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Tuesday, November 17, 2009


The following begins the serialization of Chapter 4 on SETI from SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for Humanity:

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI)

In the Beginning

…There might have been nothing, or something, but what? One theory is that a vacuum fluctuation (this is an even bigger leap of faith than most religious miracles, but let me leave this Intelligent Design-inspired creation to the next chapter) triggered an event called the Big Bang. That was about 13.7 billion years ago. This mysterious beginning is at the heart of the debate regarding God and science. Today, we do know that the universe is vast, but, to even further confuse you, it is reported that 95% of matter is dark (stuff no one has yet seen, but astrophysics declare must be out there so that their theories can make a little more sense) and 5% is regular atomic (like stars, trees, us, etc.)

Our galaxy, the Milky Way, where Earth is in the very outer suburbs, has, maybe, 400 billion stars. Yes, we don’t know for sure how many. The Hubble Telescope was capable of detecting 80 billion galaxies, or so, perhaps each with its 400 billion stars. But who knows how many more were outside the capability of Hubble. The European Space Agency calculates as much as 1024 stars out there in our universe (galaxies make up our universe, but, there might be other universes), most you can’t see. If you spent one second counting each one, it would take you 30 million billion years. Remember, the Universe is less than 14 billion years old. Even the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) reports there are zillions of uncountable stars.

On the basis that light travels 186,282 miles in one second (671 million miles per hour or about 6 trillion miles in one year), if it were possible to design a spacecraft to travel at that speed (and the best we’ve done is Voyager 1 moving away from the Sun at 38,600 mph), it would take about four years to reach our nearest star, which is Proxima Centauri. With that in mind, you should appreciate that light would take about 100,000 years to travel from one end of our Milky Way (which, again, is a disk-shaped galaxy) to the other end.

Or, using another analogy so that you can visualize all this better, if our solar system were the diameter of a quarter, the Milky Way would be about as large as the continental USA. The farthest object the human eye can see in the sky is the Andromeda galaxy, a mere 2 million light years away. We’re changing scales here, but if our Milky Way were the size of a CD, Andromeda, about the same size, would only be 8 feet away. So, if it takes 100,000 years for light just to traverse across our galaxy, it then would take 2.56 million years just for light to travel from our galaxy to the next closest one, and there are billions and billions of galaxies, according to Carl Sagan (actually, he said 100 billion galaxies).

In 2004, the combined power of the Keck Telescopes on Mauna Kea and the Hubble Telescope discovered what was reported to be the most distant galaxy 13 billion light years away, but earlier in 2002, a galaxy 13.6 billion light years was also supposedly seen, and now gamma-ray bursts suggest distances close to the time of the Big Bang. Thus, there is some sorting out still going on in the field.

As you can see, the Sun is much larger than our planets:

But note the relative smallness of our Sun:

Conversely, in the direction of really small, in The Elegant Universe, Brian Green writes that the fundamental particle is a string, a one dimensional vibrating loop. How large is this string? Well, if an atom has the diameter of our entire solar system, then a string would be about as large as a tree. As you know, an atom is almost infinitesimally tiny—about 10-8 centimeter—so this piece of string is estimated to be 10-33 centimeters. Interesting to note that Book 1 speculated that your odds of being born a human being was 10-34, an even smaller number. And, while you live in a three dimensional world, String Theory starts with 10, and probably more, dimensions. So let us simplify this chapter by merely looking outwards from Planet Earth for life in space and stick to three dimensions plus time.

What you once learned in school has been updated. Do you know, for example, that as of March this year, there were 170 known moons in our solar system? Wait a minute, Pluto has three, and it is not now a planet, so make that 167. A dissenting group of the International Astronomical Union prevailed in calling Pluto a “dwarf” planet, so the planetary number is now 8. Being plutoed was chosen as the 2006 word of the year by the American Dialect Society, meaning, being demoted or devalued.

Grown men and women are serious about all this. Your tax dollars are partly responsible, but not much compared to your give away to Wall Street. Anyway, there is a lot of moons out there, but at least one of them was absolutely critical, for one theory has it that life could not have begun on this planet if we had no moon to stabilize our orbit.

