Category Archives: SETI

Of SETI, ET Cultural Contact and Spam

From Centauri Dreams:

What happens to us if our SETI efforts pay off? Numerous scenarios come to mind, all of them speculative, but the range of responses shown in Carl Sagan’s Contact may be something like the real outcome, with people of all descriptions reading into a distant message whatever they want to hear. Robert Lightfoot (South Georgia State College) decided to look at contact scenarios we know something more about, those that actually happened here on Earth. His presentation in Huntsville bore the title “Sorry, We Didn’t Mean to Break Your Culture.”

Known as ‘Sam’ to his friends, Lightfoot is a big, friendly man with an anthropologist’s eye for human nature. His talk made it clear that if we’re going to plan for a possible SETI reception, we should look at what happens when widely separated groups come into contact. Cultural diffusion can happen in two ways, the first being prompted by the exchange of material objects. In the SETI case, however, the non-material diffusion of ideas is the most likely outcome. Lightfoot refers to ‘objects of cultural destruction’ in both categories, noting the distorting effect these can have on a society as unexpected effects invariably appear.

Consider the introduction of Spam to the islands of the Pacific as a result of World War II. The level of obesity, cancer and diabetes soared as cultures that had relied largely on hunting, farming and fishing found themselves in the way of newfound supplies. Visitors to some of these islands still note with curiosity that Spam can be found on the menus of many restaurants. Today more than half of all Pacific islanders are obese, and one in four has diabetes. On the island nation of Tonga, fully 69 percent of the population is considered obese.

Lightfoot mentioned Tonga in his talk, but I drew the above figures from the World Diabetes Foundation. Can we relate the continuing health problems of the region to Spam? Surely it was one of the triggers, but we can also add that the large-scale industrialization of these islands didn’t begin until the 1970s. Imported food and the conversion of farmland to mining and other industries (Nauru is the classic example, with its land area almost entirely devoted to phosphate mining) meant a change in lifestyle that was sudden and has had enormous health consequences.

Objects of cultural destruction (OCDs) show their devastating effects around the globe. The Sami peoples of Finland had to deal with the introduction of snowmobiles, which you would have thought a blessing for these reindeer herders. But the result was the ability to collect far larger herds than ever before, which in turn has resulted in serious problems of over-grazing. Or consider nutmeg, once thought in Europe to be a cure for the plague, causing its value to soar higher than gold. Also considered an aphrodisiac, nutmeg led to violence against native growers in what is today Indonesia and played a role in the creation of the East India Company.

But because SETI’s effects are most likely going to be non-material, Lightfoot homed in on precedents like the ‘cargo cults’ of the Pacific that sprang up as some islanders tried to imitate what they had seen Westerners do, creating radios out of wood, building ‘runways’ and calling for supplies. In South Africa, a misunderstanding of missionary religious teachings led the Xhosa people to kill their cattle, even though their society was based on herding these animals. Waiting for a miracle after the killings, a hundred thousand people began to starve. Said Lightfoot:

Think about contact with an extraterrestrial civilization in this light. There will be new ideas galore, even the possibility of new objects — plants, animals, valuable jewels. Any or all of these could be destabilizing to our culture. And just as they may destabilize us, we may contaminate them.

I think the most powerful message of Lightfoot’s talk was that this kind of destabilization can come where you would least expect it, and have irrevocable results. Tobacco, once used as a part of ritual ceremonies in the cultures where it grew, has become an object of cultural and medical destruction in our far more affluent society. Even something as innocuous as a tulip once became the object of economic speculation so intense that it created an economic bubble in 17th Century Holland and an ensuing economic panic.

What to do? Lightfoot told the crowd to search history for the lessons it contains about cultures meeting for the first time. We need to see when and why things went wrong in hopes of avoiding similar situations. If contact with an extraterrestrial culture someday comes, we’ll need a multidisciplinary approach to identify the areas where trouble is most likely to occur. A successful SETI reception could be the beginning of a philosophical and scientific revolution, or it could be the herald of cultural decline as we try to re-position our thinking about the cosmos.

I don’t think the radio searches of SETI will produce anything; there’s a better chance that UFOs are ET spacecraft and eventually black ops corporations will reveal that they’ve been back engineering their hardware for years.

That being said, on the off chance that ET contact does happen, in any form, cultural cross contamination is bound to happen. Whether some cargo cults will form because of contact is moot, because in my opinion, that’s how the world’s religions were formed in the past.

Cultural Diffusion and SETI

SETI and the Targeted Search For ET Civilizations

From io9.com:

In what is its most targeted search to date, the SETI Institute has scanned 86 potentially habitable solar systems for signs of radio signals. Needless to say, the search came up short (otherwise the headline of this article would have been dramatically different), but the initiative is finally offering some quantitative data about the rate at which we can expect to find radio-emitting intelligent life on Earth-like planets — a rate that’s proving to be disturbingly low.

Indeed, by the end of its survey, SETI calculated that less than one-percent of all potentially habitable exoplanets are likely to host intelligent life. That means less than one in a million stars in the Milky Way currently host radio-emitting civilizations that we can detect.

A narrow-band search

The SETI researchers, a team that included Jill Tarter and scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, reached this conclusion after scanning 86 different stars using the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia. These stars were chosen because earlier Kepler data indicated they host potentially habitable planets — Earth-like planets that sit inside their sun’s habitable zone.

As for the radio bands searched, SETI looked for signals in the 1-2 GHz range, a band that’s used here on Earth for such things as cell phones and television transmissions. SETI also constrained the search to radio emissions less than 5Hz of the spectrum; nothing in nature is known to produce such narrow band signals.

Each of the 86 stars — the majority of which are more than 1,000 light-years away — were surveyed for five minutes. Because of the extreme distances involved, the only signals that could have been detected were ones that were intentionally aimed in our direction — which would be a deliberate effort by ETIs to signal their presence (what’s referred to as Active SETI, or METI (Messages to ETIs)).

“No signals of extraterrestrial origin were found.” noted the researchers in the study.”[I]n the simplest terms this result indicates that fewer than 1% of transiting exoplanet systems are radio loud in narrow-band emission between 1-2 GHz.”

Wanted: Alternative signatures

Despite the nul result, SETI remains hopeful for the future. Scanning potentially habitable solar systems is a fantastic idea, and it’s likely the first of many such targeted searches. At the same time, however, SETI will have to expand upon its list of candidate signatures.

It has been proposed, for example, that SETI look for signs of Kardashev scale civilizations, and take a more Dysonian approach to their searches. Others have suggested that SETI look for laser pulses.

Indeed, the current strategy — that of looking for radio-emitting civilizations — is exceedingly limited. Even assuming we could detect signals from a radio-capable civilization within a radius of 1,000 light-years, the odds that it would be contemporaneous with us is mind-bogglingly low (the time it takes for radio signals to reach us notwithstanding).

And as we are discovering by virtue of our own technological development, the window of opportunity to detect a radio-transmitting civilization is quite short. Looking to the future, it’s more than reasonable to suggest that alternative signatures — whether they be transmitted deliberately or not — be considered.

