I love watching people who have a passion for science constructing projects in ways that benefit the community. I once dabbled in radio astronomy through the Society of Amateur Radio Astronomers, and I could also point to the SETI League, with 1500 members on all seven continents engaged in one way or another with local SETI projects. And these days most everyone has heard the story of Planet Hunters, the citizen science project that identified the unusual Boyajian’s Star (KIC 8462852). When I heard from Roger Guay and Scott Guerin, who have been making their own theoretical contributions to SETI, I knew I wanted to tell their story here. The post that follows lays out an alien civilization detection simulation and a tool for visualizing how technological cultures might interact, with an entertaining coda about an unusual construct called a ‘Dyson shutter.’ I’m going to let Roger and Scott introduce themselves as they explain how their ideas developed.
by Roger Guay and Scott Guerin
Citizen Science plays an increasingly important role across several scientific disciplines and especially in the fields of astronomy and SETI. Tabby’s star, discovered by members of the Planet Hunters project and the SETI@home project are recent examples of massively parallel citizen-science efforts. Those large-scale projects are counterbalanced by individuals whose near obsession with a subject compels them to study, write, code, draw, design, talk about, or build artifacts that help them understand the ideas that excite them.
Roger Guay and Scott Guerin, working in isolation, recently discovered parallel evolution in their thinking about SETI and the challenges of interstellar detection and communication. Guay has undertaken the programming of a 10,000 x 8,000 light year swath of a typical galaxy and populates it with random radiating communicating civilizations. His model allows users to tweak basic parameters to see how frequently potential detections occur. Guerin is more interested in a galaxy-wide model and has used worksheets and animations to bring his thoughts to light. His ultimate goal is to develop a parametric civilization model so that interactions, if any, can be studied. However, at the core, both efforts were attempts at visualizing the Fermi Paradox across space-time, and both experimenters show how fading electromagnetic halos may be all that’s left for us to discover of an extraterrestrial civilization, if we listen hard enough.
The backgrounds, mindsets, and tool kits available to Roger and Scott play an important role in their path to this blog.
I am a retired Physicist and Technical Fellow Emeritus from Boeing in Seattle. I can’t remember when I first became interested in being a scientist (it was in grade school) but I do remember when I first became obsessed with the Fermi paradox. It was during a discussion while on a road trip with a colleague. At first, this discussion mainly revolved around the almost unfathomable vastness of space and time in our galaxy, but then turned to parameters of the Drake equation. The one that was the most controversial was L, the lifetime of an Intelligent Civilization or IC.
The casual newcomer to the Drake equation will tend to assume a relatively long lifetime for an IC, but when considering detection methods such as SETI uses, one must adjust L to reflect the lifetime of the technology of the detection method. For example, SETI is listening for electromagnetic transmissions in the microwave to radio and TV range. So, L has to be the estimated lifetime of that technology. For SETI’s technology, we’ll call this the Radio Age. On Earth, the Radio Age started about 100 years ago and has already fallen off due to technological advances such as the internet and satellite communication. So I argued, an L = 150 ± 50 years might be a more reasonable assumption for the Drake equation when considering the detection method of listening for radio signals.
At this point the discussion was quite intense! When I thought about an L equal to a few hundred years in a galaxy that continues to evolve over a 13-billion-year lifespan, the image that came to my mind was that of fireflies in the night. And that was the precursor for my Alien Civilization Detection or ACD simulation.
One can imagine electromagnetic or “radio” bubbles appearing randomly in time and space and growing in size over time. At any instant in time the bubble from an IC will have a radius equal to the speed of light times the amount of time since that IC first began broadcasting. These bubbles will continue to grow at the speed of light. When the IC stops broadcasting for whatever reason, the bubble will become hollow and the shell thickness will reflect the time duration of that IC’s Radio Age lifetime.
If the age of our galaxy is compressed into one year, we on Earth have been “leaking” radio and television signals into space for only a small fraction of a second. And, considering the enormity of space and the fact that our “leakage” radiation has only made it to a few hundred stars out of the two to four hundred billion in our galaxy, one inevitably realizes there must be a significant synchronization problem that arises when ICs attempt to detect one another. So what does this synchronicity problem look like visually?
To answer this question my tasks became clear: dynamically generate and animate radio bubbles randomly in space and time, grow them at the speed of light at very fast accelerated rate in a highly compressed region of the galaxy, fade them over time for inverse square law decay, and then analyze the scene for detection. No Problem!!!
Using LiveCode, a modern derivative of HyperCard on steroids, I began my 5-year project to scientifically simulate this problem. Using the Monte Carlo Method whereby randomly generated rings denoting EM radiation from ICs pop into existence in a 8,000 X 10,000 LY region of the galaxy* centered on our solar system at a rate of about 100 years per second, the firefly analogy came to life. And the key to determining detection potential is to recognize that it can only occur when a radiation bubble is passing over another IC that is actively listening. This is the synchronicity problem that is dramatically apparent when the simulation is run!