The first seed for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, might have been planted as early as 700 BC when Indian astronomer and mathematician Aryabhata is known to have visualized heliocentricism (Earth revolves around the Sun). In the fourth century BC, Greek philosopher Metrodorus of Chios, wrote in his book, On Nature, “to suppose that Earth is the only populated world in infinite space is as absurd as to believe that in an entire field sown with millet, only one grain will grow.” However, Ptolemy, around 150 AD, still viewed Earth as the center of the Universe, the prevailing theory then, until Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, actually also trained in medicine and law, in the 1500’s, founded modern astronomy, placing Planet Earth as a mere object revolving around the Sun. He also advanced the possibility of other earths revolving around other suns.

Copernicus survived the clergy because his first book on the subject was not published until the last day of his life. Much braver, but maybe not so smart, was Dominican Monk Giordano Bruno, who suggested that there might be an infinite number of suns with inhabited planets. Alas, he was arrested in 1592, condemned, and burned at the stake in 1600.

Not long thereafter, German astronomer Johannes Kepler wrote that the moon might be inhabited by beings with large bodies to withstand the long, hot lunar days. He expanded his habitats to include four moons of Jupiter, recently discovered by Galileo Galilei, the father of modern astronomy and modern physics, who because of his scientific discoveries, was, at the age of 69, convicted by the Inquisition and sentenced to life imprisonment. He, though, had religious connections (Pope Paul V and Pope Urban VIII), and served the equivalent of house arrest. Three hundred fifty years later, Pope John Paul II rehabilitated Galileo.

In 1728, Bernard de Fontenelle of France expounded on the subject (in French) and a few years later, English poet Alexander Pope, in his Essay on Man, wrote:

He who thro’ vast immensity can pierce,

See worlds on worlds compose one universe,

Observe how system into system runs,

What other planets circle other suns,

What vary’d being peoples ev’ry star,

May tell why Heav’n has made us as we are.

In 1834, a century later, Britisher Alexander Copland published The Existence of Other Worlds: Peopled with Living and Intelligent Beings . Also during the middle 1800s, German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss tried to initiate a project to plant a gigantic forest in the shape of a right triangle so that astronomers from other worlds who saw it would realize that Earth was inhabited with an intelligence that was familiar with an unnatural geometric shape. But in general, there was an attitude of caution in this century and extraterrestrial speculation was discouraged.

While the Mars observations of Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli back in 1877 suggested something called “canali,” or channels, American astronomer Percival Lowell in his 1908 book, Mars as the Abode of Life, reported on his theory about intelligent beings responsible for the crisscrossing canals. (These canals proved to be an optical illusion by the Mariner spacecrafts in the 1960s.) In 1919, Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi of wireless fame caused a public stir by suggesting that some unusual radio signals came from Mars. Around that time, Albert Einstein recommended that light rays might be an easily controllable method of extraterrestrial communication.

The fear of Martian invasion grew for decades, and when Orson Welles in his 1938 Halloween radio broadcast (yes, by clicking here, you can actually listen to that program) dramatized H.G. Wells’ novel, War of the Worlds—even though there was a warning at the beginning that this was a re-creation—too many took the message too seriously. This was a period when Hitler was advancing in Europe. When the first movie in 1953 appeared, the Korean War and communism were in the minds of the populace. The 2005 Spielberg version came on the heels of our war on terrorism, so the threat of extraterrestrials seems to work best when civilization is somehow being threatened.

The religious-SETI love-hate relationship continued in 1952 with a statement regarding the new science of radio astronomy by Oxford cosmologist, E.A. Milne:

“In that case there would be no difficulty in the uniqueness of the historical event of the Incarnation. For knowledge of it would be capable of being transmitted by signals to other planets and the re-enactment of the tragedy of the crucifixion in other planets would be unnecessary.”

In 1959 two Cornell University physicists, Philip Morrison and Giuseppe Cocconi, wrote about the basic concept of a search for extraterrestrial radio waves, which inspired Frank Drake, then a young radio astronomer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, to in 1960 search Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani to determine if they might be sending coded signals. In his autobiographical history of the SETI movement, Drake remarks:

“I have been waiting for this moment nearly all my life. Indeed, if there is anything unusual about my otherwise normal childhood, it is that I started tracing my ties to alien civilizations of intelligent life in the universe at the age of eight.”

He went on to say:

“I fully expect alien civilization to bequeath to us vast libraries of useful information, to do with as we wish. This Encyclopedia Galactica will create the potential for improvements in our lives that we cannot predict. During the Renaissance, rediscovered ancient texts and new knowledge flooded medieval Europe with the light of thought, wonder, creativity, experimentation, and exploration of the natural world. Another, even more stirring Renaissance will be fueled by the wealth of alien scientific, technical and sociological information that awaits us.”

