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Looking Out on a Cosmic Aegean

Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage is one of my favorite CDs, as definitive a statement of Hancock’s jazz artistry as, say, A Song for My Father is for Horace Silver’s craft, or Giant Steps for John Coltrane’s. But Maiden Voyage, particularly the title track, has that sense of relentless, questing motion that energizes me about all journeying. It’s restlessness mixed with inevitability, an Odyssean fling with great events in a vast and unknowable sea.

Such thoughts come to mind this morning because I’ve been paging through Giulio Magli’s Mysteries and Discoveries of Archaeoastronomy (Copernicus, 2009) while listening to Hancock’s work. It’s a lively and amusing book, amusing because Magli (Politecnico of Milan) enjoys taking swipes at colleagues as well as earlier scholars, and it plumbs the depths of sites around the world where our ancestors either did or might have aligned their structures with celestial objects. Some of these places remain controversial, because there are a lot of ways you can impose such alignments, not all of them necessarily in agreement with the ideas of the builders.

The ‘Knowability’ of SETI

I’m largely skeptical about much in this field, but I’m still curious to know more about it, and I want to talk more about Magli’s book when I’ve finished the last three chapters. But for today, I’ll focus on a particular chapter that struck me in light of our recent discussions on SETI. Just how ‘knowable’ would a signal from an extraterrestrial civilization be? In Magli’s terms, that relates to a question we can ask right here on Earth. How knowable are the ancient cultures whose intentions we now hope to divine from their ruins?

This is no easy matter to resolve, but in looking at it, Magli has recourse to a novel that Larry Klaes has mentioned in these pages before. It’s Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. The novel assumes an alien visitation of the Earth, one in which the visitors have absolutely no interest in human beings. These advanced creatures doubtless have an agenda of their own, but it’s not one that anyone can figure out. Behind them, in the area they visited, which is now known as ‘The Zone,’ people find artifacts that seem to make no sense. Two disks, for example, that always remain at the same distance from each other, but have no other obvious purpose.

No purpose understandable to us, that is. A substance like jam can trap a human like an insect in flypaper. Batteries that never run out of energy turn up. In other words, the relics of the encounter between humans and extraterrestrials are in some ways enigmatic, in other ways dangerous, and only some seem remotely useful to humans.

Perspectives on Pre-History

The characters in the novel are something like ants rummaging through the remains of a human picnic. Magli uses this perspective to consider the human ancestors who built the structures he studies in his book, places like Newgrange in Ireland, where a central shaft allows a bright arrow of sunlight to penetrate deep into the eighty-meter mound only on the morning of the winter solstice. Places like the Mayan pyramids that were aligned with the Sun’s position at the equinox, the earthen mounds of the Ohio and Mississippi valleys in the US, or, of course, the pyramids of Egypt.

It’s worth keeping in mind the values we bring to our investigations. Let me quote from this interesting book:

Our predecessors were not extraterrestrials, but humans who lived and suffered and loved and thought. But to a builder of Stonehenge, a Mayan astronomer, an Anasazi engineer, an Incan architect, or to the designer of the Great Pyramid, our technology, our little conceit of considering ourselves to be evolved, our way of counting, reasoning, recording data, our way of constructing theoretical schemas would be about as useful as a chocolate teapot. Our way is not absolute. It is not the way, it is but one way.

How difficult, then, to piece together the shards of the past and attempt to understand from them what people thousands of years ago were thinking as they built their structures. With the Strugatsky’s in mind, Magli goes on:

We are like those ants at the aftermath of the picnic. The picnickers did not leave instructions explaining in ant language what had happened or why. We have fragments and traces of evidence. We have what has been left behind, which is at best partial and mostly just mute. But it is not only that. It is that they would not have been interested in how we saw them anyway. They had their own way of thinking, reasoning, and studying that was not like ours, but that was just as effective. If we want to understand their ways, we must give up our schemes and embrace theirs; through respect comes understanding. But this is not easy to do.

This is a considerable understatement. Here is an example Magli uses to make the case: In September of 1991, at the edge of the Similaun glacier in Italy’s Val Senales (this is up near the Austrian border), the remains of a human body turned up. Precise dating showed it to be the body of a man who had died some five thousand years ago. He was dressed in a cloak of woven grass, a bearskin cap with chin straps, an overgarment in goatskin, goatskin trousers, and shoes with leather soles. He carried a calfskin haversack that contained a copper axe, a longbow made of yew wood, a quiver, about a dozen arrows, and a dagger. He also carried a grass net, perhaps for catching birds.

Making Sense of an Ancient Death

Was this man a ‘primitive’? Magli won’t call him that. His clothing encompassed the hides of five different animals and the wood and fiber from eighteen different trees and plants, all chosen carefully to match material properties with function. A contemporary of the megalith builders of northern Europe, he is perfectly equipped for his needs, and the technology he uses is suited to the environment he moves in. Magli will argue that we should not presume from his technology that he was less intelligent than us, merely that he worked with a different set of tools adapted for what was possible in his time.

Making quick assumptions can be fatal to good science. The Similaun man was originally thought to be a shepherd, or perhaps a shaman or a hunter lost in a blizzard. But later analysis showed he died from an arrow wound, and it was found that the blood of four different individuals appeared on various parts of his gear. Was he a warrior? Perhaps. He also, in addition to the above equipment, carried a deerhorn tool resembling a jeweler’s hammer, perhaps used to sharpen flint but not well understood. His contracted right hand may indicate he died with a knife in it, a possibility not considered until researchers stopped considering him as a wandering hunter-gatherer.

