Home » What If ET Is Out There? By Seth Shostak at TEDxSanJoseCA (Full Transcript)

What If ET Is Out There? By Seth Shostak at TEDxSanJoseCA (Full Transcript)

Well, at 9:30 in the morning, with my head down on my desk because I obviously hadn’t slept all night, the phone rings and it’s The New York Times. And I think there’s a lesson in that, and that lesson is that if we pick up a signal, the media, the media will be on it faster than a weasel on ball bearings. It’s going to be fast. You can be sure of that. No secrecy. That’s what happens to me. It kind of ruins my whole week, because whatever I’ve got planned that week is kind of out the window.

But what about you? What’s it going to do to you? And the answer is that we don’t know the answer. We don’t know what that’s going to do to you, not in the long term, and not even very much in the short term. I mean, that would be a bit like asking Chris Columbus in 1491, “Hey Chris, you know, what happens if it turns out that there’s a continent between here and Japan, where you’re sailing to, what will be the consequences for humanity if that turns out to be the case?” And I think Chris would probably offer you some answer that you might not have understood, but it probably wouldn’t have been right, and I think that to predict what finding E.T.’s going to mean, we can’t predict that either.

But here are a couple things I can say. To begin with, it’s going to be a society that’s way in advance of our own. You’re not going to hear from alien Neanderthals. They’re not building transmitters. They’re going to be ahead of us, maybe by a few thousand years, maybe by a few millions years, but substantially ahead of us, and that means, if you can understand anything that they’re going to say, then you might be able to short-circuit history by getting information from a society that’s way beyond our own. Now, you might find that a bit hyperbolic, and maybe it is, but nonetheless, it’s conceivable that this will happen, and, you could consider this like, I don’t know, giving Julius Caesar English lessons and the key to the library of Congress. It would change his day, all right? That’s one thing.

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Another thing that’s for sure going to happen is that it will calibrate us. We will know that we’re not that miracle, right, that we’re just another duck in a row, we’re not the only kids on the block, and I think that that’s philosophically a very profound thing to learn. We’re not a miracle, okay?

The third thing that it might tell you is somewhat vague, but I think interesting and important, and that is, if you find a signal coming from a more advanced society, because they will be, that will tell you something about our own possibilities, that we’re not inevitably doomed to self-destruction. Because they survived their technology, we could do it too. Normally when you look out into the universe, you’re looking back in time. All right? That’s interesting to cosmologists. But in this sense, you actually can look into the future, hazily, but you can look into the future. So those are all the sorts of things that would come from a detection.

Now, let me talk a little bit about something that happens even in the meantime, and that is, SETI, I think, is important, because it’s exploration, and it’s not only exploration, it’s comprehensible exploration. Now, I got to tell you, I’m always reading books about explorers. I find exploration very interesting, Arctic exploration, people like Magellan, Amundsen, Shackleton, you see Franklin down there, Scott, all these guys. It’s really nifty, exploration. And they’re just doing it because they want to explore, and you might say, “Oh, that’s kind of a frivolous opportunity,” but that’s not frivolous. That’s not a frivolous activity, because, I mean, think of ants. You know, most ants are programmed to follow one another along in a long line, but there are a couple of ants, maybe one percent of those ants, that are what they call pioneer ants, and they’re the ones that wander off. They’re the ones you find on the kitchen countertop. You got to get them with your thumb before they find the sugar or something. But those ants, even though most of them get wiped out, those ants are the ones that are essential to the survival of the hive. So exploration is important.

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I also think that exploration is important in terms of being able to address what I think is a critical lack in our society, and that is the lack of science literacy, the lack of the ability to even understand science. Now, look, a lot has been written about the deplorable state of science literacy in this country. You’ve heard about it. Well, here’s one example, in fact. Polls taken, this poll was taken 10 years ago. It shows like roughly one third of the public thinks that aliens are not only out there, we’re looking for them out there, but they’re here, right? Sailing the skies in their saucers and occasionally abducting people for experiments their parents wouldn’t approve of. Well, that would be interesting if it was true, and job security for me, but I don’t think the evidence is very good. That’s more, you know, sad than significant.

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