July 6, 2012 § 1 Comment
An Interview with @SETINET (aka James Brown) Part III
- J.S: Could ET be enjoying old “I Love Lucy” reruns right now? Could we watch their old “I Love Klaatu” reruns?
SETI Net: It’s possible that ET could be curled up on the couch watching Lucy being told by Ricky, “Lucy, you got a lot of splanen to do,” but the odds are against it. For one interstellar communication takes a huge amount of transmitting power to overcome the distance between stars, even close ones, and to do that the transmitter and receiver would have to be pointed at each other with dishes the size of Arecibo. TV signals were never focused like that. They were intended to reach a wide area with as little power as possible.
The second thing is that the era of high power TV transmitters is coming to end here on Earth and really only lasted about fifty years. Now days your TV most likely comes from cable or from satellites both of which emit next to nothing that could be picked up by ET. The Earth as seen from space in the radio spectrum is beginning to become quite.
So watching for extraneous signals is almost a hopeless cause. It’s my belief that the only signal we have a hope of finding is a beacon intentionally sent from ETs home planet directly to our star and the planets surrounding it. That is what my station is optimized to find—a beacon.
J.S.: Well, it’s a relief ET might not see some of our less-than-intelligent TV shows in their first encounter with us. But, for an even more important question…
- J.S.: Will they come eat our brains?
SETI Net That actually is a serious question. There are plenty of examples from our own history that tell of the collision of cultures that ended with one or the other being enslaved or wiped out altogether.
It’s my opinion that, sooner or later, we will come to the point where we will simply have to roll the dice and take our changes. That’s the nature of it.
I say bring on the Brain Eaters.
J.S: Hmm, The Attack of the Brain Eaters—that sounds like a good title for a book…but I digress.
- J.S.: How much did SETI Net cost to build? How much did other SETI stations cost? How much does this cost the taxpayer? Could anyone build one? Is there a way to make money at this?
SETI Net: Over the years I have spent considerable money building SETI Net. At one time, I laid out $1,000 for a rotor to turn my antenna and another $500 for the antenna itself. I also bought a hard disk for one of my early computers that cost $1,500, and it had the amazing (for the time) storage capacity of 15 Megabytes. My first floppy disk drive cost $2,000 and so on.
The point is that changes in technology have brought the cost of duplicating SETI Net down to no more than about $2,000 total and dropping fast. I just bought a receiver from Amazon for $15 new that is as good, or better, than the old used receivers I bought for $500 each, years ago.
Other stations, like the ATA cost well over $30 million, none of it tax money, but that’s a whole different scale of system.
Could anyone build one? I don’t think so. It’s a labor of love and needs someone who has the ability to construct heavy equipment, like the rotors and dish, the knowledge of electronics the keep the hardware running, and the a wish to spend long hours writing software for new features.
That narrows it down to say 10,000 people in the world. My wish is that at least one of those people will contact me so that a second system could be constructed, to quickly find and resolve signals.
Is there anyone out there? Call—I’m waiting.
J.S.: Wow, those last two lines are appropriate in more ways than one. Did you realize your were doing that when you wrote them, or was it just a coincidence?
SETI Net – Not a coincidence at all. I have offered to work with anyone that has the time, money and inclination to build a second station. I could supply the software for no charge and work with that person to modify it for their station. So far no takers.
J.S.: I meant that you asked: Is there anyone out there? Call—I’m waiting. This is what you do with SETI—you ask if anyone (ET) is out there—you’re waiting! Thought the wording was “ironic” (not the proper use of the term, ironic, I know, but you know what I mean).
SETI Net: Irony is not my long suit, besides I don’t speak ET. I meant if there is anyone that wants to work with me, jump in.
J.S.: You say what you mean and mean what you say! I like that. But I saw some irony in it, even if that’s not the proper use of the term. J
- J.S.: What would be the effect of finding ET on the average person? Would finding ET be a threat to religion?
SETI Net: I really have no idea. I used to think that it would cause mass panic in the streets, but now I believe that the public has become so blasé about startling new ideas that it may not cause a ripple. After all, it’s a pretty well-established fact that the Universe Big Bang started from absolutely nothing (zero, nada), and that matter continuously pops in and out of existence all time, and there is not much conversation about it at all that I can find, let alone deep interest.
So, I expect people will greet the news with interest but no more than was afforded to, say, the declaration that Obamacare is constitutional.
