Sunday, June 28, 2009

Astronomer takes the fiction out of science

By TOMIE LUNSFORD
Telegram Staff Writer

When the first 'Star Trek' movie aired, the young Seth Shostak had a few things to say.
'There were a bunch of mistakes,' said Shostak, who was studying radio astronomy at the California Institute of Technology at the time. 'So I wrote Gene Roddenberry saying that if he paid the bus fare twice a week, I'd come red line his script and catch all the errors.'
The movie producer responded to the graduate student to express his thanks, but he had already employed a group of scientists to take care of that.
'Oh well,' Shostak said. 'That was that, but I bet I could have done a good job for him. That letter's still around somewhere.'
The young scientist didn't let the rejection slow down his career.
Now, more than two decades later, Shostak is the senior astronomer at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute in Mountain View, Calif. - and his advice is sought on a regular basis.
He was the science advisor for the 2008 Keanu Reeves film 'The Day the Earth Stood Still,' and this week, he's been traveling the country giving talks on science. On Thursday, he was at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.
And today, he'll be at Stagecoach Inn giving a lecture for the Central Texas Astronomical Society and the Institute for the Humanities at Salado. 'I lectured there before,' Shostak said. 'It was six or seven years ago. I guess they either liked me or figured I was a good target to throw tomatoes at.'
The author of National Geographic's recently published 'Confessions of An Alien Hunter,' Shostak is the guy who looks to the stars for signs of extraterrestrial life.
'It's more listening than looking,' Shostak said.
He's after a radio signal from advanced forms of life in outerspace.
'Haven't found any yet,' he said. 'But we're not that old yet, so we really haven't been looking long enough.'
Shostak's Salado presentation will focus on mankind's future in space.
'I'm going to talk about why we have to get off this planet in five generations,' Shostak said. 'We'll run out of oil, but I'm not concerned about that. It can be replaced. But there are things like copper and platinum that cannot be replaced and in a technology-based society like ours, we'll need those things to maintain our standard of living.'
And as the Earth's population continues to grow, the scientist said things will get overcrowded.
'Our energy will run out, and the planet won't sustain everyone on it,' Shostak said. 'So we'll have to start launching people into space, a group at a time, and teaching them how to live.'
And that's a happy thought, not a sad one.
'It's the next new adventure,' Shostak said.
But before that time comes, the scientist thinks humans will have invented their own successors.
'They'll be thinking machines,' he said. 'And at first, we'll co-exist with them, but eventually we'll become the birds in their backyard. Just something to look at or be ignored. So that'll be a dynamic we'll have to figure out first.'
Shostak's ideas sound fantastical, but he's got a physics degree from Princeton and a graduate degree from the California Institute of Technology. He's also the author of a college textbook called 'Life in Space' and two other non-fiction books, 'Sharing the Universe' and 'Cosmic Company.'
'I'm a man of science,' he said in a recent TV interview. 'For it to be science, it's got to be fact and facts can be researched and duplicated. I intend my work to hold true to that.'
Shostak was on the 'Colbert Report' with Stephen Colbert on May 20, and in July, he'll be featured on 'Larry King Live.'
He owes his success to his childhood fascination with astronomy and to his father who applauded his efforts at science projects.
'I built my first telescope at the age of 10,' Shostak said. 'I've been looking at the skies ever since.'

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