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Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence

By Larry Klaes

One result of the biennial Astrobiology Science Conference (AbSciCon) held the last week of April in 2010 was to gather SETI specialists from around the world to look at everything from search strategies and signal processing to the best ways of creating an interstellar message. Tau Zero’s Larry Klaes has been reading the collected papers from the meeting’s SETI sessions, which have inspired him to ponder SETI’s place in the scheme of things and how our reaction to the search tells us something about who we are and who we are becoming. Readers with a long memory may recall that the first major conference on interstellar communications, held in Soviet Armenia in 1971, produced a volume of proceedings titled Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence, a title editor Douglas Vakoch deliberately echoes in the current work, partly as a nod to the field’s past and partly as a measure of how far it has come.

I love anthologies. There is nothing like having a collection of information or stories on a particular subject in one easy-to-find spot, particularly in book form.

Among the more prized books in my personal library are the ones which contain the presentation papers and posters of scientific gatherings about the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and astrobiology. It is always interesting to see not only how the technology designed for discovering and understanding life beyond our planet Earth has developed and changed over the years through these special publications, but also how the prevailing attitudes about alien life and how humanity should deal with it has evolved.

One of the latest such collections to follow in this tradition is titled Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SUNY Press, New York, 2011), edited by Douglas A. Vakoch, Director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI Institute and Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies.

To quote from the summary on the publisher’s Web page for this book:

“In April 2010, fifty years to the month after the first experiment in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), scholars from a range of disciplines—including astronomy, mathematics, anthropology, history, and cognitive science—gathered at NASA’s biennial Astrobiology Science Conference (AbSciCon) for a series of sessions on the search for intelligent life. This book highlights the most recent developments in SETI discussed at that conference, emphasizing the ways that SETI has grown since its inception.

“The volume covers three broad themes: First, leading researchers examine the latest developments in observational SETI programs, as well as innovative proposals for new search strategies and novel approaches to signal processing. Second, both proponents and opponents of “Active SETI” debate whether humankind should be transmitting intentional signals to other possible civilizations, rather than only listening. Third, constructive proposals for interstellar messages are juxtaposed with critiques that ask whether any meaningful exchange is possible with an independently evolved civilization, given the constraints of contact at interstellar distances, where a round-trip exchange could take centuries or millennia.

“As we reflect on a half-century of SETI research, we are reminded of the expansion of search programs made possible by technological and conceptual advances. In this spirit of ongoing exploration, the contributors to this book advocate a diverse range of approaches to make SETI increasingly more powerful and effective, as we embark on the next half-century of searching for intelligence beyond Earth.”

The Dangers of Analogy

As pleased as I was to see one of these professional conference collections finally get past focusing primarily on the technical aspects of mainstream SETI and do more than just a token nod to other search concepts and the philosophical implications of contacting an alien civilization, I think there are two major points still being largely missed here. They are ones that must be addressed if humanity ever wants to actually find and talk with another set of intelligent minds.

My first issue is that we keep using the same terrestrial analogies and examples when attempting to figure out how an alien being might function and respond to the Universe and to us. Now one’s natural first reaction to this statement would be “Of *course* we use the same examples over and over! If we could ever find an actual alien life form, we would not need to keep dipping into the same wells!”

I know this appears to be a Catch-22 situation, but a large part of it stems from the fact that five decades after Frank Drake scanned two nearby star systems for a couple of months with a radio telescope, we may have increased the quantity, quality, and even the variety of methods for conducting SETI to a degree, but we have not made nearly the amount of progress in this field that we should have and could have by now.

In many respects, SETI is still stuck in the paradigm famously set in 1959, when Guiseppe Coconni and Philip Morrison wrote that landmark paper published in Nature which stated the most efficient way for a technological intelligence to communicate between the stars is by radio waves – after considering and rejecting the possibility of using gamma rays as an interstellar transmission method.

Image: Philip Morrison (1915-2005), whose paper on radio methods for SETI established early parameters for the field. Credit: MIT.

Radio telescopes were the hot, new instruments for exploring the celestial heavens in the 1950s, being perhaps one of the biggest innovations since the development of the optical telescope for astronomy four centuries earlier. Combining this field with the equally new and even daring scientific acceptance of advanced extraterrestrial intelligences as a plausible reality was nothing less than cutting edge for its day.

If one asked a typical scientist in 1959 how they envisioned the kind of alien beings they might be able to detect using radio technology, the majority of them would give the answer one would find going back to the earliest days of science fiction: As dwellers of an Earthlike planet circling a Sol-type star. The assumed beings themselves may not be exactly human-looking or behaving, but most would probably not deviate too far from the one head and four major appendages attached to a torso model. Of course there were a few notable exceptions in the fictional and factual literature of that era, but the standard ETI did not stray too far from what was found in the Sol system.

Now some other ideas for conducting SETI did arise about the same time, most notably the idea that powerful optical or infrared lasers might be used to signal with light from one world to another. While lasers did have the advantage over radio waves of being able to carry a lot of information and be much easier to detect than sifting through literally millions of radio frequencies, Radio SETI had already developed a strong following by the early 1960s and Optical SETI would not see any serious participation by observatories until the late 1990s.

