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Expert on the search for life in space drew crowd in LA asking, ‘Are we alone’?

Dr. Seth Shostak, a leading U.S. expert in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, spoke to a crowd of amateur astronomy buffs in Los Angeles a few days ago that ranged from tweens to retirees. Many in the group donned alien antennae atop their heads and discussed the enduring question, “Are we alone?”

“Most people believe that aliens, in some form, are out there,” Shostak said on Saturday, May 13. “But we have no proof that they’re there. Maybe we just haven’t found them.”

Shostak serves as senior astronomer for the SETI Institute in Mountain View, CA., founded by famed astronomer and author Carl Sagan. SETI, the leading nongovernmental organization involved in the “search for extraterrestrial intelligence,” takes its name from that phrase. At last weekend’s event, Shosta shared his knowledge—and sci-fi movie humor—with an audience of about 60 fascinated listeners, organized by the Santa Monica Amateur Astronomy Club.

Shostak said there is a high probability of extraterrestrial intelligence, due to the incredible magnitude of the universe. With billions of observable galaxies to consider, he said that humans likely “aren’t special.”

Dr. Seth Shostak speaks about the possibility of biological and synthetic intelligence on other planets during a talk organized by the Santa Monica Amateur Astronomy Club on May 13. Shostak serves as the senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, which is the leading nongovernmental organization involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. (Photo by Delilah Brumer)

17-year-olds Sydney Pratt and Brooklyn Pratt take a selfie with 18-year-old Angelina Todorov during a meeting of the Santa Monica Amateur Astronomy Club on May 13. The high school seniors wore alien headbands for Dr. Seth Shostak’s lecture about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. (Photo by Delilah Brumer)

Members of the Santa Monica Amateur Astronomy Club clap and listen to a talk by Dr. Seth Shostak on May 13. Shostak serves as the senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, which is the leading nongovernmental organization involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. (Photo by Delilah Brumer)

Longtime Santa Monica Amateur Astronomy Club member Mimi Anaya introduces guest speaker Dr. Seth Shostak on May 13. “I love astronomy and learning about space exploration,” said Anaya, a high school science teacher from Torrance. “The club really lets me do that.” (Photo by Delilah Brumer)

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“It may be comforting to think you’re a miracle,” Shostak said. “It’s probably something your parents told you for the first 15 years of your life. But in science, that usually isn’t true.”

Several middle and high school students asked questions, and involved themselves in the club by creating “out-of-this-world” art, greeting attendees, and discussing their budding interest in astronomy.

“I’ve been coming to the club since I was nine, and it’s really cool because it brings together a lot of people who are passionate about space science,” said Benny Szeghy, a 20-year-old geography major at Santa Monica College. “They bring a lot of amazing speakers and I’ve learned so much about the world outside of our own.”

Beyond the likelihood that extraterrestrial intelligence exists, Shostak also described the ways in which scientists explore the possibility of life beyond Earth. He presented examples of projects in which scientists are trying to detect radio signals from other Earth-like planets, and other projects in which researchers are comparing images of distant solar systems over time — in an attempt to detect changes in their light levels.

The final facet of his talk was Shostak’s suggestion that extraterrestrial intelligence might not be alive, in a biological sense—it might be synthetic.

He explained that there is a possibility that intelligent life in another part of the universe, potentially on an older planet, could have created machines with intelligence.

“Most people prefer the idea of something biological,” Shostak said. “But that might not be the way aliens are put together. Somewhere, you could have a machine that has generalized intelligence.”

The audience asked dozens of questions touching on everything from space exploration to artificial intelligence — or AI — to communication with extraterrestrial life.

“These talks are a wonderful opportunity for sharing curiosity and getting to speak with people who are at the top of the field,” said Jed Laderman, a decades-long member of the club who helps organize guest speaker events.

“I love astronomy and learning about space exploration,” said Mimi Anaya, a high school science teacher from Torrance. “The club really lets me do that.”

The club, which is open to anyone eager to bond over conversation and telescopes, meets once a month in the auditorium of the Wildwood School on West Olympic Boulevard in Los Angeles.

“The club is an amazing way to stimulate your brain past your phone or social media feed,” said Adam Wolman, the club’s communications representative. “There are some great dances you can learn on TikTok, no doubt, but getting yourself thinking and exploring other worlds is like an adventure every month.”

As experts ponder and research the role of Earth and potential extraterrestrial intelligence in the universe, the members of the Santa Monica Amateur Astronomy Club continue to educate the community about and enjoy the power of science.

“Maybe the best suggestion for finding E.T. is to just keep doing astronomy,” Shostak said.

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