cronkite, and a few other astronomers too (including yours truly).

“The Turkey that Ate St. Louis” was entered in the Baltimore International Film Festival, and automatically inserted into the feature-film category, where it faced competition from major motion pictures from both America and Europe. Despite this uneven playing field, “The Turkey” lost.

“The Teenage Monster Blob” eventually became more popular. Too late.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Disco!

Try JibJab Sendables® eCards today!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Uncivilized Behavior

Seth responds to UFO correspondence:

UFOs: Flying Emotions
Reader warning: I'm taking off the kid gloves. If I seem angry here — a state of emotional discombobulation that seldom seems to be my wont — it's because people whom I barely know, or in some cases haven't even heard of, insist on propelling me over the precipice. ...

Read the rest of Seth's latest article.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

NOVA ScienceNow




Don't forget to watch Seth and Jill Tarter on NOVA's ScienceNOW program Wednesday, July 23rd. Check your local listings for the air time in your area.

Check out that snazzy convertible that Seth is driving!

Watch a preview of the show here - click on the "Watch a preview" link (Seth and Jill are on after the leeches...)

And a dispatch by Seth: "Eavesdropping on E.T."

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Roar of the Aurora

It's the mother of all earthly radio transmissions, a broadcast that's been on the air for billions of years. However, and despite the long run, it's one radio program that you'll probably give a pass: it sounds like Fast-Finger Freddie twisting the shortwave dial at a few hundred RPM.

This cacophony of radio static from Earth is known as Auroral Kilometric Radiation (so-called because the wavelength of the emission is typically kilometers long). AKR is generated when fast-moving particles boil off the Sun, gush into space, and then get manhandled by Earth's magnetic field. The same circumstance accounts for the aurora borealis - those ghostly celestial displays that quietly amuse bored Canadians and insomnious polar bears. ...


Read the rest of Seth's latest article at www.seti.org or at SPACE.com.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Media Frenzy

Ever have a hankering to see what Seth looks like? Now's your chance!

Watch Seth talk about the Stephenville UFO case on Larry King Live, Friday July 11th at 9:00 p.m. EDT, and on NOVA ScienceNOW (also featuring Jill Tarter) on Wednesday, July 23rd. Check your local listings for times.




Check out the SETI Institute's Events Calendar to see where Seth, and other SETI Institute scientists, may be heading next.

Now we just need to get Molly on the screen...

Thursday, July 3, 2008

sun@home

From our friends at RadioKosmos, who provide a partial Spanish translation of Are We Alone?:

PROGRAMA DE OBSERVADORES SOLARES VIRTUALES, PROSOL
OBSERVATORIO "CARL SAGAN"

In the XVII anniversary of the Astronomy Area and in behalf of the International Heliophysical Year, we launched the scientific-educative Virtual Program of Solar Observers, PROSOL in Spanish.

Now, a year later, we launch the same program for English speaking people with the name sun@home.

Since the beginning of the "Carl Sagan" Solar Observatory project, we envisioned it to permit the participation of anybody in our continuous program to record and monitor the solar activity.

This program is possible thanks to the images from our H-Alpha and Calcium telescopes that are on real time webcast through @stro tv Observation webpage. At moment, this is the only Worldwide solar observatory with this system. "Anybody can see what we are observing".

So, in this program we welcome the participation of students, teachers, amateur astronomers, and anybody interested in learn and participate in solar observation with this facility.

The dynamics to participate is to register as a candidate to virtual observer telling us the days and times you may observe with our system. This preliminary phase will be to give you a general preparation in solar Astronomy and to test your discipline in observation. This phase will take approximately 4-6 months where the candidates will receive on a daily-basis our Space Weather Report with the balance of solar activity.

If you are selected as a virtual observer, then you will pass to the First Observation Phase, FOP. In this phase you should recognize solar characteristics and phenomena through our telescopes and you will be officially a virtual observer of the "Carl Sagan" Solar Observatory with all the credits by the participation.

In the Second Observation Phase, SOP you will receive a manual where we explain how you could capture images and videos from our signal, and the information to learn the way to process and analyzed them. This is a phase when the virtual observer is very active and will send us a formal observation report.

In the third Observation Phase, TOP is designed for those people that are interested in participated directly in some of the research programs we have in solar physics.