Radio Silence

It has now been over fifty years since Project Ozma and there has yet to be one verified detection (meaning repeatable) of an artificial signal from an alien civilization. While I know that half a century is a proverbial drop in the bucket of cosmic time when it comes to the age of the Milky Way (ten billion years) and the whole Universe (13.7 billion years), one thing that must be recognized by now is that there is not a lot of strong or at least obvious interstellar chatter on the radio portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, at least in our part of the galaxy right now. This reduces the theory by some of the SETI pioneers that sophisticated alien societies had a vast and probably ancient interstellar communications system which we primitive humans were missing out on.

Now of course one can say that maybe there is the equivalent of the Galactic Internet and we have just not tuned into the right frequencies, or that its extraterrestrial participants purposely do not want humans and species like us among its utilizers. However, even these possibilities add up to the fact that we should be seriously conducting other types of SETI in addition to radio.

Yes, we have been doing some Optical SETI for just over a decade now and there have been a few other efforts outside the mainstream of the field, but if one looks closely at the history of SETI, they will see that the majority of projects were focused on the radio realm and until recent years were largely temporary efforts in both scope and time. There have been a few long-term SETI projects such as the one conducted at OSU from 1973 to 1998, SETI@home, and the recent Allen Telescope Array (ATA). However, these too had and have their own set of limitations; in the case of the ATA, it is under the continued threat of losing its funding. Whole realms of space and time have been neglected by our limited and limiting efforts to find other minds in the Universe due to being mired in specific paradigms as much as limits to money, resources, desire, and imagination.

Image: The radio telescope at Green Bank, WV used by Frank Drake for Project Ozma. Credit: Cosmic Search/Frank Drake.

The other hampering point for SETI is our collectively fundamental lack of appreciating the very strong possibility, even probability, that beings which evolve on other worlds – and by worlds I do not mean just Earthlike planets – are NOT going to be like humans or even other forms of terrestrial organisms.

Imagining Alien Life

Part of the blame for this is our relative lack of extensive knowledge about the cosmic realm in which we live. Take, for example, the broad layout of the known Universe: Scientists did not generally accept the fact that our Milky Way galaxy was not the only stellar island in all of reality but just one of billions until the 1920s! This was a cognitive step comparable to the realization just a few centuries earlier that Earth was but one planet circling the Sun, which in turn was just one of many billions of stars in a Universe far vaster and more complex than ever dreamed of before by the human race.

Only a matter of decades ago did we start to reveal the true natures of the worlds in our celestial backyard known as the Sol system, thanks to the development of robotic space probes capable of traveling the many millions of miles across the interplanetary void to these alien places. As often happens when one journeys to new lands, many new facts appeared and old paradigms were washed away, especially when it came to learning what worlds might make good abodes for life.

Our knowledge of worlds beyond our Sol system came even later, with astronomers proving their existence only in the last decade of the previous century. Before these discoveries, most scientists and even science fiction writers assumed that other solar systems would generally resemble our own, with small, rocky planets near their star and the giant gas worlds much farther out.

The reality of the first exoplanets found was something virtually unexpected: Massive worlds larger than Jupiter were orbiting their suns not in wide orbits taking decades to complete, but so close that these planets could circle their star in a matter of days! Granted, these early discoveries were among the easiest to detect due to the indirect methods performed to find them.

Nevertheless, as we have come to confirm thousands of these alien places so far, the vast majority are still super Jovians that practically hug the photospheres of their parent suns, with few resembling our solar system. We have even confirmed that a number of exoworlds are residents of multiple star systems, something thought improbable not very long ago due to presumed gravitational instabilities. This should provide an intellectual caution and guide as to what we may actually find out there when it comes to alien life, as opposed to what we have been thinking for centuries concerning what lives in our galaxy and beyond.

Extraterrestrials and the Media

The other culprit in our assumptions about alien life, intelligent and otherwise, is how our entertainment and media outlets have portrayed beings from other worlds, especially since the late Nineteenth Century.

Granted, due to a severe lack of actual evidence, humans have always projected their assumptions, hopes, and fears on alien life forms going back to ancient Greece, when the concept was first seriously formulated – as opposed to making all extraterrestrial beings supernatural deities and spirits from some mystical planes of existence. However, in those days there was almost no expectation of humanity ever meeting or even conversing with their cosmic brethren, at least not until people began to seriously consider such possibilities as our science and technology advanced.

Ask a typical person, even educated professionals, what they think beings from beyond Earth might be like, and one will more often than not be given a picture that mirrors what is generally predicted in our science fiction literature and films. What one finds are beings that resemble monstrosities, either of the mindless destructive and consuming variety, or ones that desire the conquest and enslavement of humanity and every other species in the galaxy.

At the other extreme, aliens have also been envisioned as our wise and angelic saviors, saving us from our pitiful, primitive selves so that we may one day join a Federation or Galactic Brother/Sisterhood of other civilizations throughout the galaxy.

Image: From 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, Michael Rennie as a humanoid alien with a message for Earthlings. Credit: Twentieth Century Fox.

All these attempts to wrestle with habitats and visualize aliens might be called part of the intellectual growing pains of a species that is literally trying to find its place and way in the vast Universe. While we have many questions left to answer, human civilization is now at a technological and knowledge stage where we can start to move beyond a number of our initial ideas and interpretations that ushered in the early days of SETI. Otherwise the field will continue to return only negative results, which may lead to conclusions that will not only derail our efforts to find ETI but even bring harm to our species and society down the road.

