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SETI in the News

Let me draw your attention to two interesting stories this morning, one harking back to the night in August of 1977 when the Big Ear radio telescope at Ohio State University recorded the famous ‘Wow!’ signal. For those unfamiliar with it, the ‘Wow!’ signal gets its name from Big Ear volunteer Jerry Ehman’s annotation (several days later) on the signal’s printout. ‘Wow!’ seemed appropriate for a signal that was 30 times stronger in volume than the background noise and took up a single 10 kilohertz-wide band on the receiver, an enigmatic 70-second narrow-band burst at almost precisely 1420 megahertz, the emission frequency of hydrogen.

A message from an extraterrestrial civilization? ‘Wow!’ seemed to fit the bill, but it disappeared and despite more than 50 repeated searches by the Big Ear team, it never recurred. In this article for The Planetary Society, Amir Alexander calls the signal “…the single most intriguing result ever produced by the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence,” one made all the more frustrating because of the lack of any follow-up signal. Alexander’s story alerted me to the fact that Bob Gray, a data analyst with a passion for radio astronomy, has just published a book on the ‘Wow!’ signal based on three decades of study and observation using a wide variety of equipment.

Image: A 70-second burst that came to be known as the ‘Wow!’ signal. Credit: Columbus Dispatch.

The Elusive Wow: Searching for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (Chicago: Palmer Square Press, 2011) caught my eye not only because of ‘Wow!’ but also because of my love of travel books — Gray’s journeys in support of his SETI research have been globe-spanning. Having built a radio telescope of his own using a 12-foot dish and a steerable mount from a World War II radar installation, he began by operating his own SETI program for fifteen years, looking at the region of the spectrum and the specific coordinates where ‘Wow!’ had first appeared. Then he started expanding the hunt, traveling to the Oak Ridge Observatory near Harvard, Massachusetts.

Alexander’s article tells the tale and I won’t do anything more than hit the highlights here, but suffice it to say that Gray worked with Paul Horowitz at the observatory using a 25-meter radio telescope running META (Million Channel Extraterrestrial Array). He later went to the Very Large Array in New Mexico, whose 27 dishes mounted on rails were put at his disposal for a four hour stretch in September of 1995 (this followed a lengthy proposal submission process). Still later, he wound up in Tasmania at the Mount Pleasant Observatory, working with Simon Ellingsen.

The result: No trace of the ‘Wow!’ signal despite the presence of unknown (and presumably natural) radio sources close to where it had originated. ‘Wow!’ remains a mystery and Gray’s book will keep its tantalizing story alive as he continues his personal quest to nail it down. Alexander quotes him as calling ‘Wow!’ “ “…a pretty strong tug on the cosmic fishing line,” about as charming an image as can be imagined for this most intriguing of all SETI results to date. Gray’s book is in my reading stack and I’ll be offering my own review in the near future.

Money and Commitment at the ATA

The 42 radio telescopes of the Allen Telescope Array, located near Lassen Peak in Hat Creek, California, are one day to be joined by more than 300 more if the original plan is followed, but at the moment the installation’s financial problems are what occupies its supporters even as they continue their observations. New York Times science writer Dennis Overbye tells the tale in a late January story that looks at the ATA and its possibilities, examining what he calls “…a dream deferred by politics, a lack of money and the technological challenges of searching what astronomers call ‘the cosmic haystack’: 100 billion stars in the galaxy and 9 billion narrow-band radio channels on which aliens, if they exist, might be trying to hail us.”

Image: The Allen Telescope Array continues its work as funding issues are temporarily resolved. Credit: ATA.

Centauri Dreams readers will recall that the University of California’s own funding for the ATA ran out last spring, sending the telescopes into forced hibernation until a funding appeal sent out over the SETI Institute’s Web site brought in enough money to fund about two more months of operations. The US Air Force is also interested in the array’s possibilities in terms of tracking satellites and space debris, an agreement that is still being negotiated. The ATA is back in business (since December), but the financial shortfalls ahead are sizable for an installation that needs $1.5 million per year for operations and another $1 million for the staff of astronomers.

Microsoft founder Paul Allen ponied up $25 million to launch the original project, which would be owned by the University of California at Berkeley as well as the SETI Institute, but fleshing out the remaining 300 or so antennas will require a cool $55 million, making the ATA a site in search of philanthropists. As Overbye recounts, SETI has never been robustly funded and has been controversial from the start, particularly with alarming price estimates like the $10 billion a 1971 NASA workshop came up with for a giant telescope array that would have been called Cyclops. The infamous 1978 ‘Golden Fleece’ award from Wisconsin senator William Proxmire only added to the problems, leading to the cancellation (in 1993) of NASA’s SETI survey work.

Taking SETI private was the only option, but the tough-minded scientists who continue this work soldier on despite the challenges. Writes Overbye:

Astronomers now know that the galaxy is teeming with at least as many planets — the presumed sites of life — as stars. Advanced life and technology might be rare in the cosmos, said Geoffrey W. Marcy, the Watson and Marilyn Alberts in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence professor at the University of California, Berkeley, “but surely they are out there, because the number of Earthlike planets in the Milky Way galaxy is simply too great.”

A simple “howdy,” a squeal or squawk, or an incomprehensible stream of numbers captured by one of the antennas here at the University of California’s Hat Creek Radio Observatory would be enough to end our cosmic loneliness and change history, not to mention science. It would answer one of the most profound questions humans ask: Are we alone in the universe?