Called Project Ozma—the Queen in the Oz Books by Frank Baum, from which came “The Wizard of Oz” in 1900—Drake’s project survived into the 70’s. As an aside, I was surprised to learn in 2006 that there was a 13-minute film based on this book in 1910 and a later 1925 full length silent version before the 1939, colored, song-filled blockbuster featuring Judy Garland.

Work on Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence (CETI) began in the former Soviet Union in 1964, and the following year, scientists announced that they actually detected signals. It turned out that they were measuring quasars, very bright centers from distant galaxies. While that was at least mildly embarrassing, the field recovered enough so that in March of 1974, the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, approved CETI as a research program, for the logic of that day was, what if the Americans are gaining a Cold War advantage through this weird scheme. The Soviet Union even hosted international SETI conferences in 1971 and 1981.

The logic of SETI is sound: interstellar space travel is expensive and way beyond our current engineering ability. The fastest man-made object travelling in space needs to go about 17,000 times faster to approach the speed of light.

Cost of current space activities? Just NASA’s Deep Impact project, that relayed back to Earth the flash of a probe hitting comet Tempel 1, perfectly timed to draw the attention of the nation on July 3, 2005, cost $333 million. Spectacular? Absolutely, as to track for 172 days, after travelling 268 million miles, and hit a Manhattan sized comet 82.5 million miles away moving at 66,880 miles per hour, is amazing. Purpose? To answer basic questions about the origins of the solar system. Ulterior motive? Perhaps hype up funding for NASA. Coming on the eve of Independence Day, the effect was newsworthy. NASA has a way of orchestrating these events, for good reason. I worked for them once. Mars rock in Antarctica? Water on the Moon? Yes, those were NASA press releases.

The entire Apollo Project to send Man to the Moon would have cost $140 billion today. Unknowingly, this extravagance did help to bankrupt the Soviet Union, resulting in the end of the Cold War, so it was worth every penny. Remember from Chapter 1, the Afghanistan-Iraq war will probably cost somewhere in the realm of $3,000 billion, or $3 trillion. Today, with no obvious world threat, each Space Shuttle flight continues to cost around $1.3 billion, more than what the Department of Energy annually spends on renewable energy development. The matter of significance and priorities continues to challenge our nation and world.

Not to really rub it in, but a few disasters of course would be expected: NASA’s 2002 Comet Nucleus Tour, or Contour, to explore comets, went missing at a cost of $159 million, and the 1992 Mars Observer stopped communicating in 1993, for a loss of $1 billion. The next bold new mission for NASA is Project Juno, to, in 2010, robotically orbit Jupiter, for only $700 million. NASA launched The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a $720 million mission, on August 12, 2005, the Phoenix Mars Scout in search of organic chemicals on Mars in 2007, and in 2009 or 2010 or 2011, will be the Mars Science Laboratory in space. Thus, it can be argued that setting aside a small percentage of these sums, say $10 million/year, should be a justifiable token to continue the research to detect signals from space. But NASA is today forbidden by Congress to do any obvious SETI work. The little Green Men syndrome is hard to shake.

U.S. Senator Spark Matsunaga, in his book, The Mars Project, advocated the U.S. working with the Soviet Union to get to Mars. Matsunaga’s two great legacies, the U.S. Peace Academy (see Chapter 1 of this book) and hydrogen (as reported in Chapter 3 of Book 1, as he was the originator of the national hydrogen fuel R&D program), will prevail over planetary exploration because the Cold War soon ended and cooperation with Russia became a given. I was working in Senator Matsunaga’s office when the Mars Project was initiated, and worked closely with the ghost writer, Harvey Meyerson, on several projects. Meyerson later fashioned an interesting career himself, promoting international cooperation in space, and might yet someday amalgamate SETI with Herman Melville, his twin passions, although I guess Star Trek has already saved a whale in time, so Harvey needs to amplify his creative reflexes.

