The Exchange’s science consultants never cease to amaze – and not just in their vast knowledge of science. Take Seth Shostak, for example. The Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute has been in love with astronomy since the age of 8, but he also harbors a strong interest in television and film – which explains his guest appearances on The Dating Game! Shostak has also kept his television and film interest alive by consulting on several films, including Contact, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Green Lantern. We recently had a chance to catch up with Shostak to ask him a few questions on how science consulting benefits films, what happened with his offer to fix science errors in the original Star Trek, and how he become an “alien hunter.”
First, tell us about your background. What inspired you to become an astronomer?
My introduction to astronomy was at the age of 8. As far back as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by maps and, many times, I tried to reproduce a chart of the world on paper towels my mother would give me as scrap paper. While perusing a small atlas one afternoon, I came across a diagram consisting of a series of concentric circles. Puzzled, my mom explained that these were planets – a new word, and the beginning of a lifetime interest. By age 10, I had constructed a telescope, and was trying to make time-lapse movies of the orbiting moons of Jupiter. I also became a fan of New York’s Hayden Planetarium, as well as the space-based sci-fi films that had become a lucrative Hollywood genre. Space was the place.
How did you become involved with the SETI Institute as an “alien hunter”?
For more than a dozen years, I had been working as a radio astronomer at a university in The Netherlands. Jill Tarter, a well-known SETI researcher, paid a sabbatical visit to our campus one summer, and I suggested that we do a simple experiment using a Dutch radio telescope to look for radio beacons emanating from the center of our galaxy. This was the first time I had done more than merely read about the search for extraterrestrials, and this experiment was published in 1982.
In 1988, thanks to a weird twist of fate, I moved from Holland to the Silicon Valley. I was joining one of my brothers in a startup venture. Lamentably, that project quickly went ventral side up, but Jill Tarter heard I was now living in the Bay Area, and soon I was offered a job with the (then NASA) SETI program. I was in the right place at the right time.
How did you become involved with The Science and Entertainment Exchange? What films or television projects have you consulted on (even before The Exchange)?
One of my great interests other than astronomy is film and TV. I made my first film – a cheesy sci-fi parody – at the age of 11, and by middle school a buddy and I were spending weekends trying to build a sound system to work with 16mm film. Making film was a passion, and, in addition, I often appeared on television – as a 13-year-old contestant on one of the early, rigged TV quiz shows, or a few years later, as a “guest expert” on high school dating. In grad school, I was a regular contestant on The Dating Game, and was still making movies – including one on radio astronomy for the National Science Foundation.
Since then, I’ve consulted on a small number of films, including Contact, the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, and, of course, those productions brought my way by The Science and Entertainment Exchange. I enjoy being “on set” because, after all, this has been an interest since I was 11. For me, it’s all exciting: everything from the script to the lighting to the camera technology. The same is true of television.
Why should film and television projects consider science advising? What is the advantage of using real science in film or television?
The real power of movies and TV is not that they can teach you science. I don’t think they’re particularly well suited for that. But they have the ability to involve you in an emotional way, and frankly that might be more important than pedagogy. Who could resist an interest in interstellar travel after seeing so much space opera on the silver and phosphor screens? Even as a kid I recognized that the movies I saw every weekend were a significant spur to my interests.
For most genres, getting the science right is a bonus, but not necessarily essential (the exception would be medical shows). After all, are young minds irreparably damaged if the Starship Enterprise makes a “whoosh” when it whips by the camera in deep space? Sure, technical accuracy beats technical inaccuracy every time, but I think the real reason to put Hollywood in touch with the scientists is that doing so might induce these creative people to introduce some of the most interesting research topics into stories. And then – whether the details are right or wrong – at least a few viewers will think “Gosh, that’s a really interesting idea.”
If you were a screenwriter, what science concept would you love to bring to the silver screen?
Since hunting for sentient extraterrestrials is my day job, it would be personally gratifying if I could get a screenwriter to go beyond the usual, anthropomorphic aliens, and consider the type of intelligence (quite possibly non-biological) that might dominate the universe. After all, it’s been 13 billion years since the Big Bang, so there’s been plenty of time to cook up intelligence that is to us as we are to the insects in the backyard. It would be nice to explore such ideas, rather than resorting to the usual (and admittedly inexpensive) wrinkly-headed aliens who – with respect to temperament, interests and abilities – are not much different from the neighbors in the next apartment.
Beyond that, there are endless aspects of modern science that Hollywood never touches, mostly, I think, because the screenwriters don’t know of them. Why is the universe fine-tuned for life? What happens in deep time, when all the stars have expired, and yet there’s still stuff going on? What will our grandkids be like when we’ve supplemented their brains with memory hardware that’s smaller than a sand grain, yet packs more information than the Library of Congress?
You’ve said that Gene Rodenberry wasn’t interested in your offer to help fix errors in the original Star Trek. If you encountered him today, what would you say to him?
“You missed a bet, Gene!” I offered to red-line his scripts – to fix elementary science errors – for the price of bus fare to Burbank (at the time, about $1.50 each way). But he wrote back to say that he didn’t need my services because the Rand Corporation was already doing this. Well, the Rand Corporation is a Santa Monica think tank that, among other things, worried about defense against a Cold War nuclear attack. When my grad school roommate read Rodenberry’s letter – and thought about the silly errors we saw every week on Star Trek – he suggested that we dig a bomb shelter.
SETI produces a weekly radio show and podcast called Big Picture Science. You also host a monthly show called Skeptic Check. Why is it important for scientists to help the public distinguish between science and pseudoscience? How can the science community be encouraged to play a larger role in fostering public understanding of science?
Indeed, every month we dedicate an episode of Big Picture Science to debunking some pseudoscience topic – be it Bigfoot, astrology, or those ever-popular little gray guys that supposedly infest our airspace. If anyone still doubts the public’s dismaying lack of understanding of science and what constitutes scientific “proof,” then I invite such people to peruse a week’s worth of my e-mail. Many of the topics we cover in Skeptic Check elicit highly emotional reactions. If you’re a Bigfoot believer for instance, you’re not likely to be dissuaded by the usual critical arguments that such creatures are unlikely. Changing attitudes is not easy, and I try to be realistic about what our shows can accomplish. Listeners that are easily swayed by twaddle will continue to believe, and those who don’t will continue to be skeptical. But I figure there’s always 10-20% of the population that really hasn’t made up its mind, including many young people. Those fence-sitters are the ones we hope to reach.
And of course, I strongly encourage any scientist with both the motivation and inclination for talking to the public to do so. After all, there aren’t many people on the planet who are privileged to spend their days doing something as compelling – and in the end, as essential – as science.
Read more Scientist Spotlight interviews here.