SETI, the Inside Story

Seth Shostak. Confessions of an Alien Hunter: a Scientific Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. National Geographic, 2009.
This is the insider's account of the SETI project, and one can at least say that Shostak has an infectious enthusiasm for his subject, one which presumably keeps him going despite continuous failure. In this the SETI project, the search for extraterrestrial signals, chiefly radio signals resembles both ufology and parapsychology.

The two latter might argue though that their quests are informed by evidence, however weak and ambivalent, whereas the SETI people have come up with next to nothing (just the enigmatic "wow signal" (!_signal) which is not even mentioned in this book).

Shostak clearly has a love hate relationship with ufologists, who write him nasty emails, accuse him of being narrow minded etc. but never provide any real evidence to back up their claims. He is clearly right in his arguments against the ETH explanation of UFO reports, at least in the naive form propounded by his chief antagonist Stanton Friedman who really does imagine that aliens will use the nuclear fusion powered spaceships he helped to the drawing board back in the 1960s.

In many ways however Shostak is guilty of exactly the same kind of chauvinism as Friedman, the assumption that if such things as alien techno-linguistic species exist they will possess some more sophisticated type of our own technology, that they will be so similar to us that they will be engaged on projects we can understand. Shostak is of course at one level more scientifically sophisticated that people like Friedman who believe in humanoid aliens straight out of Hollywood, He suspects that anything we hear from will be some sort of super-computer, which will regard us as we regard the ants in the garden. Super-computers still using radio?, still doing the same sort of things that the ants do?

But of course super-computers, like radio and spaceships and space travel, like science and technology themselves, are products of the human imagination. The sorts of entities which would regard us as ants would have left all those behind - if they ever had them in the first place, for remember they are not our descendants, but the descendants of entities which were far more genetically different from us than slime mould or the swine flue virus. -- Peter Rogerson.

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