Searching on a Shoestring Budget

First is the need to change the fundamental elements of SETI as established over fifty years ago. While there is no logical reason to abandon the search for alien intelligences in the radio spectrum – radio still remains an easy and inexpensive way to communicate across the interstellar distances – one thing we have learned after five decades of scanning those frequencies (even longer if you include the earlier efforts to listen for any messages from Mars) is that this part of the Milky Way at the least is not currently brimming with transmissions between civilizations as the early SETI pioneers conjectured and hoped.

There is of course always the possibility that a radio transmission, either deliberate or as part of the electromagnetic leakage of a technological society, may be heading our way at any time, or perhaps already has arrived: The Wow! signal detected by the Ohio State University (OSU) SETI program in August of 1977 certainly had many of the characteristics of an artificial interstellar signal. Unfortunately, the signal was not found until hours later when a team member discovered it on a recording printout, and the signal has never repeated since, a major criterion for science.

Now there has been some expansion to the SETI paradigm in the last few decades. Most SETI programs in the United States no longer rely on government funding, which proved itself unreliable when the funding for NASA’s SETI program was abruptly cut in 1993 after one year of operation due largely to Congressional ignorance. While this has allowed a degree of freedom and latitude when it comes to expanding SETI’s parameters and techniques, these private efforts have also been subject to the whims of the economy. Ironically, the ATA depicted on the cover of Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence has been hit by funding problems and is so far remaining alive with public donations and the support of the United States Air Force – which is using the vast field of radio telescopes to track artificial debris in Earth orbit.

Optical SETI finally entered the mainstream in the late 1990s after decades of neglect and resistance by radio SETI advocates. It too, however, has yet to find a laser or infrared transmission from the stars.

There have been other searches for alien technologies such as the Fermi search for Dyson Shells in 2005. In reality, though, most SETI projects of all stripes have been largely sporadic, even token in the number of cases. For most of its history, SETI has been placed on the sidelines, begging and scraping for time on telescopes and suffering from misunderstandings, ridicule, and being lumped in with pseudoscience.

Image: A Deep Space Network station near Madrid. Credit: NASA.

This attitude can be blamed primarily on the following:

  • A sincere yet misguided old school view that solar systems are rare (and thus life) due to the pre-nebular hypothesis of how planetary systems form, which involves one star passing by another and pulling material from its photosphere into nearby space to form a debris ring around that sun, which eventually becomes the various worlds of a solar system.
  • Antiquated views going back to Aristotle and Plato and reinforced by various religious, political, and psychological factors in later centuries that hold we and Earth are the spiritual and literal focus of existence and as a result no other beings exist in the Universe, which until the most recent era was considered to be relatively small compared to what we know now.
  • The popular (read general public) take on aliens, which between their portrayal in most science fiction has created a virtual belief system in beings who can be either our destroyers or saviors. Aliens in our culture are also often used as substitutes for various human groups in science fiction and as comic relief. Seldom do these images add much to the scientific database of ideas on how and what our cosmic neighbors may truly be – though they do have something to say about human attitudes and thoughts on this subject. The results are a misinformed public and politic and a scientific community that is more embarrassed and dismissive than encouraged to pursue the search for any real ETI.

This comes to the second point: Making the human race truly aware and appreciative of our place in the real Universe, beyond the confines of our pale blue dot, as Carl Sagan so famously referred to the planet Earth.

Public Perception of the Cosmos

I know that on an intellectual level we have come a long way from the time of Nicholas Copernicus when he cautiously introduced in 1543 the idea that Earth circled the Sun and not everything orbiting our planet or otherwise focused upon it and us. Nevertheless, there are plenty of people living now who, despite access to vast amounts of information as never before, either do not know/appreciate that we live on a rotating planet orbiting a star or just do not care due to their education level, the quality or lack thereof of their everyday lives, and the fact that the vast majority of us have never been into space and in many cases cannot even see the stars and most other celestial bodies from the surface of Earth due to light pollution.

Which leads to my third and key point: Are we as a species and a society truly capable of finding, understanding, interacting, and dealing with an intelligence which evolved on an alien world? Or is this the ultimate reason as to why our current SETI efforts have so far found no definite signs of anyone else in the Universe? If the answers to these questions show that we are still too immature for such an endeavor, should we just give up and hope that some day natural evolution will make us a bit more cosmically oriented? Or should we strive to build something that will complete our goals for SETI, METI, and CETI?

As pointed out previously, our combination of cultural ignorance, apathy, paranoia, and misdirection due to the depictions of aliens in most science fiction has left us in numerous fundamental ways little advanced from the perceptions and theories about ETI going back centuries.

For a prominent example of what I am referring to, read up on the history of the astronomical study of Mars in the late Nineteenth through the early Twentieth Century, from the time when Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli first noted the (in)famous canals crisscrossing the face of the Red Planet in 1877 to the era when the first robotic space probes finally began to reveal the true nature of Mars in the first decades of the Space Age.

