Monday, December 21, 2009

A Very Special 'Are We Alone'

A massive black hole lies at the center of our galaxy, a monster hunkered down in the Milky Way’s innermost sanctum. Here, the bizarre laws of General Relativity take over, as the physics we know break down. And our spaceship is headed straight for it.

Join us on a special dramatized 26,000 light-year adventure to the Galaxy’s hulking heart of darkness. We explore a cosmos held together by gravity – discover why it’s not really a force – and try to avoid getting too close to a black hole, the ultimate expression of gravity.

This program is part of the traveling exhibit: “Black Holes, Space Warps and Time Twists,” a production of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Find out more at:

Seth Shostak - himself
Molly Bentley - herself, Dr. Barsky
Doug Vakoch - News Anchor
Roland Pease - Dr. Childschwartz
Lilia Roman - SOPHIA
Roe DeVasto - Ship Computer
Patrick Porter - Dr. G
Gary Niederhoff - DAN, Albert Einstein, Dr. Dutch

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Master of Camouflage

This week's show about the evolution of intelligence features a segment on the ability of cuttlefish to change the colors and patterns of their skin to match their surroundings. As Roger Hanlon, senior scientist at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts, describes in "Feather Knows Best", this helpful adaptation has been honed to the point that the cuttlefish can undergo this transformation in the blink of an eye. In the video above, a cuttlefish floats just above the ocean floor, its color ranging from purple to yellow. At about 27 seconds in, it suddenly takes on the colors and pattern of the ocean floor, and if you didn't see it happen, you'd probably swim right by without seeing the animal at all. At least, that's what it hopes.


At the end of this week's show, Molly asks Seth what NASA stands for, and Seth incorrectly replies, "National Air and Space Administration". The correct answer, of course, is National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Also acceptable: Never Ask Seth Anything.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Vaccines take a shot

Our Skeptic Check program that includes an interview with Pediatritian Paul Offit about the safety of vaccines went out just last night and has already generated responses in our email inbox and on Facebook. In general, people feel that vaccines are safe and important - but there is a lingering mistrust of the industry behind them. Below is a letter from one listener and the response from Paul Offit. You can hear the show at: Vaccines: Give 'Em Your Best Shot.

Dear AWA,
I want you to know how much I enjoy the show you folks put together every week. I was pleased that you took on the vaccine controversy. There have been people in my life who believed the autism canard and I found it impossible to reason with them. I'm writing because I think you came up short in your discussion of why these attitudes exist...

Paul Offit's reply:
While I certainly agree that pharmaceutical companies have acted aggressively, unethically and even illegally (witness the recent Pfizer settlement) regarding the sale and promotion of drugs, I just don't see where this applies to vaccines...

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

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

This Thanksgiving, the dinner tables are turned as we bring back this turkey of a film to feast on you.

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.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Happy Birthday SETI Institute!

Twenty five years ago, on November 20, 1984, the SETI Institute was founded. It's history goes much deeper than that, of course. Nearly fifty years ago, Frank Drake conducted the first radio search for extraterrestrial intelligence, known as Project Ozma. Today, the Institute, independent astronomers, home computers, and supporters like you continue to bring SETI closer to the detection of a signal from our celestial neighbors. Hear all about SETI's history, from the Drake equation and the Allen Telescope Array to SETI@home and optical SETI, on this week's show.

Monday, November 9, 2009

This Calendar Weighs an EschaTon

Do you see the part where it says we'll all die on December 21, 2012? Mayan scholars don't see it either. Ancient Mayan glyphs and their concepts of language and time aren't fully understood by anyone, but no one who studies their ancient beliefs is under the impression that they ever forecast the end of anything other than various cycles of time. Like many cultures, the Mayans understood time as being cyclical, rather than linear. Hence, the round calendar. They had short counts of time within long counts of time, just as we do. One of the longest counts, the Baktun, ends on what some argue to be December 21, 2012, just like one of our long counts, the year, ends on December 31, 2009, and then starts over.