This is something SETI is very aware of, and the researchers said so much in their paper:

Ultimately, experiments such as the one described here seek to firmly determine the number of other intelligent, communicative civilizations outside of Earth. However, in placing limits on the presence of intelligent life in the galaxy, we must very carefully qualify our limits with respect to the limitations of our experiment. In particular, we can offer no argument that an advanced, intelligent civilization necessarily produces narrow-band radio emission, either intentional or otherwise. Thus we are probing only a potential subset of such civilizations, where the size of the subset is difficult to estimate. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence is still in its infancy, and there is much parameter space left to explore.

The paper is set to appear in the Astrophysical Journal and can be found here.

I suppose this is the natural outreach of the Kepler planetary searches; to see if there are radio signals coming from some of these planets. But as Terence McKenna once said, “To search expectantly for a radio signal from an extraterrestrial source is probably as culture-bound a presumption as to search the galaxy for a good Italian restaurant.

Words of wisdom. I think it’s a mistake to believe that civilizations will use radio to broadcast out into the Universe. Convergent theories of evolution aside, it’s not a proven fact that other intelligences would follow the same evolutionary path as humans and thus invent similar communication techniques.

Of course, time will tell.

SETI Conducts First Ever Targeted Search For Intelligent Life On Earth-Like Planets

Hat tip to the Daily Grail.

Future Interstellar Voyages

From Centauri Dreams:

Stretch out your time horizons and interstellar travel gets a bit easier. If 4.3 light years seems too immense a distance to reach Alpha Centauri, we can wait about 28,000 years, when the distance between us will have closed to 3.2 light years. As it turns out, Alpha Centauri is moving in a galactic orbit far different from the Sun’s. As we weave through the Milky Way in coming millennia, we’re in the midst of a close pass from a stellar system that will never be this close again. A few million years ago Alpha Centauri would not have been visible to the naked eye.

The great galactic pinball machine is in constant motion. Epsilon Indi, a slightly orange star about an eighth as luminous as the Sun and orbited by a pair of brown dwarfs, is currently 11.8 light years out, but it’s moving 90 kilometers per second relative to the Sun. In about 17,000 years, it will close to 10.6 light years before beginning to recede. Project Ozma target Tau Ceti, now 11.9 light years from our system, has a highly eccentric galactic orbit that, on its current inbound leg, will take it to within the same 10.6 light years if we can wait the necessary 43,000 years.

And here’s an interesting one I almost forgot to list, though its close pass may be the most intriguing of all. Gliese 710 is currently 64 light years away in the constellation Serpens. We have to wait a bit on this one, but the orange star, now at magnitude 9.7, will in 1.4 million years move within 50,000 AU of the Sun. That puts it close enough that it should interact with the Oort Cloud, perhaps perturbing comets there or sending comets from its own cometary cloud into our system. In any case, what a close-in target for future interstellar explorers!

I’m pulling all this from Erik Anderson’s new book Vistas of Many Worlds, whose subtitle — ‘A Journey Through Space and Time’ — is a bit deceptive, for the book actually contains four journeys. The first takes us on a tour of ten stars within 20 light years of the Sun, with full-page artwork on every other page and finder charts that diagram the stars in each illustration. The second tour moves through time and traces the stars of an evolving Earth through text and images. Itinerary three is a montage of scenes from known exoplanets, while the fourth tour takes us through a sequence of young Earth-like worlds as they develop.

Anderson’s text is absorbing — he’s a good writer with a knack for hitting the right note — but the artwork steals the show on many of these pages, for he’s been meticulous at recreating the sky as it would appear from other star systems. It becomes easy to track the Sun against the background of alien constellations. Thus a spectacular view of the pulsar planet PSR B1257+12 C shows our Sun lost among the brighter stars Canopus and Spica, with Rigel and Betelgeuse also prominent. The gorgeous sky above an icy ocean on a planet circling Delta Pavonis shows the Sun between Alpha Centauri and Eta Cassiopeiae. Stellar motion over time and the perspectives thus created from worlds much like our own are a major theme of this book.

From Epsilon Eridani, as seen in the image below, the Sun is a bright orb seen through the protoplanetary disk at about the 4 o’clock position below the bright central star.

Image: The nearby orange dwarf star Epsilon Eridani reveals its circumstellar debris disks in this close-up perspective. Epsilon Eridani is only several hundred million years old and perhaps resembles the state of our own solar system during its early, formative years. Credit: Erik Anderson.

Vistas of Many Worlds assumes a basic background in astronomical concepts, but I think even younger readers will be caught up in the wonder of imagined scenes around planets we’re now discovering, which is why I’m buying a copy for my star-crazed grandson for Christmas. He’ll enjoy the movement through time as well as space. In one memorable scene, Anderson depicts a flock of ancient birds flying through a mountain pass 4.8 million years ago. At that time, the star Theta Columbae, today 720 light years away, was just seven light years out, outshining Venus and dominating the sunset skies of Anderson’s imagined landscape.

And what mysteries does the future hold? The end of the interglacial period is depicted in a scene Anderson sets 50,000 years from now, showing a futuristic observation station on the west coast of an ice-choked Canada. The frigid landscape and starfield above set the author speculating on how our descendants will see their options:

Will the inhabitants of a re-glaciating Earth seek refuge elsewhere? Alpha Centauri, our nearest celestial neighbor, has in all this time migrated out of the southern skies to the celestial equator, where it can be sighted from locations throughout the entire globe. It seems to beckon humanity to the stars.

And there, tagged by the star-finder chart and brightly shining on the facing image, is the Alpha Centauri system, now moving inexorably farther from our Sun but still a major marker in the night sky. Planet hunter Greg Laughlin has often commented on how satisfying it is that we have this intriguing stellar duo with accompanying red dwarf so relatively near to us as we begin the great exoplanet detection effort. We’re beginning to answer the question of planets around Alpha Centauri, though much work lies ahead. Perhaps some of that work will be accomplished by scientists who, in their younger years, were energized by the text and images of books like this one.

What I find facinating is a comment by a reader ( kzb ) of this post concerning the Fermi Paradox:

One frequently-seen explanation of the Fermi paradox is that interstellar travel is just too difficult: the distances are so great that no intelligent species has ever cracked the problem.

This article highlights an argument against this outlook.  One scale-length towards the galactic centre, and the space density of stellar systems is 2.7 times what it is around here.  Two scale lengths in and the density is 7.4 times greater.  The scale-length of our galaxy is around only 2.1-3kpc according to recent literature.

Intelligent species that evolve in the inner galactic disk will not have the same problem that we have.  Over galactic timescales, encounters between stellar systems within 1 light-year will not be uncommon.

I think you can see what I am saying, and I think this is one aspect of the FP discussion that is poorly represented currently.