Even though the stories refer to a world we now know is not inhabited by an intelligent alien race, advanced, dying, or otherwise, if one removed the location of the planet in question from the literature of the day on the subject – especially those works by Percival Lowell – the topics of conversation would be remarkably similar to the ideas and debates going on to this day regarding ETI, even with over a century of hindsight in our favor.

Accepting the idea that our seeming lack of success with SETI and METI is due to limitations with our experience and technology with these fields, could it be that we are ultimately just not capable of dealing with a species not from this planet due to the state of our biological evolution? Humanity certainly has enough issues and misunderstandings with members of its own species, to say nothing of other high minds on Earth such as the cetaceans. So how can we expect to grasp the truly alien?

Moving Past Biological Evolution

Will the beings that eventually come form this planet which can find, understand, and interact with ETI not be humanity but minds that we created? Hugo de Garis calls them Artilects, which is short for Artificial Intellect. We have the potential to build beings which would have intellectual capacities that dwarf ours with ease, ones that could easily handle intelligences from other worlds. It has been speculated that if there are other advanced minds out there, they will be the alien versions of Artilects, the natural and ultimate step in the process of biological evolution across the Universe. Of course this could all be short-sighted too, but it does offer one explanation as to the seeming silence out there: Current humanity just is not on the same playing field when it comes to cosmic correspondence compared to a mind unfettered by relatively slow biological evolution.

So what do we do? Do we just become overwhelmed by the Cosmos and give up trying to understand and explore it? Besides the fact that such an action will not happen at least collectively so long as we are alive and have a civilization (even during the European Dark Ages there were still groups of people who strove to record and comprehend the world around them, limited as their capabilities were), the short answer is no – though a few caveats, improved resources, and better attempts to appreciate the Universe as it really is and not as we wish it to be are in order.

Limited as our SETI and METI efforts may be, they have been of benefit to our species. Look at the number of sections in the CETI book devoted to our attempts at communicating and understanding an alien mind. Such exercises not only help us for the day when we do detect an ETI at least at some levels, but they are very good at helping us deal with each other.

Take note of the Pioneer Plaques and Voyager Interstellar Records now wending their ways into the wider Milky Way galaxy. Even if an interstellar species finds them one day in the far future, even if the ETI cannot understand what is on these golden objects or miss their purpose and presence entirely, the plaques and records have done much to make us see ourselves as members of one species on a planet in space. I have read that the music on the Voyager Interstellar Records was one of the first collections of world music ever put together.

Perhaps most importantly, these pioneering attempts at METI justify their existence by the very fact that a collection of humans had the desire and ability to be aware to the possibility of other beings in the Universe and make an effort based on the higher scientific and technological ideas and tools of the day to reach out to them in a way designed to benefit both parties.

So let us keep the radio on and tuning through the static for whoever may be out there. The beauty of radio is that you can work on other things while listening to it.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • ljk September 11, 2012, 12:15

    An Interview with SETI Founder Frank Drake

    LaRae Meadows

    September 10, 2012

    Frank Drake, PhD, founder of SETI, is considered by many to be a pioneer of the scientific search for intelligent extraterrestrial life. In 1961, Drake developed an equation to estimate the number of alien societies that may be detectable, which is now called the Drake Equation (http://www.seti.org/drakeequation).

    He was elected into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1974 for his work in detecting off-world intelligence.

    He’s now in his eighties, but his silver hair hasn’t stopped him; Drake is still working to find extraterrestrials. An approachable and interesting man, Drake isn’t above a joke about his work or the people with whom he interacts.

    While at SETIcon II in Santa Clara, California, Drake took a few minutes to answer questions about his research, the future of SETI Institute, and aliens.

    Full interview here:


    Quotes from the interview:

    Unfortunately, it was only a couple of years until major philanthropists dried up and SETI was in financial trouble. “Now all our major donors have disappeared. Instead of four or five million dollars a year that used to come very easily—we were spoiled; we didn’t really have to work for it—it has shrunk down to half a million dollars a year and that’s not enough to run a proud SETI program. It’s hardly just enough about to keep the lights on, and the electric powering, and one or two people to do maintenance but really no scientific staff to analyze the data.”

    Even with the funding problems, SETI was able to move forward with a new radio telescope array. The first forty-two telescopes in the Allen Array in Northern California became functional in October 2007. It was, in large part, funded by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen at a total cost of thirty million dollars. The telescope was an affordable way to increase SETI’s search abilities.

    Drake explained the circumstances, “The original agreement by which this was built was a joint partnership between the SETI Institute and the University of California Berkeley. The deal was, we [SETI Institute] would pay to build the telescope, and they would provide operating funds.”

    Drake outlined the other costs the relationship with UC Berkeley had on SETI and its research. “We needed their [UC Berkeley] expertise in telescope building, [and] they would only do this [partner to build the Allen Telescope Array] if the instruments were useful for radio astronomy. Regular radio astronomy wants very high resolution, sharp images. SETI on the other hand wants minimum resolution because that means looking at more stars at once. So it was a basic conflict between what is optimum for SETI and what is optimum for radio astronomy. So what we got is a telescope that serves the radio astronomers but is not optimized for SETI. It does SETI but not with the capability that we could have done with less cost if we squeezed them together.” SETI was willing to make this sacrifice for the ongoing funding promised by UC Berkeley.

