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Cultural Diffusion and SETI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cargo-cult

Image: Cargo cults reacted to advanced technology by trying to emulate it with their own tools, a reminder of the perils of contact between widely different cultures.

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

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

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  • ljk May 28, 2013, 9:58

    The Wow! Signal: Intercepted Alien Transmission?

    May 24, 2013 05:20 PM ET // by Markus Hammonds

    SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, has seen astronomers scouring the sky for decades in hopes of receiving artificially generated radio signals sent by alien civilizations. But then, there’s a good chance we’ve already found just such a signal. And 1977 saw the most tantalizing glimpse ever.

    Nicknamed the “Wow!” signal, this was a brief burst of radio waves detected by astronomer Jerry Ehman who was working on a SETI project at the Big Ear radio telescope, Ohio. The signal was, in fact, so remarkable that Ehman circled it on the computer printout, writing “Wow!” in the margin — and unintentionally giving the received radio signal the name under which it would become famous.

    Despite a lot of effort, no identification has been found for the signal’s source, and no repeat signal has ever been found. It’s a complete mystery. The only conclusion that can be drawn is if the signal truly did originate in deep space, then it was either an astrophysical phenomenon of which we’ve never seen before, or it truly was an intercepted alien signal.

    To explain scientific observations, the normal method is to construct hypotheses and then test them. If your hypothesis is incorrect, it will fail to explain the observation. You can then continue this way, using different hypotheses, until you find something which can accurately describe what you’ve observed (if you ever watch Mythbusters, you may be familiar with how this works).

    But with the Wow! signal, researchers ran into difficulty. After trying and failing to find any repeat of the signal, Ehman was skeptical of its origin, stating that “something suggests it was an Earth-sourced signal that simply got reflected off a piece of space debris.” But when he tried to investigate that explanation, he only found more problems.

    Full article here:

    http://news.discovery.com/space/alien-life-exoplanets/the-wow-signal-130524.htm

  • ljk May 28, 2013, 10:02

    Astrobiology, History, and SocietyLife Beyond Earth and the Impact of Discovery

    Series: Advances in Astrobiology and Biogeophysics

    Vakoch, Douglas A. (Ed.)

    2013, XXVIII, 375 p. 19 illus., 2 illus. in color.

    http://www.springer.com/astronomy/astrobiology/book/978-3-642-35982-8

    Presents essays exploring the societal, anthropological, and religious dimensions of astrobiology and SETI

    Offers a comprehensive overview of the extraterrestrial life debate from antiquity to the present day

    Demonstrates possible impacts of the discovery of extraterrestrial life on human society

    Explores the importance of analogies for contemporary astrobiologists, who search for life beyond Earth based on terrestrial life and environments
    Provides insights into the nature of scientific discovery through in-depth case studies

    This book addresses important current and historical topics in astrobiology and the search for life beyond Earth, including the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI).

    The first section covers the plurality of worlds debate from antiquity through the nineteenth century, while section two covers the extraterrestrial life debate from the twentieth century to the present. The final section examines the societal impact of discovering life beyond Earth, including both cultural and religious dimensions.

    Throughout the book, authors draw links between their own chapters and those of other contributors, emphasizing the interconnections between the various strands of the history and societal impact of the search for extraterrestrial life.

    The chapters are all written by internationally recognized experts and are carefully edited by Douglas Vakoch, professor of clinical psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies and Director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI Institute.

    This interdisciplinary book will benefit everybody trying to understand the meaning of astrobiology and SETI for our human society.

    Content Level » Research

    Keywords » Astrobiology Society Impact – Communication Extraterrestrial Civilization – SETI Project – Search for Extraterrestrial Life – Societal Impact of Discovering Extraterrestrial Life

    Related subjects » Astrobiology – Community Psychology – Life Sciences – Religious Studies – Social Sciences