There are several observational programs for public participation, but anyone focused in solar observation where you can learn and have a very active participation.

sun@home webpages with detailed information: http://cosmos.astro.uson.mx/INFORMATICA/observacion/sun@home.htm

sun@home e-mail: prosol@cosmos.astro.uson.mx

Real time webcast of solar observation from Solar Observatory "Carl Sagan": http://cosmos.astro.uson.mx/webtv/index.htm

sun@home in Spanish at http://cosmos.astro.uson.mx/observa/prosol.htm

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Need a Second Life?



Visit the Star Trek Museum in Second Life (http://www.secondlife.com), and experience the show in a new way. You can sit in the outdoor pavilion and listen to the current show while watching a slide show with SETI Institute images (taken by Seth and me) as shown in the first image, or view videos (including Seth and Jill Tarter) on the big screen in the drydock, as pictured in the second image.

We're planning to add more videos soon, so check back at the museum frequently!

And our thanks to the curators of the Star Trek Museum for hosting our stuff, and for all of their help!


Post Options

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Discovery of Earth-size Planets


Seth is quoted in today's Science Times article about why the recent discovery of Earth-size planets is good news for alien-hunters.

Also, how to build a planet.

Article here: http://tinyurl.com/6z5o9u

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Indiana Jones and E.T.

“They’re archaeologists!” says an obviously pleased Henry Jones when he discovers that aliens have an interest in human cultural history.

It’s a throw-away line in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” the latest installment of the popular (and lucrative) Indiana Jones franchise. This ongoing cinematic success – in case you’ve been living in a bank vault since 1981 – features a slouch-hatted professor who is as practiced with his fists as he is with off-handedly dishing out Olmec and Mayan history.

The premise of the "Crystal Skull" is that aliens have come to Earth. Jones' mission – which he takes on only under duress – will eventually get them to leave. Lamentably, the story line is less than crystal clear, and credibility is flagrantly absent. But when Indiana mutters “they’re archaeologists,” he's hitting on a possibility that Hollywood has seldom considered.

In nearly every other film in which extraterrestrials have alighted on our planet, their intentions are malevolent or insipid. They either blow the place apart (e.g., “Independence Day”) or help neighborhood kids have fun (e.g., “E.T.”)

But what would motivate real aliens to come to Earth? Detonating the White House – while amusing in its own way, and probably without consequence – hardly sounds like a project justifying a trip of hundreds of light-years. A romp with the local rug rats is similarly implausible.

Equally suspect are scenarios in which the extraterrestrials have come for the water or other natural resources. These are substances they can find much closer to home, thereby ensuring that the transport costs don’t dominate the price tag.

But what the aliens can’t find at home – what is inevitably special in a universe where chemistry and physics are everywhere the same – is culture. Our physics texts will inevitably mirror theirs. But our art works, music, and literature won't.

Most Tinsel Town narratives about invading creatures from far-off worlds are tough to swallow. The latest Indiana Jones piece isn't easy to ingest, either. It's thoroughly preposterous in a thousand different ways. But when it comes to why real aliens might find our world, or the worlds of other sentient species, worth the travel – the whip-wielding professor may have made a discovery.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Indy science: all it's cracked-the-whip up to be?


We are producing a show this week on the science of the latest Indiana Jones movie for Skeptical Sunday. Has anyone seen the movie? Wonder whether he could really survive falling over three 100 foot waterfalls? Etc.
Have questions for us? We'll try to answer them in the program!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

"I don't keep a Top 40 list of SETI questions, but if I did, this one would be perennially on the charts: "could our experiments pick up Earth?" - Seth Shostak

Read the rest of Seth's latest article at the SETI Institute's website. It can also be found at SPACE.com.

Barbara Vance

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Sam Wang writes about appearing on the show

Sam Wang was interviewed by Seth on the recent "Building Better Brains" show, and describes his interview and the show in his blog "Welcome to Your Brain".

Barbara Vance

Monday, June 9, 2008

Bad Alien Evidence -- The Denver Video

Did you see this story? Jeff Peckman, a Denver resident, is promoting the idea of an Extraterrestrial Affairs Commission for his city.

