Project Ozma’s Anniversary

It was just fifty years ago today, April 8, 1960, when Frank Drake launched Project Ozma by turning the Green Bank, WV dish toward Tau Ceti. In a reminiscence of the project written for Cosmic Search magazine, Drake recalls the initial sense of anticipation, followed by examination of the chart recorder, which returned nothing but noise. When Tau Ceti set in the west, Drake and team pointed the telescope at Epsilon Eridani. Let Drake tell it:

A few minutes went by. And then it happened. Wham! Suddenly the chart recorder started banging off scale. We heard bursts of noise coming out of the loudspeaker eight times a second, and the chart recorder was banging against its pin eight times a second. We had never seen anything like this before in all the previous observing at Green Bank. We all looked at each other wide-eyed. Could it be this easy? Some people had even predicted that the most rational extraterrestrial signal would be a slow series of pulses, as that would be evidence of intelligent origin. (No one had any idea about the existence of pulsars then.)

An exciting moment, and one that led to further debate:

Suddenly I realized that there had been a flaw in our planning. We had thought the detection of a signal so unlikely that we had never planned what to do if a clear signal was actually received. Almost simultaneously everyone in the room asked “What do we do now?” Change the frequency? Well, the most likely source of a spurious signal was the earth, and we could check that out by moving the telescope off the star and seeing if the signal went away. So we proceeded to do that, and as we moved off the star, sure enough the signal went away. So we pointed back at the star. The signal did not come back. Wow. Was it really from the star, or had it been from earth and had it turned off about the time we moved off the star? There was no way to know. And there was all that adrenaline flowing and no way to apply all that excitement and energy in a useful way.

Image: The Howard Tatel Radio Telescope at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Green Bank WV. SETI pioneer Dr. Frank Drake used this 85 foot diameter antenna for Project Ozma, the first modern microwave search for intelligent extra-terrestrial signals, in 1960. Credit: SETI League.

It was about ten days later, with newspaper reporters already asking about the unusual signal, that the Project Ozma team was able to determine that the noise was man-made radio interference. Drake persevered, and from April to July the 26-meter NRAO radio telescope studied the 21-centimeter emission line (1420 MHz) of cold hydrogen, looking for the kind of patterned pulses that would reveal intelligence. No unusual signals turned up, but Drake had set the era of modern SETI detection attempts in motion. A second Ozma project was managed by Benjamin Zuckerman and Patrick Palmer starting in 1973, also at Green Bank, surveying about 650 stars during a four-year period with the same result as the original.

Interlacing Art and Science

Those of you in the New York area will want to take advantage of a panel on art and astronomy that will be held tonight at Central Booking in Brooklyn (111 Front St., Gallery 210). Interstellar flight specialist Greg Matloff and the artist C Bangs will be on the panel, along with Denton Ebel (American Museum of Natural History) and Ari Maller (New York City College of Technology). I’m just finishing Matloff and Bangs’ new title Paradise Regained: The Regreening of Earth (Copernicus, 2009), written with NASA’s Les Johnson. I’ll have more on the book in a subsequent post, but for now I’ll simply mention how C Bangs’ elegant artwork complements the book’s central argument, that space resources can help us revive our tired planet.

Image: Message Plaque Rainbow Hologram, by C Bangs.

How do art and science interact? From Central Bookings’ news release:

Human history has been greatly influenced by our collective image of the cosmos. Today, art and astronomy continue to interact, witness the uproar of the American public when NASA planned to prematurely de-orbit the Hubble Space Telescope. Many artists have utilized Hubble images and those taken by other modern telescopes. Conversely, art also influences astronomy. After the success of the recent movie Avatar, an on-going search for Terrestrial planets circling our near stellar neighbors Alpha Centauri A and B has been dubbed “the search for Pandora.” The universe has been considered to be many things: a divine construction, a machine and a mathematical exercise. But in his 1937 vintage science-fiction classic Star Maker, British author/philosopher Olaf Stapledon speculates that our cosmos (and all others) might be the work of a divine artist.

Bangs’ work has graced books like Matloff’s The Starflight Handbook and has appeared in permanent collections including the Library of Congress, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center and the Chrysler Museum. Matloff continues to explore our prospects for travel both within and without the Solar System in books and scientific papers. The panel will convene at 6:30 this evening and should be well worth the modest $5 entrance fee.

Universe in a Black Hole

Theoretical physicist Nikodem Poplawski describes the gravitational field of a black hole in a new paper in Physics Letters B, modeling the radial geodesic motion of a massive particle into such an object. Both Schwarzschild and Einstein-Rosen black holes are considered legitimate mathematical solutions of General Relativity, but in both cases, we can see only the outside of a black hole, leading Poplawski to question whether our universe might be itself inside a wormhole associated with a black hole within a much larger universe.

This is mind-bending stuff, and I can only quote the author:

“This condition would be satisfied if our universe were the interior of a black hole existing in a bigger universe. Because Einstein’s general theory of relativity does not choose a time orientation, if a black hole can form from the gravitational collapse of matter through an event horizon in the future then the reverse process is also possible. Such a process would describe an exploding white hole: matter emerging from an event horizon in the past, like the expanding universe.”

Are astrophysical black holes concealing universes that formed when the black holes themselves did? The concept is that a white hole is connected to a black hole by a wormhole — an Einstein-Rosen bridge — and the new paper suggests that all black holes in our cosmos may contain such wormholes. One intriguing possibility is that such a theory might help us resolve problems with black hole information loss, the notion that all information about matter is lost as it passes over the event horizon. And it might just help us explain cosmic inflation.

The paper is Poplawski, “Radial motion into an Einstein-Rosen bridge,” Physics Letters B, Vol. 687, Issues 2-3 (12 April 2010), pp. 110-113.

Geoff Marcy on Habitable Worlds

With 205 planets already discovered, Geoff Marcy and the California Planet Search team have plenty of accomplishments to look back on, and as Marcy told a recent interviewer, Kepler is working beautifully, offering unprecedented measurements of the stars it’s monitoring. The short interview adds to the excitement of future Kepler discoveries, but Marcy is cautious about getting too far out in front of actual science. Will we find an Earth-like planet soon? Marcy:

It’s presumptuous to predict that Kepler will find Earth-like planets. We may find that Earths are a dime a dozen or we might find that they are a rare treasure. We might even find zero Earth-like planets, which would be a spectacular result and suggest that our planet is an extraordinary contradiction to the norm.

If we do find Earth-like planets, it will take more than a year to identify them. Kepler needs to observe a planet passing in front of its star three times in order to confirm its existence. For a planet with the same orbit as the Earth, that’s over three years to wait.

Image: Planet hunter Geoff Marcy. Credit: University of California at Berkeley.

It’s good to see this dash of realism, along with the reminder to keep our personal biases out of the search:

I think it’s important to remain unbiased. As scientists, we need to make sure to keep an open mind so that we can faithfully report our findings and avoid over-interpreting our data. We can make mistakes if we want a certain answer badly. Quality data are most important, so I try to stay calm, vigilant, and self-critical.

A brief look at interplanetary exploration offers plenty of evidence for the value of scientific detachment. How many times have we been confounded by what our space probes have found, from the volcanoes of Io to the bizarre geysers of Enceladus? The good news about Kepler is that the recently reported CCD problem is minor (Marcy calls it an ‘inconvenience,’ nothing more), and that we’re within a few short years of finding answers that will flesh out our understanding of the cosmos and the incidence of terrestrial worlds.