Securing Area 51 and Beyond (S1:E1)

Humans in Tech

In our first episode, we discuss why Area 51 in the Nevada desert is considered one of the most secure facilities in the world and explore some of the lore connected with the near-mythical base. We go beyond Area 51 and chat with Seth Shostak, Ph.D., Astrophysicist and Senior Astronomer at SETI Institute, about the Pentagon, his research with SETI, and his beliefs about extraterrestrial life.

Full Transcript

Speaker 1 (00:01):
You are listening to Humans in Tech, our podcast explores today’s most transformative technology and the trends of tomorrow bringing together the brightest minds in and outside of our industry. We unpack what’s new in physical access, identity verification, cybersecurity, and IOT ecosystems. We reach beyond the physical world, discuss our digital transformation as a species and dive into the emerging fidgital experience. Join us on our journey as we discover just how connected the future will be and how we will fit into that picture. Chances are, you know at least one conspiracy theory surrounding Area 51, the near mythical US military research facility in the Nevada Desert, is protected by motion sensors, a patrol of armed guards and a no fly zone through the entire site. It’s one of the most secure places in the world. Leigh Dow, VP of Global Marketing at Identiv is here to talk with what makes Area 51 so secure. Leigh and I are joined by Seth Shostak, PhD, Astrophysics and senior astronomer at SETI Institute.

Leigh (01:15):
Seth, I cannot wait to talk to you and neither can Allison. We really want to dig into Area 51. The CIA only acknowledged its existence in 2013, although it’s history, right, as detailed in documents released around the same time, dates to 1955. And the stated mission of Area 51 is to develop and test, state of the aircraft technology and I used to work at Honeywell Aerospace. So obviously, I’m an aircraft nerd. So this makes it a target for intelligent services. And security is so tight at this US Air Force Base. It’s got a guard patrol authorized to use deadly force on trespassers, long range motion detection, to warn them of new arrivals on foot or spinning in space. And it’s such an area that’s just clouded in mystery.

Seth (02:05):
Well, Area 51. I think that’s part of a more general phenomenon. Obviously, there are parts of the government that are secretive, particularly in defense and more especially the development of new kinds of weapons, technology and Area 51 fits into all that. I mean, it was set up during the cold war. They would fly people in and out. I think they still do that from Las Vegas. So there are no cars going in there, stuff like that. And it’s secret. Yes, it’s secret. But what I find particularly, peculiar is the fact that it has become associated with UFOs, UAPs, whatever you want to call them, that it somehow fits into that narrative. And I think that the only reason it does is because people don’t, in general, know what goes on there.

Leigh (02:53):
So as a desert dweller, Allison and I are both in the desert, we think you’d have to be living under a rock in the desert to have never heard of Area 51. I mean, it’s so ingrained in Americana lore. And I think the more secrecy that it shrouded in, the further the imagination goes. It’s well known for housing some of the world’s biggest secrets and cover ups. So many conspiracy theorists, it’s also famous for hiding information on aliens, like you said, in UFO sightings. And we may never know the complete story of what occurs at Area 51, because the level of security is so high and the depth of what happens on the inside remains such a mystery.

Seth (03:33):
Well, that’s certainly true, but I have to say that I grew up about two miles from the Pentagon and my father worked for the Department of Defense and he wanted to go over there to play handball actually. And I would usually come along and swim in the pool there and that sort of thing. I’ve been in the Pentagon actually many times.

Leigh (03:54):
The Pentagon has a pool?

Seth (03:56):
Yeah.

Leigh (03:56):
I had no idea.

Allison (03:56):
Wow.

Seth (03:58):
Yeah. They had sort of an exercise, as I say, he was there to play handball. That was also inside the Pentagon. The Pentagon is actually a very, very big place, if you look at it from the air, you can see it was designed to have lots and lots of offices, all of which had windows, right? So that’s why it has this very peculiar morphology that you see in aerial photos. But I’m sure there were plenty of secret things going on in the Pentagon of course there were, right? Military defense strategy and stuff like that. But that was not in the place where my father was practicing his handball or that I was swimming, but I wouldn’t doubt it. I’m quite sure that there are places. I in fact, grew up in Arlington Virginia, as I just mentioned.