I like the way Overbye frames this story, highlighting a band of astronomers depending on “…the stubborn strength of their own dreams,” a description which goes a long way toward explaining Bob Gray’s own persistent hunt for the ‘Wow!’ signal as well. It takes passion, and a hide as tough as a Texas longhorn’s, to fight through budget shortfalls, political maneuvering and the sheer intractability of the technical problems involved in pulling an intelligent signal out of the cosmos. But things are happening again at Hat Creek and have been since December, while the question of how long the site will stay operational hovers over SETI like an ominous cloud.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Ronald February 13, 2012, 8:17

    Eniac February 12, 2012 at 12:59;

    it seems that we almost entirely agree now ! And that the Fermi paradox may be, and is indeed likely to be, the result of rarity of (contemporaneous) technological ETI with interstellar capabilities. And not necessarily the result of rarity of abiogenesis.

  • Avatar2.0 February 13, 2012, 11:41

    Ronald
    “And that the Fermi paradox may be, and is indeed likely to be, the result of rarity of (contemporaneous) technological ETI with interstellar capabilities. And not necessarily the result of rarity of abiogenesis.”

    First – likely? You rely on a LOT of highly improbable assumptions here.

    Second – for the fermi paradox to be explained, the rarity – that is, ABSENCE – of ETI with interstellar capabilities must not only be present, but also PAST.
    You see, once a civilisation with interstellar capabilities has spread on, let’s say, 10 worlds around 10 different stars, this civilisation is practically indestructible: there is no known phenomenon that can destroy this civilisation om all 10 worlds. And the chances that even just 2 of the civilised worlds are eliminated by different phenomena happening at the same time are MINUSCULE. Conclusion – once a civilisation reached these 10 worlds, it’s there to stay: there won’t be a ‘dark age’ that affects more than one world at a time.

  • ljk February 13, 2012, 12:09

    Interesting – I suggest that ETI/ETL may exist based on the scientific evidence we already have, including the fact that Earth is covered with life and has been so for several billion years, surviving a number of major extinction level events in the process without any obvious external help.

    I suggest that ETI may not have visited the Sol system. I won’t go through my whole list of reasons again, but I will suggest that if there are billions of Earthlike planets in the Milky Way galaxy, we may not be interesting enough right up to this point for some interstellar-level ETI to want to send an expedition, robotic or otherwise, to check us out. Yes, I know we haven’t checked out the Sol system worth mentioning to see if they left some picnic trash or a discarded fusion engine stage or a big black monolith to let us know they were here.

    I also suggest that if ETI *are* here in whatever form, that if they want to examine us unobtrusively that they might try to make sure their presence is hidden from us. A logical behavior for a scientist studying less advanced cultures, at the least.

    So what do I get for my ideas from this group? They are equated with believing in elves and fairies and the strong implication that my views are just another form of religion, but instead of focusing on gods or spirits my deities are aliens. I was also told that I did not suggest any scientific experiments to find my little objects of worship and adulation – I mean ETI.

    It is amusing that I consider the possibility of alien life, based on scientific evidence, and it is shoved into the basement of mythological creatures.

    Meanwhile, billions of humans continue to believe in and worship deities who apparently dwell in some mystical plane and are deeply concerned about us all the time – all this based on either faith alone or “evidence” that wouldn’t pass muster with a group of children playing amateur detective. I especially get a kick out of the ones that appear as stains on a wall which become definitive signs that they are not alone, spiritually speaking. Or they’re just really big Elvis fans. See, I can play this game, too.

    By the way, I note how every time my ideas were equated with mythological creatures, they were always ones that just about every modern person has dismissed from our reality and not the ones that are part of many religions such as angels and demons and djinn. One person’s myth is another person’s god and vice versa, right?

    As for experiments, what do you propose I do personally about them? I would love it if we ramped up SETI on all sorts of electromagnetic frequencies in addition to radio and optical. It would be even neater if we could put radio and optical telescopes on the lunar farside to utilize those 2,160 miles of rock as a way to block our noisy civilization. I also know if we could get some expeditions out there to explore the Sol system in depth and visit the other star systems, that would really start answering our questions on this subject.

    Sadly, what I lack is enough money and clout to make most of this happen, though as anyone who knows me here can attest, I do support SETI and space exploration in other ways as often as possible. So, does anyone else have any good ideas for experiments that I may have missed or if they can actually make them a reality? Because quite frankly otherwise I am stuck, both literally and metaphorically.

    What all this really convinces me – and I will disclose right up front that this is just conjecture on my part, so don’t come after me with any elves or trolls, hokay – is that present humanity is not really ready to deal with finding or dealing with ETI, especially the ones who are ahead of us.

    Please do not get me wrong – I think it is great to live in an era when we can not only begin to think seriously about alien life at all possible levels, but that we can actually start doing something about finding them, even if it is just propping up a number of mechanical ears and eyes to the heavens and hoping to get lucky.

    What I do wonder is if our species and society as it currently is will ever really be up to the challenge of encountering an actual alien mind and not the kind we typically find on Star Trek, which are really just us with some funny parts and customs. It’s kind of like how a dog just is not wired to understand quantum physics; it is not the canine’s fault, it’s just the way nature and evolution has wired them (thank you, Brian Greene).

    Perhaps if we enhance our species in certain ways via technology and bioengineering, we might have a better chance of dealing with any cosmic neighbors. Or if we literally cut out the middleperson and go right for the Artilect, we may finally have the right kind of being from this planet that can properly seek out and interact with ETI.

