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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

SETI: Part 5 What We Should Do About Outer Space

It is entirely possible that We are the only intelligent life in the entire Universe.  However, there are possibly 1, followed by 24 zeros, planets out there:

Million 1,000,000 (6 zeros)
Billion 1,000,000,000 (9 zeros)
Trillion 1,000,000,000,000 (12 zeros)
Quadrillion 1,000,000,000,000,000 (15 zeros)
Quintillion 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 (18 zeros)
Sextillion 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (21 zeros)
Septillion 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (24 zeros)
Octillion 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (27 zeros)
Nonillion 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (30 zeros)
Decillion 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (33 zeros)

Or a septillion.  Also, our Universe began 13.8 billion years ago, and our Milky Way galaxy apparently formed not long thereafter, perhaps only 0.2 billion years later.  Our solar system is only 4.6 billion years old, so there could well be extraterrestrial civilizations 9 billion years older.  In consideration of Homo sapiens only appearing perhaps 0.2 billion years ago, and our ability to communicate into space just recently, the "ether" must be supersaturated with streams of alien signals, if we can only detect and understand them.  However, if no one has yet seen or measured Dark Matter and Energy, which form 96% of what exists around us, it is maybe understandable that these messages have not yet been captured.

Parts 1 to 4 of this SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) series provided the background for what now should be limits to what we can justifiably do today regarding Outer Space.  Humankind by nature dreams and imagines beyond reality.  Religion is but one such relic of antiquity.    

But there is at this phase of our evolution no point for any one nation to waste precious resources to fecklessly venture into space.  We just don't have the capability to do much for any good reason, anyway.  Let the super rich take vacations to the Moon for $300 million, as just proposed by Elon Musk.  The risks are inordinate, but the challenge almost worthy of their courage and wealth.  The investment of tax revenues, however, requires reasonable sanity and elements of feasibility.

Co-founder of Microsoft, Paul Allen, has provided $30 million to build the Allen Telescope Array, located at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory, 290 mile northeast of San Francisco.  Forty two dishes have been operational, but 350 were originally planned.  The SETI Institute, with management by the SRI International (formerly Stanford Research Institute), but funding shortfalls continue to beleaguer the effort.  There will be 42 antennas by this summer.  Lots of science goals, but nothing has been found.


So, for now, forget Mars.  Avoid multi-billion hardware exploits.   Something like the $100 million (R&D cost only--the actual project, if deemed doable, will run into the many billionsBreakthrough Starshot, proposed by Russian venture capitalist Yuri Milner seems worthy.  With Stephen Hawking, Al Worden (former director of NASA's Ames Research Center) and other eminent dignitaries, Milner  wants to send a thousand nano spacecraft to Proxima Centauri b In short, these would be micro-sails carrying StarChips propelled by ground-based laser beams.  The key here is that no human life will be lost.  Once launched, there should some feedback photos of hopefully earth-sized planets in 25 years, for the StarChip will be accelerated to a speed of 134,000,000 miles per hour (20% speed of light, whereas Voyager, which has been heading somewhere for almost 40 years, "only" travels at 38,000 MPH).  If these numbers boggle your mind, that is the nature of space.

Milner has a range of Breakthrough initiatives, all to search for extraterrestrial intelligence.  Breakthrough Listen, also funded at $100 million, for example, has already begun, and will search over a million stars for artificial radio or laser signals.  Breakthrough Message is creating a message representative of humanity and Planet Earth.  A $1 million pool to competitively be provided

Governments will no doubt be asked to contribute if Starshot and Listen attain any kind critical mass movement.  At $1/person/year, a sum of $7 billion/year can be generated to support these efforts.  The USA will no doubt, over the reclined body of Donald Trump (but he won't be in office if these projects gain traction), be asked to subside the less able nations, but in consideration of the $54 billion President Trump will seek to enhance the Defense budget, when we already spend more for war than the next  eight nation, combined, or the $1.5 trillion ultimate cost of the F-35 lemon, these progressive space investment into the future of our country and globe can be justified.

SETI funding should be restored to the NASA budget.  Senator Richard Bryan about a quarter century ago specifically prevented NASA from supporting SETI.  NASA has been sneaking money to the SETI Institute by renaming things, but the support has been small.  Ten percent of the $20 billion NASA budget should be devoted to SETI.  Now is not the time to advocate such nonsense in the Trump era, for he wants to rid the government of humanities and the art, but the time will come when all this will make sense.  