And, of course, we may still not have him right. Muses Magli:

These people did not leave us manuals or explanations. All they left us are their works. And it is time that we recognize the possibility that there exist objects about which we understand nothing — objects that are as puzzling to us as those equidistant disks were for the characters of Roadside Picnic. It is time to admit that we do not know what they are for or how they work.

Humility and the Message

I like that sense of humility before artifacts and ponder how it would translate to the reception of a SETI message. My hunch is that if we do receive such a message, it will not be a targeted beacon but a bit of random traffic. No Encyclopedia Galactica here. What it is, who sent it, why it was transmitted, will remain as enigmatic as the Strugatsky’s artifacts, or islands barely visible through the midst in Odysseus’ Aegean.

I’m replaying Maiden Voyage, pleased at the driving percussion and brush work, which reminds me of the sound of sea against a hull. The relentless piano theme makes me think how much early terrestrial voyages and future interstellar ones may have in common, in the assumption of a destination all the more worthy for being sought when its contours are unknown. As a species, we seem to be destined for journeying. Where will others find our artifacts, and when?

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  • Darrell E October 5, 2009, 15:26

    Our predecessors were not extraterrestrials, but humans who lived and suffered and loved and thought. But to a builder of Stonehenge, a Mayan astronomer, an Anasazi engineer, an Incan architect, or to the designer of the Great Pyramid, our technology, our little conceit of considering ourselves to be evolved, our way of counting, reasoning, recording data, our way of constructing theoretical schemas would be about as useful as a chocolate teapot. Our way is not absolute. It is not the way, it is but one way.

    This does not make much sense to me. It seems clear to me that current technology, maths, methods of data recording and collecting, reasoning, scientific methodoligies, all could be extremely useful for people from older cultures. Just as we would benefit from a knowledge base larger than what we currently have attained. It is just a matter of time. The amount of time we have had to increase our knowledge and develop cognitive tools.

    The last two sentences of the above quote are so trivially true it seems a waste for the original author to have written them. Is this book old?

    … our little conceit of considering ourselves to be evolved …

    This sounds like something from the last century. I think quite a few people these days understand that the differences between our current capabilities and those of older cultures are due, in general terms, to the amount of knowledge that we have accumulated, and that people from older cultures were in the same ballpark as we are as far as brain power goes. But, we do know more about how reality works, and we have developed better tools for figuring out more about how reality works. Many people these days also realize that while we have made progress on deciphering reality, we still have a long long way to go.

    With respect to a SETI message, I think it would be much more difficult to decipher a random message composed of “language” than one composed of “data”. The easiest type of message to decipher would of course be one that was intended to be received by others.

  • Athena Andreadis October 5, 2009, 17:27

    Being multilingual, a cultural half-breed, a neurobiologist and a space exploration enthusiast, I’ve given much thought to this. To Seek Out New Life has a whole chapter dedicated to this issue: Rosetta Stones and Black Monoliths: Can a Universal Translator Function?. Given that the book has 11 chapters, that should tell you something!

    I detect a long-postponed essay surfacing in my frontal cortex. Keep monitoring your frequencies!

  • Tom October 5, 2009, 18:10

    I agree with the article. But more so, not only does it seem more likely that we’ll intercept some random traffic (than receiving a direct message from some aliens that have a bizarrely unusual interest in homo sapiens), but on top of that, I find it hard to see us ever interpretting this random traffic over other noise.
    I think this for 3 reasons, firstly random traffic is very hard to decode as it is lacking in any meaning that we can comprehend.. it isn’t ‘we come in peace’ but ‘+1. Marked as spam. Reply. J’ADOR TON’ i.e. it is contextless.
    The second reason it would be almost impossible to find / interpret is that the usual method of looking for patterns is pointless. Every pattern is a waste of space in a message. The most efficient way to encode a message is indistinguishable from white noise, since unpredictable data contains the most information. This isn’t just some theoretical concept, it can be seen at a basic level if you zip a file; it has fewer patterns and is less predictable… the contents look more like noise.
    OK, so maybe you think.. why would a civilisation want such extreme compression? Well, it is simply the best compression, and once its invented, it is more economical to communicate that way. We send pictures by jpg (which is more like noise) when we used to send them by bmp (less noise, more patterns, less efficient).
    The third reason is that we’ll receive very few messages as it is very inefficient to broadcast data.
    The vast majority of aliens would either be far behind us developmentally (e.g. dinosaurs, sponges), in which case we will hear no signals; or far in front of us, in which case stray signals will be very rare and any we do receive will appear as just noise.

  • ASJ October 5, 2009, 20:45

    An interesting theme of “Roadside Picnic” is the breakdown of scientific organizations in solving the problem of the Zones. A scientist in the story, Dr. Pilman, resorts to the classic “picnic refuse” explanation out of frustration, and the artifacts found in the Zones are being sold on the black market. Some of the pieces have effects that can be exploited, but without understanding the fundamentals of how they operate. Stanislaw Lem’s “Solaris” and “His Master’s Voice” also touch on the theme of humans failing to understand aliens, leading to loss of credibility in scientific approaches.
    The Strugatsky Brothers and Lem provide a glimpse at an intellectually, if not emotionally, uncomfortable form of first contact.

  • James M. Essig October 5, 2009, 21:30

    I would imagine that perhaps multiwavelength signals could be incorporated into FM, AM, and/or polarization modulated light signals. Using a variety of different frequencies in an overall laser beam might enable vast quantities of data to be eventually sent wherein the intrabeam and inter-frequency relationships can be used as a method of data compression.

    If we could write a datacompressed story book in a beam of light with one or more keys to decompress the information, we might be able to send the story of humanity to various target stars, perhaps including an encylopedic discription of current human scientific and technical abilities.