On May 30, Peckman held a press conference in which he told the media that the Mile High Municipality needs to be prepared for close encounters of the weird kind.

Peckman’s rationale for the additional bureaucracy was a video showing a purported alien head popping up outside a window and looking around. The video was made by another man – Stan Romanek – in his Nebraska home five years ago (he’s since moved to Colorado). Romanek is clearly on the aliens’ dance card: he claims to have sustained more than 100 encounters with visiting extraterrestrials. He was driven to make the video because this particular Peeping Zork had been unwholesomely spying on his teenage daughters.

Now they didn’t actually play the video during the press conference: Romanek and Peckman merely showed an excerpted, fuzzy still frame. But Mathew Baxter, a skeptic in the Denver area, quickly shot his own movie of a nosey extraterrestrial – a fake which has confused a lot of people on YouTube and elsewhere, but which shows how easy it is to construct “proof” that aliens are creating a nuisance in the Nebraska suburbs.

Frankly, the evidence touted by Peckman should be thrown out of court. The imagery released so far is clearly unconvincing, not to mention the motivation (why would extraterrestrials come so many light-years merely to bug, yet again, Stan Romanek with their puerile behavior?) An easier incentive to grasp is Romanek’s interest in a bit of fame. Both he and Peckman were on “Larry King Live,” flogging the idea that this is finally the smoking gun in the matter of extraterrestrial visitation.

But here’s the kicker: King repeatedly asked why the video itself could not be shown, either on his show or anywhere else the public might see it. Romanek twice stammered through his response – “there are a lot of scientists and researchers involved in my case. They want to be sure about this before it’s released.”

So there you have it. The aliens are here, they’re spying on your teenage daughters, and it’s the scientists who are keeping this bad news from making the rounds. Sure makes sense to me.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

What does it all Ming?


Here's "Ming", an Ocean Quahog Clam, Arctica islandica, family Veneridae, which may be the oldest living animal ever discovered.

Judging by the annual growth rings on the clam's shell, Ming was believed to be in the region of 405-410 years old when the clam was caught off the coast of Iceland in October 2007. The clam was named after the Ming Dynasty due to its age.

Hear more about Ming in an encore presentation of
Aging: Stop Right There!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The long arm of the laws of robotics

Here's Molly at ICRA, apparently being interviewed by a robot


Okay, it may only be a robotic arm, but just watch what that arm can do!



The demonstration of "back-drivable" programming is just after a minute in. Watch the way the "hand" moves after its been programmed.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Monday, May 19, 2008

Apocalypse Now! Is the End of the World Imminent?

You may have caught the news a week ago that the last of nearly three dozen Russians have finally left their cave near the Volga River. They had repaired to these disagreeable digs last Fall on the advice of a self-proclaimed prophet, Pyotr Kuznetsov, who told them that the world was going to end in May. Apparently doomsday was going to occur in such a way that anyone cowering under a dirt roof in central Russia would somehow escape the consequences.

It’s unclear why any of the cult followers would believe this, especially as Father Pyotr himself stayed out of the cave, preferring a nearby (and less loamy) house. But believe it they did, until the low-grade lifestyle and the death of two women in the group drove them out.

Apocalyptic predictions seem to be perennially popular, and a staple of late-night radio. After all, who could fail to be impressed by the assurances of a smooth-talking seer that everything’s going to end, and do so sooner than you’re scheduled to make your final car payment? The doomsday business has gotten a particular shot in the arm of late thanks to weird readings of the Mayan calendar, which (according to some) suggests that 2012 will be the last year you’ll have to get your teeth cleaned or pay property taxes. Of course, I’ve always wondered why – if the Mayans were so adept at prognoticating doom – they couldn’t foresee their own dissolution.

Well, before you get caught up in a preparing for The End, consider this: Life began on Earth close to four billion years ago. Since then, large rocks have slammed into the landscape, supernovae and gamma-ray bursters have burst their galactic guts, the continents have crawled hither and yon, giant volcanoes have belched brimstone, and the entire ocean surface has frozen solid (more than once, it seems). Now those are events worthy of note. And yet despite it all, the thread of life was unbroken – for four billion years!

So when someone tells you to move underground because the end is nigh, ask yourself “what’s the prophet motive here?” The history of life on Earth suggests that survival is a far better bet than destruction.