Religion will not only not consider it a threat, it will find a way to embrace it to the point that may people, including the leadership of religion itself, will come to believe that it was predicted all along and what’s the fuss? That’s the nature of religion.
J.S.: You may be right—that it won’t cause much of a fuss. But I think that’s only if we merely receive a signal. If we are ever able to fully communicate with ET, they might have their own views on “God” and their own religion—or no religion at all. Maybe they’ll try to convert us to their ways—whatever they may be—like the Christian missionaries worked so hard at converting “pagans,” in our past. As far as the public’s reaction, we’ll never really know until it happens, I suppose. It would be interesting to witness, though.
- J.S.: Are there agreed-on protocols to follow when ET is found?
SETI Net: I have given a lot of thought to the “who/when/where” of announcing an actual verified signal. I know that there is a standard protocol in place to be used when it happens, but I also know human nature enough to know that it will all be tossed overboard at the first sign of an actual signal. This is what I will do:
First – I will tell no one for a very long time. I will use that time to make as many attempts at falsification as I can think of all the while recording every bit of data that I receive and all the actions I take. My SETI File Manager software automatically takes care of recording those actions for the most part and the Spectrum Analyzer automatically records the data. I will keep on doing this until I run out of ideas for falsification then I will wait some more and keep on recording. Then I will wait some more (you get the idea).
Second – I will contact the few people who I know in the SETI community that trust me enough to take me seriously (only three or four people). I will do that by phone but will record both sides of the conversation surreptitiously. I will ask for help validating the signal with any systems they know of that could cover the same part of the spectrum that I use. I will wait for their answer, which will take a long time because they would have to check with the owners of those systems and make their own explanations to them. This will almost certainly end the process as far as they are concerned because the owners of those systems (UC Berkeley, Harvard etc.) would never change their operating schedules to validate a signal that I pointed out. I will place those recordings with a lawyer with instructions to put them in a blind (unknown to me) safe deposit box and keep it closed until an unconnected second source validates my discovery.
Third – I will capture all the schematics, descriptions, and software source code from my station and have them placed in that same safe deposit box. Then I will move a copy of the data collected to that box. This makes up a baseline for the parameters of my station.
Fourth – I would make an announcement on all the on-line boards and then follow the standard protocol. Then I will continue on my way listening and recording the signal for as long as it is available. I would be available to answer any questions that came my way as honestly as possible hiding nothing reveling everything. I won’t attempt to write a scholarly paper because it would never be published nor would I write anything for the general media unless by invitation and then for a fee.
I fully expect that to be the end of it. No one will follow up because they cannot or will not. I will have to rely on the fact that I published the information and that I have the original data all locked up safe and sound where even I don’t have access to it and can’t be accused of “doctoring” it. Some day the signal would be seen again by one of the large institutions and I can start the process of proving that I was first.
I will not make a dime from it but will die happy.
J.S.: You really have thought that out! Always good to have a plan. And, I know how you feel about dying happy. My dream has always been to write a book and see it in print. Now that I have achieved that goal, I can die happy. I sincerely hope your dream comes true. (And it would make me very happy too, so bonus!)
- J.S.: What is it, exactly, that you’re looking for? How will you know when you find it? You use the term “falsification” a lot, what does it mean?
SETI Net: I’m looking for a beacon intentionally sent to be discovered. I expect it will be a single always-on signal of high purity and nothing else. No voice, no “I Love Lucy” rerun being beamed back—nothing. I expect this because that is what I would send if I were the ET wanting to be seen among the stars.
A single signal of high purity is a sure sign of non-natural signals. Nothing that we know of in nature can send this type of signal. It would not have any other intelligence in it, no coded messages, no voice or alien TV, because those all take extra power to send, make the signal look less “alien,” and reduce the range of the signal.
- J.S.: What are the odds that they will be found? What are the odds that SETI Net will find them?
SETI Net: The odds are near 100% that ET will be found. Simply counting the number of stars in an average galaxy (300,000,000,000) and the number of galaxies (several trillion) and the number of planets around those stars (estimated to be about 4/star) then the odds there being a second ET (we are the first) and near perfect.
They will be found.
How long will it take is actually the question to be asked. Ekers and Cullers in their book, SETI 2020, say that it should be before 2025. I think that is optimistic. It could be the end of this century, or even later, but it will be found.