And Erik Anderson’s response:

@ kzb: I give an overview of the Fermi Paradox on page 110 and I didn’t miss your point.  It was definitely articulated by Edward Teller, whom I explicitly quote: “…as far as our Galaxy is concerned, we are living somewhere in the sticks, far removed from the metropolitan area of the Galactic center.”

Of course this precludes the explanations that there is no such thing as speedy interstellar travel ( be they anti-matter or warp drives ) and UFOs are really just mass hallucinations.

However Anderson’s book is novel in its’ treatment of interstellar exploration over vast timescales and that closer to the Galactic Center, possible advanced civilizations could have stellar cultures due to faster stellar movements and much shorter distances between stars. And I find that novel in an Olaf Stapledon kind of way!

That and the fact as we are discovering using the Kepler and HARP interstellar telescopes multiple star systems that have their own solar systems and many of them could have intelligent life lends credence to Mr. Anderson’s themes.

So I might treat myself to an early Christmas present by purchasing Anderson’s book!

Images of Exoplanetary Journeys

Are Aliens Using Stars as Signal Beacons?

From Time.com:

image: From left: Stars shine in the night sky above Mt. Everest, Mt. Lutse and Ama Dablam in Nepal, Sept. 7, 2011.

When scientists go out looking for research funding, it helps if their projects aren’t all that exciting. Excitement usually goes with the most speculative, cutting-edge science, but funding agencies usually prefer to put their money on projects that seem likely to bear fruit. “You pretty much have to demonstrate that you’ve already done half the work to demonstrate it’s feasible,” says Lucianne Walkowicz, a postdoctoral fellow in astrophysics based at Princeton University.

By that standard, Walkowicz’s latest project shouldn’t be getting any funding at all. She wants to conduct a search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), not by doing anything so conventional as listening for radio transmissions á la Jodie Foster in Contact, or watching for flashes of laser light. Instead, she wants to see if ET’s are somehow manipulating the light coming from their stars so that they wink at us — a long shot if ever there was one, especially since she has no clue how they might go about it.

But thanks to a program titled “New Frontiers in Astronomy and Cosmology,” funded by the John Templeton foundation and administered by the University of Chicago, Walkowicz is getting her chance. Cutting-edge research is what this program is all about, and the question “Are We Alone in the Universe?” is one of the major areas it aims to address.

The odds of a discovery with Walkowicz’s project may be long, but the search technique is quite straightforward. “Our premise,” she says, “is that up until now, we’ve had a preconceived idea of what a SETI signal would look like.” It would basically be the sort of signal we know how to create, and understandably so, since searching for a signal from some entirely unknown technology would be kind of difficult.

If aliens were so advanced that they could cause their star to appear to flicker, however, it wouldn’t matter how they did it, and it would be easy enough to see with existing technology. In fact, says Walkowicz, “our premise was, ‘what if we’ve already detected a signal but missed it because of our preconceptions.’”

So she and her co-investigators (including Princeton’s Edwin Turner, who recently suggested looking for alien cities on Pluto), proposed to look through a potential trove of signals: the archives from the Kepler mission, which has been scanning space since 2009 for stars that are winking because of orbiting planets passing in front of them. Kepler also sees stars that are winking because they have sunspots, or because they’re eclipsed by other stars, or because they brighten and dim naturally, all on heir own.

What Walkowicz and company will do is use software algorithms to look for unusual patterns of variability. “We’ll get all sorts of things we understand,” she says, “but we’ll also be looking for things that aren’t matched by well-known physical processes.”

Naturally, they’ll try at first to explain these unusual variations with conventional physics — and in fact, the discovery of new, natural types of stellar variation could be a valuable side benefit of the project. Big, wide-field surveys of the sky with instruments such as the upcoming Large Synoptic Survey Telescope will inevitably uncover all sorts of unexpected phenomena, so Walkowicz’s work could pre-explain at least some of them.

Once she and her team have ruled out all of the plausible natural explanations for strange flickerings, however, they’ll be forced to consider the possibility that it really is ET calling. “What would lead us to say it really is an alien signal?” she asks. “I don’t know, but in my book, finding things you can’t explain is interesting no matter what it is. If we see ‘SOS, send water,’ in Morse code, that would be great.”

There will probably be a bit more ambiguity than that, she admits, and we may never know for certain that  we’re seeing a deliberate signal. “You don’t want to invoke the strangest thing first,” says Walkowicz, “but we should think a little bit more outlandishly. If we’re always succeeding all the time, maybe we’re not trying hard enough.”

This isn’t a new idea of course. The Benford Brothers ( sci-fi author Gregory, James along with James’ son Dominic ) wrote a paper in 2010 about aliens using a “beacon” to signal other civilizations in the Universe of their presence; http://www.uci.edu/features/2010/07/feature_beacons_100719.php .

What better beacon than a star? ( Quasars, neutron stars, black holes? )

And I don’t think aliens would be signalling us in this method anyways. We wouldn’t even be on their “radar!” ( So to speak.)

Could “aliens” be visiting us here and now, rendering the beacon signalling hypothesis moot?

Sure, but anecdotal evidence is hard to collect and preserve at times and eyewitness accounts ( although legal in court cases ) aren’t considered valid.

I don’t see any valid information forthcoming in any ETI searches in the coming decades sadly.

Flickering Stars: Could Aliens Be Sending Us Signals?

Artificial Life-Form Inventer Venter To Build Martian DNA Teleporter

From Technology Review:

Two high-profile entrepreneurs say they want to put a DNA sequencing machine on the surface of Mars in a bid to prove the existence of extraterrestrial life.

In what could become a race for the first extraterrestrial genome, researcher J. Craig Venter said Tuesday that his Maryland academic institute and his company, Synthetic Genomics, would develop a machine capable of sequencing and beaming back DNA data from the planet.

Separately, Jonathan Rothberg, founder of Ion Torrent, a DNA sequencing company, is collaborating on an effort to equip his company’s “Personal Genome Machine” for a similar task.

“We want to make sure an Ion Torrent goes to Mars,” Rothberg told Technology Review.

Although neither team yet has a berth on Mars rocket, their plans reflect the belief that the simplest way to prove there is life on Mars is to send a DNA sequencing machine.

“There will be DNA life forms there,” Venter predicted Tuesday in New York, where he was speaking at the Wired Health Conference.

Venter said researchers working with him have already begun tests at a Mars-like site in the Mojave Desert. Their goal, he said, is to demonstrate a machine capable of autonomously isolating microbes from soil, sequencing their DNA, and then transmitting the information to a remote computer, as would be required on an unmanned Mars mission. (Hear his comments in this video, starting at 00:11:01.) Heather Kowalski, a spokeswoman for Venter, confirmed the existence of the project but said the prototype system was “not yet 100 percent robotic.”

Meanwhile, Rothberg’s Personal Genome Machine is being adapted for Martian conditions as part of a NASA-funded project at Harvard and MIT called SET-G, or “the search for extraterrestrial genomes.”

Christopher Carr, an MIT research scientist involved in the effort, says his lab is working to shrink Ion Torrent’s machine from 30 kilograms down to just three kilograms so that it can fit on a NASA rover. Other tests, already conducted, have determined how well the device can withstand the heavy radiation it would encounter on the way to Mars.