    Right now the odds are not in our favor of coming across beings which are at our current level or less. Our only real hope is to find evidence for the advanced types, the ones who we think may be interacting and manipulating the objects in our galaxy and in other stellar islands. I also realize we may be wrong about beings which are way beyond us, that ETI at such levels may prefer to live in virtual worlds of their own making or go dwell in places we can never reach.

    Sometimes it feels hopeless, but that is why I still support our trying to find out about ETI/ETL just the same. It is just unfortunate that some try to turn this into a religious act, which is most ironic considering that I think those who fear and ridicule the idea of alien life do so from their own religious indoctrination and primal fears of potentially superior beings.

    Of course the real joke is that SETI and space exploration continue to get table scraps when it comes to funding and public support, while in contrast most religions get many billions of dollars annually, much of it tax free to boot. Yeah, humanity has a long way to go in the Cosmos, if ever.

  • Eniac February 14, 2012, 2:16

    @LJK:

    I suggest that ETI may not have visited the Sol system. I won’t go through my whole list of reasons again, but I will suggest that if there are billions of Earthlike planets in the Milky Way galaxy, we may not be interesting enough right up to this point for some interstellar-level ETI to want to send an expedition, robotic or otherwise, to check us out.

    You keep repeating this “billions of planets” argument, which makes no sense whatsoever. How many systems do you think ETI will be content to settle on? 10? 100? 1,000? What about a million years later? Still the same number? more? less? And after another million years? 10 million? 100 million? Perhaps you’ll agree that, eventually, you have most systems inhabited. Do you still claim that ours is not of interest? It is now a rare uninhabited system surrounded by many inhabited ones. You’d think the ETI on at least one of those worlds would want to take a peak ten light years down the path, at the only available open space nearby. Or not? If not, why not?

    If you follow all of the above, you have no other choice but to retreat onto the Zoo/galactic park hypothesis that has (rightfully, I think) brought on the comparison with elves and hobbits. Sure we do have national parks, in which we refrain from building the most obvious signs of our civilization. But do the bears that live in those parks know about us? You bet they do. I hear they are very skillful at breaking into the trunks of cars to get at the food. Despite their lack of intelligence, they probably recognize guns and understand that it is not safe to attack humans. And, do you seriously think that complete quarantine could be maintained over billions of years while the surrounding systems are teeming with life and civilization? And why would this happen, given that we weren’t even around most of that time? To me, this just does not make any sense at all.

  • Eniac February 14, 2012, 2:23

    @LJK:

    So what do I get for my ideas from this group? They are equated with believing in elves and fairies and the strong implication that my views are just another form of religion, but instead of focusing on gods or spirits my deities are aliens.

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but I believe you were the one who first brought up the issue of religious agenda, which is quite inappropriate in this forum. You should not be surprised when it is turned back at you.

  • Ronald February 14, 2012, 7:35

    Avatar: “likely? You rely on a LOT of highly improbable assumptions here”.
    A lot?, no just one, very reasonable, and based on logical derivation: interstellar ETI are *extremely* rare, possibly even totally absent in our MW galaxy.

    Brings us to your second: “once a civilisation with interstellar capabilities has spread (…) different stars, this civilisation is practically indestructible”.

    I know and fully agree!
    That’s why I conclude that:
    a) No ETI has ever reached this level.
    or:
    b) There is something which limits the further spreading, possibly something as simple as too large gaps to bridge.

    Still nothing that leads to inevitable conclusions concerning abiogenesis, etc.

  • Ronald February 14, 2012, 7:45

    LJK, February 13, 2012 at 12:09:

    I agree with all you say, there is a tragic and ironic contradiction here in the way that people gullibly accept the most extreme religious claims while at the same time (often) rejecting ETI or even ET life possibilities. Undoubtedly for the same religious reasons.

    Particularly your last paragraph:
    “Of course the real joke is that SETI and space exploration (…), if ever.”

    Brought me to the consideration that the civilization with the greatest prospects for interstellar travel and colonization might be one which attaches a special religious meaning to it, possibly because of a very bright (wide) binary star.
    However, such religiously zealous motivations could be scary in their own way, we don’t want the Spanish conquistadores at a galactic scale.

    For us 21st century humans, I think the best incentive would be the discovery of a terrestrial planet with an unmistakable biosignature.

  • ljk February 14, 2012, 11:37

    Eniac – You are the one who said that any ETI who came to our Sol system would not just stop by for a visit, but settle in. Now you ask me if such beings would not at least pop by for a quick look. Well, which is it? I can see an ETI wanting to examine and record us for their Galactic Encyclopedia (please do not take this too literally), but settling in is another matter entirely.

    I have said before that there will likely be no other worlds like Earth, so that they could not simply move in without making radical changes to our planet or themselves to survive here. Seems like a lot of work over one little world out of billions upon billions in the galaxy.

    Even more likely, if they are long-term space dwellers, being stuck in a big gravity well (7 miles per second is Earth’s escape velocity) that is also dirty, smelly, and full of nasty creatures both big and small would not be appealing to most who have spent their lives aboard a shiny, clean Worldship.

    Of course THIS assumes that those who roam the galaxy are organic to begin with, which I also question. If the ETI which do bounce about the Milky Way and other galaxies are Artilects, then colonizing planets is a moot point. Tearing them apart for various other purposes is another matter, one that SETI really needs to investigate more than it does.