    I am a real fan of the idea of EM based SETI and METI in addition but not to the exclusion of manned interstellar missions to worlds that might have ETI civilizations because we can and have had the technology to sent targeted EM signals to candidate star systems for decades now.

  • ljk October 6, 2009, 1:05

    As our knowledge of the heavens has improved over the centuries,
    we have encountered what has become known as the Great Demotions.

    First we thought our world and our tribe were the focus of all existence.
    The gods and supernatural entities we imagined existed spent a great
    deal of their time and power focusing on humanity, usually just a few
    specific sections of our species.

    Then we realized that Earth was a world in space, but even then we
    thought that everything literally and figurately circled about us.

    Then Copernicus came along (taking a big cue from Aristarchus of
    Samos) and said that our planet was just one of several circling the
    Sun.

    Then others picked up on the fact that the stars were other suns and
    they could have their own sets of planets and life forms on them, so
    we might not even be unique in that sense.

    Then in the 1920s, it was finally determined that the Milky Way was
    not the only galaxy in the Universe but one of billions, perhaps 100
    billion with 70 septillion stars at current estimate.

    Now astronomers are beginning to take seriously that even our Universe
    is not the only game in town, but that many other universes might exist,
    perhaps an infinite number of them.

    This realization has been difficult for our species, as we are still fairly
    hardwired to be tribal beings who don’t think much past the forest or
    cave we once occupied or what to do much beyond our next meal.
    This is why many people have an actual fear of finding alien life, as
    it would be the ultimate, final demotion, that we are not the only
    thinking beings around.

    Thus to find not only evidence of another intelligence in the Cosmos
    but an intelligence that does not even bother to pay attention to or
    consider us interesting or important would be a major blow to our
    collective psyches. It might also be a very important wake up call
    and help us mature and become more aware of the Universe as it
    truly is (indifferent except for those living intelligences that dwell
    among it), but if we have the ability to survive this ultimate shock
    remains to be seen.

    Stanislaw Lem’s works Solaris and His Master’s Voice, already mentioned
    in this thread, are probably some of the most probable ways things will
    go when we find alien intelligences, in spirit if not in the complete details.

    Lem is not an easy read in the sense that his universes and their inhabitants
    are not the cozy realms of Star Trek and Star Wars, but portray the Cosmos
    as it is at least in terms of its physical nature – a vast indifferent realm that
    was not made or meant for humanity, but a place that our species can
    carve a niche in if it matures soon enough.

    As for our alien neighbors, they probably won’t be humanoids with funny
    ears and noses (assuming somebody didn’t do some kind of major
    interstellar seeding program with the same species over and over) and
    they will probably be quite different culturally. But if they are organic
    and evolved on a world similar to ours, then we may at least share some
    certain basic behaviors and actions. How we interact with them will
    probably be our ultimate destiny in this galaxy – assuming we don’t all
    become Artilects.

  • ljk October 6, 2009, 1:12

    Oh yes – some other SF works about ETI that weren’t terribly interested
    in humanity even though they sort of interacted with us:

    Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, which had that huge alien
    space colony coming through our Sol system just to fuel up at the Sun
    and then head on out (I am ignoring the inferior sequels).

    Fritz Leiber’s The Wanderer, which has a giant alien spaceship suddenly
    appear next to Earth and cause us all kinds of havoc. The irony is that
    the ship is engaged in some massive interstellar war and Earth just
    happens to be in the way of their titanic battle.

    I am sure there are others.

  • Wayne Farmer October 6, 2009, 1:47

    Tom, good point. The CDMA technology used for many wireless phone transmissions uses pseudorandom noise carriers, modulated over a spread spectrum of broadcast frequencies. An alien AM radio receiver listening in, without knowing the underlying technology, would hear nothing remarkably different from interstellar noise. Could our radio-based SETI listening projects already be picking up and discarding such noise?

  • tacitus October 6, 2009, 4:06

    I’m still not convinced that ancient artifacts are a particularly useful example when it comes to SETI.

    For one, we’re dealing with primitive societies, with little or no technology and thus many of the artifacts are likely of religious significance for which there is no extant meaning or purpose. They are fossils.

    For another, we can and have found out an awful lot about these people from very little. While ceremonial and religious artifacts are hard to interpret, we can often build up a very nice picture of the daily lives of long dead cultures through excavations and analysis of the remains, in situ.

    Once we’re beaming down to other planets on away missions and sifting through the radioactive ruins of an alien civilization then perhaps I can see the similarity, but signals found by SETI are a different matter.

    They could be one of three basic categories of signal:

    1. Leakage — an inadvertent signal leaked into space by the ETI
    2. Interception — a deliberate signals between ETIs that we happen to overhear.
    3. Beacon — METI

    I guess you could add a fourth miscellaneous category to include publicity stunts like beaming a movie into space, but the odds of receiving something like that are likely infinitesimal.

    If we receive leakage then I agree that deciphering something like that would be extremely tough. The signal is likely to be horribly degraded and could well be a mishmash of overlapping data streams, carrier signals, etc. The only chance we would have was if the signal was continuous over a period of years. The more data you have the more likely it is you can pick up patterns and maybe begin to unpick the format eventually. But success would not be guaranteed.

    Fortunately (maybe?) leakage is the least likely type of signal we’re going to overhear. The odds of another EM-level civilization being within leakage range are extremely small, so I’m not optimistic of tuning in on any nearby neighbors.