In this week's show, Seth and NASA Astrobiologist Dave Morrison discuss some of the unlikely harbingers that some say are the fulfillment of Mayan doomsday prophesy, including those postulated by the marketing campaign of a certain new disaster movie coming out this week.

Note: It has been pointed out that the picture above is an Aztec calendar. Of the many cultures that developed in the Yucatan region in the past three thousand years, the Maya were most instrumental in developing this calendar. The Aztecs just figured out how to make it look pretty.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Check your Babbage

Charles Babbage created Difference Engine Number 2 in the mid 19th century. Created on paper, that is. He never got to see his creation completed, as it wasn't actually built until the early 1990's. In 2008, a second working Difference Engine Number 2 was installed at the Mountain View Computer History Museum, and is pictured above, top, in detail, and above, bottom, with human Molly Bentley. Hear more about Seth and Molly's trip to the Computer History Museum on this week's show.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Don't be so Antikythera

A century ago, a team of Greek divers, exploring the coast off the island of Antikythera, discovered a ship wreck which contained part of what is believed to be the oldest known complex scientific calculator, dated to the first century, BC. The top picture is a reconstruction of the entire mechanism. The bottom picture is the main fragment retrieved from the wreck. The mechanism was used as an astronomical clock, wherein a date was entered and the mechanism would calculate the position of the sun, moon, and other planets. It also provided information about the phases of the moon and was used to predict solar eclipses. Learn more about the Antikythera mechanism on this week's show.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Bellow Hello to this Hallowed Fellow!

Congratulations Seth!

This month your favorite astrophysicist host of Are We Alone? was awarded a fellowship with the California Academy of Arts and Sciences. He and 11 other scientists, including SETI colleague Rocco Mancinelli, were inducted during the Fellowship's October 13th meeting. Read more about it on the Academy's press release.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Until 1986, Lechuguilla Cave was a mere footnote in the story of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico. After hearing air moving below rubble on the cave floor, cavers gained permission from the National Park Service to dig through the rubble, and on May 26, 1986, they literally unearthed large walking passages branching from the cave. Pictured above is a room in Lechuguilla called The Chandelier Ballroom, which features the largest known gypsum stalactites in the world. Hear more about its discovery and the exploration of Lechuguilla on this week's show, Extreme Geology.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Eye of the Whale - Great read!

We interviewed Douglas Carlton Abrams, author of "Eye of the Whale," for the show on communication (Say What?) and I read the book in preparation. I am a fan of science-driven Michael Crichton and Robert Preston thrillers, and this book had a similar pace. I picked it up on a Sunday, read all day, until midnight, and again the next day until I finished it.

“Eye of the Whale” is both a compelling ecological story about whether humpback whale songs reveal a (frightening) truth about what we've done to our environment, and also a thriller – about a heroine who is trying to piece together the puzzle before her detractors have her silenced.

And the most shocking information in the novel - about whales, endocrine disruptors, I learned from Doug, is all true (sadly). But – I have to say – it was also fun to read, the way well-written thrillers should be.

I also happened to begin the book the day after seeing the film The Cove, about dolphin slaughter, which had a powerful, amplifying effect.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Astronomy in Paradise


Seth and Molly ascend the heights of Mauna Kea to visit the Keck Observatories Here are the people working in that rarified location. Listen to their stories on Aloha Astronomy on Are We Alone?

Ashley Yeager, Outreach Manager, Keck Telescope

Charles Blue, Science Writer, Thirty Meter Telescope

Julian Christou, Adaptive Optics Scientist, Gemini North Telescope

Richard Ellis, Astronomer, CalTech

Taft Armandroff, Director, Keck Telescope

Monday, September 21, 2009

Gary Undead

Gary gets an extreme makeover to go undercover at Zombiefest. Seth captures the deathless images. Check out the action on Skeptic Check: Waking the Dead.

