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The Quest of the Alien Hunter with Seth Shostak

It's one of the oldest questions that humans ask about our place in the universe: Are we alone? Or are there other intelligent beings out there, somewhere, in space?


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We've been looking for the answer for a long time. There's even a term for it: SETI. That's short for Search for ExtraTerrestrial Life.

SETI has been going on since we first gained the ability to look into the night sky with telescopes, over a hundred ago. But those telescopes weren't very good! Astronomers' observations of nearby planets like Mars stoked the public's imagination. One astronomer, Percival Lowell, believed that Martians had built canals on Mars.

Lowell's drawings of martian canals

Lowell's drawings of canals on Mars.

One of our favorite podcasts, The Memory Palace, did a beautiful story about Lowell and his Martian canals. Listen to it here.

Here's an article about Lowell from

Astronomy has improved since Lowell looked through his telescope - and so has SETI.

Watch Jill Tarter, director of the SETI Institute, describe why SETI is important in this TED Talk.

The SETI Institute is one of the premiere institutions dedicated to the search for intelligent life. Here's their story.

In our episode, we spoke with Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute. He also hosts a general science radio show called Big Picture Science. Here, he answers the question, "What if ET is out there?"

We haven't found ET yet, that's for sure! But the technology keeps getting better, allowing scientists to look and listen further, wider, and deeper than they ever have before. Many famous scientists and business people have gotten together to start a project called "Breakthrough Listen."

Breakthrough Listen is the largest ever scientific research program aimed at finding evidence of civilizations beyond Earth. The scope and power of the search are on an unprecedented scale:

The program includes a survey of the 1,000,000 closest stars to Earth. It scans the center of our galaxy and the entire galactic plane. Beyond the Milky Way, it listens for messages from the 100 closest galaxies to ours.

The instruments used are among the world’s most powerful. They are 50 times more sensitive than existing telescopes dedicated to the search for intelligence.

The radio surveys cover 10 times more of the sky than previous programs. They also cover at least 5 times more of the radio spectrum – and do it 100 times faster. They are sensitive enough to hear a common aircraft radar transmitting to us from any of the 1000 nearest stars.

What do you think? Will we find aliens anytime soon? If we find them, what will they look like? How will they act?

Or, are we better off going to the movies to get our alien fix? Email us at to tell us what you think!

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