    As for an interception, if the galaxy is teeming with intelligent life, then this is certainly possible (though it begs the question why haven’t they contacted us yet!). As a deliberate message of some kind, we’re less likely to have trouble with the format of the message since it’s going to be designed in a way to ease transmission and reliability. Of course, if we’re only catch part of the message, it’s going to be much harder to decipher, and if it’s encrypted then all bets are off. But if we do manage somehow to get at the data, it will be extremely tough to work out its meaning, but it might not be as impossible as a leaked signal may be. Again, as a transmitted message, even if it is not meant for us, it is more likely to have some structure to it, and the subject matter is more likely to be of a limited range. It still could be sweet nothings broadcast across the galaxy between loved ones, but the odds are higher that it at least in part contains something like engineering data, telemetry, or computer code of some time. It might still take years to decipher, but at least we might have some idea of where to begin.

    Finally, there is the beacon. If the message is being deliberately beamed out to us, then the odds are that they want us (the unknown ETIs) to know what it means. So whether it is friendly ETIs wanting to share their knowledge with us, or religious fanatics wanting us to know we’re horrible sinners, or even hostile aliens baiting a hook, it makes sense to provide us with a way of understanding their message. Given the shared knowledge we must have in the ability to build compatible transmitters and receivers, there is little doubt that the METI builders would be able to figure out a series culture-free steps to transmit so that we can at least decode the signal and access the contents.

    After that it will depend more on cultural and evolutionary traits, but again, to have developed far enough to understand the universe to the extent you need to create a METI signal in the first place, you have to assume that they will have worked out a way to leave a trail of breadcrumbs — perhaps in pictorial or video format, but maybe something else — to help us along the way. I accept that the final message could still be indecipherable (if it is religious zealots, for example) but I would put the odds of being able to understand the majority of the contents of a METI signal to be pretty high, and certainly well over 50%

    So it all depends on what type of signal we find. If it’s not a beacon then I agree that it will likely be extremely tough to figure out what the content of the signal means (we could get lucky, you never know), but if it’s a METI beacon then I really don’t believe it makes any sense for those responsible for the signal not to provide a cheat sheet along with it, even if there are profound evolutionary and cultural differences.

    Sorry if I have rambled on for too long. I guess I should call it a day here!

  • tesh October 6, 2009, 6:05

    I seem to find myself agreeing with what Tom says,

    “The vast majority of aliens would either be far behind us developmentally (e.g. dinosaurs, sponges), in which case we will hear no signals; or far in front of us, in which case stray signals will be very rare and any we do receive will appear as just noise.”

    I would go further. I’d say ALL ‘nearby’ civilisations would be either too far ahead or too far behind. The likelyhood of finding a ‘nearby’ civilisation, at roughly the same stage in technological development as us, sould be near zero and even if it did exist, I not sure it’d be a good idea to seek out contact. Do we trust ourselves (by that I mean the whole of humanity) to make contact for the correct reasons and can we control ourselves from not ballsing (for want of a better word) it up! Would we instantly split into factions and deal away our possesions – what ever of value they or we may deem fit to barter? It would be like the ultimate cold war all over again. Fear that they are building an invasion force and so we must also do the same…

    As for civilisationt that are too far ahesd, they would likey ignore us. There would be nothing new for them here.

    I would suggest we look for signals, ala SETI but not try and initiate contact, at least not before taking a really, really, REALLY, long time to think about it .

  • Michael Spencer October 6, 2009, 6:17

    Hey Paul,

    ‘Roadside Picnic’ so intrigued me I headed over to Amazon. It’s an interesting experience. That book must be darn special to support the stunning prices!

  • ljk October 6, 2009, 9:27

    Go to this Wikipedia entry and scroll to the end. There you will find links to several free online copies of Roadside Picnic.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roadside_Picnic

    I wish someone would do the same for Lem.

  • Tulse October 6, 2009, 12:17

    It’s probably worth noting that “Roadside Picnic” was made into the excellent film The Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky, who also did a fabulous adaptation of the Lem’s book Solaris (as a film I prefer it to the Clooney version). Tarkovsky uses “Roadside Picnic” more as a starting point for his film, which is more a character study, but I think it is one of the best and most under-rated science fiction films. (Ditto for Solaris.)

  • Tulse October 6, 2009, 12:19

    And Michael Spenser, if you’re looking for “Roadside Picnic”, the short story itself is available online.

  • James M. Essig October 6, 2009, 14:19

    Hi Folks;

    This is an outstanding discussion.

    When looking for SETI type signals, we should remain open to the possibility that perhaps ETI might communicate with secure signals such as neutrino beams that travel at a velocity of C – e where e is very very small but positive.

    Neutrino beams are perhaps a great mechanism for communication between ETI civilizations.

    Now given that Dark Matter is perhaps 6 times more prevelent than baryonic matter, perhaps we should keep in mind the possibilities of dark energy which travels at a velocity equal to C such as massless bosonic forms of dark energy fields.

    Some such bosons might exist in the form of Minimally Super- Symmetric Standard Model bosons, or peraps near C fermions similar to neutrinos or dark super-hot mattergy.

    Then there is the possibility of superposing neutrinos, photons, MSSM massless bosons, MSSM super-hot dark matter and the like energy fields. Imagine a tailor made signal broadcaster that would send out AM, FM, and/or polarization modulated energy and/or massive particle matter waves.

    Given that CDM may be and appears to be 6 times more abundant in terms of inertial mass that is gravitationally reactive to baryonic mattergy, we might find that perhaps there are roughly 6 additional classes of particles and fields that make up the fermionic and bosonic composition of our universe that are of the same categorical level as that of the Standard Model fermions and bosons.

    This is a whole lot of territory to explore

  • ljk October 6, 2009, 20:30

    The Fall of the Maya — New Clues Revealed?

    NASA Science News for October 6, 2009

    Archeologists are using NASA satellites and supercomputers to crack the mystery of the ancient Maya. New findings suggest the Maya may have played a key role in their own downfall.