There will be a Part 6 on what will aliens look like.  Maybe later this week.

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Monday, February 27, 2017

JUST ANOTHER GREAT WEEKEND IN HONOLULU

Tomorrow, the final of SETI, Part 5.

Today, just another enjoyable weekend.  I'm now in my 18th year of retirement, and save for that month when Pearl was in intensive care and passed away, these years have been the best of my life.  With minor downs, I'm largely living life my way, and, of all the places, in Purgatory, also known as 15 Craigside.  Why?  Every night is a party and there are no large flying cockroaches.

Since I've been here in my version of Purgatory, I've been allowed to see the world and enjoy the range of fine cuisines.  My next around the world journey begins towards the end of March.  I return home early in May after a week of golfing at Napa Valley, where on May 5 our golf group will again enjoy Cinco de Mayo in Vacaville.

I still maintain an office at the University of Hawaii, some achievement, as I don't know of anyone else who has been retired so long and still tolerated on the Manoa Campus.  I am trying to shift a Blue Evolution into the Blue Revolution, for which, by the way, I can recommend Seasteading, by Joe Quirk:

Two-thirds of our globe is Planet Ocean, not Planet Earth.

Imagine a vast new source of sustainable and renewable energy that would also bring more equitable economies. A previously untapped source of farming that could produce significant new sources of nutrition. Future societies where people could choose the communities they want to live in, free from the restrictions of conventional citizenship. This bold vision of our near future as imagined in Seasteadingattracted the powerful support of Silicon Valley’s Peter Thiel—and it may be drawing close to reality.

There is a subtitle:  How Floating Nations Will Restore the Environment, Enrich the Poor, Cure the Sick, and Liberate Humanity from Politicians.  I first met Joe at the 2012 Seasteading Institute gathering held in San Francisco.  Watch my speech on the Blue Revolution.  Joe liberally quoted from my pontifications.  Feel free to send your enlightened billionaire desiring a monumental future legacy to Blue Revolution Hawaii.

So, anyway, in addition to traveling the world to develop the Blue Revolution, my daily routine incorporates golf for exercise, Tai Chi for balance and watching University of Hawaii teams play on television.  This weekend has been special, for both the men's and women's basketball teams won their games, and yesterday I found my way to the Lower Manoa Campus to support the women's softball team playing Montana, men's baseball team against the University of San Francisco and men's volleyball team versus Pepperdine.

First, though, Lily's 5th birthday party at Mariposa on Saturday:


Know the difference between a popover and Yorkshire Pudding?  The latter involves a tad of drippings from beef roast.

Sunday started with lunch at Sushi King.


Garlic ahi (yellow fin tuna) and cold soba with miso soup and rice, plus beer and hot sake.  My best Japanese meal this year.  This could well remain #1 even after my two weeks in Japan in April.

First softball:


As I walked in, it was the top of the first inning and a Montana player hit a home run, driving in two runs.  However, in the bottom of the first, a grand slam for Hawaii:


One of the ultimate great names:  Chardonnay Pantastico.  Note also that white building in the background.  That's Holmes Hall, where I spent a quarter century, and, next door, the Pacific Ocean Science and Technology building, where I currently have my office.  Hawaii won, 9-3.

Then on to baseball, with the most picturesque view of any stadium:


The first two games, beginning on Thursday, the University of San Francisco won 3-1 in eleven innings.  Yesterday and today, Hawaii won 3-2 in nine innings.

The timing was then ideal for me to walk over to the volleyball game with Pepperdine.


Hawaii won in three sets Friday night, and again on Sunday.  What a great weekend.

As I see 100 films/year (half in theaters), I just had to show 16-year old  Aulii Carvalho from Hawaii singing as Moana from the Academy Awards show last night:


To the shock of most, Moonlight won Best Picture, for at $22 million, it was one of the lowest grossing films of all time to win this award.  I sense that part of the shift in colors this year was a reaction to the fuss created last year.  Never went to this film.   Rotten Tomatoes reviewers did bestow a 98% rating.