    Unfortunately, government funding again hampered SETI capabilities. “About the time it was finished there was this big budget crunch at the State of California and it hit the university really hard. The end result was the funding to science parts at UC Berkeley was cut so much they said, ‘Sorry, we can’t pay the operating costs of the telescope; sorry, we can’t carry out our part of it,’ and they walked away.

    Here we have this telescope and no money to operate it. We spent thirty million dollars and we actually had to put it in hibernation; mothballed for about six months. We did a lot of private fundraising and we raised enough money to put it back in operation for about six months—which we did. This was just last year [2011],” outlined Drake.

    The Air Force took notice of the array and now fund its operation to track space junk. “They use it in the daytime, and we use it at night. That’s not the way it should be,” Drake explained sorrowfully.

  • ljk September 11, 2012, 12:20

    One more quote from the interview with Frank Drake that shows the rather desperate state of things with The SETI Institute – and all the more reason why we need lots of SETI programs looking in multiple windows with various methods:

    SETI is capable of collecting data but does not have enough staff to sift through it all. “We have essentially no staff.” Drake continued, “The data that is collected is not being processed as thoroughly as it could be.”

  • ljk September 26, 2012, 15:48


    Romantic or Reckless? The Plans to Message Space with Twitter

    By Jason Kehe

    September 21, 2012 | 12:45 pm

    If you’ve ever pondered what you would say to an alien, you may get that chance between 7:30 and 8 p.m. PT tonight.

    That’s the goal of Tweets in Space, a project — sorry, “performance art piece” — by two guys with starry, starry eyes. As part of this year’s International Symposium on Electronic Art in New Mexico, Scott Kildall and Nathaniel Stern will spend 30 minutes capturing every tweet with the hashtag #tweetsinspace for later transmission into the (much) wider Twitterverse.

    Using a radio transmitter in Florida, they plan to beam our messages to GJ667Cc, an exoplanet that might, just maybe, possibly, have the required attributes that would allow it to theoretically support life (as we know it). Four to six weeks after Friday’s event, the planet will move into alignment (just barely) with the transmitter. And that’s when Kildall and Stern, a multimedia artist and associate professor at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, will hit send.

    “It all goes,” says Kildall, the new media exhibit developer for the Exploratorium. “Even political positions I don’t agree with: ‘Vote for Romney,’ ‘Vote for Obama.’” (All except hate speech, he added. We might not want to betray our baser nature to the ETs.)

    But it’s a long shot in more ways than one. The target is 22 light-years away. That means 44 years minimum before we know if they’ve succeeded.

    If there’s even a chance. Reality check, say radio astronomers: There isn’t. “We have absolutely no hope of actually being heard,” said James Benford, founder of Microwave Sciences and longtime skeptic of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). He did the math for Wired. With the Deep Space Communications Network’s Florida dish, which is small and low-power by industry standards, the signal might be detectable up to seven times the distance to Pluto, assuming the aliens have the same technology we do.

    “That’s nowhere,” Benford said. “That’s not getting anywhere near interstellar distances.”

    But Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, says it’s theoretically possible that the theoretical aliens on the target planet could pick up the signal from Florida. “If they have a receiver the size of Nebraska, then they can pick this up,” he said. “You have to hope the aliens have spent more money on their antennas than we have on ours.” (Incidentally, a receiver the size of Nebraska would cost in the hundreds of billions. In U.S. dollars, that is. “What’s your currency/exchange rate, aliens? #tweetsinspace”)

    What’s more, most astronomers put the estimate for nearest ETI at no fewer than hundreds of light years away, and it’s probably closer to thousands. Twenty-two would be miraculous. We’d have far better odds of floating a message in a bottle from San Francisco to China.

    But even if their project’s more stunt than sound science, Kildall and Stern are (unintentionally) participating in an ongoing, still-controversial debate: whether or not we should be actively messaging aliens in the first place. Could it endanger Earth and the fate of mankind? That’s not such a kooky, far-out question. People like Benford, along with sci-fi author David Brin, UCLA professor and best-selling author Jared Diamond, and Stephen Hawking, have argued for years that we should be sitting silently in our cosmic corner, biding our time and weighing risk factors before we go flamboyantly yoo-hooing to the entire universe.

    If the aliens are sufficiently advanced to receive and translate our messages, shouldn’t we be afraid they’d also have the technology to warp to our location, eat our children, and blow up this precious planet?

    The other camp, which includes the SETI Institute and the historically optimistic, pro-METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Russians, argues that we’ve already given away our position a thousand times over, thanks to decades of signal leakage. As Shostak put it, “If they’re looking our way, they will already know.” So we might as well continue. Heck, we might as well start sending them everything. Encyclopedias! Beatles songs! The Google server!

    Benford disagrees. In a recent paper, he showed that no signal, not now or 50 years ago, could ever be detected by ETI. That doesn’t mean the prospect of METI doesn’t worry him. In a century, we’ll have the technology (and plenty of bored trillionnaires to fund it) to build radio transmitters big and powerful enough to send detectable messages. Just as likely, Benford says, we’ll be sending energy to and from satellites, a practice that could considerably brighten Earth’s position in the cosmos. The thought worries him. He wants us to stay dark and silent. At least until we know better.