And just about all my neighbors worked for one branch of the government or other. To Rose over was a pretty high up guy in the FBI. That was normal where I was, they were all government employees. Never found anything that seemed nefarious. My girlfriend’s father worked with the Department of… Well, it was civil defense actually, in case of a nuclear war, what happens, that kind of thing, that was normal. So I don’t have this idea that anything that the government is doing is somehow nefarious. Their job was to for protect the country, if you will. And to do that adequately, you really do have to have some defense secrets. Anybody who has studied the second world war can understand that kind of thing. If you don’t have secrets, then you don’t have the capability to mount of very good defense.

Leigh (05:35):
So we know that Area 51 was built during the cold war as a testing and development facility for aircraft, including the U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance planes. What is it used for today?

Seth (05:49):
I honestly don’t know. I mean, it’s an aircraft testing facility, one of the women in our book club, as a matter of fact, have to work at Area 51. And I would occasionally ask her, “So did you see any aliens or alien craft there?” And she said, “No, but lots of interesting airplanes.” That was her response. She was simply bemused by this extreme fascination with the place.

Allison (06:15):
So how does the staff get in and out?

Seth (06:18):
Well, I have to say, I thought that the interview was not about Area 51, it was about E.T. But how the staff gets in and out, I honestly don’t know. I mean, they’re mostly flown in. I think that’s still the case. So [crosstalk 00:06:33] very controlling.

Leigh (06:34):
I read that the employees at the base don’t commute to the site by car, that air traffic control audio out of a private terminal in Las Vegas McCarran International Airport suggests that government own passenger jets flying under the name, Janet Airlines make daily flights in and out to somewhere in the Nevada Desert.

Seth (06:57):
Yeah, no, that’s true. That’s consistent, at least with what I’ve heard and read and myself, as I say this, developed during the cold war, if you develop a new fighter aircraft, for example, and of course you’re always doing that, right? You don’t want it to be photographed or seen even by potential enemies or actual enemies. I mean, that’s just very straightforward. And so they do control access. And I think again, the fascination with it is because it is secretive, but there are other places in the government that are secretive. And the US, as a matter of fact, is peculiar. I’ve lived in other places in the world and only of the United States do people think that because something’s secretive that there’s something nefarious going on there and I’ve never understood that logic. What do you think it is?

Leigh (07:49):
I don’t know. So you have a PhD in Astrophysics and you’re a senior astronomer at SETI Institute. And of course that’s the acronym for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. So you’ve developed an interest in extraterrestrial life at the tender age of 10 when you first picked up a book about the solar system. So that led to a degree in Radio Astronomy, correct? And now you’re a senior astronomer?

Seth (08:15):
I am the senior astronomer for the SETI Institute. That is correct.

Leigh (08:19):
Nice. Well you really have been very keen on outreach activities, especially for young people in science, in general, but astrobiology in particular, and you have a textbook, a college test book on astrobiology, and you’ve also written several books for SETI and published, I think something like 400 articles, and you’re a regular contributor to NBC News. And you give a lot of talks annually and you have a weekly science radio show, Big Picture Science. So obviously, you’re very, very knowledgeable on extraterrestrial life. So with the majority of our audience coming from security background, can you tell us a little bit about your work at SETI?

Seth (09:04):
Yeah. We’re trying to find E.T. That’s one of the projects at the SETI Institute. And in fact, at the beginning of the Institute, which was founded in 1984, that was the only project. It was the efforts to find intelligent life elsewhere. Not just life, you might find life on Mars, right. But it’s going to be something you’ll need a microscope to see because it’s going to be like bacteria. That’s still extremely interesting just finding life, but we’re, going whole hog, if you will, in trying to find intelligent in life, anybody who’s seen the movie Contact knows how it’s done because that novel was written by Carl Sagan. And he did at least one SETI experiment, but he certainly knew about the way it’s done. And the way it’s done is just like in the movie Contact. We use Parkes antennas and try eavesdrop on BT.