The Big Chill

Seth and Molly don their parkas and mukluks to visit the American Cryonics Society headquarters in warm and sunny Cupertino, California. Hear the chilling truth on Skeptic Check: Waking the Dead

Click an image for a larger photo.

Friday, September 11, 2009

All About You!

We want to know about you...and your Are We Alone? listening habits. By filling out our survey, you help us out and qualify to win a SETI Institute mug! Less than a minute's worth of questions and easy to do.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Seth's review of 'District 9'

It had to happen: invading aliens are now the good guys.

Hollywood loves to turn the tables on its own hackneyed formulae. For decades, Native Americans were on an endless warpath in the movies, getting up in the morning with only one item on their "to do" list: namely, mount yet another attack on gnarly ranchers and the occasional wagon train. But these days, the Indians in the popcorn palaces are laid back; sage and sympathetic.

Overturning cliches always plays well, because doing so allows filmmakers to meld helpful familiarity (you know how these guys are supposed to behave) with surprise (they're not conforming to type).

In "District 9," a hubcap-shaped alien mother ship – looking like a kit bash of a few thousand Revell model tank parts – comes to Earth and stalls over Johannesburg. The confused occupants disembark, and quickly confront their South African hosts with yet another social problem (as if the country needs one). Where do we put these dudes?

Read the rest at

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

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)!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Great Pacific Garbage Patch

This is the carcass of a sea bird and the plastic that ended up in its stomach. Countless sea birds have been found with digestive tracks filled with plastic bottle caps, tabs, and tiny slivers of plastic confetti found adrift in our oceans. Some scientists estimate that the garbage patch in the Pacific ocean, consisting mostly of plastic, is twice the size of Texas.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Captain Charles Moore at the Ted Conference

Watch Captain Charles Moore's talk at the 2009 TED conference about plastic in the oceans and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Captain Moore speaks more about our plastic legacy on Earth: A Millennium Hence on Are We Alone?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Miss Annie: Stem Cell Recipient

Julie Burges and Sean Owens from the U.C.-Davis Regenerative Medicine Laboratory, with Miss Annie. Miss Annie is being treated for arthritis with stem cells and can be heard (snorting) in our show, "Rxs Get Personal."

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Video of Giggling Gorilla

copyright: University of Veterinary Medicine Hannover.

Do not try this at home! A researcher tickles a gorilla as part of a study into the evolutionary roots of laughter. Hear the results in Seth's interview with psychologist Marina Davila-Ross on "What Makes Us Human? Part I: Others."

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

2009: A Spacefest Awed to See

(from left to right, Keir Dullea, Phil Plait, Gary Lockwood)

Earlier this year, Seth spoke at Spacefest in San Diego, a gathering of astronomers and astronauts to celebrate the exploration of Space. Also in attendance were the two main actors from "2001: A Space Odyssey", Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood. You can hear Seth's interview with them in this week's show. Another featured speaker at Spacefest (and monthly guest on Are We Alone's 'Skeptic Check'), Phil Plait, is pictured here with the two actors. They wanted Seth to be in the shot too, but as the photographer, he had to say, "Sorry, Dave. I can't do that."

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Seth on Colbert Report

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Seth Shostak
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorGay Marriage
Missed Seth on The Colbert Report? Catch him here talking about his new book, "Confessions of an Alien Hunter!"

Monday, May 18, 2009

Seth on the Colbert Report this Wednesday!

This Wednesday, May 20th at 11:30pm, Are We Alone's very own Seth Shostak will be a guest on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report". Host Stephen Colbert will talk with Seth about his new book, "Confessions of an Alien Hunter: A Scientist’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence" and Seth's work at the SETI Institute.

And maybe a certain radio show?

Go Seth!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Now you sea them...