    FULL STORY at

    http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2009/06oct_maya.htm?list1094208

    Check out our RSS feed at http://science.nasa.gov/rss.xml!

  • Mike Prather October 7, 2009, 3:46

    I would refer Darrell E. to the most excellent John Campbell story “Forgetfulness” – one of his that has always stuck with me even more than “Who Goes There.” Just because we know and have stored up a lot of data within our recorded history (a miniscule portion of actual human history) doesn’t mean we haven’t forgotten a tremendous amount. Some things we’ve discarded simply because they’re not necessary anymore but due to war and cataclysm we’ve potentially lost knowledge that if it were still part of our catalog, might put us thousands of years ahead of where we are now.

  • ljk October 7, 2009, 10:09

    James Essig said:

    “When looking for SETI type signals, we should remain open to the possibility that perhaps ETI might communicate with secure signals such as neutrino beams that travel at a velocity of C – e where e is very very small but positive.

    “Neutrino beams are perhaps a great mechanism for communication between ETI civilizations.”

    James, contact the astronomers working with IceCube in Antarctica and ask them if they are looking or plan to look for any unusual neutrino patterns. We can detect these particles along with muons, so let’s get the facilities and people who are capable of monitoring these objects on board with SETI.

    You can tell them that if they detect an alien signal, their science funding will no doubt increase dramatically. Plus this might give them something to do during any down time.

    Remember that even if all we can deduce from a signal from deep space at present is that it is from a genuinely non-human intelligence, that discovery alone will be a landmark in SETI and overall human history.

  • Athena Andreadis October 7, 2009, 10:39

    Diamond includes the Mayans in his discussions in Collapse, and so does Mann in 1491. The theory that they contributed to their downfall is not new. There are several tributaries that could have fed into the disaster: exhausting the soil, being too top-heavy as a society, the constant civil wars between princelings of the city-states. Add a persistent drought to these conditions and you get the resulting collapse.

    All histories of previous human civilizations are cautionary tales. I suspect that human civilizations, at least, are cyclical. I don’t know if this is true of non-human sapients. It will partly depend on their biology and ecology, which will largely dictate their technology and their responses to it. This in turn will determine if they embark on a SETI equivalent (signal leakage is another story, but such signals will almost certainly not be decipherable for many reasons).

    Tacitus, it’s simply “white man’s burden”-style thinking that whatever we cannot immediately categorize in an archaeological dig is a religious artifact. “Religious artifact” was code for “We don’t know what that was used for.” Whenever archaeologists have re-evaluated artifacts with new information, they have found out that almost all objects had a specific purpose. As for looking at artifacts of previous civilizations, it’s sobering and instructive to contemplate that this may be not only how we look at our predecessors, but how either our descendants or non-terrestrial visitors look at us and our artifacts: through a cracked and smoked glass.

  • Athena Andreadis October 7, 2009, 11:05

    Paul, I wanted to make a few separate points about Ötzi of the Ice: investigators knew very soon that he was not a gatherer-hunter, because among his stomach contents there was processed einkorn bran that, given the logic of the seasons, had to have been stored — bespeaking early but already sophisticated agriculture.

    The artifacts he carried make two points relevant to how we interpret both early civilizations and how we may (or may not) decipher SETI signals: 1) he carried sophisticated items whose use proved hard to identify but which were decidedly not “religious artifacts” (the firestarting kit; the fungus with antibiotic properties, in anticipation of Fleming’s penicillin) and 2) it is likely that he was neither just a shepherd nor just a warrior — but performed a combination of functions. This was possible in the pre-pyramidal quasi-egalitarian social configurations that persisted well into the Chalcolithic age in both the Middle East and Europe, as seen by the lack of ostentatious buildings and tombs in such places as Çatal Hüyük.

  • James M. Essig October 7, 2009, 13:26

    Hi ljk;

    Regarding your statement

    “James, contact the astronomers working with IceCube in Antarctica and ask them if they are looking or plan to look for any unusual neutrino patterns. We can detect these particles along with muons, so let’s get the facilities and people who are capable of monitoring these objects on board with SETI.”

    I think that is a great idea. I will have to address those issues once I organize my thoughts on the matter. Using Ice Cube during down time to look for SETI signals is perhaps the best use of SETI down time I can think of.

    I hope to talk to you more about this idea in the coming days.

  • Administrator October 7, 2009, 16:41

    Athena Andreadis wrote:

    Paul, I wanted to make a few separate points about Ötzi of the Ice: investigators knew very soon that he was not a gatherer-hunter, because among his stomach contents there was processed einkorn bran that, given the logic of the seasons, had to have been stored — bespeaking early but already sophisticated agriculture.

    Interesting, Athena, and news to me — Magli doesn’t mention this at all.

  • James M. Essig October 8, 2009, 1:41

    Hi ljk;

    I took you up on your idea. I was about to go to bed for the night as it was about 1 AM when I decided to compose the letter I sent to the Staff of the IceCube Project.

    The link to their contact page is:

    http://www.icecube.wisc.edu/contact/index.php

    The letter was sent as follows.

    Dear Staff of the IceCube Project;

    Most if not all of you have heard of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence project that was once run by the Federal Government but which was handed over to private sponsorship roughly a couple of decades ago.

    I would like to make the following few points before I describe a proposal for the use of IceCube during down time after it becomes operational in 2010 or 2011 for SETI purposes.

    First, I would imagine that perhaps multi-wavelength signals could be incorporated into FM, AM, and/or polarization modulated light signals. Using a variety of different frequencies in an overall laser beam might enable vast quantities of data to be eventually sent wherein the intra-beam and inter-frequency relationships can be used as a method of data compression.