Also did not see Manchester by the Sea featuring Casey Afleck as Best Actor.  La La Land, which I did not think too much of, did win 6 Oscars, with Emma Stone as Best Actress and Damien Chazelle as Best Director, the youngest ever, who just turned 32.  Musicals just do not do well with voters, as 15 years ago Chicago was the last of this genre to win an Oscar for Best Picture.

Incredibly enough, the Dow Jones Industrial Average matched it longest streak ever, closing for the 12th session at record high, up 15 to 20,837.  The S&P 500 also closed at an all-time high, rising 2 to 2,372.

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Sunday, February 26, 2017

SETI: Part 4 Outer Space Policies

Okay, let's take stock of where we are today.  Something happened from "nothing" 13.8 billion years ago, currently known as the Big Bang, a theory--meaning this is not a fact--leading to what we are today.  Religions of the world have reacted, with Pope Pius XII in 1951 pronouncing that that concept does not conflict with the Catholic view of the creation.  Even Muslims have indicated that this new cosmology was foretold in the Quran.  Americans?  The Big Bang Theory sits near the top of Nielsen ratings, but MORE THAN HALF questions the reality of the theory.  In comparison, there are 3143 counties in the USA, and 63% think that global warming is happening.

Thus, the matter of who we are, where we came from and what next are speculations with no consensus.  Two-thirds of Americans have a sense that some form of alien life exists somewhere in the Universe.  So, while we can't quite accept how this all happened, most do feel that extraterrestrials exist.  However, they might be microscopic and not necessarily intelligent.  So many uncertainties, and I haven't even brought up the matter of Dark Matter and Dark Energy.

Full of these uncertainties, then, what should Humanity do about the space around us?  Anything done in this near vacuum will be expensive, requiring an enormous energy expenditure and a treacherous return.  Satellites have proved to be profitable and convenient, but for good reason, the International Space Station is not manufacturing anything for earthly consumption.

However, 14 nations have worked well together on this $150 billion pink elephant.  Clearly, then, the highest priority for space is for all nations to work in partnership for the common good.  But we need to be a lot smarter on what we do together.  The United Nations?  Hope not.  Maybe something can be derived from the International Space Development Conference, which has been gathering now for more than a third of a century.  Next?  St. Louis.

A little more than a third of a century ago when I was working for U.S. Senator Spark Matsunaga he (actually, written by a colleague, Harvey Meyerson--we and others shared the same room on a floor in a house across the street from the Hart Office Building) published The Mars Project:  Journeys Beyond the Cold War.  The book became available in 1986, providing time for the U.S. and U.S.S.R. to agree to a joint American-Russian manned mission to Mars by the Year 2000.  Matsunaga proposed 1992 as the International Space Year in celebration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus discovering America and the 75th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.  Well, the end of the Cold War ended those good intentions.

Today, the USA, European Union, China, India, Japan and Russia are in various stages of trying to one-up each other to take the lead in the quest towards outer space.  There is a lot of duplication and no direction.  There seems to be some higher interest in Mars now, as Man (only Americans) has already landed on the Moon.  But, as indicated yesterday, the motivation then had everything to do with winning the Cold War.  There is now no real reason for spending hundreds of billions for any space project.

Incidentally, here are the current top four space efforts:
  • #1  NASA Space Shuttle Program - $196 billion (135 missions from 1981 to 2011)
  • #2  International Space Station - $150 billion (the USA of course paid for most of this)
  • #3  Apollo Project - $25 billion (initially estimated to cost $7 million, reaching the moon in 1969, today worth between $150 billion and $600 billion, depending on your parameter of comparison)
  • #4  James Webb Space Telescope (right, above) - $8.7 billion (except the project started at $1 billion and should extend past $10 billion in its lifetime, with lift-off hoped for in 2018).
Wernher von Braun in 1962 published his version of The Mars Project.  President George Bush the Younger in 1989 reported it might cost from $400 billion to $500 billion for sending humans to Mars.  More recently,  multi-millionaire Dennis Tito founded the Inspiration Mars Foundation to launch a manned mission to Mars in January of next year, or 2021 if the deadline is missed.  Cost of mission?  $1 billion to $2 billion.  