Leigh (09:52):
So I actually, fun fact, I have a child who is a geologist and most of her undergraduate work was done on what I like to call space rocks. And she’s done a lot of work on studying asteroids and particles from there. And of course always at different, not only geological, but the biology that lives in that terrain. So it’s definitely a topic of conversation in our house. So what type of research is conducted at the in Institute?

Seth (10:32):
Well, it’s really astrobiology. This is a new term, which is a [inaudible 00:10:37] peculiar term because it combines a Latin word and a Greek word, but whatever. It’s just the study of life, if there is life elsewhere in the universe, that’s all. I mean, could there be life on Mars, could there be life on there’s three moons of Jupiter, where there might be life, right? There are two moons of Saturn where there, it might be life, but again, it’s very likely to be bacterial life. And maybe one, shouldn’t be terribly surprised by that because even on earth… I mean, there’s been life on earth for close to 4 billion years. And for the first 80% of that, maybe 90% of that, it was micro a microscopic life. Most of the people that inhabit the cubes and offices outside of my own are studying, for example, samples that we hope to bring back from Mars, the Rover data.

They’re looking at exo-planets, more than 4,000 planets that have been found outside the solar system and see if any of them have the conditions that would support life. There’re about a trillion planets in the Milky way galaxy where we live. A trillion, that’s a very big number.

Leigh (10:32):
Just in the Milky Way galaxy?

Seth (11:50):
Just in the Milky Way. And we can see several hundred billion other galaxies each with a trillion planets. So there’s a tremendous opportunity for life. And the only question is, how could you find it? And can we find it?

Leigh (12:04):
So is there a lot of excitement at SETI over the new telescope that’s been launched?

Seth (12:08):
Well, the James Webb Space Telescope indeed is interesting. It wasn’t built to look for life, to be honest. It was built to do what’s called cosmology, right? The idea is to look at galaxies very, very far away. Which is to say, you get to see them as they were when they were very young. And the idea is to… I mean, why would you study children if you were an alien that came to earth? Well, you’d like to see how humans develop, right. How they come adults, right. And it’s the same deal. It’s the same thing with James Webb, right? That’s what it’s trying to do by looking very far away, you see the universe as it was very, very young and you learn how it then got older, but from the standpoint of life and space, James Webb Telescope might be able to do a couple of things.

One is, it could study the atmosphere of planets, not in our solar system, but in other solar systems and see if any of them have oxygen, for example, in their atmospheres. And the oxygen in our atmospheres is due entirely to photosynthesis. So if you find it in somebody else’s atmosphere, that might be very interesting in terms of looking for life. The other thing, it might be able to find really super duper civilization ones that are literally billions of years more advanced than we are. So that would be intelligent life able to build very, very large structures. And you might see the heat coming off of those with this telescope. So it promises to address a lot of questions.

Allison (13:30):
Seth, we’d love to hear more about the technology deployed at SETI.

Seth (13:35):
Well, to be honest, the technologies is… It wouldn’t impress terribly many people in the physics department of any university because the ideas behind it are really quite simple. But what we use are these big antennas, right. We’ve had big antennas. Well, beginning with the second world war, as a matter of fact, but we have our own set of antennas in Northern California. It’s called the Allen Telescope Array. All right, if you saw those, you would say, “Well, these just look like backyard satellite dishes on steroids,” right. That’s kind of what they look like. And the technology is really more in what happens after you built the antennas. You have to have a very, very sensitive Amplifier. I call it a receiver at the focus. There’s a lot of technology in there that’s basically micro electronics, micro wave technology.