    If we could write a data-compressed story book in a beam of light with one or more keys to decompress the information, we might be able to send the story of humanity to various target stars, perhaps including an encyclopedic description of current human scientific and technical abilities.

    I am a real fan of the idea of EM based SETI and METI in addition but not to the exclusion of a vision for manned interstellar missions to worlds that might have ETI civilizations because we can and have had the technology to send targeted EM signals to candidate star systems for decades now. This means that perhaps any existent ETI civilizations might already be doing likewise.

    Secondly, when looking for SETI type signals, we should remain open to the possibility that perhaps ETI might communicate with secure signals such as neutrino beams that travel at a velocity of C – e where e is very very small but positive.

    Neutrino beams are perhaps a great mechanism for communication between ETI civilizations being that they interact very weakly with baryonic matter at ordinary densities with the caveat that sufficient and highly directed neutrino beam flux densities could be achieved by sufficiently advanced ETI civilizations.

    Thirdly, since Dark Matter is perhaps 6 times more prevalent than baryonic matter, perhaps we should keep in mind the possibilities of some forms of dark energy which might travel at a velocity equal to C such as mass-less bosonic forms of dark energy fields.

    Some such bosons might exist in the form of Minimally Super-symmetric Standard Model bosons, or perhaps near C fermions similar to neutrinos or hot dark mattergy.

    Fourthly, then there is the possibility of superposing neutrinos, photons, any MSSM mass-less bosons, any MSSM super-hot dark matter and the like energy fields. Imagine a tailor made signal broadcaster that would send out AM, FM, polarization modulated, and/or digitally modulated energy and/or massive particle matter waves.

    Given that CDM may be and even appears to be 6 times more abundant in terms of inertial mass that is gravitationally reactive relative to baryonic mattergy than baryonic mattergy, we might find that perhaps there are roughly 6 additional classes of particles and fields that make up the fermionic and bosonic composition of our universe that are of the same categorical level as that of the Standard Model fermions and bosons.

    This is a whole lot of territory to explore and a whole plethora of potential bosonic and fermionic energy fields with which to do SETI.

    Now, I would like to propose that the IceCube facility, during down times between periods of observation for its main designed purposes, be used at least part of such times to search for patterns of neutrino detection that might resemble any artificial signals that might be produced by any ETI civilizations as a means for communication with other such civilizations.

    More broadly, I see IceCube as an interesting venue along with SETI research utilizing the more tradition methods such as through observations within microwave, RF, IR and visible light spectrums.

    I would imagine that any hot dark matter particles that are outside the set of Standard Model particles but which might interact with matter perhaps weakly and through the weak force might also be detected using IceCube, even in the absence of the confirmation or evidence of such particles using more traditional scaled detectors such as those located deep underground typically in abandoned mines, one obvious reason being the much greater volume of the active portion of the IceCube detector relative to current neutrino detectors and that of CDM experimental apparatus.

    The detection of signals from other civilizations would result in a major paradigmatic shift in our culture, and although many folks might at first by frightened by such, I am of the opinion that such a discovery would eventually but rapidly be very widely accepted. Our species is a religious people and as such we are open to the unknown and the infinite. An observation of even an initial glimmer of evidence for signals sent by ETI civilizations would most likely ignite the wanderlust of citizens on every continent and throughout all social-economic classes.

    I would be happy to discuss the above subject matter with you in greater detail at your request.

    Best Regards;

    James M. Essig

    ljk, I am pleased by the great amount of basic science that is being accomplished at elaborate research facilities. The NIF and planned FRIB in the U.S., the Large Hadron Collider, The Tevatron at Fermilab, the proposed TeV range electron-positron Linac, the ITER fusion reactor project, IceCube, and the list goes on. Even a muon collider is being discussed as a real possibility. The broad scope of the combined efforts of all of these facilities may yet help us aim for the stars this very century, perhaps even by mid-century. With the winding down of the Cold War, perhaps an era of peace is possible and with peace, all things are possible.

  • ljk October 8, 2009, 9:58

    Very nice letter, James, thank you. Please post here any replies you receive from them. Perhaps some other folks reading this thread will consider sending a similar request to those scientists (yes, I have already sent them my letter on this subject). Enough requests to have SETI research conducted with IceCube may get the staff to take this idea seriously.

    I hope those working with facilities like IceCube truly recognize the desire and need not only for public outreach (LHC has gotten pretty good at it, if perhaps to at least damp down fears about the particle accelerator obliterating Earth) but to also spend some time on projects that the general public might find both interesting and relatable. For example, the people who operate the Hubble Space Telescope know to release a few pretty celestial images on a regular basis to please those who foot the bill for the satellite facility.

    Speaking of the basic science being done at science facilities around the world, check out what LHC might be able to conduct research on here:

    Hyperdrive Propulsion Could Be Tested At the LHC

    http://www.technologyreview.com/blog/arxiv/24211/

    James, on your comment that our species being religious would make the idea of the existence of alien intelligences both palatable to humanity and inspire us to move into the Universe: While you are correct that this would happen for many people, I can also see certain religious groups of a more fundamental nature rejecting an ETI even to the point of reacting with hostile force both towards the extraterrestrials and those who support them. We would also have the other extreme, with groups who practically worship the aliens and expect them to solve all our problems. Hopefully reason and sanity will win out in the end.

    I often ask myself if humanity is truly ready to deal with the wider Cosmos and all that it holds, but then I recognize that existence will not be holding itself in check just to ease our young and volatile race into its bosom. We could get hit with the Big Picture at any time, so the best we can do is to educate and prepare ourselves and as many others as possible for that day.

  • James M. Essig October 8, 2009, 17:47

    Hi ljk;

    Thanks for the kind words and the well spoken additional points you made above.