The odds that SETI Net will find the first ET are next to zero. I’m an old guy without a long time left to come up with something. I once calculated the time it would take SETI Net to scan the entire waterhole and came up with the astonishing number of 3,500 years and that’s for one scan.
Does that depress me? Well, maybe a little. On the other hand, the next scan I start might be the one that yields pay dirt and what better thing do I have to do with my time—play golf?
J.S.: Hey, don’t knock golf. I love the game. But my shoulders and back don’t approve, so I won’t be playing much either. Good thing I have a sedentary job.
- J.S.: What about this magic frequency called “the Waterhole?” That sounds more like poetry than science.
SETI Net: It’s both science and poetry. My wife has a website on her computer that has a camera trained on a waterhole in the middle of Africa, and it’s fascinating to see the different species come together, in peace, to get that which is necessary for life for them all—water. I’m not saying that someone doesn’t get eaten once in a while but, for the most part, the lions and giraffes share the same bank and drink from the same water with small birds.
There is such a waterhole in space. It’s in the a part of the spectrum that is the quietest—no man-made transmissions are allowed and the absorption of radio waves by our atmosphere and natural noise generated by stars is at a minimum. It’s the perfect place to send a beacon and a perfect place to hear one.
It’s called the Waterhole because it is banded on lower edge by a natural signal generated by hydrogen in space, and at the upper edge by a second line generated by hydroxyl. The two lines, if combined, would make up what we know as water.
Sagan’s book CETI says this about the Waterhole:
What more poetic place could there be for water-based life to seek its kind than the age-old meeting place for all species: the water hole?
It’s where SETI Net searches, where the WOW signal was detected, and the most looked-at place for ET.
Sagan always did have the ability to make me cry. I miss the man.
J.S.: Me, too. Of course, I didn’t know him personally, but I was still shocked and saddened by his passing. I know a lot of people miss him.
- J.S.: Now, for my final question, again: Will they come eat our brains?
SETI Net: Quite possibly—nummies.
J.S.: That’s what I thought! But, seriously, thank you, Jim, for a wonderful interview. I’m very glad you agreed to do this it.
J.S.: That concludes the interview. I hope you had as much fun as I did. I’m sure Jim wouldn’t mind answering any question, if you have any.
July 4, 2012 § 7 Comments
You can read the first installments of this interview here: Part I
An Interview with @SETINet (aka James Brown) Part II
- J.S.: My novel, The Halo Revelations, deals with the idea of aliens communicating with Earth, and with the idea that aliens could have visited Earth in our past. I wrote the book (as one of my reviewers said) as “a fun foray into the alien-visitation theory.” In other words—it’s pure fantasy/fiction. But, while many people find the idea of alien visitation laughable—and I, personally, don’t completely buy into many of the assumptions made by hardcore “ancient alien” enthusiasts—I still don’t think it is outside the realm of possibility that ET might already have visited us. Do you have any notion about ET that you have never said out loud, for fear of ridicule? If so, would you like to share it with us now?
SETI Net: Fear of ridicule? I don’t think so. If that bothered me, my life would be vastly different I am sure. I actually do think that there is a very good chance that we have been visited by alien life but not how you asked the question. I have read a few books and watched TV series like “Ancient Aliens” but can never get past how they start with a strange Earth object, like the Egyptian Pyramids, and then make the leap to the idea that aliens made it possible. Why not choose the simple answer—people did it, very dedicated hard-working people. No need for aliens at all.
The question about the origin of life on earth is a much more interesting question. How did life begin? What cause the first set of amino acids to join and become self-replicating? How did they then go on to build the first colonizing life form, green algae, then other forms of life, and finally what we see today: you and I? That is a question worth asking.
The very first step (amino acids finding the right combination) could have been taken in one of two ways: random chance over millions of years, or by transpermia (google it—you will be mesmerized). Both are very difficult to imagine, but I rate the possibilities as 50/50.
So, I don’t think intelligent aliens ever visited us, but I do think we may have originated and are, in fact, descendants of alien life itself.
How’s that for mind-blowing?
J.S.: Yes, that we could be descendants of some form of alien life is very interesting. As for alien visitation and strange Earth structures: Occam’s Razor—the simplest answer is usually the right one. But, I have to say, (smiling) I’m a little disappointed you don’t think we’ve been visited by ET already, but I suppose I’ll get over it…eventually.
- J.S.: Do you favor sending our own signals into space? Did you hear about the Twitter feeds, using the hashtag #chasingufos, being sent into space? Good idea, or bad?