    The conversation continues. Shostak is publishing a paper now on whether transmissions to space are dangerous. (“No,” in brief.) Benford is similarly engaged from the other side. The two men, though old colleagues, can still be heard gleefully bad-mouthing each other, both privately and in public forums.

    Though Kildall and Stern remain optimistic that their Tweets in Space have a chance of succeeding — they believe they have better odds at this than winning the lottery — they also allow for occasional moments of realism. “It’s working with potential and imagination, rather than actuality,” Kildall eventually conceded.

    Shostak, for one, has no problem with projects like this, of which there’ve been a few in recent years. He sees it as an introspective exercise. “It’s interesting not for the aliens. It’s interesting for us,” he said. “What do people want to say?”

    Find out tonight. Or don’t. The aliens will never know. We think.

  • ljk November 18, 2012, 0:16

    SETI Institute Gets $3.5 Million Donation Analysis

    by Irene Klotz

    Thu Nov 15, 2012 11:06 AM ET

    California-based SETI Institute has received a $3.5 million donation to beef up its radio search for extraterrestrials, the organization announced Wednesday.

    The money came from Franklin Antonio, a co-founder and chief scientist of Qualcomm, a San Diego, Calif.-based firm that designs and manufactures digital wireless communications products and services.

    Appropriately, the donation will be used to improve the infrastructure for picking up a very, very, long distance call.

    The SETI Institute plans to more than double the sensitivity of the Allen Telescope Array, which, among other projects, scans for non-naturally occurring radio transmissions that could be a sign of a technologically advanced civilization elsewhere in the galaxy.

    In conjunction with Antonio’s gift, the SETI Institute is launching a $1 million fund-raising drive for a research project to explore some of the extrasolar planets being discovered by NASA’s Kepler space telescope and ground-based observatories.

    Full article here:


  • ljk January 4, 2013, 11:30


    Meet SETI: Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

    January 2, 2013 by Dennis Williams | Filed In Tech News

    SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) was launched in May of 1999 and they continue their efforts strongly through 2013. Now you are most likely wondering what SETI is beyond their acronym, many are, because with a lack of funding their persistent project lacks public support. SETI’s goal since its inception is to find intelligent life outside of our planet. Above other trivial attempts and outlandish theories, this scientific search involves a technical approach with chartable data via radio SETI.

    Radio SETI may be the distinct characteristic that brings unique purpose behind such a project. It’s the use of radio telescopes, with a look similar to a satellite dish, which detect narrow-bandwidth radio signals from outer space. These signals are not naturally created, meaning an occurrence of such gives indicated evidence of extraterrestrial technology. In further depth, radio telescopes interpret noises from celestial sources but also analyze the data digitally because the telescopes pick up man-made signals as well. Radar emitted sounds, satellites, and television stations can also fall into the scope of radio SETI. Although SETI@home plans to increase computing power to enable searches of greater frequency ranges while sensitive to narrower-bandwidth signals. But of course their increase in computing power is contingent upon an increase in funding or any supporting help for that matter.

    Allow me to give a little background to the earlier processes in the search for alien intellect. Before the use of radio SETI, search projects have used supercomputers integrated in special telescopes with the purpose of data analysis. It wasn’t until David Gedye’s proposition in 1995 that brought a new method to such foreign investigation. Gedye offered using a virtual processor composed of a large quantity of computers which are internet connected, later known as radio SETI. What spurred from Gedye’s idea was the organization of the SETI@home project; with a newly invented technological search scientists hope to refine the efficiency of their exploration.

    SETI@home has three major objectives for the near future and you could fall into the plans. RFI Rejection, their first planned endeavor, is rather vital because it would help SETI with the problem of filtering out earth originating signals. Radio Frequency Interference is the false positive signals that troubles SETI as of now. Further funding will allow them to create a RFI rejection algorithm, as well as increasing productivity of their multibeam receiver. Such will help SETI@home keep analysis focus on foreign radio signals. The most efficient time to filter data from RFI also falls into the equation, whether it is before signal research or filtering the data after research. SETI@Home’s next upcoming goal will be the creation of Multiple Frequency Observing.

    Their present data recorder can “step” in frequency if the telescope is tracking a certain area. The concept is that there is a diminishing return from the data they have collected at the same frequency, in the same area. The telescope is not capable of properly handling a frequency stepping data set without the appropriate client application changes and the frontend and backend changes that SETI has yet to produce. They plan to conquer this problem with Multiple Frequency Observing. The entire project of the extraterrestrial intelligence search may depend on SETI’s progression towards a higher bandwidth. Currently SETI@home pays a monthly fee for an “internet pipe” because Berkley’s campus cannot support the project’s high network bandwidth alone. Except because of the campus’s network capacity, SETI@home can only use 100 Mbits/sec of 1000 Mbits/sec of their internet pipe.

    SETI@home’s savior, Astropulse, is a server that is creating more bandwidth demands. Now as you can imagine, SETI hopes to get more than just 100 Mbits/sec on their internet pipe which would then increase their bandwidth. Berkley’s campus is backing SETI through research and intelligence. Berkley works closely with the SETI team, trying to find hardware needed to lessen the lasting network problems. But don’t think SETI won’t accept our assistance as well. SETI@home doesn’t just allow us to contribute monetarily. The project hopes to convince you to allow them to use your computer when not in use to help in their search. They’ll do this with a screen saver that will replicate the actions of SETI@home’s data retrieval and analysis, and then report the results back to them. On SETI@home’s end they are in the process of building an underground fiber through the campus to connect to their remote locations; all of this falls into their needed upgrade costs.

