Days before Halloween— we thought it would be fun and fitting to take a look at the search for signs of aliens. Scientists have spent decades scouring space for any signals generated intelligent life. It’s a quest that’s long captured our imaginations. The projects have mostly been privately funded. But now for the first time in 25 years, your tax dollars — might be spent on the search for ET. For today’s cover story, we head to northern California and reach for the stars.
The War of the Worlds clip: Fire!
Sharyl Attkisson: When you see alien life depicted in the movies, what does it make you think of?
Seth Shostak: Well it makes me think of the previous movie I saw!
Seth Shostak is a scientist who studies the cosmos and the things in it.
Shostak: Hollywood kind of has an image what aliens look like and it's usually short gray guys with big eyeballs and small noses, small mouth. They never smile, they don’t tell any jokes, they never bring any pets. And I understand why Hollywood would do that because after all that way you know right away what you’re looking at. It’s an alien.
Star Trek captain: Can you understand me?
Star Trek alien: It appears, Magistrate, that the intelligence of the specimen is shockingly limited.
Shostak has more reason than most to contemplate the appearance of a space creature. He gets paid to look for aliens as senior astronomer of the Mountain View California based project known as SETI: The Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. The SETI scientific project dates back 40 years. For a short time it was funded through NASA. But in 1993 Congress cut funding.
Sen. Richard Bryan, 1993: Nice, but can we afford it? My response to that is that we cannot afford it and we ought to be making some priorities.
Without federal money for the past 25 years, private donations have kept the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence going.
Sharyl: You look using something that – for lack of understanding the technology – is like a listening telescope?
Shostak: Indeed, we do exactly that. We have a series of 42 antennas about 300 miles north of San Francisco in the cascade mountains.
The Allen Telescope Array was built with millions donated by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. 12 hours a day it eavesdrops on nearby stars. Now, for the first time in 25 years, some in Congress want to direct federal tax money back into the SETI project: $20 million over two years to “search for technosignatures, such as radio transmissions.”
Shostak: Maybe we could pick up the signal that's being broadcast in our direction just to get in touch. Or maybe just as part of whatever they're doing, you know, just like television signals leak off of Earth, maybe their television leaks off their planet. We would at least know that there's somebody there clever enough to invent television. So that's the kind of experiment we do. We try and look for signals.
Sharyl: Does it mean anything that we haven’t found anything? Some people are asking the question “wouldn’t by now we know if there were alien life?”
Shostak: Yeah, it, that's a very tempting idea that, “Well, these guys have been busy with this for decades and they still haven't found anything.” And the obvious explanation for that is there's nothing to find. Okay. But it doesn't mean anything that you haven't found anything so far. We’ve looked at a few thousand star systems, a few tens of thousands. You’re thinking, “Okay, that sounds like a big number,” but the galaxy has hundreds of billions of star systems.
Pop culture is full of stories about some of “them” visiting “us” here on Earth.
There are plenty of reports of real UFO sightings too. Video released by the military earlier this year appears to show a U.S. Navy pilot locking in on a high speed unidentified object flying over water at a low altitude in 2015 - it’s that white speck in the center.
Lear Jet Pilot: Was there anybody above us that passed us like 30 seconds ago?
Last march, two airline pilots flying 30,000 feet over Arizona reported a UFO.
Lear Jet Pilot: Looked like a UFO.
American Airlines Pilot: American 10-95, yeah something just passed over us.
Shostak: Those videos and photos have never been terribly convincing to me.
In Shostak, we found an interesting paradox-- while he’s sure aliens exist— he’s equally certain they haven’t visited us.
Shostak: It wasn't that they didn't see anything - the question is: Is that compelling evidence that what they saw is something from beyond the Earth? Because it doesn't need to be, to explain what you saw. The question of visitation is one that certainly interests a lot of people. Roughly one third of people in the, in the developed world believed that we are being visited. And of course that's because they, you know, they see stories about it every, every night on television. But I think that if we were being visited, you would really know that the evidence would be very good.
Sharyl: Is it fair to say you believe there, if you had to guess, there is alien life out there?
Shostak: If you know, we're the only intelligent beings in a galaxy with a trillion planets, or for that matter, there are a couple of trillion other galaxies we can see each with their trillion planets. I mean, that's a huge number if you think I know, but this is the only one where it's really very interesting. Then – I mean, you have maybe too much confidence in yourself. That's all I can say.
Sharyl: So yes you think there’s –
Shostak: Of course. If not, we're a miracle. And in science, if you think something's a miracle, chances are you're wrong.
Shotak says over the next 20 years, the search will become exponentially faster and more efficient with help from artificial intelligence or A.I.
Shostak: AI is like saying “you know, you got this map and it suggests there's buried treasure on there somewhere and we're going to give you a teaspoon. Get to it.” Right? But the artificial intelligence gives you something that allows you to dig through the dirt a lot quicker.
Sharyl: Any day could be the day that you actually get a real signal. But do you have hope that in the next 10 years you'll get that?
Shostak: Well I certainly do, I actually did make a bet, a cup of Starbucks, that we will find something within 20 years. Right? I mean there's just no comparison with the kind of experiment we're doing today compared to what it was even 10 years ago. So the search is getting faster all the time. And so that's basically why I think, okay, if this idea has any merit, if it's going to succeed, then we're going to trip across the signal within say 20 years. If I'm wrong, then I'll be buying a lot of cups of coffee for people.
As for any little green men or women out there looking for signs — of us? Their first clue could very well be Earthly radio and TV signals which randomly fan out among the cosmos. The first such signals we generated would be making landfall on the closest stars about now - If anyone is listening.
Shostak: I Love Lucy began in 1953 right? 65 years ago, so they’re 65 light years out. And within that distance there are thousands and thousands of star systems. Maybe Lucille Ball has fans on other worlds.
One scientist says so far we’ve examined the equivalent of about one glass of water in the ocean.