    And no, we have NOT examined our galaxy or others seriously enough to determine if such beings are out there making Dyson Shells or whatever other astroengineering projects. Most SETI projects are not doing this and most professional astronomers would not be caught dead admitting to such a thing. The vast majority of SETI projects are short-term and even token ones at best. This is not always their fault because they often have to beg for time and money. Look at what happened to ATA, a project that is dedicated to SETI.

    I am not hung up on the Zoo Hypothesis, mainly because I do not think it really needs to exist. This all goes back to humans thinking they are oh so important and vital to the Cosmos, when the reality remains that we are a blip in existence and only think we are the focus of everything due to our millennia of isolation on one little world, which until a matter of centuries ago we thought was everything too rather than an actual and very finite planet floating through space. I am willing to bet that any ETI who have even taken notice of our existence are much too busy with their own concerns over having to play cosmic game warden with some talking monkeys with car keys on an obscure planet.

    As for the religion issue, I brought it up because it has long affected how humanity has viewed the possibility or lack thereof for alien beings. There have been groups which say that ETI do exist because God made so many worlds that he would want all the worshippers he can get, while others say there cannot be more than one place with life because God would not go around “saving” more than one species.

    I hihgly recommend the book The Extraterrestrial Life Debate by Crowe for a good history of humanity’s take on aliens. It is amazing how similar the debates sound going back to the ancient Greeks, which also shows how little progress we have made in many areas of this field.

    These days the emphasis has gone from the at least mentally healthy attitude of God being so bountiful with life to God only made Earth with its one special group of devoted worshippers. Read the book The Privileged Planet if you want to see how two religious fundamentalists bend themselves into pretzels to insist that only our world and our species exist for the chosen purposes of a Loving God.

    To ignore the religious angle for aliens is like talking about the US Presidential elections without mentioning politics. It along with the whole primal fear of being conquered by superiors thing has shaped human thinking and quite frankly kept us from being as far along as we could be in finding ETI. I have to wonder if religion is a natural and widespread occurrence with species just becoming aware and intelligent or if it is unique to humanity. So many important questions that SETI needs to answer, yet there are many who do not want to know those truths that would upset their long established ones.

  • ljk February 14, 2012, 12:12

    Ronald said on February 14, 2012 at 7:45:

    “Brought me to the consideration that the civilization with the greatest prospects for interstellar travel and colonization might be one which attaches a special religious meaning to it, possibly because of a very bright (wide) binary star. However, such religiously zealous motivations could be scary in their own way, we don’t want the Spanish conquistadores at a galactic scale.”

    LJK replies:

    If the first beings who leave our Sol system in person are similar versions of our current human selves (and by extrapolation the same thing occurs with ETI who decide to venture past their solar systems into the wider galaxy), I have stated before that these interstellar explorers may be most unlike the visions of noble astronauts we have been given by the space program for over half a century now.

    Just as those first visitors from Europe to the New World were not impartial scientists but people looking for wealth, new lands, and a place to escape political and religious oppression, so too the ones most motivated to migrate away from an increasing crowded and domineering Earth and the Sol system may be the ones with desires and goals rather similar to our ocean-venturing ancestors.

    This should give us all pause as to consider whatever might come calling on Earth some day. Granted, these will be alien beings who may have alien motives, but organic life may be organic life with all its needs and faults being literally universal traits. Maybe they just want to replenish with a comet or two or scoop some helium-3 out of a gas giant’s atmosphere or get some of that natural antimatter in Saturn’s rings. Think of the Worldship Rama in Arthur C. Clarke’s SF novel Rendezvous with Rama, which only stopped by the Sol system to fuel up at our star and head on into space, ignoring humanity completely.

    However, if they also have some kind of religion and are bent on sharing their deity’s Word with every living intelligence everywhere, this could make for some very interesting times ahead. Religion on this planet has certainly motivated humans to do things they normally would not have considered or needed otherwise, such as build massive cathedrals in tiny little villages where every other building was a hut. Religion has also formulated some devastating wars (or at least used as a front for political motivations) and encroached on other cultures in the effort to save the poor unwashed, only to destroy that society either literally or culturally.

    Ronald then said:

    “For us 21st century humans, I think the best incentive would be the discovery of a terrestrial planet with an unmistakable biosignature.”

    LJK replies:

    Which leads to this important dilemma: What ARE we going to do with an Earthlike alien planet? Even if this does spur humanity to mount a colonizing expedition, what about any life forms on the target planet? There probably would be life on that world, otherwise it would not be very Earthlike to begin with.

    So do we just move in and ask the natives if they wouldn’t mind moving over a bit? Even if there is nothing on that distant globe which appears to be more intelligent and organized than, say, a cow, do we still settle in and change that biosphere forever?

    Imagine if there is an ETI out there with similar motives who has come across Earth and thinks it would make a great place for a new home – with a few modifications first, of course.

    One thing is certain: How our species will behave and interact with the rest of the galaxy is something that has not been given sufficient thought and planning to. We think we can just spread ourselves out there as if the Milky Way were ours for the taking. This comes from our ancient and provincial view that we are the focus of existence and the attitude that since we haven’t found any ETI or that they haven’t bothered to contact us, then naturally no one else exists and we can do as we please with the Universe.

