blue universe

The Exchange: TOKIMONSTA and Seth Shostak talk aliens and the Beatles.

The Arts and Sciences used to share much of the same intellectual space. Only recently have they diverged to the degree that they seem diametrically opposed. The Exchange is our attempt to rekindle some of the dialogue that occurred between the two fields.

In this installment, we’ve brought together electronic beats master TOKIMONSTA and SETI astronomer Seth Shostak.

TOKIMONSTA is Los Angeles-based artist who’s been stomping around the music scene since at least 2010. She’s a versatile producer who can drop stripped-down tracks like “Don’t Call Me” from her Grammy-nominated 2017 album, Lune Rouge, then seamlessly transition to a four to the floor banger like Get Me Some” on her latest album, Oasis Nocturno. She’s also spread the wealth, remixing tracks for some of the industry’s biggest names like Justin Timberlake, Beck, Maroon 5, and Mariah Carey.

An instrumental version of Oasis Nocturno dropped today. Be sure to give it a listen before you do anything this weekend. Then show some love.

For most of his career, astronomer Seth Shostak has been engaged in the search for extraterrestrial lifeforms. He has peered deep into galaxies using radio telescopes in Europe and the United States to trawl the universe for clues. He is also a prolific writer, penning over 500 academic and popular science articles (which as well as four books including Confessions of an Alien Hunter. Shostak is a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute and hosts a weekly radio show, Big Picture Science.


TOKIMONSTA: I’ve had an everlasting curiosity about lifeforms outside of the earth. Though I’ve always been highly skeptical of Hollywood-style ‘little green men,’ I assume (statistically) that humans cannot be the only intelligent beings in the entire universe.

This curiosity was piqued by the U.S. government videos that seemed to suggest that “off world” vehicles may exist. Yet, the area of UFOlogy has long been been relegated to the fringes of science. With all the new declassified information and personal accounts from ex-government scientists, it is starting to seem less fringe and more plausible that some version of little green men may be visiting us.

I’m aware that there are organizations out there (e.g. BSRC) and academic researchers focusing on signs of intelligent life and that there have been no techno signatures discovered yet. So, I am wondering if scientists in this field truly believe in other-worldly intelligent lifeforms and if themselves lifeforms actually may be visiting us or aware of our existence. Is this an area that deserves focus or is it more of a distraction from other areas of astronomy?

SETH SHOSTAK: The idea that the universe probably houses enormous numbers of worlds with intelligent beings is common among scientists. This is not based on actual observations – so far, we haven’t found any convincing evidence of biology anywhere beyond Earth, not even microbes. But a recent research result from Cornell suggests that the number of Earth-size planets capable of having oceans and atmospheres is about 300 million, just in our own galaxy. And there are two trillion other galaxies within the range of our telescopes, each with a similar number of possibly Earth-like planets.

In other words, unless Earth is some sort of miracle (not an idea favored by science), there’s a lot of cosmic company out there.

However, the idea that we’re being visited – while popular – is not very popular with scientists. The evidence is simply too poor, consisting almost entirely of witness testimony or, as in the case of the US Navy videos, highly ambiguous observations.

In terms of the videos, the US government only said that they are authentic. I’ve spoken to former military pilots who think that the videos have very prosaic explanations, mostly involving optical effects in the Forward-looking infrared (FLIR) cameras used to make them. In addition, if alien craft were really buzzing our skies, why are they never seen by the almost-one thousand orbiting satellites that are endlessly making photos of Earth? An even more serious objection is to ask “why are these craft visiting Earth now?”

While approximately one-third of the American populace thinks that some UFOs really are alien craft, you’ll have a hard time finding any scientists (including astronomers) who agree. It’s like angels or ghosts – again, about one-third of the citizenry will say that they think such phenomena are real, but you won’t find many scientists among them.

Seth Shostak.

SETH SHOSTAK: As for my own question, I wonder whether you would say that contemporary music composers are just as talented as the classical greats (e.g., Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Bach), but just working in a different genre? In other words, if the Beatles had been born 200 years earlier, would they be as celebrated as Mozart was?

TOKIMONSTA: Humans have always enjoyed judging and comparing music. This judgement creates dialogue and critical thinking amid the enjoyment of experiencing an infinite combination of sounds/rhythms. We can see this in publications reviewing albums and awards being given to particular musicians, Spotify playlists etc.

It’s my opinion that there is no easy way to compare artists from different generations and genres. Music is subjective and up to the individual, as everyone’s understanding of music is different. What we can do is consider each artist’s work and innovations in the context of their generation then judge for ourselves whether we think they’re great.

I believe that mankind’s greatest musicians were the ones that changed the musical landscape—Chuck Berry with rock and roll, Ray Charles innovated soul, Kraftwerk popularized the use of electronic sounds.

For classical, I like using Erik Satie as an example. He was highly criticized for the simplicity of his compositions, but that simplicity, itself, ended up being a huge innovation that is still felt today. He allowed for minimalism to exist in a time of ornate classical music. It’s not outwardly a huge technical feat, but a simple and significant artistic one. His innovations in repetitive music and minimalism is seen in electronic music, rap and modern classical.

In terms of the Beatles existing 200 years earlier… Out of context, I’m not so sure people from that era would appreciate the Beatles. I feel like they probably had a rigid standard of what was considered acceptable music. In a similar way, I couldn’t tell you what makes a good country song as I don’t really know the genre, but that doesn’t make those artists any less great. To be honest, who knows? Perhaps people would enjoy taking their powdered wigs off and doing the twist.

My take as a musician is that I don’t find the Beatles’ music particularly technical. However, despite their more basic approach, their innovative melodies, lyrics, rhythms and combination of such make them as great as any earlier classical composer.

I’m near positive that the Beatles appreciate classical music-as it’s safe to say most modern music is based in some part in classical music. Scandinavian black metal is highly influenced by classical music (reference: Yngwie Malmsteen – Arpeggios from Hell).

I am a fan of classical musicians from as far back as Mozart and as recent as Nils Frahm, even though I mostly make electronic music. If you ask my uncle, he thinks no musician has surpassed Chopin and Led Zepplin. So, just because one person or era may not consider a musician great doesn’t mean they’re not great. In the end, a great musician is always in the ears of the beholder.

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