NASA, whose Curiosity rover landed on Mars in August, won’t send another rover mission to the planet before at least 2018 (see “The Mars Rover Curiosity Marks a Technological Triumph“), and there’s no guarantee a DNA sequencing device would go aboard. “The hard thing about getting to Mars is hitting the NASA specifications,” says George Church, a Harvard University researcher and a senior member of the SET-G team. “[Venter] isn’t ahead of anyone else.”

Venter has a great idea here, but it reminds me of a certain movie in which sequencing alien DNA wasn’t such a great plan.

Species !

Genome Hunters Go After Martian DNA

Interview: Lee Billings

From blogs.plos.org:

Like many geeks of the post-Sputnik generation, I grew up hoping that space travel would be common by the time I reached middle age. Weaned on a youthful diet of speculative fiction by the likes of Ray Bradbury and Arthur Clarke, raised on Star Trek and The Outer Limits, and thrilled by real-life hero Neil Armstrong’s “one small step” onto the gravelly surface of the Moon when I was in elementary school, it never occurred to me that humankind’s manifest destiny in the stars would be undone by changing political winds, disasters like the Challenger explosion, and a mountain of debt to pay for misguided military adventures like the War in Iraq.

It’s true that, in some ways, we’re living in a new golden age for space nerds. Bard Canning’s gorgeously enhanced footage of Curiosity’s descent to Mars — made instantly available by the global network we built instead of a Hilton on the Moon — certainly beats  grainy snippets beamed down from Tranquility Base. A newly discovered exoplanet that “may be capable of supporting life” seems tomake headlines every few months. Cassini’s ravishing closeups of Saturnregularly put the fever dreams of ILM’s animators to shame. But wasn’t I supposed to be “strolling on the deck of a starship” by now, as Paul Kantner’s acid-fueled hippie space epic Blows Against the Empire promised me when it was nominated for a Hugo award in 1971?

The problem, it turns out, isn’t just a loss of political will to finance manned space flight. Rocket science turns out to be rocket science — not easy, and constrained by some very real limitations dictated by material science, the physics of acceleration, and the unwieldy economics of interstellar propulsion. Until a real-life Zefram Cochrane comes along to invent a practical warp drive, I may not be sightseeing on any Class M planets anytime soon.

One of the best briefings on the state of the art of interstellar exploration is Lee Billings’ essay “Incredible Journey,” recently reprinted in a wonderful new anthology called The Best Science Writing Online 2012, edited by Scientific American’s Bora Zivkovic and Jennifer Ouellette. I’m very honored to have a piece in the anthology myself: my NeuroTribes interview with John Elder Robison, author of the bestselling memoir of growing up with autism, Look Me in The Eye, and other books. When SciAm’s editors suggested that each author in the book interview one of the other authors, I jumped at the chance to interview Billings about his gracefully written and informative article about the practical challenges of space flight. Billings is a freelance journalist who has written forNatureNew ScientistPopular Mechanics, and Seed. He lives outside New York City with his wife, Melissa.

[...]

Steve Silberman: Before we even get into the meat of your piece, I want to mention how impressed I was by the power and lyricism of your writing. Phrases like “the cosmos suddenly becomes less lonely” and “the easiest way the Daedalus volunteers found to fuel their starship was, in effect, the industrialization of the outer solar system” make vast and highly abstract concepts immediately comprehensible and visceral to lay readers. What made you want to become a science writer, and who are your role models for writing, in any genre?

Lee Billings: My attraction to science preceded my attraction to the act of writing, perhaps because, like every child, I was intensely curious about the world around me. Science, more so than any other source of knowledge I could find, seemed to change the world into something at once eminently understandable and endlessly mysterious.

I became interested in science writing, science journalism, at approximately the same time I realized I would make a poor scientist. I was midway through my college prerequisites, thinking I was on a path to a career in neuroscience. I’d been having a lot of trouble with the more quantitative courses — calculus, organic chemistry, and so on. Many of my friends would ace their assignments and tests after sleeping through lectures and rarely cracking a book. I would study hard, only to receive poor grades. Meanwhile I was breezing through courses in English, literature, history, and art. After a particularly fervent all-night cram-session for a final exam that I still almost flunked, I decided if I wasn’t destined to excel within science itself, perhaps I could instead try to make my mark by helping communicate the world-changing discoveries scientists were making. So I switched my academic emphasis from neuroscience to journalism, and became something of a camp follower, scavenging and trailing behind the gifted few at the front lines of research. I’ve never looked back, and have no regrets. The job never gets old: Rather than being at best a mediocre, hyper-specialized bench worker, being a science writer lets me parachute in to varied fields on a whim, and invariably the brilliant individuals I find upon landing are welcoming and happy to talk to me.

As for influences… I still have a long way to go, but if my writing ever comes to possess a fraction of Carl Sagan’s charisma and elegance, John McPhee’s structure and eye for detail, Richard Preston’s depth of focus and cinematic flair, Stanislaw Lem’s imagination and analytic insight, or Ray Bradbury’s lyrical beauty, I will be a happy man.

Ray Bradbury's "The Martian Chronicles"

Ray Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles”

Silberman: Several times a year now, we hear about the discovery of a new exoplanet in the “Goldilocks zone” that could “potentially support life.” For example, soon after he helped discover Gliese 581g, astronomer Steven Vogt sparked a storm of media hype by claiming that “the chances for life on this planet are 100 percent.” Even setting aside the fact that the excitement of discovering a planet in the habitable zone understandably seems to have gone to Vogt’s head at that press conference, why are such calculations of the probability of life harder to perform accurately than they seem?

Billings: The question of habitability is a second-order consideration when it comes to Gliese 581g, and that fact in itself reveals where so much of this uncertainty comes from. As of right now, the most interesting thing about the “discovery” of Gliese 581g is that not everyone is convinced the planet actually exists. That’s basically because this particular detection is very much indirect — the planet’s existence is being inferred from periodic meter-per-second shifts in the position of its host star. The period of that shift corresponds to the planet’s orbit as it whips from one side of the star to the other; the meter-per-second magnitude of the shift places a lower limit on the planet’s mass, but can’t pin down the mass exactly. So that’s all this detection gives you — an orbit and a minimum mass. That’s not a lot to go on in determining what a planet’s environment might actually be like, is it?

Now, get up and walk around the room. You’re moving at about a meter per second. Imagine discerning that same rate of change in the motion of a million-kilometer-wide ball of plasma, a star many light-years away. Keep in mind this star’s surface is always moving, in pounding waves and swirling eddies, in rising and falling convection cells, in vast plasmatic prominences arcing above the surface, often at many kilometers per second. At any particular moment, all that stellar noise can swamp the faint planetary signal. Only by building up hundreds or thousands of careful measurements over time can you get that crucial periodicity that tells you what you’re seeing might be a planet. So the measurement is quite statistical in nature, and its interpretation can change based on the statistical assumptions being used. This is further complicated by the fact that planets are rarely singletons, so that any given stellar motion may be the product of many planets rather than one, requiring careful long-term study to tease apart each world’s contribution to the bulk signal. It’s also complicated by the instability of astronomical instruments, which must be kept carefully, constantly calibrated and stabilized lest they introduce spurious noise into the measurements. In the case of Gliese 581g, not everyone agrees on the putative planetary signal actually being caused by a planet, or even being real at all — the signal doesn’t seem to manifest equally in the handful of instruments purportedly capable of detecting it.