    Note, I am not saying we should not be bold and expand our horizons, I am saying we should be more thoughtful than we have been when we declare “Let’s colonize it!” every time an exoworld even vaguely similar to Earth is found. The fact that information packages placed on the first five robot probes to leave the Sol system (but not their final following rocket stages) were done almost as afterthoughts by the space agency that sent them speaks volumes about how little we really think about the rest of the Universe. That attitude may have been one thing in the eras before the Space Age and modern science, but not any more.

  • Rob Henry February 14, 2012, 18:51

    Avatar2.0, this time I think that your calculation is bang on given the lack of ETI evidence. If we come to realise that our galaxy has billions of planets where reasonably complex life could develop, the we should be looking for one remaining factor in the Drake equation that has a likely value less than one in a million, and not prey that every single remaining factor violates the principle of mediocrity by a fair margin. As you know we have convincing reasons that abiogenesis has at least this order of low probability without any special pleading. I this it very reasonable of you to note that no other factor comes anywhere close to that requirement.

  • Eniac February 15, 2012, 0:28

    Eniac – You are the one who said that any ETI who came to our Sol system would not just stop by for a visit, but settle in. Now you ask me if such beings would not at least pop by for a quick look. Well, which is it? I can see an ETI wanting to examine and record us for their Galactic Encyclopedia (please do not take this too literally), but settling in is another matter entirely.

    Well, settle it is, of course. If not right away, maybe a millenium later. Or, a million years later. I said “quick look” more as a nod to your ideas about how ETI would travel between the stars.

    I have said before that there will likely be no other worlds like Earth, so that they could not simply move in without making radical changes to our planet or themselves to survive here. Seems like a lot of work over one little world out of billions upon billions in the galaxy.

    Any given ETI has only a few dozen worlds to chose from, not billions. The others are just too far away. After sufficient time, most would be taken, to boot. So, ours would look pretty sweet, while still unoccupied.

    Even more likely, if they are long-term space dwellers, being stuck in a big gravity well (7 miles per second is Earth’s escape velocity) that is also dirty, smelly, and full of nasty creatures both big and small would not be appealing to most who have spent their lives aboard a shiny, clean Worldship.

    Which is true, and does away with your previous point that Earth may not be good enough for them.

    Of course THIS assumes that those who roam the galaxy are organic to begin with, which I also question. If the ETI which do bounce about the Milky Way and other galaxies are Artilects, then colonizing planets is a moot point. Tearing them apart for various other purposes is another matter, one that SETI really needs to investigate more than it does.

    Right again. I never spoke of colonizing the planet, I spoke of colonizing the system. Without many assumptions on the nature of the colonizers. As you correctly say, a “world” to them most likely means a star system, not a planet.
    So, the conclusion remains: Had there ever been ETI in the Milky Way that colonize stars, our system would be teeming with them. Pickiness does not apply because even the largest supply runs out given sufficient time, and stealthiness is just too much caring about us, as you have said yourself. Being neither picky nor stealthy, there is no reason we should not have noticed them zooming around the solar system or accidentally pointing one of their lasers at us. Or any of a thousand other giveaways.

  • Eniac February 15, 2012, 0:46

    This comes from our ancient and provincial view that we are the focus of existence

    Nobody here has argued we are the “focus of existence”. Has it occurred to you that the rational arguments we use trying to get through to you might be just that? Rational arguments? You haven’t exactly refuted them, instead you keep alluding to non-rational motivations. Those might exist elsewhere, but they haven’t been apparent here, in my perception at least.

    … and the attitude that since we haven’t found any ETI or that they haven’t bothered to contact us, then naturally no one else exists and we can do as we please with the Universe.

    Can we come to a compromise on this one and just say that we will do as we please with the universe UNTIL we actually come across any other life? We may never face this dilemma you speak of (in fact I am quite sure of it by now), so all the anxiety strikes me as premature.

  • ljk February 15, 2012, 14:38

    Eniac said on February 15, 2012 at 0:46:

    “Can we come to a compromise on this one and just say that we will do as we please with the universe UNTIL we actually come across any other life? We may never face this dilemma you speak of (in fact I am quite sure of it by now), so all the anxiety strikes me as premature.”

    The idea of the human race doing as it pleases with the Universe – now that is a phrase which amuses and terrifies all at once.

    I have come to the conclusion that Walt Kelly said it best back in 1959 in his famous Pogo comic strip about alien intelligences and us – and I quote:

    “I been readin’ ’bout how maybe they is planets peopled by folks with ad-vanced brains.”

    “Um.”

    “On the other hand, maybe we got the most brains … maybe our intellects is the universe’s most ad-vanced.”

    “Either way, it’s a mighty soberin’ thought.”

    The strip is available online here:

    http://www.projectrho.com/rocket/images/aliens/pogo.jpg

    And in the front part of the classic 1966 work Intelligent Life in the Universe by Sagan and Shklovskii.

  • Eniac February 15, 2012, 19:36

    Yup, this is funny. Hadn’t seen it before.

    Provided we do spread to the galaxy unchecked by doomsday or alien encounters, the good part is that we will then eventually get something vaguely like the Star Trek universe: Billions of worlds peopled by billions of civilizations, all different, but also all related.

  • Avatar2.0 February 16, 2012, 6:26

    Ronald
    “I know and fully agree!
    That’s why I conclude that:
    a) No ETI has ever reached this level.
    or:
    b) There is something which limits the further spreading, possibly something as simple as too large gaps to bridge.
    Still nothing that leads to inevitable conclusions concerning abiogenesis, etc.”

