The Scientific Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence:
July 2, 2012 § 17 Comments
An Interview with @SETINet (aka James Brown) Part I
When I first met James Brown on Twitter, I looked at his alien-head avatar and secretly wondered if he was some kind of kook. So, of course, I went to check out his website, Seti.net, to see just how afraid I should be. Turns out, the only thing I had to be afraid of was my own lack of knowledge concerning all the technical stuff posted there—charts and graphs and sky maps (well, those I understood a little).
There was other not-so-technical stuff, too. I found that Jim, a retired engineer, was the 2005 SETI League’s Bruno Award recipient. The award was given “honoring his significant technical contributions to amateur SETI science.”
For those of you who don’t know (what? have you been living in a cave?), SETI stands for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. No, this isn’t some crazy UFO organization; it’s an organization that conducts real science by real scientists, both amateur and professional. If you’re old enough, you might recognize the acronym from watching Carl Sagan on TV.
Honestly, I can’t tell you exactly how my meeting with Jim, aka @SETINet, came about on Twitter. It seems one day we started chatting and the rest, as they say, is history. In all probability, we met through our mutual use of the #SETI hashtag. I wrote a novel that features SETI in the plot, and Jim does real SETI work—makes sense.
I think I posted a shameless plug for my novel using this hashtag, and Jim was kind enough to actually read the book. In fact, he supplied me with my favorite review to date: Good read. Lots of fun!
Exactly what I was going for.
Eventually, Jim asked me to write a short tie-in story to my novel and he would post it on his website. I thought it was a great idea—both my book and Jim’s work might get some added exposure. And then I thought it would be great fun for me to ask him some questions about the real science behind my science fiction story.
I’m joking around a lot here, but I believe this is important work. Some people might not agree with me. We have other, more Earthly problems, they might say. Personally? I can’t think of a more profound question that I’d like answered than: are there other sentient beings in the universe?
I happen to think I already know the answer: yes. I can’t image there aren’t other beings out there somewhere. And, while my novel is fanciful and chock-full of conspiracy theories, I think the question is a serious and valid one, and one that deserves an answer.
So, here are my questions and Mr. Brown’s answers. I’ll be posting them in three installments: today, Wednesday, and Friday. I hope you enjoy them, and that you learn something you might not already know about the scientific search for ET.
1. J.S.: Did I get anything wrong in my intro? If so, now’s your chance to set me, and the readers, straight.
SETI Net (aka James Brown): No, that’s about right. The part about the strange alien-head avatar is purposeful. I figure that if you’re interested in SETI the avatar will be an attraction and, if you’re not, you will simply click ahead and not bother me. It worked for you, didn’t it? Besides, he is rather a cute little thing.
I spent my working life coming up with ideas and then implementing them for various large corporations so, when I heard about and then read your “Halo” novel, the idea clicked in of tying into my website and seemed a natural thing to do.
I agree with you, the most profound question that can be asked must be: are we alone? If we are alone in a cold, dead universe, actively engaged in killing us with its cosmic rays and extreme temperatures, there can be no solace. But, if we are part of a community, then it must be joined and lived. Either way, we must find out. To not be interested in this question is inconceivable to me.
2. J.S.: What started you on this quest? Has it been full-time for you?
SETI Net: There I was minding my own business, walking on the single downtown street of my new home, Del Mar, California, with my wife, when we happened to walk into a small bookstore (you remember those: books, and people who understood books and loved them, and actually wanted to talk to you about them) and was browsing through the small stack on things like “The Metaphysics of Chi” or “The Art of Sex”—you know, all the standard stuff from the middle 70’s.
I was actually thinking about how lucky we were to find ourselves in a place like Del Mar, near the beach with a new job. My employer had made me an offer to move from the San Francisco Bay Area to either St. Paul or San Diego. After a trip to Minnesota and the experience of a life-threatening snowstorm, I told him, “I would rather be a door knob in San Diego than the King of Minnesota,” and we moved.
I had just finished building a computer, first ever built by a single person as far as I can tell, and wanted to put it to work with something useful.
My new job allowed me to work (really play) with computers and radios and I was as happy as a clam.
Then that little bookstore in Del Mar delivered to me a life-changing event. I came upon a book edited by Carl Sagan called Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence (CETI). It was about a conference in 1971 in the USSR and contained the thoughts of many scientists on how to solve this problem. It also had in it the idea that, as computers became more powerful, they could become an important part of the search. A light bulb went off in my head—it was actually painful. I had a computer that was at least as powerful as those described in the book, I understood how microwave receivers worked, and it might be the case that:
I was the only person on the face of the Earth that could actually build a personal SETI Station.
How could that be ignored? I went home and started work.
J.S.: That must have been an extraordinary moment for you. And it’s extraordinary, also, how a chance encounter, with a person or a book, can change your life, isn’t it? And congrats on being the first single person to build a computer! Another great achievement!
3. J.S.: In my novel, I write about the Specola Vaticana —the Vatican Observatory. Realizing that even the Catholic Church has an observatory, and might be conducting their own search for ET, how many SETI stations are there in California, the US, or worldwide?
SETI Net: In fact there are only two active SETI stations in the US: The Allen Telescope Array (ATA) in northern California, and my humble system.
To my knowledge, there are only two others on the face of the Earth, Arecibo (SETI@Home) and SETI Italia. There may be others part-time, but I don’t keep that close of track of them. Paul Horowitz, of Harvard, is doing optical SETI, but it may not be full-time. So, that’s it, four—maybe five total— for something as important as this.
4. J.S.: Do you think there are misconceptions about your work, and the work of others like you? If yes, then what is the biggest misconception?
SETI Net: Most people who know nothing about SETI assume it has something to do with UFOs—it doesn’t. I don’t know of a single person in the field that has any interest in UFOs. People also assume that the government is paying large sums to fund the search and that there are groups all over the world engaged in finding the first intelligent ET—there are not. Although a lot of money is spent looking for life in the universe using large telescopes like Hubble and a lot of it is government money, no government money at all is spent on SETI.
5. J.S.: I used to think ET would look more like us than not. Now, I’m not so sure. I always assumed they would need “manual dexterity” to build things because that’s one of the things that sets us apart from animals here on Earth—mankind’s ability to produce things, as well as our ability to communicate through sophisticated speech. But, an advanced sentient being might be able to produce things in other ways than we do, ways I can’t even imagine; and they might be able to communicate—very sophisticated communication—without language, or a voice box, at all. What do you think? Will ET look similar to us, or very dissimilar?
SETI Net: That’s a very good question. But it turns out that it’s not really important for SETI to know. Here’s why: If there are lots of intelligent ETs but they communicating with each other telepathically, for example, we will never know because we are unequipped for that conversation. If ETs have a vastly different “thinking speed” than us, we would also not recognize communications between them for what it is. They might communicate with each other using senses that we have, but are underdeveloped. When my wife and I go for a walk with our two dogs, I’m constantly amazed at how they respond to smells and seem to know what kind of animal came by, and probably what sex, and their temperament at the time. If ETs were communicating between themselves by somehow transmitting smells, we would never know it either.
So, the bottom line is that it makes no sense to look for alien intelligence that we have no hope of recognizing. In fact, it boils down to this:
We Must Look For Ourselves
J.S: That’s it for our first installment, folks. Hope you enjoyed the interview so far. There’s lots more interesting stuff to come! Look for the next installment on Wednesday.