So it’s very difficult to just detect these things, and actually determining whether they are much like Earth is a task orders of magnitude more difficult still. Notice how I’m being anthropocentric here: “much like Earth.” Astrobiology has been derisively called a science without a subject. But, of course, it does have at least one subject: our own living planet and its containing solar system. We are forced to start from what we know, planting our feet in the familiar before we push out into the alien. That’s why we, as a species, are looking for other Earth-like planets — they probably offer us the best hope of recognizing anything we might consider alive. It’s not the strongest position to be in, but it’s the best we’ve got. Calculating the probability of life on an utterly alien world outside the solar system for which we know only the most basic information — its mass, its orbit, maybe its radius — is at this stage a very crude guess. The fact is, we still don’t know that much about how abiogenesis occurred on Earth, how life emerged from inanimate matter. There are very good physical, chemical, thermodynamic reasons to believe that life arose here because our planet was warm, wet, and rocky, but we really don’t yet know all the cogent occurrences that added up to build the Earth’s earliest organisms, let alone our modern living world. A warm, wet, rocky planet may be a necessary but not a sufficient condition for life as we know it to form and flourish.

Lee Billings with planet hunter Geoff Marcy

Lee Billings with planet hunter Geoff Marcy

This is really a chicken-and-egg problem: To know the limits of life in planetary systems, we need to find life beyond the Earth. To find life beyond Earth, it would be very helpful to know the limits of life in planetary systems. Several independent groups are trying to circumvent this problem by studying abiogenesis in the lab — trying to in effect create life, alien or otherwise, in a test tube. If they manage to replicate Earth life, the achievement could constrain just how life emerged on our own planet. If they somehow manage to make some single-celled organism that doesn’t use DNA, or that relies on silicon instead of carbon to build its body, or that prefers to swim in liquid ethane rather than liquid water, that gives us a hint that “Earth-style” biologies may only be one branch in a much larger and more diverse cosmic Tree of Life.

Silberman: Going deeper than the notion of the cosmos feeling “less lonely” – as well as the fact that we all grew up watching Star Trek and Star Wars and thinking that aliens are frickin’ cool (as long as they’re not the mama alien fromAlien) — why do you think people are so motivated to daydream about extraterrestrial life? What need in us do those dreams fulfill?

Billings: I don’t really think most people are necessarily motivated to daydream about just any sort of extraterrestrial life. It will probably take more than a microbe or a clam to excite most of our imaginations, even if that microbe happens to be on Venus or that clam happens to be on Mars.

I do think humans are motivated to daydream about extraterrestrial intelligence, and, to put a finer point on it, extraterrestrial “people.” They are motivated to dream about beings very much like them, things tantalizingly exotic but not so alien as to be totally incomprehensible and discomforting. Maybe those imagined beings have more appendages or sense organs, different body plans and surface coverings, but they typically possess qualities we recognize within ourselves: They are sentient, they have language, they use tools, they are curious explorers, they are biological, they are mortal — just like humans. Perhaps that’s a collective failure of imagination, because it’s certainly not very easy to envision intelligent aliens that are entirely divergent from our own anthropocentric preconceptions. Or perhaps it’s more diagnostic of the human need for context, affirmation, and familiarity. Why are people fascinated by their distorted reflections in funhouse mirrors? Maybe it’s because when they recognize their warped image, at a subconscious level that recognition reinforces their actual true appearance and identity.

More broadly, speculating about extraterrestrial intelligence is an extension of three timeless existential questions: What are we, where do we come from, and where are we going? The late physicist Philip Morrison considered SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, to be the “archaeology of the future,” because any galactic civilizations we could presently detect from our tiny planet would almost certainly be well more advanced than our own. It’s unlikely that we would ever receive a radio message from an alien civilization in the equivalent of our past Stone Age, and it’s unlikely Earth would ever be visited by a crewed starship that powered its voyage using engines fueled by coal or gasoline. Optimists consider this, and say that making contact with a superior alien civilization could augur a bright future for humanity, as it would suggest there are in fact solutions to be found for all the current seemingly intractable problems that threaten to destroy or diminish our species. It’s my opinion that most people think about aliens as a way of pondering our own spectrum of possible futures.

I’m inclined to believe some of the things Billings has to say in that it’s doubtful we’ll build anything like a starship in the near future and folks ( taxpayers ) just won’t fund those kinds of projects. Entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk, James Cameron and Peter Diamandis could in the future fund projects such as starprobes and starships – only if they prove profitable.

IMO it looks like stronger telescopes both on Earth and in space will be the only human built machines exploring the closer solar systems for any signs of life and extant civilizations because they can be economically constructed – and if they found anything interesting, the items are still a safe distance away.

Five Billion Years of Solitude: Lee Billings on the Science of Reaching the Stars

Filmmaker Dan Mack’s Response to Lord Martin Rees

From Huffington Post:

Lord Martin Rees recently offered The Huffington Post his opinion about UFOs:

“No serious astronomer gives any credence to any of these stories … I think most astronomers would dismiss these. I dismiss them because if aliens had made the great effort to traverse interstellar distances to come here, they wouldn’t just meet a few well-known cranks, make a few circles in corn fields and go away again.”

Such sweeping statements from well regarded scientists are endlessly frustrating to the UFO researcher. Particularly given that interest in UFOs actually drives some people to study astronomy! Unfortunately the idea that only kooks see UFOs is prevalent.

But because Lord Rees is a scientist, the correct answer is to provide him with scientific data that is directly relevant to his claim. I am aware of only three attempts to scientifically gauge what percentage of astronomers see UFOs. Two show that not only do astronomers see UFOs in America, but many are afraid to report their sightings because they fear professional and public ridicule. The final source indicates that astronomers see UFOs at a dramatically greater rate than the general population.

On August 6, 1952, Astronomer J. Allen Hynek offered the USAF’s Project Blue Book a “Special Report on Conferences with Astronomers on Unidentified Aerial Objects.”

2012-09-26-Screenshot20120926at6.02.59PM.png

Hynek interviewed some 45 astronomers on their experiences and opinions about UFOs during and following the meeting of the American Astronomical Society that June. Hynek provides some notes on each individual astronomer and their opinions. Here’s what some astronomers thought in 1952:

Astronomer Y (no sightings) said, “If I saw one, I wouldn’t say anything about it.”

Astronomer II (two sightings) “is willing to cooperate but does not wish to have notoriety,” Hynek reports.