    Table of contents Part I. The Early Extraterrestrial Life Debate.- Chapter 1. The Extraterrestrial Life Debate from Antiquity to 1900.- Chapter 2. Early Modern ET, Reflexive Telescopics, and Their Relevance Today.- Chapter 3. Extraterrestrial Life as the Great Analogy, Two Centuries Ago and in Modern Astrobiology.- Chapter 4. Hegel, Analogy, and Extraterrestrial Life.- Chapter 5. The Relationship Between the Origins of Life on Earth and the Possibility of Life on Other Planets: A Nineteenth-century Perspective.- Chapter 6. Pioneering Concepts of Planetary Habitability.- Part II. The Modern Extraterrestrial Life Debate.- Chapter 7. The Twentieth Century History of the Extraterrestrial Life Debate: Major Themes and Lessons Learned.- Chapter 8. The Creator of Astrobotany, Gavriil Adrianovich Tikhov.- Chapter 9. Life Beyond Earth and the Evolutionary Synthesis.- Chapter 10. The First Thousand Exoplanets: Two Decades of Excitement and Discovery.- Chapter 11. Extraterrestrial Life in the Microbial Age.- Part III. Societal Impact of Discovering Extraterrestrial Life.- Chapter 12. The Societal Impact of Extraterrestrial Life: The Relevance of History and the Social Sciences.- Chapter 13. Cultural Resources and Cognitive Frames: Keys to an Anthropological Approach to Prediction.- Chapter 14. The Detection of Extraterrestrial Life: Are We Ready?.- Chapter 15. Impact of Extraterrestrial Life Discovery for Third World Societies: Anthropological and Public Health Considerations.- Chapter 16. Impossible Predictions of the Unprecedented: Analogy, History, and the Work of Prognostication.- Chapter 17. Mainstream Media and Social Media Reactions to the Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life.- Chapter 18. Christianity’s Response to the Discovery of Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life: Insights from Science and Religion and the Sociology of Religion.- Chapter 19. Would the Discovery of ETI Provoke a Religious Crisis?.- Index.

    The book price, however, will keep the general public from acquiring it easily or at all. $139 for the electronic version??

  • ljk May 31, 2013, 14:02

    ** Contact details appear below. **

    30 May 2013

    Text and Images:

    http://www.cfa.harvard.edu/news/2013/pr201313.html

    MUSIC OF THE SPHERES: STAR SONGS

    Plato, the Greek philosopher and mathematician, described music and astronomy as “sister sciences” that both encompass harmonious motions, whether of instrument strings or celestial objects. This philosophy of a “Music of the Spheres” was symbolic. However, modern technology is creating a true music of the spheres by transforming astronomical data into unique musical compositions.

    Gerhard Sonnert, a research associate at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, has published a new website that allows listeners to literally hear the music of the stars. He worked with Wanda Diaz-Merced, a postdoctoral student at the University of Glasgow whose blindness led her into the field of sonification (turning astrophysical data into sound); and with composer Volkmar Studtrucker, who turned the sound into music.

    “I saw the musical notes on Wanda’s desk and I got inspired,” Sonnert says.

    Diaz-Merced lost her sight in her early 20s while studying physics. When she visited an astronomy lab and heard the hiss of a signal from a radio telescope, she realized that she might be able to continue doing the science she loved. She now works with a program called xSonify, which allows users to present numerical data as sound and use pitch, volume, or rhythm to distinguish between different data values.

    During a visit to the Center for Astrophysics in 2011, Diaz-Merced worked with data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. The target was EX Hydrae – a binary system consisting of a normal star and a white dwarf. Known as a cataclysmic variable, it fluctuates in X-ray brightness as the white dwarf consumes gas from its companion.

    Diaz-Merced plugged the Chandra X-ray data into xSonify and converted it into musical notes. The results sound random, but Sonnert sensed that they could become something more pleasing to the ear. He contacted Studtrucker who chose short passages from the sonified notes, perhaps 70 bars in total, and added harmonies in different musical styles. Sound files that began as atonal compositions transformed into blues jams and jazz ballads, to name just two examples of the nine songs produced.

    The project shows that something as far away and otherworldly as an X-ray-emitting cataclysmic variable binary star system can be significant to humans for two distinct reasons – one scientific and one artistic.

    “We’re still extracting meaning from data, but in a very different way,” explains Sonnert.

    You can listen to the results of the project at the Star Songs website.

    Contacts:

    David Aguilar
    +1 617-495-7462
    daguilar@cfa.harvard.edu

    Christine Pulliam
    +1 617-495-7463
    cpulliam@cfa.harvard.edu

    Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. CfA scientists, organized into six research divisions, study the origin, evolution and ultimate fate of the universe.