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)

But there are other things that people believe that are significant, like the efficacy of homeopathy, or that evolution is just, sort of a crazy idea by scientists without any legs, or, evolution, all that sort of thing, or global warming. These sorts of ideas don’t really have any validity, that you can’t trust the scientists.

Now, we’ve got to solve that problem, because that’s a critically important problem, and you might say, “Well, okay, how are we going to solve that problem with SETI?” Well, let me suggest to you that SETI obviously can’t solve the problem, but it can address the problem. It can address the problem by getting young people interested in science. Look, science is hard, it has a reputation of being hard, and the facts are, it is hard, and that’s the result of 400 years of science, right?

I mean, in the 18th century, in the 18th century you could become an expert on any field of science in an afternoon by going to a library, if you could find the library, right? In the 19th century, if you had a basement lab, you could make major scientific discoveries in your own home. Right? Because there was all this science just lying around waiting for somebody to pick it up. Now, that’s not true anymore. Today, you’ve got to spend years in grad school and post-doc positions just to figure out what the important questions are. It’s hard. There’s no doubt about it.

And in fact, here’s an example: the Higgs boson, finding the Higgs boson. Ask the next 10 people you see on the streets, “Hey, do you think it’s worthwhile to spend billions of Swiss francs looking for the Higgs boson?” And I bet the answer you’re going to get, is, “Well, I don’t know what the Higgs boson is, and I don’t know if it’s important.” And probably most of the people wouldn’t even know the value of a Swiss franc, okay? And yet we’re spending billions of Swiss francs on this problem. Okay? So that doesn’t get people interested in science because they can’t comprehend what it’s about.

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SETI, on the other hand, is really simple. We’re going to use these big antennas and we’re going to try to eavesdrop on signals. Everybody can understand that. Yes, technologically, it’s very sophisticated, but everybody gets the idea. So that’s one thing.

The other thing is, it’s exciting science. It’s exciting because we’re naturally interested in other intelligent beings, and I think that’s part of our hardwiring. I mean, we’re hardwired to be interested in beings that might be, if you will, competitors, or if you’re the romantic sort, possibly even mates. Okay? I mean, this is analogous to our interest in things that have big teeth. Right? We’re interested in things that have big teeth, and you can see the evolutionary value of that, and you can also see the practical consequences by watching Animal Planet. You notice they make very few programs about gerbils. It’s mostly about things that have big teeth.

Okay, so we’re interested in these sorts of things. And not just us. It’s also kids. This allows you to pay it forward by using this subject as a hook to science, because SETI involves all kinds of science, obviously biology, obviously astronomy, but also geology, also chemistry, various scientific disciplines all can be presented in the guise of, “We’re looking for E.T.” So to me this is interesting and important, and in fact, it’s my policy, even though I give a lot of talks to adults, you give talks to adults, and two days later they’re back to where they were. But if you give talks to kids, you know, one in 50 of them, some light bulb goes off, and they think, “Gee, I’d never thought of that,” and then they go, read a book or a magazine or whatever. They get interested in something.

Now it’s my theory, supported only by anecdotal, personal anecdotal evidence, but nonetheless, that kids get interested in something between the ages of eight and 11. You’ve got to get them there. So, all right, I give talks to adults, that’s fine, but I try and make 10% of the talks that I give, I try and make those for kids.

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I remember when a guy came to our high school, actually, it was actually my junior high school. I was in sixth grade. And he gave some talk. All I remember from it was one word: electronics. It was like Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate,” right, when he said “plastics,” whatever that means, plastics. All right, so the guy said electronics. I don’t remember anything else. In fact, I don’t remember anything that my sixth grade teacher said all year, but I remember electronics. And so I got interested in electronics, and I studied to get my ham license. I was wiring up stuff. Here I am at about 15 or something, doing that sort of stuff. Okay? That had a big effect on me. So that’s my point, that you can have a big effect on these kids.

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