Yes, Seth and Molly really did record this week's show at the beach. Not only did it give the show its authentically beachy sound, it also gave our portable recording equipment a much needed shot of salty sea air. We may have to fake it if we do a show about a microphone incineration plant.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Interpreting your PhD thesis... through dance

What if you were challenged to describe your PhD thesis without words, slides, or anything other than dance? Here are some examples, described in this week's show, which you can review to see how effective their interpretation is.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Boldly Going Nowhere - Seth writes for the NYT

This week, Seth expanded on an earlier article for an op-ed piece in the New York Times. In it, Seth describes the near future of space 'travel' being conducted visually and robotically. After all, it would take as long as homo sapiens have walked the earth to get to the nearest star and back. And it may not be worth the wait. Better yet, Seth suggests, we should be sending unmanned craft, like the Mars rovers, to survey and capture data that we can analyze from the safety of our living rooms. You can read the whole editorial HERE.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Seth on

Seth discusses SETI, skepticism, close encounters, building his first telescope, the Allen Telescope Array, and other detection methods on with Blaise Zerega.

Monday, March 23, 2009

It's a Bird, It's a Plane, it's a Coffee Lid UFO!

Actually, they're IFOs - identified as plastic Mr. Coffee lids strung up with fishing string and photographed by Jim Underdown to look like unidentified flying objects.

Find out what you need for this alien craft crafts project on Hollywood Reality Check
on "Skeptical Sunday: Take A Number" this week!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Turning Water into Slime

Here's a quick one minute video demonstrating the slime power of the hagfish. The animal is anesthetized, given a small pulse of electrical current, and when the tiny bit of slime extracted from it is put into a glass of water, well... You've Been Slimed!

Hagfish aren't really fish, as they have no jaw. In fact, they're the only animal that has a skull and no vertebral column. Their slime is believed to be used primarily as an escape mechanism. They secrete it when captured, but it is also believed that they use it as a lubricant to free themselves from the carcasses on which they feed. The slime also acts to clog up the gills of predator fish, and so the hagfish has developed a peculiar way of keeping its own gills free of slime. When agitated, the hagfish secretes enough slime to turn a 20 liter bucket of water into pure slime in a matter of minutes. To clear itself of this immense amount of slime, the hagfish ties itself into a knot, which then travels the length of its body, thereby wringing out the slime, and likely freeing it from its captor.

Monday, March 16, 2009

I've Been Slimed!

In our most recent program, "You've Been Slimed", Seth & Molly make slime in the SETI kitchen with guest Tori Hoeler. Here's how: Fill one cup with water and add a spoonful of the Borax powder and stir it up. Fill another cup with about 1/2 inch of glue. Add three tablespoons of water to the glue and stir. Add a few drops of food coloring and stir again. Add two tablespoons of the Borax solution and stir well and voila! You've been slimed! Of course, for the above photo, I'm the one forced to pose with the slime. It was kind of slick, viscous, sticky. I wish there were a single word to use to describe it. Blimey! I'm stymied.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Jill Tarter makes her wish at TED

SETI's Jill Tarter was the recipient of this years TED prize! You'll hear a little about it from her in our latest program, "A Man, A Planet, A Tenal: Panama!", and you can watch her full speech in the above video.

Jill's plan: To assemble a group of engineers to create a system to facilitate mass collaboration over the web and incorporate innovative data processing methods, including the ability to input alternative search algorithms. The aim would be to tap into the power of open-source initiatives, to globalize the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence and empower a new generation of SETI enthusiasts. The launch of this new system would be backed with a major storytelling and awareness campaign whose goal is to inspire millions to participate.

Seth chats with Discovery Channel

Seth was recently interviewed by Dave Mosher for Discovery Channel's website. An afternoon of instant messaging touched on the subjects of life on mars, what aliens might look like, and why SETI is important. Here's an excerpt:

Dave on Earth (1:15 PM): Is there a chance SETI and everyone else is looking for the wrong thing?