    Regardless of the impact of your donations you must put forth the effort because you will be supporting a pioneer of our generation and generations after. SETI@home leads our intelligence in data analysis while putting it towards a useful cause. They hope that we see their purpose and support the advancement of SETI until they reach their goal.

    About Dennis Williams

    Dennis Williams a gadget fanatic and disguised nerd to say the least. He grew up in Washington, D.C. and lives teetering the passage between the technological world and normality. Dennis loves Android devices, they match his underdog mentality. He pretty much lives through technology on multiple mediums. But his goal is to give his audience his truest opinion and most factual research in hopes that he makes an impact on the society we live in today, one word at a time. Follow him on twitter @dennissdamenace

  • Jesus January 28, 2013, 8:07

    “The New Cosmogony”, from Stanislaw Lem’s ‘A Perfect Vacuum’, is a review of a fictional oration by a Nobel Prize laureate, who presents a new model of the universe based on his analysis to the Fermi Paradox: the universe is a game. He describes his remarkable theory about the source of physical laws. The universe is more than ten billion years old. Several generations of stars have come and gone. Billions of years have elapsed since the first civilizations could have arisen, so the question becomes, where are they? Why don’t we see their names spelled out with galaxies for pixels? His answer is, they are there, in fact they are everywhere, and the structure of physical law is their handiwork. Laws did not arise out of the inherent structure of the universe; they are rules established by competing primordial civilizations. All the players are operating under game theory, so they adopt certain conventions to prevent catastrophic upsets. Thus, physical laws are homogeneous throughout the universe because all the players pick the same, optimal strategy. There is no travel through time because that would give an unfair advantage, and for the same reason information cannot travel faster than light. Relics of past conflicts can be seen in quasars and in the microwave background radiation. We haven’t been visited by a dozen space-faring races because the big boys suppress young cultures that get too uppity. And the clincher is that the “psychzoics” (how the hell does that get translated from Polish?) have not yet finished with physics.



  • ljk January 28, 2013, 14:59

    The Benefits and Harms of Transmitting into Space

    Accepted for Publication in Space Policy. This version July 25, 2012.


  • ljk January 30, 2013, 10:25

    What can celebrated Polish author Stanislaw Lem teach scientists about alien life?

    Annalee Newitz

    Jan 29, 2013 4:30 PM

    What would it really be like to encounter alien life? This is the subject of a newly-emerging academic field called astrobiology, or the study of life beyond Earth. Now, in a new book called Alien Life Imagined: Communicating the Science and Culture of Astrobiology, astrobiological researcher Mark Brake combines stories from both science fiction and the world of science to explore how our ideas about alien life have changed over time. In this excerpt from his book, he deals with how astrobiology has changed in an age when we are actually traveling to other planets.

    Full article here:


  • Jesus January 30, 2013, 15:29

    Using the Sun to Make Music

  • ljk February 1, 2013, 14:38

    A brief synopsis of the modern (1960) history of SETI:


    To quote:

    1992-1993: NASA’s brief search

    U.S. Senate Historical Office Exactly 500 years after Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World, NASA officially launched its SETI program, the High Resolution Microwave Survey. Experts called it the most ambitious and technologically advanced alien-search effort ever conducted, but after just a year of operation the program was squashed.

    Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev., shown here, led the effort to kill the program, telling the Senate that “millions have been spent and we have yet to bag a single little green fellow. Not a single Martian has said take me to your leader, and not a single flying saucer has applied for FAA approval.”

    [Do ETI have their own breeds of ignorant, self-centered politicians like Bryan? This may be yet another factor for the Fermi Paradox. – LK]

    And this quote:

    “Other ideas include a push to expand the search beyond just radio signals. Paul Davies, a physicist at Arizona State University and author of several popular science books, argues that messages from E.T. might even be floating around in the junk DNA of terrestrial organisms and that we should start searching decoded genomes for the biotech equivalent of a message in a bottle.”

  • ljk February 7, 2013, 11:01


    The Physics arXiv Blog

    February 7, 2013

    SETI Study Of Habitable Exoplanets Draws a Blank For Jill Tarter

    The exoplanets of greatest interest show no sign of intelligent civilisations–so far

    The discovery of an ever-growing number of potentially habitable exoplanets brings an extra spiciness to the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence. For the first time, astronomers can direct the search towards these likely planets rather than aiming in hope towards the stars.

    Today, Jill Tarter, from the SETI Institute and of Contact fame, along with a group of buddies, reveal the results of their first directed search, carried out between February and April 2011.

    These guys pointed the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia at 86 stars hosting exoplanets discovered by the Kepler space telescope. They chose their targets because they had exoplanets in the Goldilocks zone, had five or more exoplanets or had super Earths with relatively long orbits.

    Tarter and co looked at signals in the 1-2 GHz range, the region used by terrestrial mobile and cordless phones. In particular, they hunted for signals that cover no more than 5Hz of the spectrum since there is no known natural mechanism for producing such narrow band signals. “Emission no more than a few Hz in spectral width is, as far as we know, an unmistakable indicator of engineering by an intelligent civilization,” they say.