Billionaire Elon Musk has been particularly active, and a few months ago announced that it will take $10 billion to develop the rocket, which could take 100 passengers to Mars every 26 months (when our two planets are closest) from 2024, at a cost between $100,000 and $200,000 for each passenger...and no doubt you will need to sign a waiver that you might not return, alive.  NASA works with Musk on various projects, but there doesn't seem to be much in common, for NASA has suggested that this will cost around $400 billion, and won't be attainable until 2060.

According to Business Insider, here are five undeniable reasons why we need to colonize Mars:
  • Ensure the survival of our species.  Yes, asteroids, but models are being perfected to catch potential life-changers several cycles before they get close to us.  An Andromeda strain?  Possible, but unlikely.  The best way to long-term peace is for countries to work together.
  • Discovering life on Mars.  Nothing close to life has thus far been found.  Say you go there and find microscopic life.  Great.   Maybe even monumental. Nice to know.  Now what?
  • Improve the quality of life on Earth.  Sure there are spin-offs, but this is an inefficient way to prioritize funds.
  • Growing as a species.  Makes sense to inspire the next generation, but not necessarily with $150 billion projects.  There are more cost-effective ways.
  • Demonstrating political and economic leadership.  Here is where current Mars initiatives are doomed:  there is no political imperative and, further, no possible profits to be gained.  A good example is the International Space Station, which has not produced even one commercial product.  Scan through this spinoffs report and see if you can find anything worthy of the $150 billion expense.
Thus, the simple solution for space is to form a truly international partnership, sharing expenses and benefits.  How much to budget?  Not much today, but a few billion dollars/year should be justifiable.  $1/person amounts to $7 billion/year.  Cost of F-35 fighter?  One trillion dollars, or $1000 billion.  Can common sense prevail this time?  Please.

What specific space projects should, then, be supported?  I provide several in Part 5.

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Saturday, February 25, 2017

SETI: Part 3 A Fatal Flaw for Space Travel?

So what should be Humanity's priorities regarding outer space?

  • If our Sun will consume Planet Earth in a few years or centuries, then we absolute must find a second Earth revolving around another star and find a way to send humans there.
  • However, the latest speculation is that our Sun will swell into a Red Giant and swallow our globe in 5 billion years, so escape can await a few billion years.
  • Mind you, the USA just had to get to the Moon first, but the motivation was geopolitical.  Whether it was John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan most responsible for our success, our conflict with the Soviet Union was deadly.  One way to win the Cold War was to bankrupt the enemy, and our space exploits helped serve to doom our rival.  Whew, there went a possible nuclear winter and our society survived a vital Tipping Point.
  • Today, there is no urgency to spend many billions on major projects like Project Mars.  What could possibly be the point of getting to Mars now when there are enough problems to overcome on terra firma.  
There is also a possible fatal flaw regarding long-term space travel.  Scientific American this month published a paper by Charles Limoli entitled Deep Space Breaker.   You can read the details, but let me summarize:
  • In short, recent studies showed that cosmic radiation is  dangerous to astronauts' brains.
  • It is possible that humanity will never be able to travel throughout our solar system and beyond.
  • Specifically, galactic cosmic rays, charged atomic nuclei flying at nearly the speed of light originating from supernova remnants of dead stars, are of concern.
  • For a Mars-type journey, an additional factor  could well be ionized hydrogen (protons) ejected by our Sun. 
  • Both types of radiation pass right through the hulls of spacecraft and any current protective suit.
  • While no scientific study has been tried with humans, rats, unfortunately for them, have been subjected to low level particles and after six weeks their cognitive ability dropped by 90%.    Closer investigation showed that neurons called dendrites in the medial prefrontal cortex were affected.  In short, future astronauts will suffer from problem solving and judgement.
  • Turns out that the magnetic fields surrounding our planet deflect most of these particles.
There is hope, of course, that science will develop solutions to overcome this problem, or, that this worry will turn out to be of minimal consequence.  However,  this is but one of a whole range of unknowns to be faced by future space travelers.  

So if humans will not be able to travel into space, what are other options?  Part 4 will suggest priority pathways, including perhaps Project Starshot (left).

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Friday, February 24, 2017

SETI: Part 2: How Many ExoPlanets Are There Out There?

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is a field with which I have been associated for nearly half a century.  Back in those days we had not confirmed another planet outside our solar system.  Part 1 came last week.

The next few postings will further review the history, status and future of this challenge.  I'll even speculate on what an ET might look like, and it, assuredly, will not take the form to the left.

