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Seth Shostak
SETI astronomer Seth Shostak has been seeking alien signals for more than two decades. (SETI Institute Photo)

You don’t have to be stoned to appreciate SETI scientist Seth Shostak’s perspective on the search for extraterrestrials – but it wouldn’t hurt.

That’s what the Goodship Higher Education Series is counting on when the SETI Institute’s senior astronomer delivers the series’ first lecture of the year in a marijuana-friendly environment at Seattle’s Melrose Market Studios.

Pot consumption isn’t allowed at the venue, but if attendees want to show up under the influence on Thursday night, that’s fine with the organizers. That’s also fine with Shostak, although he admits that speaking to an unabashedly stoned audience would be something completely different for him.

“I’ve never had the experience before … that I’m aware of,” the 73-year-old researcher told GeekWire.

Musing about life elsewhere in the universe is just the sort of cosmic subject that comes up when folks kick back around the campfire or the living room, with or without intoxicating substances. The Goodship series is designed to create that cosmic feeling by “partnering altered states with big ideas.”

There are few ideas bigger than SETI – an acronym that’s short for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. For more than a half-century, radio astronomers like Shostak have been combing through data, looking for the telltale signature of intentional broadcasts beyond Earth.

Nothing conclusive has been found yet, but Shostak is betting a cup of coffee that contact will be made within two dozen years. (He acknowledges, however, that he’s been saying that for more than a decade.)

“Hold onto your Starbucks stock,” he joked.

To conduct the search, the SETI Institute uses the Allen Telescope Array, a complex of 42 linked radio dishes in Northern California that received its initial funding from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

The institute’s latest listening campaign focuses on 20,000 red-dwarf star systems. One of those dwarfs is Proxima Centauri, which is only 4.2 light-years away and harbors a potentially habitable planet.

“We’re looking for aliens around these runty stars,” Shostak said, in part because red dwarfs make up the most populous class of stars in our Milky Way galaxy. That means they might be the likeliest sources for alien signals.

Or not.

For years, Shostak has been suggesting that the first intelligent aliens we encounter probably won’t be life forms at all, but “post-biological” entities. “They’re bound to be machines, and that’s kind of a distressing strategy for SETI,” he said.

Once artificial intelligence kicks in, there’s no longer any reason to congregate on habitable planets. In fact, the environments that we consider habitable may be undesirable neighborhoods for AI aliens.

“They don’t have to stick around in a place like Seattle, because they’ll rust out,” Shostak said.

Within the next century, we may not even have to search distant stars to encounter intelligent aliens. Shostak predicts that the evolution of machines with artificial intelligence may well rank as the 21st century’s biggest technological development.

And you don’t need to be stoned to have that idea blow your mind.

Shostak’s talk, titled “Where Are the Extraterrestrials,” is sold out. The doors open at 7 p.m. Thursday at Melrose Market Studios, 1532 Minor Ave. in Seattle’s Capitol Hill district, and the lecture begins at 8. Attendees must be 21 or older, so bring your ID. As for the marijuana angle, here’s the advice from the organizers: “Come ‘pre-boarded’ – so toke up beforehand, not while you’re there.”

The Goodship Higher Education Series is presented by The Goodship in partnership with The Stranger and the Cloud Room.

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