SETI Net: I am of two (possible three or four) minds on this. The argument is that we should never advertise our existence because we have no idea what we are opening ourselves up to. We may be providing a beacon to our home for forces that we would never want to come a’calling. This is the opinion of some thoughtful people, like Stephen Hawking, so it shouldn’t be taken lightly. On the other hand, other thoughtful people, like Seth Shostak at the SETI Institute, seem to be less reticent about it.
I, personally, think it’s a good idea and have added the hashtag #chasingufos for my Twitter posts for today. As long as they don’t attempt to transmit in the Waterhole (see the last question and answer), I don’t care, and it might stir up some interest in SETI.
J.S.: Don’t tell Seth Shostak, but, in my book, the character, Stan, is very loosely based on him. I pictured Seth as I wrote the character. And, as you could probably guess, Jill Tarter was my inspiration for the character of Jane Carter (not much of a stretch there, right?). I REALLY hope they don’t mind.
SETI Net – That’s interesting. When I read your book, I thought of Seth as Stan, and Jill as Jane as well. I really don’t know either of them, except by meeting them once or twice.
Here’s something else interesting: Carl Sagan’s book CETI describes a receiving system that was the inspiration for how I built my station, and so it works much like the one he hoped to build so long ago.
Then Carl wrote the book Contact, and, in that book, the first receiving station was based on his earlier book, and so my station is like the one in that book also. Are you still following me? Of course, the movie version of Contact shows the first station as the Very Large Array in New Mexico, which is much bigger than mine.
Then Carl went completely nuts (in a good way) and created the second receiving system that has nothing whatsoever to do with my station but was what made it good science fiction.
J.S.: I loved both the book and movie version of Carl’s book—very interesting connection to your work.
- J.S.: What if everyone is listening and no one is speaking?
SETI Net: That would be the ultimate disaster, wouldn’t it? What a crying shame. We already are, basically, not listening, with only three or four stations, and we are also not speaking. Let’s hope that other civilizations are more thoughtful about their future than we are.
9. J.S.: Since the roundtrip question-and-answer time will be on the order of years, why bother?
SETI Net: If it were the case that when we first learned an ET signal was being sent (but, of course, in a language that we didn’t understand), and the only way we could communicate was by asking questions like “Me 3rd rock sun—You?”— then we would be doomed. Millions of years would pass before we could form the first simple sentence that could be understood by both parties.
My hope is that, when the first ET signal is verified, we immediately build the largest transmitter we could manage and start sending the entire internet. That way, ET could capture it as it comes in and decode it offline.
If we find an ET signal that carries information we should do the same—start recording and decoding offline. That way the two civilization can learn about the other as fast as possible and can disregard the roundtrip question-and-answer problem.
- J.S.: Why do you think ET will be using radio signals? Could they be using gravity waves, light beams, or something built from unobtainium?
SETI Net: For a couple of reasons: First, radio signals are part of the electro magnetic spectrum that includes AM radio down at the low end; FM radio; TV signals; and microwave signals all the way up to, and including, light and cosmic rays. It’s ubiquitous, and it’s free to use. There is no reason to believe that it isn’t available everywhere in the Universe.
Parts of the EM spectrum can penetrate fog, like the section I work with. So, ET signals in this section would come right through our upper atmosphere. Where, if ET were using light to signal, we would be blind to them on foggy nights.
Parts of the EM spectrum can not only penetrate fog and dust, but the Earth itself. I ran across a group called the Energetic Ray Global Observatory (ERGO) that is building and distributing small boxes that can detect cosmic rays and forming them into a global size telescope. How exciting is that?
On the other hand, if ET has a good supply of unobtainium and has found a way to use it for communication, we would be at a loss (our supplies of unobtainium are minuscule) to find ways to receive his signals. So, we go forward with the thing that we know works.
J.S.: I read a lot about optical SETI (OSETI) when I was doing research for my book. That ET might be using high-intensity laser pulses to communicate, rather than radio waves, seemed logical to me, but your explanation about the advantages of searching the EM spectrum makes a lot of sense. In any case, the more methods used in the search for ET, the better, I would think.
SETI Net – I wish I knew more about the techical part of optical SETI, but I don’t. It’s an exciting idea that deserves to be explored. Here is another one—cosmic rays. I’m working with project ERGO (really just coming up to speed) on the next version of this exciting project.
- J.S.: Was the WOW signal real or fake?