Then again, May’s not yet over…

Thursday, May 8, 2008

"A widespread and popular impression of SETI is that it's a worldwide enterprise. Well, it's not, and there's something modestly puzzling in that."

Read Seth's latest essay, Why Don't They Do SETI?, and find the possible answers to why SETI research seems to be an American endeavor.

This essay is also available on SETI Thursday at SPACE.com.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Nick Bostrom Believes Discovering Extraterrestrials Would Be Awful

[In response to the article in MIT's Technology Review magazine by Nick Bostrom, and continuation of April 25 post below]


Are we better off not finding life?

Whether we trip across pond scum on Mars or a signal from ET, Nick Bostrom thinks it would be bad news. Bostrom is director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, and was a guest on Are We Alone? on August 27, 2007 [show available here].

Why is he hoping our efforts to find biology elsewhere will fail? Because, says Bostrom, to succeed will have profoundly depressing implications for the future of humanity. In particular, Homo sapiens will be doomed.

His argument goes like this. He starts by claiming that there is a “big silence” from the skies. After nearly a half-century of SETI, we’ve still not found a signal. So clearly, he maintains, that’s good reason to doubt the aliens are out there. And if the lack of any telecommunications doesn’t convice you, Bostrom suggests you try the Fermi Paradox, the idea that if cosmic intelligence were widespread, the aliens (or their self-replicating machines) would be here now. We’d see clear indications that they’d spread out and colonized large tracts of the Galaxy.

Now the way that Bostrom connects this apparent lack of clever critters with life on Mars is as follows: If we were to find life (dead or alive) on the Red Planet, that would tell us immediately that life must be commonplace. After all, if the next world out also spawned biology, it can’t be particularly rare. The universe must have germinated life in countless nooks and crannies. But the fact that we haven’t heard from ET (either via visits or via a signal) means that, despite the fecundity of the cosmos, intelligence never hangs around long enough to either colonize or broadcast. Our future is bleaker than winter on the tundra.

The logic is nice, but the assumptions are questionable. In particular, the claim that the universe appears devoid of intelligence is unfounded. Yes, there have been SETI experiments for a long while now – since 1960. But the total amount of telescope time devoted to this enterprise has been paltry. The number of star systems carefully examined for signals is fewer than one thousand. To say that we’re alone after having only looked at this incredibly small sample of the Galaxy is akin to arguing in 1400 AD that no major continent lies between Spain and Japan, because, after all, we’ve had ships for thousands of years and never seen it.

As for the Fermi Paradox, that’s a similarly impotent reason to say there’s no sentience in space. It’s a huge extrapolation from a very local observation. The fact that there are no polar bears in my backyard, despite the fact that they’ve had plenty of time to get there, hardly proves their non-existence.

In other words, there’s still no compelling reason to maintain that intelligence is a rare commodity in the universe. The jury’s still out on that one.

On our show, Bostrom made the daring claim that there’s a 20 percent chance the world we’re living in has no objective reality; it’s all just a simulation on a computer of the future. You’re no more than a sophisticated avatar, and that applies to your friends, too. It’s a gutsy thing to say. So is his dystopian view of the search for extraterrestrial life. But his pessimism needn’t discourage us, as it, too, is based on expansive conjecture, not data. Doing the experiment is the best way to know what’s correct and what’s not.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Gray-faced sengi visit


I went to the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park to interview Galen Rathbun and Jack Dumbacher for the “You Animal!” show. The new building is open, airy, light-filled. When completed, it will be the largest green building in the world; the roof, for example, is being converted to a living garden with native plants. For now, it is still very much a construction site, but the glimpse I had gives an idea of how stunning the opening will be in September.

My purpose was not to tour the new facilities, but to see the holotype of the gray-faced sengi. Galen and Jack led the way to the windowless vault that stored the collection of birds and mammals, which few people ever see. It reminded me of a locker room; row upon row of bland, locked metal cabinets. Yet the contents were more precious than sweaty towels and gym shoes.