    In fact, I know some folks of the fundamentalist persuasion that have openly criticised my interest in the possibility of ETI by stating that such beings do not exist, otherwise the Bible would have mentioned them.

    Also, I could not agree with you more that any ETI we would meet would not be God. While no intent is being made here to promote any faithbased system, I must say that ontologically and existentially speaking, my opinion is that ETI would be similar to us psychodynamically even though they might not look like us nor perhaps even have a humanoid appearence. This is not to say that perhaps nature might prefer humanoid persons from an evolutionary perspective, but I could well imagine that any ETI races likely evolved from lower animal forms of life, even though they may have developed the ability to genetically or otherwise augment their physical and psychodynamic traits.

  • ljk October 8, 2009, 19:29

    James Essig said:

    “In fact, I know some folks of the fundamentalist persuasion that have openly criticised my interest in the possibility of ETI by stating that such beings do not exist, otherwise the Bible would have mentioned them.”

    Pandas and particle accelerators are also not mentioned in the Bible
    so far as I know, yet they do exist.

    While I think the actual number of humans who would literally treat
    and worship an ETI as a deity are small, I do expect a fairly large
    number of our species to think and hope that advanced aliens,
    especially those who could actually come here in person, will
    somehow “save” us from all our problems.

    As has been noted elsewhere, many of the messages from people
    sent into deep space by the Hello from Earth project from Australia
    sounded a lot like prayers invoking the unseen and unknown
    intelligences in the galaxy to provde help and wisdom, even if they
    did not intend them to be so. Of course a lot of other folks invited
    the ETI over for a beer. :^)

    For those people who think ETI will save us, I wonder if they have
    truly considered how they want to be rescued? Do they really want
    an alien being from a distant world to essentially tell them how to
    live and act? If there were some altruistic ETI, do people think
    these beings would come all this way across the galaxy just to be
    nice without wanting something in return? The price may not be
    something sinister, but no one would commence such an undertaking
    for nothing.

    As for religion, imagine the reaction if ETI missionaries came to
    Earth preaching their One True God which they expect every intelligence
    in the galaxy to worship as they do. Or maybe religion is unique to us;
    that one data point is so frustrating.

  • ljk October 8, 2009, 19:54

    Here is a fictional yet plausible example of an advanced intelligence
    “saving” humanity at its request, but not in the way they thought it
    was going to.

    The classic yet underrated 1969 SF film The Forbin Project tells of a
    project by the United States to put all of its nuclear missiles under
    the control of an artificial intelligence named Colossus so that human
    misbehavior or error would never be allowed to bring about World
    War III.

    What the humans expected was that Colossus would simply handle
    the missiles and any potential threats and people would just continue
    on with their lives and typical behaviors. Colossus, taking things to
    their logical conclusion, knew that humans had to be restricted in
    certain ways or their instinctual natures would bring about their
    extinction in the end.

    Human society soon found itself under the nearly complete control of
    Colossus (it had control of every nuclear missile on Earth to back up
    its orders) and even though society was brought into a state of peace
    and prosperity, they felt oppressed and chafing at the bit to get out
    of their “salvation”.

    Is this what might happen if an advanced intelligence decided to
    “help” us with our problems? Perhaps that is yet another reason
    we cannot find ETI: The aliens who have been around the cosmic
    block a few times know that younger species have to work out
    their own issues and learn from what the Universe has to offer
    by its mere presence.

  • Duncan Ivry October 8, 2009, 22:00

    This is a very interesting discussion. Thank you to all participants.

    Regarding the Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky:
    It’s remarkable, that it seems to be forgotten — and Wikipedia doesn’t mention it — that there have been and are people, who understand Roadside Picnic as a subtle, metaphorical story about the Sowjet System, and *not* as a science fiction story. I have lived several decades of my life close to the eastern block, and I have made a lot of observations. I think, it’s plausible. But, may be, it’s both: a science fiction story *and* a story about the Sowjet System.

  • ljk October 9, 2009, 11:27

    Science fiction has a long tradition of being used as an acceptable cover to comment on the human condition. Star Trek got away with a lot of social and political commentary in the 1960s that would have been otherwise censored on American television (just ask the Smothers Brothers) because the network executives dismissed science fiction as kids stuff.

    SF was ideal for authors living in communist nations for similar reasons. Polish native Stanislaw Lem certainly used the genre to that effect. Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 novel We was a precursor to George Orwell’s infamous 1984, though the Soviet authorities figured out what Zamyatin was really talking about.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/We_(novel)

  • Darrell E October 9, 2009, 13:32

    Mike Prather October 7, 2009 at 3:46
    I would refer Darrell E. to the most excellent John Campbell story “Forgetfulness” – one of his that has always stuck with me even more than “Who Goes There.” Just because we know and have stored up a lot of data within our recorded history (a miniscule portion of actual human history) doesn’t mean we haven’t forgotten a tremendous amount. Some things we’ve discarded simply because they’re not necessary anymore but due to war and cataclysm we’ve potentially lost knowledge that if it were still part of our catalog, might put us thousands of years ahead of where we are now.

    Sure, there is a tremendous amount of information that has been lost down through the ages, and much of the information that we have from the distant past is difficult or even impossible to understand due to a lack of context or for various other reasons. But we do continue to discover more and more about our past all the time through many different disciplines. And though there are many stories about fabulous secret knowledge that has been lost in the mists of time, to date so far there has not been a single case of ancient long lost knowledge being rediscovered that has had a significant impact on our level of technology or science.

