The Scientific Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence – Part II
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.