    Is the conclusion concerning abiogenesis inevitable AKA 100% certain? No.

    Is it HIGHLY probable? Yes.
    On what do I base this?
    First – I wrote my ideeas about abiogenesis in the ‘Eternal monuments among the stars’ article:
    https://centauri-dreams.org/?p=21496#comment-96575

    Second – if you assume abiogenesis as relatively common, none of the other ‘barriers’ are ‘strong’ enough to stop a galaxy where multiple ETI existed for billions of years from being completely colonised.
    For example – ‘too large gaps to bridge’? We already have the technology to theoretically reach Alpha Centauri in ~60 years.

  • Avatar2.0 February 16, 2012, 6:46

    Rob Henry
    “Avatar2.0, this time I think that your calculation is bang on given the lack of ETI evidence. If we come to realise that our galaxy has billions of planets where reasonably complex life could develop, the we should be looking for one remaining factor in the Drake equation that has a likely value less than one in a million, and not prey that every single remaining factor violates the principle of mediocrity by a fair margin. As you know we have convincing reasons that abiogenesis has at least this order of low probability without any special pleading. I this it very reasonable of you to note that no other factor comes anywhere close to that requirement.”

    It appears we are in agreement on this issue, Rob Henry :).

    Another topic we discussed in the ‘Eternal monuments among the stars’ comments was Fred Hoyle’s version of panspermia.
    About it, I have a question:
    Did Hoyle come up with a mechanism for a reasonable fraction of the Oort cloud objects to be converted into bacterial spores IN ONLY A FEW BILLION YEARS (the lifetime of a solar system), considering the spores can only replicate in the Oort cloud objects which are near the Sun (aka very few objects at any one time)?

  • Rob Henry February 16, 2012, 16:51

    Avatar asks “Did Hoyle come up with a mechanism for a reasonable fraction of the Oort cloud objects to be converted into bacterial spores IN ONLY A FEW BILLION YEARS”, but the answer it is more complex than that since it all had to happen within in a few million years if it happened at all.

    Comets warming up by a passage near the sun as we might see today heat up explosively in a way that could only release their contents. Nothing could live there for any reasonable time, but Hoyle hopes that very ancient spores could be released from them.

    When comets formed things were very different. For a start they were much closer to the snowline. They would form from ices including much carbon monoxide that is a potential high energy food for exotic life. They would have been contaminated with interstellar dust grains, some of which Hoyle hypothesised were freeze dried bacteria.

    It is possible that before these comets were dispersed to the outer limits of our solar system our sun could have gone through a T-tauri stage. The power of these stages is not set by and equilibrium, as when fusion begins in its core, so its brightness then is less predictable. Hoyle thought it might be a thousand times its present value, which would slowly melt many of those comets, and allow photosynthesis for a few million years (apparently this was not long enough to evaporate them completely)

    Another possibility is given with the infusion of high levels of unstable radionuclides by a supernova into our area just before our system was born. Hoyle pointed out, that if comets formed rapidly enough thereafter, aluminium-26 decay would have melted the interiors of even moderately sized ones, and the bacterial growth would have all happened there.

    I hope that helps.

  • Ronald February 17, 2012, 8:12

    Avatar:
    Concerning your first argument, a reference to a previous interesting discussion on this topic, we could go on forever about (chances of) abiogenesis without resolving it, simply because too little is still known about this, so I will leave that issue to what it is now, just referring to other comments such as that of Scott G. (https://centauri-dreams.org/?p=21496#comment-96614).
    I do want to repeat an earlier critique by me that your chance calculations in mentioned comment are not quite correct, because one has to take into account a few important facts: 1) what matters here is the number of molecular reactions per time unit, which is astronomical, 2) pure chance calculations don’t do justice, because, although there is no Darwinian evolution in molecules in the strict sense as in living organisms, there is a process of incremental complexity working at this molecular level as well, leading to (even pre-biotic) self-organization and self-replication (see RNA Hypothesis, work by Orgel et al.) 3) biochemistry is not just a matter of pure chance events, but mechanisms which indeed enable large and complex macromelocules to exist which could not exist according to pure chance calculations (i.e. hunderds of C-atoms length), 4) we are here; the argument that ‘the whole universe was needed to statistically enable one planet with life to exist’ (as strangely used by some creationists and repeated a few times on this website) is a fallacy argument.

    With regard to your: “Second – if you assume abiogenesis as relatively common, none of the other ‘barriers’ are ‘strong’ enough to stop a galaxy where multiple ETI existed for billions of years from being completely colonised.
    For example – ‘too large gaps to bridge’? We already have the technology to theoretically reach Alpha Centauri in ~60 years.”

    This seems very illogical to me: there are scores of huge barriers after abiogenesis: from ‘simple’ (Prokaryote) cell to complex (Eukaryote) cell, single- to multi- and diversified-celled, specialized organs, intelligence, ….
    And finally: too large gaps between habitable systems too bridge.

  • Avatar2.0 February 17, 2012, 13:27

    Ronald
    Scott G.’s critique was already answered (and proven to be not much of a critique):
    https://centauri-dreams.org/?p=21496#comment-96630

    About your objectionns:
    “1) what matters here is the number of molecular reactions per time unit, which is astronomical”
    What matters is that quite a few chemical reactions – I optimistically assumed only 100 – must occur in just the right order AKA that ~100 environments must occur in just the right order.
    Per time unit, environments don’t change especially fast.