    I myself have a pretty wide romantic streak, but this idea that we achieved much more in the ancient past in terms of science, technology, art, what have you, and have since fallen, and that if we could just rediscover that ancient knowledge we would be able to make a quantum leap forward, does not have any evidence to support it. I understand and agree wholeheartedly that the more we discover about our ancient past the better equipped we will be to continue on to create a better future for ourselves. Even if that were not so just that our ancient past is so damn interesting would be enough for me to justify learning about it. But, when it comes to physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, medicine, etc., the only way to continue making forward progress that has any track record of success is not to look to the distant past for ancient secrets that almost certainly do not exist, but to use reason and current knowledge to formulate hypotheses and then to test by experiment and use the results of those experiments to determine which ideas are useful. In short, there is not any evidence to support your claim that there is likely ancient knowledge that has been lost that if rediscovered might put us thousands of years ahead of where we are now.

  • James M. Essig October 10, 2009, 0:31

    Hi Folks;

    What if there are ETI that have bodies made of quarkonium or quark based atoms or other exotic forms or matter that we might not initially be able to detect such as perhaps rational ETI persons with distributed bodies.? To set some sort of lower boundary on the number of such unique possible ETI, I pondered the following simple rough extimate lower bounding calculations.

    We can calculate the number, n, of subsets of a set of 6 quarks as follows wherein the set includes one quark of each flavor as follows: n = 2 EXP 6 = 64. The number of materials that can be produced from each non- empty subset of the set S1 wherein the material consists of only one type of matter or of only element of the set is (2 EXP 6) – 1 = 63.

    Now the number of subsets in a set with 63 elements in is equal to 2 EXP 63 which is a huge number. We will call this set S2. The number of unique compounds or quarkonium materials producible wherein each material consists of the material corresponding to one element of the set S2 except the empty set is plausibly equal to (2 EXP 63) -1. Now note that I am referring to materials that have only one copy of each sub-molecule in their composition. In reality, the number of possible materials derived from one or more copies of each element of the set S2 is literally infinite in the limiting value that the piece of material has infinite mass.

    Now the number of subsets in a set with [(2 EXP 63) – 1] elements is equal to {2 EXP [(2 EXP 63) – 1]} -1 which is an ensemble. We will call this set S3. The number of unique compounds or quarkonium materials producible wherein each material consists of the material corresponding one element of the set S3 except the empty set is plausibly equal to {2 EXP [(2 EXP 63) – 1]} -1. Note that many of the materials that include as much as [(2 EXP 63) – 1] unique elements wherein even only one copy of each element is included in the sample would result in the sample of the composite material having a mass of about millions of metric tons. For a composite material composed of only one copy of each element within the set of {2 EXP [(2 EXP 63) – 1]} -1 elements or materials, the resulting mass of the composite material would be an ensemble multiple of the mass of the visible universe. Once again, we similarly note that I am referring to materials that have only one copy of each sub-molecule in their composition. In reality, the number of possible materials derived from one or more copies of each element of the set S3 is literally infinite in the limiting value that the piece of material has infinite mass.

    Now the number of subsets in a set with {2 EXP [(2 EXP 63) – 1]}-1 elements is equal to {2 EXP {{2 EXP [(2 EXP 63) – 1]}-1}}- 1 which is huge. We will call this set S4. For a composite material composed of only one copy of each element within the set of {2 EXP {{2 EXP [(2 EXP 63) – 1]}-1}}- 1 elements or materials, the resulting mass of the composite material would be an immense ensemble multiple of the mass of the visible universe.

    Now note that I am referring to materials that have only one copy of each sub-molecule in their composition. Yet once again, we similarly note the number of possible materials derived from one or more copies of each element of the set S4 is literally infinite in the limiting value that the piece of material has infinite mass.

    Likewise, we can compute the number of element in the continuing series of S5, S6, S7, and so on in a never ending series for at this point strictly conjectural purposes.

    If a unique person could be embodied in each element of the sets S1. S2, S3, … or at the very least arbitrary combinations of such elements allowing for one or more copies of each element to be included in the person’s body, imagine how many unique persons could be created, pro-created, or however, come into being .

    When I ponder the huge numbers of potential bodies, and the much greater numbers of quantum qubits that a person in the form of a bio-computer can take, the number of possible ETI life forms in our universe, or multiverse, if such exists is astoundingly large.

    Truly the realm of exo-politics, varieties of exo-cultures, varieties of exo-histories, is emmense to the point that when I see my fellow humans squabbling over limited resources on Earth, my thinking is What is the point of that behavior! With so much to explore, the thought of doing SETI and METI can and should be a rallying call to move on to greater and better things.

  • ljk October 19, 2009, 13:01

    To spot an alien, follow the pollution trail

    New Scientist Space Oct. 19, 2009

    Light pollution from cities and the presence of CFCs and other artificial compounds in the atmosphere (indicated by absorption at characteristic wavelengths) could be signs of intelligent life on alien planets….

    http://www.kurzweilai.net/email/newsRedirect.html?newsID=11279&m=25748

  • ljk November 16, 2009, 1:01

    November 10, 2009

    Vatican Holds Conference on Extraterrestrial Life

    Written by Nicholos Wethington

    Though it may seem an unlikely location to happen upon a conference on astrobiology, the Vatican recently held a “study week” of over 30 astronomers, biologists, geologists and religious leaders to discuss the question of the existence of extraterrestrials.

    This follows the statement made last year by the Pope’s chief astronomer, Father Gabriel Funes, that the existence of extraterrestrials does not preclude a belief in God, and that it’s a question to be explored by the Catholic Church. The event, put on by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, took place at the Casina Pio IV on the Vatican grounds from November 6-11

    Full article here:

    http://www.universetoday.com/2009/11/10/vatican-holds-conference-on-extraterrestrial-life/