Interview With Paul Horowitz Physicist, Harvard University
NOVA: What in your heart of hearts do you expect and hope to find?
HOROWITZ: We are literally the first generation that could communicate with an extraterrestrial civilization. The evolution of radio astronomy, the large antennas, the receivers, the computing hardware is unique to our generation and has not existed before. We could—we are the first generation that could establish contact.
There are more probably other civilizations out there, sending signals. How can we not try? Contact, receipt of a message would be the first bridge across four billion years of independent life ...and evolution. It would be the end, in a very deep sense, of our earth's cultural isolation. It would be, I think without doubt, the greatest discovery in the history of mankind.
NOVA: That said, tell us briefly what we have found to date, and how you feel about that? We've been looking for some years, what have we found?
HOROWITZ: There have been—I think—I think the important comment to make about the study, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence with radio telescope—the method that's favored in the scientific community—is that there hasn't been much of it. Really, the first search was in 1960, by Frank Drake. He looked at two stars for two months.
Since that time, there have been something like three or four dozen additional searches. Typically searches that go on for a few tens of hours, with a radio telescope somewhere. Most recently there have been continuous searches with a million channel and ten million channel receivers, like the one we're running now.
But I think when you add it all up, earth has done very little. It's a big space out there. Lots of places to look. Lots of possible radio wavelengths. Very little has been looked (at). We've just scratched the surface. But in scratching the surface, we do occasionally find signals—these searches have detected signals from intelligent life. However, as far as we can tell, all of that intelligent life resides on earth.
......So the bottom line is there have been a bunch of searches. We all see things from time to time, it is intelligent life—it lives here. And there has been no signal that comes from space that's ever repeated.
NOVA: Why aren't you worried when you read these headline stories about aliens abducting people and snatching kids from their beds? Why aren't you worried about these stories, the veracity of these stories?
HOROWITZ: You really want a straight answer for that?
NOVA: ....You have fair confidence, I understand, that they're probably not stealing people from their beds every night.
HOROWITZ: It's that we hear stories. We hear people say that certain things happen to them. And if we ask them for some evidence, such as a garment left behind, or a bolt that fell off the landing gear of the flying saucer that landed in their backyard, or an alien cigarette lighter souvenir, we never get anything.
Sometimes we're told that there have been—had an implant. But the implants never seem to materialize. In the last 30, 40 50 years now, we've been hearing about flying saucers, we've been hearing about, more recently, abduction phenomena and so on. But there is zero hard scientific evidence of any sort. There are only anecdotes, experiences earnestly believed but not buttressed by any sort of real evidence.
Blurry photographs. Sketches of aliens that, to me, look far too much—far too humanoid, far to much like life on earth, that are not the way I believe extraterrestrial life really will look. And therefore, to me, suggests merely a lack of imagination. How, why should we be worried about such a phenomenon, when apparently it doesn't exist?
NOVA: What kind of evidence would you personally need to see, to have you say: Ah-ha, maybe they are here; maybe Budd Hopkins is right?
HOROWITZ: We hear anecdotes and we see sometimes videos, blurry photographs of evidence that aliens have landed, that they've abducted people and so on. But we don't have any hard evidence. We don't have the bolt that fell off the landing gear; we don't have the alien cigarette lighter. All we have are stories.
The stories are earnest, they're sincere. These people tell them with conviction. At least the—some of the ones I've heard. But it's just a memory, when they're gone. And I say to them: 'That story's great. But can you—can you give me an object? Isn't there something lying around after this visit?' And they say: 'Oh, you want an artifact, you want an object? There was this couple and they were driving along late at night in the upper peninsular of Michigan, and an alien de-dah-de—they give you a story about an artifact. No more stories, just the goods.
NOVA: In your position as a scientist ...do you have anything reassuring or comforting to say to people who believe this? You know more about this than a lot of us.
HOROWITZ: Of course, as a physical scientist, I'm not an expert on abductions. I think it's extremely improbable that these things are happening. I haven't studied it in the kind of depth in order to be able to say it's complete balderdash. But it seems to me extremely improbable. The fact that we don't have another explanation for the kinds of behavior and memories that people have, does not render that explanation more probable. It is, after all, an extreme interpretation: That there are aliens, that they've come here; that they've abducted people; that they've bred with them to make hybrid creatures.
NOVA: How would you feel if a UFO saucer were to land in your front yard?
HOROWITZ: You know, I just finished mowing my lawn this weekend. It looks gorgeous. And a flying saucer would really mess it all up. .....You know, we physical scientists sound pretty grouchy about some of these things, and we like to say—we like to be hard-nosed about scientific evidence that aliens are walking around on earth. We don't accept such things lightly. It's an extraordinary claim, it requires extraordinary evidence.
On the other hand, let me just say: Physical law does not rule out interstellar space flight. Nor does it rule out interstellar life. It permits both those things, although at great cost. If a flying saucer were to land on my lawn, tomorrow morning, I would be the happiest person on my block.