To be scientifically accurate and meaningful, some basic assumptions were required:
- 1. ICs will appear not only randomly in space, but also randomly in time.
- 2. ICs will inevitably transition into (and probably out of) a Radio/TV age where they too will “leak” electromagnetic radiation into space.
- 3. The radio bubbles are assumed to be spherically homogeneous**.
To use the ACD simulation, the user chooses and adjusts parameters such as Max Range, Transmit and Listen times*** and N, the Drake equation estimate of the number of ICs in the galaxy at any given instant. During a simulation run, potential detections are tallied and the overall probability of detection is displayed.
About two years ago, as the project continued to evolve, I became aware of Stephan Webb’s encyclopedic book on the Fermi Paradox, If the Universe is Teeming with Aliens … Where is Everybody? This book was most influential in my thinking and the way I shaped the existing version of the ACD simulation.
A snapshot of the main screen of the ACD simulation midway through a 10,000 year run.
A Webb review of the ACD simulation is available here: http://stephenwebb.info/category/fermi-paradox/
And you can download it here at this Dropbox link:
Conclusions? The ACD simulation dramatically demonstrates that there is indeed a synchronicity problem that automatically arises when ICs attempt to detect one another. And for reasonable (based on Earth’s specifications) Drake equation parameter selections, detection potentials are shown to be typically hundreds of years apart. In other words, we can expect to search for a few hundred years before finding another IC in our section of the galaxy. When you consider Occam’s razor, is not this synchronicity problem the most logical resolution to the Fermi Paradox?
* The thickness of the Milky Way is small compared to its diameter. So for regions close to the center of the thickness, we can approximate with a 2-dimensional model.
** Careful consideration has to be given to this last assumption: Of course, it is not accurate in that the radiation from a typical IC is assumed to be composed of many different sources and have widely varying parameters, as they are on Earth. But the bottom line is that the homogenous distribution gives the best case scenario of detection potential. An example of when to apply this thinking is to consider laser transmission vs radio broadcast. Since a laser would presumably by highly directed and therefore more intense at greater distances, the user of the ACD simulation might choose a Higher Max Range but at the same time realize that pointing problems will make detection potential much smaller than the ACD indicates. The ACD does not take this directly into consideration. Room for the ACD to grow?
*** One of the features of this simulation is that the user can make independent selections of both the transmit and listening times of ICs, whereas the Drake equation lumps them together in the lifetime parameter.
I grew up north of Milwaukee, Wisconsin and was the kid in 5th grade who would draw a nuclear reactor on the classroom’s chalkboard. My youthful designs were influenced by Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space, everything NASA, and 2001: a Space Odyssey. In the mid 70s, I was a technical illustrator at the molecular biology laboratory at UW Madison and, after graduation with a fine arts degree, I went on to a 30-year career as an interpretive designer of permanent exhibits in science and history museums.
I began visually exploring SETI over two years ago in order to answer three questions: First, why is such a thought-provoking subject so often presented only in math and graphs thereby limiting information to experts? Secondly, why is the Fermi Paradox a paradox? Thirdly, what form might an interstellar “we are here” signaling technology take?
Using Sketchup, I built a simple galactic model to see what scenarios matched the current state of affairs: silence and absence. At a scale of 1 meter = 1 light year, I positioned Sol appropriately, and randomly “dropped” representations of civilizations (I refer to them as CivObjects) into the model. Imagine dropping a cup full of old washers, nails, wires, and screws onto a flat, 10” plate and seeing if any happen to overlap with a grain-of-salt-sized solar system (and that speck is still ~105 too large).
The short answer is that they didn’t overlap and I’ve concluded that the synchronicity issue, combined with weak listening and looking protocols is a strong answer to the paradox. When synchronicity is considered along with sheer rarity of emitting civilizations (my personal stance), the silence makes even more sense.
For scale, the green area at lower right represents the Kepler star field if it were a ~6,000 LY diameter sphere. The solid discs represent currently emitting civilizations, the halos represent civilizations that have stopped emissions over time, and the lines and wedges represent directed communications. I sent this diagram to Paul and Marc at Centauri Dreams who were kind enough to pass it on to several leading scientists and they graciously, and quickly, replied with encouragement.