    As for the number of molecular reactions per time unit, its ‘astronomical’ number is tiny when compared to 1 chance in ~9×10^157.

    “2) pure chance calculations don’t do justice, because, although there is no Darwinian evolution in molecules in the strict sense as in living organisms, there is a process of incremental complexity working at this molecular level as well, leading to (even pre-biotic) self-organization and self-replication (see RNA Hypothesis, work by Orgel et al.)”
    The RNA hypothesis is interesting because using just RNA, one can make a reliably self-replicating molecule. But this RNA hypothesis does NOT solve the problem of the complexity of this self-replicating molecule.
    Since you mentioned Orgel – he commented related to this difficulty:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RNA_world_hypothesis#Molecular_biologist.27s_dream

    “3) biochemistry is not just a matter of pure chance events, but mechanisms which indeed enable large and complex macromelocules to exist which could not exist according to pure chance calculations (i.e. hunderds of C-atoms length)”
    Ronald, there’s a VERY LARGE difference between a random organic molecule and the VERY ORDERED organic molecule capable of self-replication.
    Obtaining a specific organic molecule without the benefit of darwinian evolution or human intelligence IS a matter of chance.

    “4) we are here; the argument that ‘the whole universe was needed to statistically enable one planet with life to exist’ (as strangely used by some creationists and repeated a few times on this website) is a fallacy argument.”
    Yes, we are here; and in order for us to be here, the dice had to be thrown throughout the observaable universe (and beyond it) for ~13.7 billion years.

    The fallacy of the argument is yours – either selection bias (if you’re trying to use the copernican principle) or ad personam attack, by using the overplayed ‘creationist’ card.

    “This seems very illogical to me: there are scores of huge barriers after abiogenesis”
    Everything is relative, Ronald:
    When compared to 1 chance in ~9×10^157, the ‘barriers’ you mentioned are tiny, easily passable.

  • Avatar2.0 February 17, 2012, 14:26

    Rob Henry
    Thank you for the information.

    About Fred Hoyle’s panspermia hypothesis:

    Where did life originally come from?
    Did it evolve in the comets (which brings with it a large number of problems)?
    Or did it come from a planet? In which case, what planet? – the solar system was too young for life to have already appeared on one of its planets. If this microscopic life came from a planet from another system, we have the very high improbability of this life actually reaching not only another solar system, but a comet situated in a solar system with very specific characteristics.

    As said, the target solar system must have some VERY specific characteristics – from its age to its sun/previous supernova.

    The microscopic life itself must have very specific characteristics – able to hibernate for millions of years, very high resistence to radiation, etc.

    And even if all this does come to pass and the comets of one solar system become filled with this microscopic life, the microscopic life can only spread/multiply further in very specific solar systems; and it’s, again, improbable that neighbouring systems will posess the exact needed characteristics.

    In conclusion, there are far too many failure modes, far too many improbabilities; I find this scenario for panspermia improbable.

  • Rob Henry February 17, 2012, 15:39

    Ronald, not all potential gap fillers are equal. Think of how much of that aforementioned special pleading you would need to convince yourself, let alone others, that only one in a million civilisations becomes technological.

    And I hope that your not still trying to fill that probability gap by squeezing every other factor to its minimum probability. If so it doesn’t just mean that we are lucky, it also means that we are very special in every possible way

  • Rob Henry February 17, 2012, 19:24

    Avatar, those were great questions about Hoyle’s version of panspermia. Some of these questions are easier to answer than others.

    As Crick has pointed out (and based his own idea of *directed panspermia* on), Earth was such a late arriver to the Milky Way, that life had just as much time to evolve on another planet before ours was born as it did on ours.

    As Hoyle noted there is about a million times more real-estate in the interiors of comets in our system, than there is on all the oceans of Earth.

    Hoyle’s answer as to how these bacteria ever evolved a capacity to remain dormant for millions of years, is that that ability must have been formed by cycling through many episodes of comet formation (presumably after the initial and incredibly fortuitous such incident)

    It might seem to you that Hoyle tried to answer many of these questions in an ad hoc manner but I think that that misses a key to his thinking. To most panspermia only transfers the problem of abiogenesis, but there is one big exception: you can combine it with the steady state theory and the logical realities in an infinite system are curiously different than in the finite systems with which we are familiar. Let me explain.

    If you have an universe that is: 1) infinite in time; 2) which has properties that allows life of the same type to propagate during its entire existence; 3) and which allows life to propagate faster than any expansion this universe is undergoing: then it follows that life must be almost everywhere in that universe. Furthermore it also follows, as if by magic that that life would have always been there, without any beginning. (actually in the strict sense its likely time of origin if further back than any finite time that you can a priori name)

    I find it intriguing that given experimental evidence for the first premise (the universe is eternal) you only need to show that the other two conditions COULD HAPPEN IN THEORY to prove that they MUST happen in practice.

    Actually, once upon a time such thinking was part of the fabric of science. This was why Lord Kelvin had such a strong belief in panspermia. In his time the gap in this argument was the great mystery of what prevented the heat death of the universe. This mystery was not something Kelvin needed to worry over just for his panspermia theory. At the time it seemed that our entire universe had to be continually ‘wound up’ by an as yet unknown process. Without this process our entire universe could only be a few million years old at most, and so Darwin’s theory of evolution would also have been invalidated if this mysterious force did not exist. But now I’m straying off topic.

