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A Youthful Journalist's SETI Interview

Editor's Note: SETI League executive director H. Paul Shuch is frequently interviewed by members of the press. The interview which follows is noteworthy because the journalist in question is twelve years old. Yonah Meiselman is a seventh grade student in the Humanities and Communications Magnet program at Eastern Middle School, Silver Spring MD. He also happens to be Dr. Shuch's nephew.

Mr. Meiselman: What do you do at SETI?

Dr. Shuch: It is important to note that SETI is a science, not a single organization. There are several groups around the world engaged in SETI research. I am Executive Director of one of those groups, the nonprofit, international SETI League, Inc.

Mr. Meiselman: What kind of experiments or research do you conduct?

Dr. Shuch: We design, build and operate small radio telescopes all over the world, and use them to search for artifically generated signals from space. We hope to detect indirect evidence of other civilizations, from their microwave radiation.

Mr. Meiselman: Do you enjoy the work? Why, or why not?

Dr. Shuch: This is both the most exciting and the most frustrating work of my career. Exciting, because we are at the scientific cutting edge, and I get to work with some of the brightest minds in the world. Frustrating, because as a membership-supported nonprofit, we have a very limited budget, and often lack the resources to follow through on some good ideas.

Mr. Meiselman: Have you ever found any extraterrestrial life? If so, what is the life like? If not, what, if anything, do you expect you will find?

Dr. Shuch: SETI searches have over the past 40 years have stumbled across several dozen interesting, but unexplained, radio emissions. Whether or not they represent life, we cannot yet say. We hope eventually to find clear, unambiguous signals, which persist long enough to be independently verified by multiple observers, that will indicate the presence of other technology-using civilizations in the cosmos.

Mr. Meiselman: Do you think you will find anything else?

Dr. Shuch: I think it's almost certain. With a large number of observers combing the cosmos, it is highly likely that one or more of them will stumble across some completely unanticipated discovery -- possibly a previously unknown natural, astrophysical phenomenon.

Mr. Meiselman: Where did you go to college and graduate school?

Dr. Shuch: College: Carnegie Institute of Technology, West Valley College, and San Jose State University. Three engineering degrees AS, BS, MA). My education was interrupted by four years of military service during the Vietnam War. Grad school: University of California, Berkeley. Ph.D. in Engineering.

Mr. Meiselman: What did you study there?

Dr. Shuch: Electrical, industrial, civil, and aerospace engineering.

Mr. Meiselman: Did you like it?

Dr. Shuch: Grad school much more than college.

Mr. Meiselman: How did that affect your choice to work with SETI?

Dr. Shuch: SETI is perhaps the most highly interdisciplinary of sciences. Having background in multiple engineering disciplines gives me the flexibility to deal with the unknown.

Mr. Meiselman: Where do you live?

Dr. Shuch: On a remote hilltop just north of Williamsport, PA (about 200 miles from any major city.)

Mr. Meiselman: Why?

Dr. Shuch: That's a very perceptive question, Yonah! I choose to live far from technological civilization because industry generates electromagnetic radiation, which would interfere with the operation of my radio telescopes.

Mr. Meiselman: What other occupations have you had?

Dr. Shuch: Aerospace engineer; college professor.

Mr. Meiselman: Did you find connections between earlier occupations and your current scientist/astronomer status?

Dr. Shuch: Absolutely. I am practicing (at a higher lever) what I used to teach my students. In addition, I am still teaching -- just in a larger classroom, and with much better students.

Mr. Meiselman: What is privatized science?

Dr. Shuch: Studies which are paid for by private donations, rather than government tax dollars. In the present economic climate, that's the direction in which all scientific research is ultimately going.

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