Astronomer OO: (one sighting) was a new observer at the Harvard Meteor Station in New Mexico. He saw two lights moving in parallel that were too fast for a plane and too slow for a meteor. He had not reported his observation.

Hynek concluded: “Over 40 astronomers were interviewed of which five had made sightings of one sort or another. This is a higher percentage than among the populace at large. Perhaps this is to be expected, since astronomers do, after all, watch the skies.”

http://youtu.be/6Je3vlCAltI

The next data point comes from 1977. Dr. Peter Sturrock made a questionnaire about UFO attitudes and experiences. Again the target was the members of the American Astronomical Society. The paper was eventually printed in 1994 in the Journal of Scientific Exploration, a peer-reviewed but decidedly non-mainstream publication.

Sturrock received 1,356 responses from 2,611 questionnaires. Sixty-two astronomers responded that they had observed something they could not explain which could be relevant to the UFO phenomenon. Eighteen of those witnesses said they had previously reported their sightings, and Sturrock notes that a 30% reporting rate is greater than what is assumed for the average population. Section 3.2 of the paper titled “Comparison of Witnesses and Non-Witnesses” contains a table showing that UFO witnessees were actually more likely to be night sky observers (professional or amateur) while non-witnesses are more likely to not even be observing the skies at all!

2012-09-26-1977sturrock1table3.2p11.jpg

Sturrock also includes commentary from the astronomers, and again a sample is illuminating:

C1. “I object to being quizzed about this obvious nonsense. Unidentified = unobserved or factually unrecorded: modern mythology. Too much respectability given to it.”

C1O. “l find it tough to make a living as an astronomer these days. It would be professionally suicidal to devote significant time to UFOs. However, I am quite interested in your survey.”

C16. “Menzel and Condon have made further investigation unnecessary unless some really new phenomena are reported … There is no pattern to UFO reports except that they predominantly come from unreliable observers.”

I could add more, but I want folks to read Mack’s article.

Rees’ comments are not unusual for the conservative scientific community at large and in turn benefit the military-industrial-complex which runs the U.S. and most world governments. The MIC doesn’t want any release of technology that is derived(?) from supposed alien technology because it would destroy the present world order. They prefer a slow “leak” of tech in dribs and dabs which doesn’t rock the boat much. Apples Ipod and other Smart Phone technologies are relatively innocuous in that they are primarily for games and other entertainment that distracts the younger population from more important concerns.

Astronomers and UFOs: A Response to the Lord Martin Rees

Hat tip to the Daily Grail.

Red Ice Creations: “Clouds of alien life forms are sweeping through outer space…”

From YouTube via Red Ice Creations:

“Clouds of alien life forms are sweeping through outer space and infecting planets with life — it may not be as far-fetched as it sounds.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HX0Y0glCjUQ&feature=youtu.be

_________

Red Rain in India
The Extraordinary Tale of Red Rain, Comets and Extraterrestrials


Also tune into Red Ice Radio:
Michael Mautner – Panspermia, Seeding the Universe with Life
Lloyd Pye – Human Origins, Intervention Theory & Genetic Experimentation
Mike Bara – Dark Mission, The Occult NASA Moon Mission
Marcel Kuijsten – Julian Jaynes, the Bicameral Mind & The Origin of Consciousness

Susan Joy Rennison – A New Cosmic Age, Space Weather & Cosmic Radiation

The theory of Panspermia is also advocated by mainstream scientist Chandra Wickramasinghe and supported by the late Sir Fred Hoyle .

Maybe Sir Ridley Scott wasn’t too far off the beam?

Horizon: We Are The Aliens

SETI and the SKA

From Phys.org:

It was a vision of the that was never meant to be. In 1971 ’s Ames Research Center, under the direction of two of SETI’s great heavyweights – Hewlett–Packard’s Barney Oliver and NASA’s Chief of Life Sciences, John Billingham – sponsored a three-month workshop aimed at coordinating SETI on a large scale. While laying the groundwork of much of what was to follow for SETI in the subsequent decades, such as the existence of the ‘water hole’ between 1420 and 1666MHz, it also investigated what SETI could do if money and resources were no option. By the end of the three months they had come up with Project Cyclops, which detailed plans for an immense array of radio dishes, up to a thousand in all, each dish 100-meters across with a total collecting area of up to 20 square kilometers. Cyclops would have been able to hear the faintest whisper, the quietest murmurings from ET, capable of picking up rogue leakage from their civilizations or being deafened by the blaring signal of a deliberate beacon.

Cyclops was never built of course; it was never intended to have been. Rather it was a thought experiment, a look at what was possible if SETI scientists had carte blanche to build whatever they wanted. Indeed, 100-meter dishes are just about the largest we can build before they become structurally unstable. They’re also expensive, but crafty radio scientists have realized that linking many smaller and cheaper radio dishes together in a process known as interferometry can create a combined collecting area equal to or larger than those single dishes, and far more efficiently.

As such, today we stand on the cusp of a new era in radio astronomy, one that could give SETI the boost it needs to discover that we are not alone. In May 2012 it was announced that the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) – an ambitious network of thousands of – would be based in both South Africa (in addition to neighboring countries) and Australia. Assuming funding is in place, construction on phase one is set to begin in 2016, phase two in 2019, with the whole venture to be complete by 2024. will get the majority of radio dishes, each one 15 meters across, designed for targeted observations, while Australia will have the low frequency antennas and mid-frequency phased array dishes for wider-field survey work. It’s not quite on the scale of Project Cyclops but, overall, the size of the SKA is still enormous, with initial baselines (the widest distance between telescopes in the interferometer; the longer the baseline, the greater the angular resolution) of hundreds of kilometers, with phase two expanding that to 3,000 kilometers. A veritable forest of radio antenna on two different continents, listening to the stars.

Whereas Cyclops was designed to be a SETI-dedicated array upon which other astronomical projects could piggyback, the SKA is the mirror image, an instrument primarily for seeking neutral hydrogen in the early Universe, for examining emission from pulsars and black holes and exploring cosmic magnetism. Yet the search for life and its origins has never been far from the SKA’s priorities, with plans to probe the interiors of planet-forming dust discs around young stars to search for the building blocks of life in those planetary construction yards. There’s also SETI and the possibility that the SKA could chance upon an artificial radio signal from another world. So would SETI experiments be welcome on the SKA, perhaps piggybacking at no extra cost on other astronomy experiments as SETI does on Arecibo?

That’s an affirmative, confirms Dr. Michiel van Haarlam, the SKA’s Interim Director General. “It’s not been put to the test yet but it is definitely being considered,” he says. “It’s on our list of science cases so I think it will be there, in competition with all the other proposals out there.”

So, what could SETI do on the SKA? Suffice to say, alien searches have rarely been attempted on very long baselines. More often than not SETI has been performed on single dishes and when interferometry has been utilized, such as on the Allen Telescope Array (ATA), it’s rather localized with short baselines, but very long baseline interferometry (VLBI) is finding itself increasingly in vogue. How does SETI perform on telescopes of such size?

