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ASTRONOMY

Book Review: 'Confessions of an Alien Hunter' by Seth Shostak

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Confessions of an Alien Hunter

A Scientist's Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

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By Seth Shostak. 309 pp. $27

As senior astronomer of the S.E.T.I. Institute in California, Seth Shostak has been at the center of the sometimes admired, sometimes dismissed effort to pick up extraterrestrial radio communication. Shostak joined S.E.T.I. (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) in 1990 and has struggled with two overriding issues: trying to detect those alien communications with increasingly more sophisticated methods and explaining to the public why the almost 50-year effort has so far found nothing.

He takes on both issues in "Confessions of an Alien Hunter": explaining with inside knowledge the rocky history of the scientific enterprise and then making the case for why the effort to date has been dwarfed by the vastness of the universe. So far, he writes, S.E.T.I. has focused seriously on only 0.0000005 percent of one galaxy (our Milky Way), which is comparable to testing one glass of water out of the entirety of the Earth's oceans. The pace will pick up as the Allen Telescope Array in California -- a privately funded collection of as many as 350 radio receivers -- comes on line. Even so, the challenge is enormous.

Shostak is at his best when he writes about practical questions: Would alien societies communicate via radio or something more advanced? If they were more advanced, how could we understand what they're saying? Would it be safe and proper to reply, and who would decide what to say back? Might aliens have evolved into something akin to computerized machines? All this, of course, presupposes that intelligent beings are out there, and Shostak makes a strong case that they are. He writes that with S.E.T.I.'s new technology, we should make contact within 20 years.

The word "Confessions" in the title promises damaging revelations, rather than the almost uniformly supportive report Shostak presents. But as an insight into what is either one of the world's great scientific endeavors or one of its big follies, this book is compelling and thought-provoking.

-- Marc Kaufman


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