In 1989, President George H.W. Bush’s “Space Exploration Initiative,” with its $500 billion price tag, targeted Mars, but was never fleshed out. The International Science and Technology Center, created in 1992 through an agreement among the European Union, Japan, the Russian Federation, and the U.S., headquartered in Moscow, produced a 13-volume study blueprinting how best to send an expedition to the Red Planet. Cost for putting Man on Mars? $20 billion, much cheaper than the Apollo Project. Russian space experts, though, reported in 2004 that they could send a six-man crew to Mars within a decade for only $3.5 billion . The world scoffed, and the retort was that such an effort would actually cost a trillion dollars. President George W. Bush in 2004 did hint of a Moon + Mars plan, but, like his father, just planted a seed. University of Illinois engineer Cliff Singer estimates the price of 1 million person-centuries to send a manned space ship to another star. Cost? $10 trillion.

Against these numbers, SETI looks like a bargain, especially as you don’t need to actually travel long distances to pick up the message, for all you need to do is detect and encrypt signals from space. I’m beginning to sound like those naysayers criticizing Cristoforo Columbo (that Italian credited with discovering America in 1492) but, under current conditions, SETI makes a lot more economic sense than sending Man into Space.

SETI has been regularly reviewed as good science, and additionally, hopes for real answers to ultimate questions, and communication by radio waves is elegant and relatively cheap. Narrow band frequencies traveling at the speed of light in the microwave portion of the electromagnetic spectrum would carry long distances (in the range of 500 light years with current technology) with minimal power and signal interference, and would not be absorbed by cosmic dust. What if signals are coming from civilizations Out There far more advanced than ours? Drake’s Encyclopedia Galactica could be ours to use.

We, Earthlings, did, actually, in 1972, launch Pioneer 10 featuring a gold anodized aluminum plaque with a pictorial message from humanity with our location to the red star Aldebaran via the Planet Jupiter. However, the estimated date of arrival is still 2 million years away. In the meantime, our television signals have been beaming out since the 1930’s.

The key vocabulary of SETI speak, so that the reader can understand the jargon and comprehend the immensity, might include:

o one astronomical unit (AU): the 93 million mile average distance of Earth from the Sun, which is a distance measurement;

o one light year: 5.88 (call it 6) trillion miles—multiply the speed of light (186,282 miles per second), times 60 seconds in a minute, times 60 minutes in an hour, times 24 hours in a day, times 365.24 days in a year to get the distance traveled by light in one year, which, again, is a measurement of distance or length, not time;

o 4.2 light years: the distance of Proxima Centauri, our closest neighbor, a distance the 1977 Voyager would take 70,000 years to reach, where it is humbling to appreciate that Jesus Christ was only 2,000 years ago;

o there are about 1,500 stars within 50 light years from Earth, and these solar systems all have now received our regular TV signals (which travel at the speed of light), except that with our current technology, we today might be able to detect this same signal only if it emanated from about a light year away, meaning that we would not be able to detect a similar TV signal originating anywhere outside our solar system;

o SETI typically searches for alien signals from as far away as 150 light years, so for detection, the signal must be really, really powerful and largely pointed to us;

o however, Frank Drake was quoted in 2000 that “the power of our search system is 100 trillion times what it was 40 years ago" so technology is growing with incredible speed; and

o Drake formulated the seminal equation (promise, this will be my only equation):

N = R* Fp Np Fl Fi FcL


N = number of technological civilizations in our galaxy

R* = average annual rate of star formation in our galaxy

Fp = fraction of stars having planets

Np = number of suitable planets per planetary system

Fl = fraction of planets on which life starts

Fi = fraction of life that evolves to intelligence

Fc = fraction of intelligent species to develop communication

L = longevity in years of the technological phase of this society

Of course, you need to provide reasonable figures for each term, and workshops of intelligent minds have resulted in the values of N ranging between 10,000 and 1 million possible intelligent societies capable of sending and/or interpreting radio wave signals. To my surprise, in the discussions with my involvement, men of the cloth were the most comfortable with the potentiality of a receiving such a message.

We can write books on each term, and in Chapter 2 I already analyzed F1, how life can start from elements, water and energy. But let us here examine one more, Fc, or the matter about intelligence, for this is the one that, like F1, needs something close to a miracle. Well, perhaps not, for it has been reported that the simplest of life, the single cell bacteria, has intelligence. I think this is ludicrous, but scientist have been known to disagree.

The Dow Jones Industrials edged up 30 to 10,437, while world markets were mixed. Gold went up $2/toz to $1141, yes, another all time high, while crude oil in sneaking back up to just under $80/barrel.

In the Indian Ocean, Tropical Cyclone Anja continues to weaken.


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