SETI on the SKAEnlarge

An artist’s impression of the SKA’s 15-meter dishes, staring up at the Milky Way. Credit: SPDO/TDP/DRAO/Swinburne Astronomy Productions

The bane of SETI is terrestrial interference from the likes of television and radio, cellphones, orbiting satellites and airport radar. With a long baseline array of so many telescopes across such a wide stretch of land, is it feasible to eradicate all interference? It turns out you don’t need to, says Hayden Rampadarath of the International Center for Radio Astronomy in Perth, Australia. He led a SETI VLBI experiment to listen to the Gliese 581 system – a red dwarf with at least four orbiting terrestrial planets – using the three telescopes of the Australian Long Baseline Array. The report on the experiment, to be published in The Astronomical Journal, describes how, despite no extraterrestrial signals bring received, the system did detect and successfully identify 222 narrow and broadband signals of terrestrial origin.

“Because of the large separations of the individual telescopes, hundreds to thousands of kilometers, the same radio frequency interference would usually only be seen by one or two telescopes and, as such, would not be correlated,” says Rampadarath. “However, sometimes this might not be true and interference that does correlate would instead experience a geometrical delay – and hence a phase delay – that arises due to the radio emission arriving earlier at some of the telescopes than at others.”

This phase delay could then be used to rule out any rogue emission – the point being that long baseline interferometry on the SKA need not worry about interference from terrestrial signals, therefore making the array an excellent tool for targeted SETI operations.

Whereas our interference is an obstacle for SETI, extraterrestrial radio interference may provide an opportunity. The SKA’s promotional literature has frequently talked about being able to eavesdrop on ET’s own terrestrial radio signals, neatly sidestepping the issue of whether ET would spend the resources on deliberately beaming a signal to us. Certainly our own rogue radio signals have been permeating space for almost a century, but they’re weak, dropping off with distance following the inverse square law; the SETI Institute’s Seth Shostak has previously pointed out that we couldn’t even detect our radio signals with our current equipment at the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, 4.2 light years away. What hope then do we have of detecting ET’s version of tacky reality television and soap operas?

It depends on whom we ask. “For phase one of the SKA, we can detect an airport radar at 50 to 60 light years,” says van Haarlam.

Professor Abraham Loeb, Chair of the Astronomy Department at Harvard University, goes even further. In 2006 he wrote a paper with his Harvard colleague Matias Zaldarriaga that was published in the Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics, describing how upcoming radio observatories such as the SKA could eavesdrop on radio broadcasts.

“Military radars in the form of ballistic missile early warning systems during the Cold War were the brightest,” he tells Astrobiology Magazine. “We showed that these are detectable with an SKA-type telescope out to a distance of hundreds of light years, although TV and radio broadcasting is much fainter and can be seen to shorter distances.”

It is undisputed that our over the horizon radar has powerfully leaked out into space. However, those early warning radars are in most cases, like the Berlin Wall, a relic of a past time, used for only a few decades before becoming obsolete. Today they have been mostly replaced by broadband radars that hop across frequencies, making them untraceable to extraterrestrials, a theme that’s been latched onto in a paper published in The International Journal of Astrobiology by Dr. Duncan Forgan of the University of Edinburgh and Professor Bob Nichol of the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation at the University of Portsmouth. They worry that, if extraterrestrial civilizations followed our technology curve, with the move over to digital broadband signals, they would have reduced their radio leakage and made their planets ‘radio quiet’, leaving a window of only about a century where we can eavesdrop on them.

“If we are able to improve our technology so that our signal does not leak out into the Galaxy and if we improve it on a certain timescale, then our estimates suggest that even if our Galaxy is well populated but with human-like intelligence that decides to drastically curb its signal leakage, then it becomes very difficult to detect them,” says Forgan. If that’s the case, then the chance of the SKA’s existence coinciding with one of those relatively short time windows of extraterrestrial leakage is going to be small.

SETI on the SKAEnlarge

A representation of the giant Cyclops array from NASA’s 1971 SETI study. Credit: NASA

It gets worse. Although Forgan accepts that radar will still be directed into space to probe potentially hazardous near-Earth asteroids, this use of radar is random and non-repeating, points out Dr. James Benford of Microwave Sciences, Inc. who, along with John Billingham, assessed our own civilization’s visibility in a paper presented at the Royal Society’s ‘Towards a Scientific and Social Agenda on Extraterrestrial Life’ discussion meeting in October 2010. They calculated that a transmission deliberately beamed into space by the 70-meter Evpatoria radio antenna in the Crimea, far more powerful than our TV and radio leakage, would only be detectable as a coherent message by a SKA-sized receiver out to 19 light years, and as a raw burst of energy containing no information out to 648 light years.

Worse still, they argue that Loeb’s calculations for our TV and radio leakage being detectable out to 75 light years – calculations that are based on very long integration times on the order of months – are not feasible because radio stations will rotate over the limb of a planet, preventing locking onto the signal for a prolonged period of time to facilitate detection (Benford levels the same criticism at van Haarlam’s estimate of detecting airport radar out to 50 light years).

Furthermore, in response to Seth Shostak’s claim that a receiver the size of Chicago could detect our radio leakage out to hundreds of light years, Benford and Billingham respond by pointing out that such an antenna, with a total collecting area of 24,800 square kilometers, would cost $60 trillion, of similar order of magnitude to the planet’s entire GNP (for comparison, the SKA is projected to cost around $1.5 billion). If ET is going to hear us, they’re going to have resources far in advance of our own, meaning that our own efforts to eavesdrop with the SKA are going to be futile.

SETI on the SKAEnlarge

An artist’s impression of the SKA’s low frequency antennas that will be located in Australia. Credit: SPDO/TDP/DRAO/Swinburne Astronomy Productions

The picture painted by Forgan and Nichol, Benford and Billingham is pretty bleak for eavesdropping with the SKA. However, Loeb counters, “The periodicity due to rotation of a planet is a big plus that can help in identifying the artificial nature of the signal.” He adds, “In addition to planetary rotation, one could search for periodicity due to the orbit of the planet around its star.”

Benford isn’t convinced by Loeb’s arguments. “Absence of signal [as the planet rotates] means absence of detection time and the signal-to-noise ratio is reduced,” he says.

However, we’ve been assuming that our aliens are planet-bound. Suppose they have spaceflight. That could change things quite a bit. Radio communication between satellites, space stations and spacecraft would not be subject to planetary rotation. Duncan Forgan admits that he hasn’t factored spaceflight or interplanetary colonization into his vision of a radio quiet Universe, but cautions, “It’s unclear exactly how much radio traffic would result from a civilization that has multiple planets around multiple stars.” There are other methods of communicating, he says, such as lasers or even ephemeral neutrino beams. On the other hand, notes Jim Benford, a planet-faring civilization may use microwave beaming to power their spacecraft, dramatically increasing their leakage signature.