SethHeartsAliens (1:15 PM): Of course there's a chance that we're doing the wrong thing, but if you don't know, then I think you should do SOMETHING. We'll never find the aliens by just throwing up our hands and saying "we don't know how to look!" Better to explore and not find them, than to not explore and be guaranteed not to find them!

You can read the entire interview on Discovery's website.

Friday, January 30, 2009

AWA Celebrates IYA!

The International Year of Astronomy is underway, and Are We Alone? will be dedicating program segments, blog entries, and sometimes entire shows to celebrate! Tune in, log on, and space out by listening to the show, visiting this very blog, or checking out the Are We Alone? webpage dedicated to the International Year of Astronomy. There are less than 12 months left before its over. Don't miss it!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Is Human Intelligence Special?

Our "You Animal!" show prompted this exhange between listener Chis Lehmann and Alex Kacelnik, a behavioral ecologist at Oxford University and guest on the program.

Bottom line: is human intelligence special (btw, we'll cover more of this in the show coming up: "Feather Knows Best!")?

Prof. Kacelnik,

I have a long and deep personal interest in the topic of what I call the human-animal relationship. Of course that includes the sub-topic of animal minds. Listening to you caused me to have an "aha" moment which shone some light on the struggle we (humans) have when discussing whether animals (non-human) have "intelligence." Specifically, you said:

"Just to show that an animal does something difficult does not mean that it does it having the same level of experience as we do. It is perfectly possible to do very complex things simply on the basis of simply very sophisticated programs of responding to the world."

My "aha" insight was this: we always approach this from our human perspective and with lots of references to our own abilities. which we know so well from personal experience. We find it fairly easy to prove, or to create sufficient doubt that any other animal species has the ability to respond to the world in quite the same way we do. So ... what if we turn the question around, look in the mirror and ask ourselves this question:

Q. Is human "intelligence" simply demonstrating a (more) complex programmed ability to respond to stimuli from the environment?

Prove to me that it is anything else. I mean this in the most sincere terms. If human intelligence is simply a more (differently) sophisticated form of programmed response to the environment, then we only differ from other species by degree.

Regards, Christopher J. Lehmann

Dr. Kacelnik's response:

You are right, Chris, and chaps in AI (artificial intelligence) deal with the problem repeatedly. Ultimately, we vouch for us having mental experiences because each of us knows by introspection, but we can’t tell about others.

This is related to what is called the “hard problem” of the study of consciousness. We may even have awareness of what we do post hoc, namely we do it, as zombies, and then we know that we have done it and we tell ourselves that we did it for some great motive.

Hope this helps.

- A

P.S. Have a look at this:

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Is Humanity a Spacefaring Race?

In his most recent article for's SETI feature, Seth suggests that, thanks to huge advances in probe technologies vs. modest advances in rocketry, unmanned spaceflight is humanity's best bet for extra-solar exploration in the near future:

"Let's look at some numbers. Von Braun's V-2 rockets crossed the English Channel at 1 mile per second. NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto - the fastest spacecraft ever launched - is headed to this erstwhile planet at 10 miles per second. That's an order-of-magnitude improvement after 70 years.

Now consider one component of our remote sensing capabilities - our ability to "see" what we're exploring. The Mariner 4 spacecraft - the first to snap decent photos of Mars - was fitted with a monochrome TV camera having a resolution of 40 thousand pixels. In the summer of 1965, it sailed by the red planet while imaging craters as small as a few miles across.

Today, the HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter boasts a resolution of 200 million pixels (and shoots in color). It can discern items on the surface as small as a horse.

In other words, in seven decades our rockets sped up by a factor of ten, but in little more than half that time our cameras improved by a factor of five thousand. There's no comparison: probe technology is marching to the beat of a faster drummer."

You can read the whole article here or here. Paul Gilster also wrote a similar piece for Centauri Dreams, which you can read here and a follow up comparing his article to Seth's which you can read here.