    The big challenge with these kinds of observations is to rule out the false positives generated on Earth. Tarter and co developed a technique based on the simple idea that a signal can only be interesting if it appears in the data while the telescope is pointing at the target star but not when the telescope is pointing somewhere else. “This excluded 99.96 per cent of the candidate signals,” they say.

    That left 52 candidate signals which Tarter and co then studied for signs of a terrestrial origin.

    Their conclusions are forthright. “No signals of extraterrestrial origin were found,” they say.

    There are some important caveats, however. In particular, is the question of how strong a signal the Green Bank Telescope can pick up.

    Tarter and co consider in particular the most powerful beam that humans could broadcast into space: the Arecibo Planetary Radar in Puerto Rico. They say that if such a beam were pointed towards Earth during their experiment, they would have spotted it at distances of up to 10,000 light years. Of course, the likelihood of such a happy coincidence is small.

    More advanced civilisations might have more power to play with and so be easier to see. In particular, civilisations that have harnessed all the energy from their star–so-called Kardashian Type II civilisations–ought to be easy to spot.

    The results allow the team to put important limits on the likelihood of Kardashian Type II civilisations. Tarter and co say that the negative result implies that the number of these civilisations that are loud in the 1-2GHz range must less than one in a million per sun-like star.

    That still leaves plenty of wiggle room. And the team points out that rapid improvements in the technology for sensing radio signals means that researchers ought to be able to tighten these limits significantly in the not too distant future.

    Ref: http://arxiv.org/abs/1302.0845: A 1.1 to 1.9 GHz SETI Survey of the Kepler Field: I. A Search for Narrow-band Emission from Select Targets

  • ljk April 17, 2013, 9:13

    Stars In His Eyes, Sending Smoke Signals To Mars

    by Glen Weldon

    April 16, 2013 7:00 AM

    NPR review of the novel Equilateral by Ken Kalfus:

    In his slim but beguiling novel Equilateral, Ken Kalfus places us inside the heads of his characters with such deftness that the line between what is true and what they believe to be true fades to obscurity. It’s no coincidence that the heads in question belong to scientists who pride themselves on their evidence-based worldview; Kalfus delights in having readers continually gauge and recalibrate the distance between the world and his characters’ seemingly objective observations of it. It’s this same tension that provides Equilateral with its narrative engine, propelling us further and further into the story in search of definitive answers.

    As the 19th century neared its end, astronomers made a stunning announcement: They had documented the presence of an elaborate system of canals on the surface of the planet Mars. Several scientists went even further, asserting that they had also witnessed shifts in the coloration of Mars’ surface consistent with seasonal vegetation, proving that these canals were, in fact, an elaborate and fantastically advanced system for irrigating the planet’s parched red desert.

    These so-called canals were soon revealed to be natural surface formations. But in the alternate history Equilateral constructs, that infamous instance of conjecture overtaking evidence provides the impetus for the single largest feat of human engineering ever undertaken.

    The brilliant astronomer Sanford Thayer manages to convince the world’s governments — and several private investors — to inscribe into the shifting sands of Egypt’s Western Desert a simple geometric sign of almost unimaginable scale, an equilateral triangle so huge it will prove to Martian astronomers that human beings are here, and ready for first contact:

    “This figure, so easy to draw on a sheet of foolscap, requires more vigorous exertion when carved into the desert, each side 306 miles and 1,633 yards in length, precisely 1/73rd of the Earth’s circumference … each side a trench five miles in width.”

    Full review here:


    The review does not mention this and I am not sure if he is aware, but the novel author was likely inspired by real Nineteenth Century plans to signal Mars by making huge geometric patterns in the Sahara Desert, then filling them will oil and setting them on fire so they would be visible at night to any Martians who might be observing Earth with their powerful telescopes.

    More such real early METI plans here:


    There is also this article about signalling Mars using giant mirrors that reflected sunlight in the September, 1919 issue of Popular Science Monthly:


    None of these came to fruition, which is unfortunate even though we now know there would have been no one on Mars to see them. As for other kinds of ETI, however, who knows?

  • ljk April 19, 2013, 14:15

    SETI ‘Earth Speaks’: Want To Say Hello To An ET?

    Posted: 04/18/2013 9:38 am EDT | Updated: 04/18/2013 1:55 pm EDT

    Want to say hello to an ET? SETI scientists are here to help.

    People in Seattle and other parts of the Northwest recently weighed in on what they would want to say to intelligent creatures from another planet.

    At the SETI Institute in California, home of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, an ongoing program called Earth Speaks is collecting messages from citizens of Earth, young and old. They’re looking for public opinions on the best way to say hello to the cosmos.

    And what kinds of things are people submitting?

    “If you want to come visit us here on Earth, you’re welcome…but be prepared to witness a huge mess. Sorry ’bout that.”

    “Greetings from the People of Earth, the world we call our home. We come from many types of governments, faith groups and beliefs, yet are all of the same world. Many of us believe we are alone in the vast Universe, yet others think we are part of a vast Interstellar family, and if you are reading this, we hope that if we are part of that family, we will become a happy family together.”

    Full article here:


  • ljk May 10, 2013, 15:02

    Is SETI science?


    In short, right now it is the only game in town.