And then after that, you go on and take all these cosmic static and spread it out into a whole range of channels, if you will, because we don’t know where on the dial, we might find a signal from aliens, right? They never sent us that email that would tell us. So that technology is basically using very well established mathematics just about anybody who studies electrical engineering, or even mathematics would know. And the only question is how much compute power you have? The more compute power you have, the faster you can sift through the static from a lot of the sky and see if you can find something.

Leigh (15:03):
So what’s the coolest thing you’ve ever heard.

Seth (15:06):
Coolest thing I’ve ever heard in regard to all these or just-

Leigh (15:09):
Yeah.

Seth (15:11):
Okay. Because I’ve heard a lot of cool things. The coolest thing I’ve ever heard… Well, I think maybe it’s the coolest thing I ever experienced because to hear isn’t all that cool, but when you do it is. It’s been like 25 years now. 25 years ago, I was called up at home by the boss of the Institute, who said, “You ought to get down to the office.” And I did. And we had picked up a signal that looked like it might be E.T. at least for about half a day, right. And I thought, “Okay maybe there’s a red phone here where we can call the president.” Of course, there’s no red phone. I thought, “Well, maybe the president will call us.” The president didn’t call us. Nobody called us. My mom didn’t call us.

But it looked like it was a signal. This was going to change everything, right. It took about a day before we figured out it was just interference from a European satellite. But I said nobody cares, right. That was my impression. We don’t keep any secrets there. So it’s possible that a lot of people knew even before we’d ever confirmed this and sure enough, I’m at my desk half asleep, because I’d been up all night looking at computer screens and at 9:30 in the morning, a science reporter from the New York Times called up, I actually knew this guy. And he said, “All right, Seth, what about that signal you’re following?” So they already knew about it in the New York Times and 24 hours hadn’t gone by.

But then it turned out that wasn’t anything very interesting and The Times didn’t even run a story about it. But one of the questions I kept very frequently is if you guys found a signal would you even and tell us? There’s some sort of conspiracy mindset here. And the fact that is that there’s no policy of secrecy. The New York Times already knew about it and less than a day had gone by. And that was quite interesting how quickly everybody knew about it.

Allison (17:05):
Yeah word spreads fast, right?

Seth (17:08):
Well, yeah and that was before social media really took off. I mean, today it would be even faster. I’m quite sure.

Allison (17:14):
Can you tell us a little bit about your personal beliefs and findings on extraterrestrial life?

Seth (17:20):
Well, since we haven’t found it, you can have any belief you like.

Allison (17:24):
True.

Seth (17:24):
There are people who think, “Well, you’re never going to find it because the aliens don’t exist.” There are those with that mindset, but that would mean that in a galaxy with a trillion planets, namely ours, that all those planets except earth are sterile, right. That’s possible, right. It doesn’t violate physics, but it violates a common axiom of science, which is to never expect that you are somehow a special observer.

Leigh (17:55):
It’s a bit of an arrogant opinion, I guess, right.

Seth (17:59):
Well, yeah that’s sort of a moral call, as an arrogance, but it’s also based on experience, right? For most of the history of humanity, we thought we were special up until the time of Copernicus, we thought we were in the center of the universe and we thought all the planets revolved around the earth. Well, that turned out not be to be true. Then we figured, okay, they were revolving, but the sun is the center of everything. And that turned out not to be true. And then up until 1920 there about, we thought the Milky Way galaxy was the only galaxy and it turns out that’s not true. And today we talk about the fact that it’s very likely that there are other entire universes that are different. So to say, “Well the only planet with life,” it smacks of this egocentric interpretation of where you are in the universe.

Leigh (18:51):
For sure. So when people talk about UFOs, do you have an opinion on stories about actual sightings of UFOs? And UFOs, right have become a phrase or a term now that even the Air Force has admitted, “Yeah. Sometimes we see stuff that we don’t know what it is.” That doesn’t mean it’s extraterrestrial life?