    My conclusion is that I suspect that his theory needs the Steady State Theory for it to have much weight, but it is such an interesting one that I hope I’m wrong. Also his a priori matching of part of the spectrum of interstellar dust grains is hard to dismiss lightly, so we must give him that.

  • Rob Henry February 19, 2012, 16:23

    Ronald, it is true that, given there exists a multiverse, the statistical effect of editing could dramatically increase the likelihood that we exist in a universe where biologically useful precursors molecules are produced when conditions are right. If so we should have the following

    1 Under the right *prebiotic* like laboratory conditions, these precursors are easy to produce.
    2 The core (most primitive) biochemistry should be achiral.

    We came a tiny way towards showing that first point with the Urey-Miller experiment, but our lack of progress after just amino acids is notable. The second point looks particularly imposing to your theory.

  • ljk February 25, 2012, 16:40

    35 Years Later, the ‘Wow!’ Signal Still Tantalizes

    by Paul Scott Anderson on February 24, 2012

    Since the SETI program first began searching for possible alien radio signals a few decades ago, there have been many false alarms but also instances of fleeting signals of interest which disappeared again as quickly as they had appeared. If a potential signal doesn’t repeat itself so it can be more carefully observed, then it is virtually impossible to determine whether it is of truly cosmic origin.

    One such signal in particular caught astronomers’ interest on August 15, 1977. The famous “Wow!” signal was detected by the Big Ear Radio Observatory at Ohio State University; it was thirty times stronger than the background noise but lasted only 72 seconds and was never heard again despite repeated subsequent searches.

    In a new book titled The Elusive Wow, amateur astronomer Robert Gray chronicles the quest for the answer to this enduring puzzle.

    Full article here:

    http://www.universetoday.com/93754/35-years-later-the-wow-signal-still-tantalizes/

    Elvis died the very next day and Groucho Marx died four days later. Just sayin’….

  • ljk March 1, 2012, 0:25

    SETI Institute Teams Up With Zooniverse to Empower Citizen Scientists in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

    Posted: 02/29/2012 1:31 pm

    TED Prize enables launch of new citizen science initiative, Science Channel dedicates the month of March to SETI Science Programming

    As part of the TED Prize Wish made by renowned astronomer Jill Tarter, the TED Prize today launches SETI Live (setilive.org): a site where — for the first time — the public can view data being collected by radio telescopes and collectively help search for intelligent life on other planets.

    TED, the nonprofit dedicated to Ideas Worth Spreading, established the TED Prize in 2005, born out of a vision by the world’s leading entrepreneurs, innovators, and entertainers to turn ideas into action one Wish at a time.

    SETI Live was created in collaboration with Zooniverse team at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium and is the latest development of Dr. Tarter’s 2009 TED Prize wish, “to empower Earthlings everywhere to become active participants in the ultimate search for cosmic company.”

    The launch of SETI Live opens the door for anyone to help search for intelligent life on other planets. For the first time ever, data being received by the Allen Telescope Array in Hat Creek, CA will be made public so citizen scientists can scan it for potential signals.

    “Three years ago, Dr. Tarter stood on the TED stage and asked us all to unite in the search for life on other planets. The TED community responded by dreaming big and working hard — with many milestones to show for it,” said TED Prize Director Amy Novogratz.

    “This landmark step empowers people around the globe to meaningfully contribute to this important scientific endeavor and work towards answering the ultimate question, ‘are we alone?'”

    Full article here:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/seti-institute/seti-live_b_1310878.html

  • ljk December 10, 2012, 9:49

    http://m.redding.com/news/2012/dec/06/new-hat-creek-receivers-will-let-seti-delve-into/

    New Hat Creek receivers will let SETI delve deeper into space

    By Damon Arthur

    Published Thursday, December 6, 2012

    The search from Shasta County for life in outer space is expected to get a significant boost over the next two years.

    Officials with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute said they have new equipment that improves their ability to collect possible radio waves being sent from outer space.

    The new, more powerful receivers will be bolted up to the Allen Telescope Array of radio telescopes in Hat Creek in eastern Shasta County, said Gerald Harp, director of the center for SETI research in Mountain View.

    Harp said the new receivers double the radio telescopes’ power. The new equipment, which looks like a ray gun out of an old science fiction movie, also increases the observatory’s ability to pick up a wider range of radio frequencies.

    “It’s a real game-changer,” Harp said.

    The money for the new receivers comes from a $3.5 million grant SETI received from Franklin Antonio, one of the founders of Qualcomm Inc., said Jill Tarter, the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI.

    The Allen Telescope Array was built in 2006 using a $25 million grant from the Paul G. Allen Foundation. Allen is one of the founders of Microsoft Corp.

    The array uses 20-foot-tall dish antennas that together act as one much larger dish. There are 42 dishes at the complex in Hat Creek, but SETI officials said that when the observatory is built out they hope to have 350 dishes on site.

    The array of antennas is set up to scan the skies for radio waves possibly sent by life in outer space.

    Tarter said the technology was developed by the institute’s Jack Welch and is not being used elsewhere. “No one can do this, other than the Allen Telescope Array. This is unique,” Tarter said. The institute uses the observatory to do astronomy work in addition to searching for life in outer space, she said. The new receivers probably won’t be installed for about a year, Harp said.

    Because of the length of time it takes for radio signals to cross the vast distances in space, any signals received at Hat Creek will likely have been sent long ago, she said.

    “If we detect someone else’s technology, we learn that technology can be stabilizing, that technology can make a civilization last for a long time,” Tarter said.