SETI Net: I don’t know. For your readers that don’t know about the only possible ET signal ever detected you can start by reading about it on my website.
It was heard by some well thought of professions in the field, a few of which I have met personally. Dr. Bob Dixon who was working on the telescope when the signal came. He spoke at several gatherings of SETI enthusiasts and told the story of the signal in very convincing terms. Robert Gray, who just released his book on the subject, The Elusive WOW: Searching for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, spent much of his life searching for it. He is convinced that it was real.
I watch for the recurrence of this signal whenever that part of the sky is in view for me. It is in Sagittarius, which is due south of me and very low on the horizon, so it’s hard for me to point my antenna at it. It’s still worth the try because, although a lot of time has been spent watching for its reoccurrence to no avail, it may show up again. And wouldn’t that be a great thing.
No—I don’t think they faked the signal. The thing I find troubling is the strength of it. On my system I watch for signals that can barely peep their heads out of the noise—the WOW was huge in comparison.
It may be that the only way we ever resolve this question is a deathbed admission from the person that faked it. The WOW happened in 1977, thirty-five years ago. Anyone who was an adult then is approaching seventy now. So, we may hear the end of it in the next ten to twenty years—or not.
- J.S: Have you ever seen anything strange while conducting your search?
SETI Net: In the last few days my system has been detecting a thing I call the “Dual Track Thingy,” for lack of a better name. It’s a signal that must be from the local area that shows up as two lines on my display and is driving me nuts. But that’s not what you asked, I think.
Really strange? Yes I have. First, you have to let me tell you about an experience I had a very long time ago. Back when I was a young man, twelve or thirteen, I was a ham radio operator. My father built a small “shack” (that’s the term ham’s use for their operating station) in the back of our home in Utah.
I used to spend hours out in the shack working with my shortwave radios trying to contact other hams around the world. At that time, most communications was done with Morse Code (it’s called CW), and I would spend hours with my earphones on listening into the noise for the faint CW signal coming from a ham in Russia or Japan, or out on an island in the Pacific. When I heard a station, we would exchange greetings and signal reports and then let the DX station contact some other US ham.
I remember clearly one night straining to hear any DX though the noise of an approaching thunderstorm, when finally, I could just make out the call sign of a completely unknown station. At that point, the adrenalin rush kicked in and I quickly copied the stations call sign and signal report, and transmitted my own in return. We exchanged name and good-byes, and then signed off. No other US station jumped on this ultra rare DX—why?
I later realized that I had never heard the DX station at all. My mind had created the entire conversation out of the noise itself.
Now, I look at JPGs generated by my station looking for signals. Like the CW signals buried in the noise that night, my mind strains to make sense of them and I see many strange patterns in the noise. I regularly see faces in the noise and, several times, I have seen the face of God every bit as realistic as the image seen on a cheese sandwich, or Jesus in the shapes and leaves of a tree. You can see faces almost anywhere you look very hard and long at in nature.
This is well known by science and is the result of the highly developed ability of our minds to see shapes and interpret them as faces. I have read that very young babies can recognize their mother’s face in a few hours after birth because of this ability. I think the best explanation is that nature trained our minds to see the shape of a tiger in the weeds and run. It’s much better to be mistaken and run than wait around for a positive identification, don’t you think?
So yes, I see strange beasties in the signals I collect, but I know to keep my enthusiasm in check.
J.S.: Yes, it would be much better to run than wait for ID! But I have to ask, when you say you saw the face of God, did you mean like the image on the Sistine Chapel, or your own interpretation of what “God” might look like?
SETI Net: Actually, that was sort of a lame joke. What I saw was a lot like what people see, or thought they saw, in the collapse of the World Trade Center or Jesus on a grilled cheese sandwich.
The point is that the human mind is fine tuned to see images, particularly faces, in random noise and will work itself into a frazzle trying to make sense of noise. It’s an ability given us by evolution to help cope with beasts that lurk in the shadows.
J.S.: Well, I assumed it was a joke (not lame), but you know what they say about “assumptions.” However, after looking at the image you supplied (see below), I’d say the face reminds me more of Freud than the face of Michelangelo’s God. But that’s just me. The toast (see below) DOES look a bit like the image on the Shroud of Turin, I have to admit.
J.S.: While you ponder these images, we’ll take a break until Friday, when I’ll post the last installment of the interview.
July 2, 2012 § 18 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.