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Saturday, August 8, 2015

THE SEARCH FOR EXTRATERRESTRIAL INTELLIGENCE


Let us dream a bit.  Say clues on how to attain world peace, or control fusion or verify that there is no omnipresent God, and much more, are streaming in from outer space.  How can we intercept those signals?

Some might say, we already have that pipeline.  You can pray and gain the counsel of a Supreme Being.  We can debate this point forever, but for the purpose of this discussion, let us, for now, lay this option aside.

There could well be the fantasy of Isaac Asimov's (leftEncyclopedia Galactica beaming in.  Arthur C. Clarke and Frank Drake have also made reference to this ultimate source of knowledge accumulated by intelligent life through the 13,8 billion years of our Universe.  A narrow version of this information base was detected and deciphered by Jodi Foster, playing Jill Tarter, known as Dr. Eleanor "Ellie" Ann Arroway, in the 1997 movie Contact.  

This effort is called the Search Exterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI.  I provided a history in Chapter 4 of my SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for Humanity:
  • 700 BC:  Aryabhata in India visualized heliocentricism
  • 400 BC:  Metrodurus of Chio wrote, to suppose that Earth is the only populated world in infinite space is as absurd as to believe that in an entire filed sown with millet, only one grain will grow.
  • 1600:  Monk Giordano Bruno (right) was burned at the stake for suggesting that there might be an infinite number of suns with inhabited planets.
  • 1728:  Alexander Pope surmised in his Essay to Man that there are aliens.
  • 1834:  Alexander Copland published The Existence of Other Worlds:  Peopled with Living and Intelligent Beings. You can purchase this book from Amazon for, I think, 524 pounds.
  • In the early 1900's Marconi (yes, that Marconi) that unusual radio signals were coming from Mars, while Einstein thought that light rays might be more controllable as a method of extraterrestrial communication.
Then from 1959 came a series of advancements from Cornell University:
  • Frank Drake initiated Project Ozma to search Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani and used the Green Bank observatory in West Virginia.
  • Four years junior to Drake, Carl Sagan had in 1968 moved from Harvard to Cornell, of all the things, because Harvard denied him tenure for self-promoting scientific advocacy.  While a graduate student at the University Chicago he wrote a paper on the origin of life with Nobel Laureate Harold Urey, who, a decade later sent a letter to Harvard recommending against tenure for Sagan.   Geez, I wonder what happened there.  Sagan, of course, became the voice and face of space. 
In 1964 the Soviet Union initiated Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence (also the title of a 2011 book), taking the effort from detection to responding.  This started rather embarrassingly, for they actually thought quasars were sending them info.  Later, recovering from this misstep, in 1974, in the heat of the Cold War, the USSR Academy of Sciences endorsed the effort, worried about the Americans gaining a Cold War advantage.

1974 was also the year of Earth 2020:  Visions for Our Children's Children, a public education program funded by NASA's Ames Research Center.  James Dator, who led this effort on the Manoa Campus went on to become president of World Futures Study Federation, while continuing to teach political science at the University of Hawaii, and still does.  I was a co-leader and retired more than 15 years ago.  Anyway, I was given an opportunity to get together with John Billingham (who worked at Ames) and Bernard Oliver (an executive at nearby Hewlett-Packard), who in 1972 had co-authored a $10 billion proposal through Project Cyclops to pick up TV and radio signals from neighboring stars.  Jack was the really nice PR guy, while Barney was all brains and intensity.   Photos of both in later life, Jack to the left:


In 1976 I was invited by Jack and Barney (I knew them well by then) to join 19 university faculty to spend the summer at Ames, located nearby the Stanford Campus.  The question then was:  Are we the only solar system in the Universe?  So, in Project Orion, we were assigned the task to design an instrument that could detect the first extrasolar planet.  Most of the professors combined their efforts for an interferometric device, but a few others were allowed to do whatever they pleased.  Charles Townes (left) and I came up with PAT (Planetary Abstracting Telescope).  Read about my 1976 adventure by clicking on PAT.

To comprehend the immensity of the concept, consider that:

  • One astronomical unit, the AU, is 93 million miles, the distance of Earth to the Sun.
  • One light year is the distance light travels in one year, and just under 6 trillion miles, or about 63,226 AUs.
  • Our closest neighbor is Proxima Centauri, about 4.2 light years away, where, if Voyager 1 traveling at 38,610 is heading that way, should get there in around the year 70,000 AD.
So nothing much happened until 1981 when Carl Sagan, who I had met at Ames, came by the U.S. Senate, and I helped arrange for him to meet with Senator William Proxmire.  This interaction led to the first SETI funding from Congress.  Read the details.  The SETI Institute was formed in 1984  Two decades after that first fateful Senate meeting, Congress killed SETI.  Again, read the details.  The SETI Institute moved on with private funding.  They do have 50 researchers, and their largest project is the Allen Telescope Array (right), mostly funded by Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen, who has contributed more than $30 million.  Suffering from bumps and bruises, the ATA has not detected anything.

More recently, Russian billionaire, Yuri Milner, long ago a theoretical physicist, pledged at least $100 million over the next decade to ramp up efforts to detect extraterrestrial life.  To be called Breakthrough Listen, how's this for optimism, as the aim is communication rather than search, for upcoming:  $1 million to anyone who can create a message to return the call.    That's Stephen Hawking with Milner at the announcement.  Government seems unwilling to take this step, so we now have a society beholden to the very rich, or royalty, same as Europe eons ago and China way before that.

Interestingly enough, when Supervolcano Toba (of course, from Indonesia) exploded 70,000 years ago, so much ash was emitted into the atmosphere that our Sun was dimmed for 6 years, with the speculating that humanity dropped to a population of 40 breeding pairs.  That was controversial, of course, but did you know that:  add up the weight of all the large animals that ever walked the earth (dinosaurs species, elephants, cattle, etc.), there has been 100 times more human biomass than any other form, and our population is growing.  

The problem is that these numbers keep changing.  Consider ants. My lanai is a good example, revealing  that there are more ants than us:  probably a million trillion of them.  They outnumber us 143 million to one.  However, an ant is about a millionth the weight of a human, so we are very close having the same total biomass.  So that might make termites, larger and 27 times more prevalent than ants round the globe, the animal with the most weight.  But this goes back to species:  4000 for termites and 12,000 kinds of ants.  Thus, we humans are only made up of Homo sapiens, so we do dominate as a specie.  Mind you, there are a thousand times more plant biomass than animal (yes, an ant is an animal, as are all insects).  Finally, more bacterial biomass than plants and animals combined.  Yet, there might be a billion types of bacteria, so humans still dominate.

Wait a minute, what has all that got to do with SETI?  Ants appeared on our planet a hundred million years before most dinosaurs.  Bacteria first developed almost 3 billion years ago.  Neither one has gained any significant intelligence.  It took an evolutionary path to get to the present Homo sapiens level of intelligence.  Planet Earth is only a little more than 4.5 billion years old.  There could well be alien civilizations more than 9 billion years older than us.  It is a bit disconcerting that an entity so much older and probably wiser has not yet found us.  But that absence could well be the bottom line to the fate of SETI.  Perhaps the Universe is too large and intelligent life so rare that any advanced community is doomed to evolve in isolation.  SETI hopes to disprove this type of negative thinking.


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Hurricane Hilda has suddenly because a monster, at 135 MPH, and is expected to follow the path of Guillermo...hopefully:


The problem is conflicting computer models:


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