Seth (19:15):
Yeah. I kind of concur with that. I tend to be a skeptic, which makes me unpopular on ancient, aliens and stuff like that. But I just don’t see any evidence. I mean the usual claim in the past was, “Look, these things have been seen by commercial pilots, military pilots.” They’ve been seen by lots of people. They’re on the order of 8,000 these days. The number seems to have gone down a little bit, but roughly 8,000 people a year in the United States alone, right report these sightings. There’s a guy up in Seattle area who come compiles these reports, nice guy. But roughly say 10,000 people a year will report senior UFO. And I’m sure many, many more people don’t go to the trouble of reporting it. But I think that if we were really being visited, which is the contention made by these people, we would know about that. Because you would see them, it’s like asking the Naragon, Indians of Massachusetts back in the 1600, “Hey, do you think you’re being visited by Europeans?”

Leigh (20:24):
Yeah. That’s a good analogy.

Seth (20:26):
Yeah. But I said there was no doubt in their mind. They say, “Yeah, they’re right down the road here. You can see them trying to plant something so they have something to eat.” I mean, there was absolutely no… It wasn’t that the chiefs of the tribe were hiding that information [inaudible 00:20:40] they couldn’t hide it. And the other thing is that they didn’t see any reason to hide it. So it’s kind of the same situation today. Many people seem to believe that the military has the capability of keeping all this stuff secret. Whereas if they were really being visited the FAA, wouldn’t let commercial air flights leave your local airport because if they don’t know what’s up in this sky, they’re not going to let you fly.

Leigh (21:04):
Well, I mean, and why would they all just go right to Area 51?

Seth (21:09):
Well, that’s another phenomenon. Yeah, they all go to Area 51. There used to be that there’s a base. What is it? Hanger 39 or whatever it was. Was always said to be the place where they stored alien craft, but that’s actually in Ohio somewhere. But Ohio is not as glamorous as Area 51.

Leigh (21:29):
So you mentioned a man in Seattle, but I’m sure that there are lots of people all over the world who have interest in extraterrestrial life. And how do they tap into SETI and some of the other avenues of your work whether it’s Big Picture Science or other ways to communicate that?

Seth (21:49):
Well, I don’t know to what extent they’re actually tapped into any of that, but keep in mind that science is an international endeavor, right? I mean there are almost no secrets kept in science between one place and another, I mean, if you’re a pharmaceutical company and you’re developing some sort of new medication of some sort, you might try and keep that secret from your competitors. That might happen. But in general, basic research is completely open to all the journals. Anybody can subscribe to the journals. You read about things. We used to have conferences with the USSR back in the days when there was USSR and it was kind of a good thing, because then you actually bring people from different countries together. They’re less likely to drop bombs on one another.

That was always my impression, but in any case, whatever, there’s essentially no secrecy in science. SETI however, these days done only in the United States, it’s not being done by any other countries. And that’s somewhat dismaying situation, because there were a lot more countries that did it in the past.

Leigh (22:52):
Nice. So besides Big Picture Science, where else can we follow your work?

Seth (22:58):
Well, I mean, you always can go to the SETI Institute website, which is just seti.org. That’s simple enough. It’s a nonprofit. For the rest I do write a lot of articles that are published by well NBC and others actually. So there’s that I have some books and all that, but people, if you want to find me very easily just go to Google and you can find me.

Leigh (23:23):
The fire up. The Google machine.

Seth (23:25):
Yep. You can. Well, Google’s headquarters is also just down the street here. I mean the Silicon Valley.

Leigh (23:31):
Oh, nice. So thank you so much for joining us. Very interesting topic and we will definitely be following and we’re fans of your work.

Allison (23:39):
For sure.

Leigh (23:40):
Appreciate it.

Seth (23:41):
Okay. All right. Well thank you very much.

Leigh (23:44):
Thanks Seth.

Speaker 1 (23:45):
Physical security, identity verification, the IOT, the hyper connectivity of our lives will only grow more pervasive. As technology becomes more automated and experiences more augmented. It’s up to us to preserve our humanity and use new tools and trends for good. The only question is, are we up for the challenge?