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S.E.T.I. - Transcript

An interview on the radio about SETI (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence).

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Mike: Tonight on Science Tonight, we are joined by Professor Hilary Twaine who works at Yale University and also participates in research on various SETI related programs for NASA and private organizations. First Professor, you have to tell us exactly what SETI is as I feel there's a lot of confusion out there.

Hilary: Thanks Mike. It's a pleasure to be here and above all, to be given this chance to explain to your listeners what my work is about and more importantly what it is NOT about. Many of you will know that SETI stands for the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence but it doesn't mean we are standing out in our back yards looking for flying saucers in the sky.

Mike: Do you not believe in UFO's?

Hilary: Me personally? Err, think..

Mike: Oh? That surprises me greatly. It's your job, isn't it?

Hilary: Ah...this is where the confusion lies. SETI scientists do not necessarily believe that there are aliens running around on Earth..or, for that matter, that they are flying about your neighborhood in silver discs. Whether I or my colleagues believe in the classic notion of UFO's is immaterial. What we do all believe in is that there is intelligent life out there somewhere in our solar system or in another galaxy - and it is that which we seek. Not E.T in our garden shed!

Mike: OK, that makes things a bit clearer. So a belief in UFO's is not a pre-requisite to be able to do your job.

Hilary: Exactly. We all believe these intelligent civilizations exist. But not all of us believe they have placed a foot on our planet.

Mike: Or a paw indeed.

Hilary: Oh, of course.

Mike: Now, what does this "search for intelligence" consist of. I understand the distances involved are quite staggering and it's not just a case of picking up the phone.

Hilary: It is one of the hardest parts of my job as SETI researcher to get across to people what a difficult task it is trying to find this needle in a haystack. Another of my colleagues, a Professor John Turgan who works for NASA, explained it like this to some kids in a school last year. Imagine you have a single solitary snail sat slap bang in the center of Alaska. He knows there are two or three other snails sitting on the coast of Alaska hundreds and hundreds of miles away and he can't go any faster than...well, we know how slow a snail is!

Mike: Yeah, pretty slow. Is that what we face?

Hilary: Yeah, the snail can set off in one direction, travel for years and years towards a point on the coast before trying another direction.

Mike: So we would never find anything like that.

Hilary: No, precisely! Searching for life on other planets involved a active stance in the 1960s and 1970s. We were actively putting signals out there trying to find the other guys. We sent probes into space with messages on, with photos and music from Earth on rudimentary picture discs. We even sent out a map of how to find us.

Mike: That could be dangerous....these fellows might not be that friendly!

Hilary: There were many who thought that! But then in the last twenty or so years, we have taken up a more passive policy, I mean we wait and listen out for their signals.

Mike: What's the thinking behind that?

Hilary: Well there are many reasons why this makes far more sense. First of all, it's a question of logistics. Think of our snail in Alaska again. Instead of trying to guess where his buddy snails are, he can sit back and wait for them to come to him. Also, we are looking for advanced civilizations. It would be nice to find some fungus on Mars or some other planet but we would ultimately like to find an intelligent civilization - one that was capable of long distance inter-stellar communication and possibly travel

Mike: So that is why we listen.

Hilary: Pretty much yes. We have been emanating radio and TV waves into space for about 70 years. Any civilization within 70 light years of Earth - and that's quite a few stars, believe me - would have been made aware of our presence by now. We are simply looking for the same tell tale signs coming from other planets and star systems.

Mike: OK, that makes sense. But so far it seems we have found nothing.

Hilary: well, in a word, yes, that's true. A famous SETI scientist once said many years ago something to the effect of, if these guys are out there in such great numbers as many of us believe, where are they? It's quite worrying, the total silence and it's quite easy to begin to think that we might actually be alone here.

Mike: Do you personally believe that?

Hilary: Hmmmm, no, not really.

Mike: So how would you explain the silence?

Hilary: It could be any of a whole list of things. We may be looking in the wrong place? We may not have the technology to pick up whatever is being broadcast by civilizations more advanced than us. Would we have been able to pick up radio waves in the days of Jefferson and Washington? I don't think so....

Mike: Is it also true that any advanced civilization in our corner of the universe may not be around anymore?

Hilary: That is another interesting theory. What, in the end, is the life span of an advanced civilization? Maybe these extra terrestrial intelligences got so smart that they destroyed themselves. You only need to look at ourselves to see that possibility. We have only been what one might call advanced for a matter of a century or two - and look at environmental damage, nuclear proliferation and overpopulation. Yeah, it's a distinct possibility that any life form may only be at our level of advancement for a relatively short time.

Mike: Pretty depressing when you think about it.

Hilary: I'm optimistic. The universe is a staggeringly large place and we have only scanned our galaxy really. When you think that there are as many galaxies in the observable universe as there are grains of sand on Earth - it makes you realize we have a lot of real estate to get through yet.

Mike: What's the first question you would ask the little green men?

Hilary: Oh, good question. Hmmm....well, I think, err, I would ask how they survived!

Mike: In what sense, do...

Hilary: I mean, I mean referring back to what we were talking about before. How did you get past the stage of being capable, technologically speaking, of destroying yourselves, something we are struggling with today. And how did you feed an ever expanding population. And how did you ultimately control that population without destroying the environment of your home planet. Just that!

Mike: Well, you cheated as I only gave you one question to ask!

Hilary: Oh, that's right I'm sorry...

Mike: Professor Hilary Twaine, it's been an entertaining and educational talk this evening. Be sure to come back and tell us if ET does phone you.

Hilary: You'll be the first to know! Thanks for having me here tonight.

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