Ultimately, whichever side of the debate you fall on, there are a lot of unknowns and assumptions built into each argument that renders neither of them entirely persuasive. Maybe the SKA won’t be able to eavesdrop on ET, but there’s certainly no harm in trying. If it fails, there is always more traditional SETI to fall back on, namely the search for deliberate beacons.

Benford imagines the existence of transient beacons, designed to be cost efficient, flashing our way only once in a given timeframe. These, he says, look a lot like pulsars, something that the SKA is primed to search for; perhaps a transient beacon will manifest itself in one of the SKA’s pulsar sweeps? It’s the potential for this kind of serendipitous discovery that could make the SKA such a powerful tool for SETI, as long as the manpower and resources are there to search through all the raw data that the SKA will produce. Certainly, there will be lots of it: in order to process all the data covering millions of one hertz wide narrowband channels, exaflop computers that are capable of performing on the order of a million trillion operations per second will be required. There’s only one problem: such powerful computers have not been invented yet, but Moore’s Law and recent advances in computing tell us that they are on their way and will be ready by the time the SKA is online.

Jim Benford suggests making things even simpler. Searching for transient beacons is going to require a lot of watching and waiting, staring unblinkingly in the hope of catching the brief burst of a transient signal in the act – something like the mysterious ‘Wow!’ signal, perhaps. According to Benford, a small array of radio dishes, each tasked with observing a particular patch of sky non-stop, would do the trick. There’s no need to use the entirety of the SKA, he says; the small array of dishes that form ASKAP, ’s SKA Prototype, would be sufficient and far more efficient at a fraction of the cost of using the entire SKA.

Regardless of the SKA’s true ability to detect extraterrestrial leakage, it is still vastly superior to anything we have conducting SETI right now, including the Allen Telescope Array that has struggled for funding. What the SKA does prove is that, even if the ATA shuts down, it’s not the end of SETI itself. “Radio SETI is going to get a real boost because we have fantastic telescopes coming like the SKA that are game-changers for radio astronomy,” says Forgan. “It’s a very exciting time.”

And there’s certainly no harm in looking, just in case. “The nature of SETI research is exploration,” says Loeb. “We should act as explorers and make minimal educated guesses, simply because extraterrestrials might be very different from us and our experience might not be a useful guide.”

On the other hand, if they are like us and do have leakage that is predominantly from military radar, then we might want to steer clear, warns Loeb. “The conclusion I would draw is that militant civilizations are likely to be visible at greater distances than peaceful ones, and we should be very careful before replying to any detected signal.”

In my humble opinion using the purely electromagnetic means of searching for ETI is doomed to failure, noting our own civilization’s reduction of radio wave broadcasting.

But there’s big money in this endeavor, mainly the military-industrial-complex’s spending of tax-payer dollars!

SETI on the SKA 

The Transcension of ET Civilizations

For some reason, 60 years seems to be enough time for SETI to scan the local star neighborhood for radio signals, a sign mainstream science believes will be the way we’ll prove there’s ET intelligence in the Universe.

And as Mankind hasn’t received any radio signals from Out There yet, the famous “Fermi Paradox” is invoked.

The following abstract gives yet another possible explanation of the “silence” and one I have heard of before, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it tossed out into the mainstream:

The emerging science of evolutionary developmental (“evo devo”) biology can aid us in thinking about our universe as both an evolutionary system, where most processes are unpredictable and creative, and a developmental system, where a special few processes are predictable and constrained to produce far-future-specific emergent order, just as we see in the common developmental processes in two stars of an identical population type, or in two genetically identical twins in biology. The transcension hypothesis proposes that a universal process of evolutionary development guides all sufficiently advanced civilizations into what may be called “inner space,” a computationally optimal domain of increasingly dense, productive, miniaturized, and efficient scales of space, time, energy, and matter, and eventually, to a black-hole-like destination. Transcension as a developmental destiny might also contribute to the solution to the Fermi paradox, the question of why we have not seen evidence of or received beacons from intelligent civilizations. A few potential evolutionary, developmental, and information theoretic reasons, mechanisms, and models for constrained transcension of advanced intelligence are briefly considered. In particular, we introduce arguments that black holes may be a developmental destiny and standard attractor for all higher intelligence, as they appear to some to be ideal computing, learning, forward time travel, energy harvesting, civilization merger, natural selection, and universe replication devices. In the transcension hypothesis, simpler civilizations that succeed in resisting transcension by staying in outer (normal) space would be developmental failures, which are statistically very rare late in the life cycle of any biological developing system. If transcension is a developmental process, we may expect brief broadcasts or subtle forms of galactic engineering to occur in small portions of a few galaxies, the handiwork of young and immature civilizations, but constrained transcension should be by far the norm for all mature civilizations.

The transcension hypothesis has significant and testable implications for our current and future METI and SETI agendas. If all universal intelligence eventually transcends to black-hole-like environments, after which some form of merger and selection occurs, and if two-way messaging (a send–receive cycle) is severely limited by the great distances between neighboring and rapidly transcending civilizations, then sending one-way METI or probes prior to transcension becomes the only real communication option. But one-way messaging or probes may provably reduce the evolutionary diversity in all civilizations receiving the message, as they would then arrive at their local transcensions in a much more homogenous fashion. If true, an ethical injunction against one-way messaging or probes might emerge in the morality and sustainability systems of all sufficiently advanced civilizations, an argument known as the Zoo hypothesis in Fermi paradox literature, if all higher intelligences are subject to an evolutionary attractor to maximize their local diversity, and a developmental attractor to merge and advance universal intelligence. In any such environment, the evolutionary value of sending any interstellar message or probe may simply not be worth the cost, if transcension is an inevitable, accelerative, and testable developmental process, one that eventually will be discovered and quantitatively described by future physics. Fortunately, transcension processes may be measurable today even without good physical theory, and radio and optical SETI may each provide empirical tests. If transcension is a universal developmental constraint, then without exception all early and low-power electromagnetic leakage signals (radar, radio, television), and later, optical evidence of the exoplanets and their atmospheres should reliably cease as each civilization enters its own technological singularities (emergence of postbiological intelligence and life forms) and recognizes that they are on an optimal and accelerating path to a black-hole-like environment. Furthermore, optical SETI may soon allow us to map an expanding area of the galactic habitable zone we may call the galactic transcension zone, an inner ring that contains older transcended civilizations, and a missing planets problem as we discover that planets with life signatures occur at a much lower frequencies in this inner ring than in the remainder of the habitable zone.

The mention of inner rings or zones smacks of the Anthropic Principle, so I’m not too impressed with this abstract, but it looks like it’s a very well written hypothesis.
But my question is this; “Why does the mainstream consider 60 years enough search time for ET activity to be detected?”
Are we really that convinced we’re on top of the local Galactic food-chain?
And where does that leave the issue of UFOs? Are they possible manifestations of civilizations who have attained Technological Singularity status?

Convince me.

The transcension hypothesis: Sufficiently advanced civilizations invariably leave our universe, and implications for METI and SETI

Hat tip to the Daily Grail.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 90 other followers