Curtis Charles Mead’s 2013 Harvard dissertation “A Configurable Terasample-per-second Imaging System for Optical SETI,” George Greenstein’s Understanding the Universe, Tarter’s, and the Benford’s papers, among others, were influential in my next steps. I realized the halos were unrealistic representations of a civilization’s electromagnetic emissions and that if you could see them from afar, they could be visualized as prickly, 3-dimensional sea urchin-like artifacts with tight beams of powerful radar, microwave, and laser emanating from a mushy sphere of less directional, weaker electromagnetic radiation.
From afar, Earth’s EM halo is a lumpy, flattened sphere some 120LY in radius dating to the first radio experiments in the late 1890’s. The 1974 Arecibo message toward M13 is shown being emitted at the 10 o’clock position.
From Tarter’s 2001 paper “At current levels of sensitivity, targeted microwave searches could detect the equivalent power of strong TV transmitters at a distance of 1 light year (the red sphere at center in the diagram), or the equivalent power of strong military radars to 300 ly, and the strongest signal generated on Earth (Arecibo planetary radar) to 3000 ly, whereas sky surveys are typically two orders of magnitude less sensitive. The sensitivity of current optical searches could detect megajoule pulses focused with a 10-m telescope out to a distance of 200 ly.”
In this speculative diagram, two civilizations “converse” across 70 LY. Mead’s paper confirms the aiming accuracy needed to correct for the the proper motion of the stars, given a laser beam just a handful of AU wide at the distance illustrated, is within human grasp. The civilizations shown would most likely have been emitting EM for hundreds of years so that their raw EM halos are so large and diffuse they cannot be shown in the diagram. The magenta blob represents the elemental EM “hum” of a civilization within a couple LY, the green spikes represent tightly beamed microwaves for typical communications and radar , while the yellow spikes are lasers reaching out to probes, being used as light-sail boosters, and fostering long distance high-bandwidth communications. Each civilization has an EM fingerprint, affected by their system’s ecliptic angle and rotation, persistence of ability, and types of technologies deployed — these equate to a unique CivObject.
In advance of achieving the goal of a fully parametric 3D model, I manually animated several kinds of civilizations and their interactions by imagining a CivObject as a variant of a Minkowski space-time cone. I move the cone’s Z axis (time) through a galactic hypersurface to illustrate a civilization’s history of passive and intentional transmission, as well as probes at sub-lightspeed. A CivObject’s anatomy reveals the course of a civilization’s history and I like to think of them as distant cousins of Hari Seldon’s prime radiant. https://vimeo.com/195239607 password: setiwow!
The anatomy of a CivObject allows arbitrary time scales to be visualized as function of xy directionality, EM strength, and type of emission. Below is Earth’s as a reference. Increasing transmission power is suggested by color.
I found it easy to animate transmissions but continue to struggle with visualizing periods of listening and the strength of receivers. Like Guay, I concluded that a potential detection can occur only when a transmission passes through a listening civilization. A “Conversing” model designed to actually simulate communication interactions needs to address both ends of “the line” with a full matrix of transmitter/receiver power ratios as well as sending/listening durations, directions, sensitivities, and intensities. In addition, a more realistic galactic model including 3d star locations, the GHZ, and interstellar extinction/absorption rates is needed.
And now for some sci-fi
A few months before KIC 8462852 was announced and Dyson Swarms became all the rage, I noticed one of those old ventilators on top of a barn roof and thought that if a Kardashev II civilization scaled it up to +-1AU diameter, it would become a solar powered, omni-directional signalling device capable of sending an “Intelligence was here” message across interstellar space. I called it a Dyson Shutter.
Imagine a star surrounded by a number of ribbon-like light sails connected at their poles. Each vane’s stability, movement, and position is controlled by the angle of sail relative to incoming photons from the central star. The shutter would be a high tech, ultra-low bandwidth, scalable construct. I have imagined that each sail, at the equator, would be no less than one Earth diameter wide which is at the lower end of Kepler-grade detection.
Depending on the number constructed, the vanes could be programmed to shift into simple configurations such as fibonacci and prime number sequences.
I imagine the Dyson Shutter remains in a stable message period for hundreds of rotations. Perhaps there are “services” for the occasional visitor, perhaps it has defenses against comets, incoming asteroids, or inter-galactic graffiti artists. Perhaps it is an intelligent being itself but is it a lure, a trap, a collector, or colleague? Is it possible Tabby’s star is a Dyson Shutter undergoing a multi-year message reconfiguration?
The shutter’s poles are imagined to be filled with command and control systems, manufacturing facilities, spaceports, etc.
We hope that our work as presented here might inspire some of you to join the ranks of the Citizen Scientist. There are many opportunities and science needs the help. With today’s access to information and digital tools, anyone with a little passion for their ideas and a lot of imagination and persistence can help communicate complex issues to the public and make contributions to science. We hope that our stories resonate with at least some of you. Please let us know what you think and let’s all push back on the frontiers of ignorance!