I gasped when Jack opened a cabinet and I saw the animals, even though that’s why I was there. I wasn’t prepared to see so many, so immaculately preserved and recognizable yet exposed and vulnerable, it seemed to me, lying row upon row on the roll-out shelves. I was surprised that Jack let me hold them. The fur of the gray-faced sengi felt soft and healthy, although the animal was filled with cotton. There were birds in the cabinet that the world would never see alive again; ivory-billed woodpeckers (status still debated) and passenger pigeons in a neat row, small yellowing tags tied to their legs identifying them in handwritten scrawl. Some were over 100 years old.

They were extinct, yet still here. Their bodies had not disappeared from the face of the earth, only the life in them. They seemed so nearly alive. I couldn’t help but think that, if their bodies were still intact – although they weren’t really, because cotton has replaced their hearts and lungs – would it be so hard to put life back in and cross back? It seems such a fine line separating life and death; one moment a creature is alive, heart pumping, and then - a handful of cells cease to divide, neurons no longer exchange electric current – and it is gone forever.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Disappointed to find life?

MIT's Technology Review magazine just published a provocative article by Nick Bostrum, who appeared on our show in August 2007 (Seth's Basement). He gives reasons why he would rather that SETI was unsuccessful, even though he still supports exploration and research. Our Formula One: The Drake Equation show is included with the online article (see the sidebar on the first page).

We, of course, are very much in favor of finding alien life. Perhaps we should bring Nick back for a debate with Seth!

Star Trek Seth!





See Seth in a new communications role - on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise! Watch the the Internet Star Trek movie Star Trek: Of Gods and Men. Seth appears in Part I.

Click here for more images of Seth in costume.

What do you think of the movie, and Seth's acting abilities?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Phoenix Lights

Some people are convinced that extraterrestrials are visiting Phoenix, presumably because they like the feel of wide-open spaces or have a penchant for Tex-Mex cuisine.

On Monday, April 21, strange lights once again lit up the night sky of this sprawling Arizona burg, and hung in the air for enough time that they were seen by hundreds (and probably thousands) of residents. Most of these Arizonans remembered that more than a decade ago, in March of 1997, there were two incidents of strange luminance in the darkened skies of Arizona, events that some people still think are mysterious -- and possibly due to alien visitation. These were the original "Phoenix Lights" (which sound like a cigarette brand, but aren't.)

Those two long-ago events actually have prosaic explanations, however. The first, a triangular pattern of lights that swept in from southern Nevada, seems to have been a small phalanx of aircraft. To me, the most convincing evidence that this is true is the report of an amateur astronomer who looked at the formation with his scope, and could see that they were planes. Amateur astronomers (unlike the general public) are experienced observers of the sky. They're also clever enough to realize that if they had seen true extraterrestrial craft, nothing could be more interesting. I don't think they'd lie. I don't think this amateur did lie.

The second 1997 event was a string of lights that was visible over the city for quite a while (tens of minutes). This can best be ascribed to flares dropped during a (later announced) military exercise miles from the city. Indeed, there's confirmation that this explanation is correct from some work done by an Arizona State astronomer in which he matched the appearance and disappearance of these lights with their expected obscuration by the Sierra Estrella mountain range southwest of Phoenix. Call me biased (and in this regard I am), but I trust the work of astronomers.

So, putting it bluntly, I don't think there's any reason to believe that the luminous phenomena that were on display on March 13, 1997 were anything other than human activity. This is important, because the Phoenix Lights are frequently cited as one of the most compelling events supporting the contention that Earth is being visited by beings from afar.

As for the Phoenix Lights of this week... well, they seem to have been a "knock off" hoax by someone who set off some helium balloons to which some lit road flares were attached.

It's not impossible, of course, that aliens could come to Earth. It's also not impossible that they would choose to entertain the residents of central Arizona with their light shows. But if you think this is true, then the evidence has to be better than what it is. Ranting about cover-up and closed minds isn't evidence -- it's merely whining.

And one should always consider simple explanations first. If you find a dead raccoon on the side of a road, you might consider that it was killed by aliens. But you should also weigh the possibility that it was hit by a car.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Nerd's Nerds

Al Gore, Nichelle Nichols, Gary Gygax, and Stephen Hawking represent a veritable nerd pantheon, attempting to repair the space-time continuum with the help of an oafish pizza delivery boy.

Nerds Show

I can't believe that Seth's nerd score was lower than mine. Although he did add to my physics joke, so maybe we are tied.