How rational is it for Humanity to establish colonies on Mars over the next decade, as proposed by Elon Musk?  What about flying saucers?  One-third of Americans think they are real.  Considering all our spending priorities, how much of your tax dollars should be applied to major space projects?

There recently has been a swarm of articles touting to have found the next Planet Earth.  One group using the Spitzer Space Telescope, found seven potential candidates only 40 light years (LY) away.  Remember, though, that the closest star, Proxima Centauri, one of the three in the Alpha Centauri system, is 4.25 LYs away:
  • Light takes 4.25 years to get there from here.
  • Voyager is tooling along at 38,000 miles/hour, and if headed that way, would take 76,000 years to reach Proxima Centauri.
  • How big is our Milky Way Galaxy?  Light would take 100,000 years from one end to the other.
  • Space is very large, and our technology to survive outer space for any length of time is rudimentary.
As we'll learn, these announcements are based on good science, with a lot of creative word smithing.  But first, some early history.

Indian astronomer Aryabhata 1500 years ago visualized heliiocentricism (Earth revolves around the Sun), Dominican Monk Giordano Bruno, was burnt at the stake in 1600 for suggesting that there were an infinite number of suns with inhabited planets.

Frank Drake of Cornell in 1960 actually searched for extraterrestrial signals from Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani...  He failed to find anything.

Then, along came Carl Sagan, who was denied tenure at Harvard in 1968 and was at Cal-Berkely when I was attending school at Stanford.  Sagan joined Drake at Cornell and remained on the faculty until his death in 1996, already more than two decades ago.  I had several interactions with him, including assisting in initial funding for SETI.

Official U.S. government interest in SETI began in the early '70s when the Ames Research Center suggested searching the Water Hole.  Frankly, this is where all went wrong, for the focus since then has largely remained in the microwave region of the spectrum, limiting the information gathering potential of optical laser frequencies searches.

I had an office at Ames close to the secret Blackbird (the black  one below--although normally kept well hidden), which was easily accessible to anyone who wanted to take a look.  I went up and touched it.


  • At a distance of ten light years, a Jupiter-size planet cannot be seen revolving around a Sun-size star.
  • That is because the star is so much brighter, from 5-10 magnitudes, or, at best, the planet is 1/100,000 as bright.
  • However, if the extrasolar planet had an atmosphere, the starlight would cause lasing of the gases, resulting in spikes of discrete frequencies which could be detected and tracked.
  • That was the theory suggested by Nobel Laureate Charles Townes, who I went to see at Cal-Berkeley in 1976 when I worked at Ames.
  • Knowing the colors of the various monochromatic light  sources, you would then be able to determine the atmospheric content.
  • The result was the Planetary Abstracting Trinterferometer (or PAT), where my proposal on the cover quoted Miguel de Cervantes:  
          To Man, the Don Quixote of the universe
          May be succeed in his impossible dream

The problem was that NASA eliminated optical  searches with a limited budget and turned down this pathway.  As a result, all the found exo-Earths are determined by the wobble of the star or the diminution of light across the face of the star when the planet passes across.  Chapter 4 of SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for Humanity was for good reason entitled:  SEEKING THE LIGHT--SETI.

The European CoRoT space observatory (now out of commission) and American Hubble, Spitzer and Kepler Space Telescopes have found most of the exoplanets.  Hubble went up in 1990 and seems still to be working.  Kepler flew in 2009, ran into problems in 2013, but, apparently has been fixed and is supposedly again functioning.

As of Wednesday, scientists have confirmed 3,583 exoplanets in 2,688 planetary systems.  These numbers keep changing, getting higher and higher, but there are probably 200 billion planets in our Milky Way.  Except that this article says the number should be closer to ten trillion planets, just in our galaxy.  Further, as there are at least 200 billion galaxies out there (and probably many more), one estimate is that there are 10 to the 24th power, that is, the number 1 followed by 24 zeros, planets in our Universe.

But SETI is all about detecting signals from outer space, so at least one of those septillion planets had to have evolved into an intelligent civilization.  But they have had a 10 billion-year head start, so the chances got to be good.

Part 3 will take a closer look at the wisdom of interplanetary travel.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average edged up 11 more points to 20,822, the 11th consecutive record-setting day.

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