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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

THE GIANT WOK

No, a giant wok is not a prehistoric bird:


However, it is true that earlier this year a giant wok was unearthed in Indonesia:


Unfortunately, on the way to the Keris Tosan Aji Museum, this one ton ancient frying pan fell and broke.  Still no idea who used it or when or if it was used for cooking...and what.

Well, so much for some humor.  We are all familiar with a standard Chinese cooking pan called the wok.  Well, they recently built a really large one and took the current lead in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), a field with which I have now been associated for four decades.  In 1976 I joined 19 other university faculty members from across the nation to, at the Ames Research Center, design for NASA the next generation device to detect an extrasolar planet.  Most of group formed a team to design the ultimate interferometer to accomplish this task.  

A few of us were allowed to pursue our own ideas, and I got inspiration from Nobel Laureate Charles Townes (right) to develop what I acronymed PAT (Planetary Abstracting Trinterferometer).  After I met with him at Berkeley, he provided some initial assistance helping me derive a direct method for finding planets outside our solar system.

My SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for Humanity reports on this phase of my life, but you don't need to buy the book, as I began serializing this publication in this blog site beginning with SETI.  In the mid-70's, the key astronomical question was:  Are we the only planet in the Universe?  It was not until 1988 that the first exoplanet was confirmed, and today, there are more than 3500 of them on the record.  It is now estimated that:
  • One in five Sun-like stars have an Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone.
  • There could thus well be from 11 billion to 40 billion planets with potential life like ours, just in our galaxy.
I might add that there are numerous ways to detect an exoplanet, and both Hubble and Kepler used something called transit, the crudest possible way to do this.  Sure, PAT does, too, but with some scientific elegance.  The problem is that star light is so bright (billion times more), that the planetary glare cannot be seen.  PAT is based on the premise that this reflected light can be, like a laser, monochromatic, and thus, the atmospheric composition can also be determined.  And all this can be done from the surface of our planet for a small fraction the cost of those space telescopes.

The field has been in a general funk since Carl Sagan passed away.  But out of nowhere came China, for they just turned on their Giant Wok:  the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST--in astronomy, you need to keep up with these acronyms).  How big is it?  I've seen Arecibo in Puerto, and this is a huge one.  However:


FAST is on the bottom, Arecibo on top.  Want to get to Guizhou Province to visit with the Giant Wok?  As a plane flies, a little more than a thousand miles from Beijing, and a little less than a thousand miles from Shanghai:


They put FAST there to minimize any electronic interference.  Some details:
  • Will take three years yet of calibration.
  • Is neither spherical nor 500 meters in diameter--has a parabolic shape and a useful diameter of 300 meters.
  • The project is in collaboration with Australia.
  • Should be able to detect alien signals up to 1,000 light years away.
Just to underscore the vastness of our Universe, as it takes light 100,000 light-years to cross our Milky Way Galaxy, the two-dimensional coverage of FAST for alien signals will only be 0.01 % of our galaxy.  No one really knows how many galaxies are in our Universe, but a German study said 500 billion.

Still to come is the international Square Kilometer Array (SKA), which on first look should be ten times the capability of FAST.  However, while the "first light" date is still planned for 2020 and the Jodrell Bank Observatory of England will serve as project headquarters, the site, either Australia or South Africa, has not yet been selected, and there is little idea from where will come the 3 billion dollars or so to build it.  I found it odd that the U.S. was not in the list of participating countries, and has today lost momentum.  I also found it confusing that while one country will eventually be the telescope array site:

The SKA will combine the signals received from thousands of small antennas spread over a distance of several thousand kilometres to simulate a single giant radio telescope capable of extremely high sensitivity and angular resolution, using a technique called aperture synthesis.[19]

If this description above prevails, that surely sounds like my Planetary Abstracting Trinterferometer.  In any case, we now are fairly confident there are planets around stars.  Let us get on with the detection of signals from intelligent life in our Universe.  Thus, the Chinese FAST is a good step forward.

For those like me with a passion for SETI, anticipate the movie Arrival, with Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, due to arrive at your local theater on November 11.  Rotten Tomatoes reviewers gave it a 100% rating, and 99% of us await the coming...of the film.

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Typhoon Megi struck Taiwan at 100 MPH, causing some damage, killing at least four and injuring hundreds.



Amazingly enough, Megi remains a Category 2 at 105 MPH, and will make landfall over China today.

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