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  • richardmitnick 12:48 pm on November 16, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From Seth Shostak at SETI: “Talking to Aliens” 


    SETI Institute

    SETI Seth Shostak
    Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer and Director, Center for SETI Research

    What do you say to a space alien? This question might not be the foremost puzzle in your life, but it was the subject of a lively two-day conference at California’s SETI Institute this week.

    1
    No image credit

    Here’s why: A decade of research by astronomers now suggests that a trillion planets dot the Milky Way. It takes a real Debbie Downer to believe that they’re all as dead as the Equal Rights Amendment. Unless Earth is special beyond reason, you can confidently assume there are plenty of societies out there.

    That doesn’t mean that they’ll come to Earth (or, as many believe, already have). Interstellar travel, despite what you’ve seen at the local multiplex, is hard. But we could easily get in touch via radio signals or flashing laser lights.

    SETI — the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence — is already scanning the skies, looking for such signals. So far, they haven’t found any. But some practitioners figure we should also transmit signals; that we should try speaking without first being spoken to.

    Doing so would raise a lot of questions. For example, in which directions should you beam your broadcast, and how do you encode the message? In addition, there’s the prickly argument over whether betraying our existence could lead to trouble.

    All worthy of consideration. But this week’s conference had a narrower focus: message content. If we decide to pick up the phone, what are we going to talk about?

    To get as wide a range of viewpoints as possible, the conference organizer, the Institute’s Director of Interstellar Message Composition Doug Vakoch, brought together an international crowd of anthropologists, philosophers, linguists, astronomers, archaeologists, social psychologists, journalists and designers. As you might imagine, this inhomogeneous group frequently arrived at opposite conclusions despite starting with similar premises.

    For example, what’s the best way to make a message understandable to minds that might be organized in ways far different than our own? Some argued that any society with the kit necessary for detecting broadcasts from Earth will have mastered mathematics and chemistry. We should use these as touchstones to encode our messages. But try writing an essay about love or local government using only mathematical symbols, and you’ll quickly discover that this isn’t easy (and seldom poetic).

    “Send the equivalent of a Rosetta Stone,” was the cry of other participants. And after all, that does sound like a great way to help the aliens quickly learn some earthly language. Of course, the “stone” needs to have parallel texts with another language or two, but maybe you could substitute pictures — a kind of picture dictionary. Easy squeezy.

    But a linguist precipitated on this parade by noting that — given the uncertainties about why Homo sapiens even has language (is it merely a talent conferred by a random genetic mutation that hit our species 150,000 years ago?), there’s no guarantee that the extraterrestrials will be blessed with the gift of gab. They might not have language any more than we have a great sense of smell.

    Which brings us back to pictures. Why not simply tell them about ourselves by sending images of artifacts? Time capsules are precedent, one participant noted. They’re small collections of contemporary culture that are sealed, buried and sent to the future, if not into space. Clever idea, but if we send the Klingons the radio equivalent of a time capsule, do we put in everything? Do we tell them about our cruelties, and about poverty and war? Or is it better to only display our better natures?

    A leitmotiv of the conference — one thing that just about everyone felt they could agree on — was to beware of anthropocentrism. Don’t assume that the way we think or describe things will be the same for the extraterrestrials. Context and local knowledge are the frameworks of our daily lives, and it’s easy to forget that these are peculiar to us, both in place and in time. The aliens will not get our jokes, our literature, or our reality TV. Their minds, presumably vast and deep, could be as different from ours as those of bats and beetles.

    It’s a tough problem, and my own contribution was to opine that — rather than wrestle endlessly with what we should say — we send it all. Or at least send a lot. I suggested that we transmit the contents of the Internet, or some large subset thereof, rather than offering up more “greeting cards” similar to those that have been bolted onto some of our spacecraft. Sure, there’s a lot of silly stuff on the web — it’s not curated, to use the language of museums. But it’s wide-ranging, covers a lot of human activity, and is highly redundant. For example, the concept of “automobile” is present in descriptions, photos, and videos. That redundancy will help them — assuming they have the processing power — to figure out a lot of what we’ve sent.

    In movies, the aliens are almost always fluent in colloquial, American English. That’s handy, and it eases the burden on both actors and audience. Communicating with these well-spoken beings from beyond Earth is a slam dunk.

    But if and when we decide to send a shout-out to other worlds, we should first abandon the idea that the inhabitants of those distant locales have our mind set — or even a similar mind.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 3:38 pm on November 15, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From SLATE: “Messages to the Universe: A Short History of Interstellar Communication” 

    SLATE

    slate.com

    Nov. 14 2014
    Ella Morton

    Nov. 16, 2014, marks the 40th anniversary of the Arecibo message, an interstellar communiqué transmitted from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico toward Messier 13, a globular cluster of stars located more than 22,000 light-years away.

    ari
    The Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico. Photo: H. Schweiker/WIYN and NOAO/AURA/NSF (Public Domain)

    The content of the message was determined by astrophysicist and Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) founder Frank Drake, with a little help from luminaries like Carl Sagan. It used a string of 1,679 binary digits—the idea was that the alien civilization who receives the message will recognize 1,679 as a semiprime number and multiple of 23 and 73.* “Ah,” they will think (in their native language, obviously), “this binary string of unknown origin is intriguing. Let’s lay out the info in a 23-by-73 grid and see what emerges.”

    fd
    Frank Drake

    cs
    Carl Sagan in 1980

    When the ones and zeroes are put into grid form, what results is a pixelated summary of humanity. It contains seven parts. The first part of the message shows the numbers one through 10. Next are the atomic numbers for carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and phosphorus. A very simple representation of the DNA double helix follows. Then there is a blocky image of a human, a depiction of Earth’s position in the solar system—with Pluto still shown as a planet, a matter that is still up for debate—and an image of the Arecibo telescope that, to a 2014 eye, resembles the Gmail logo.

    am
    The Arecibo message. Image: Arne Nordmann/Creative Commons

    Even if the folks in Messier 13 were to respond promptly to this message, we’d still have to wait at least 43,960 years for their reply. But the Arecibo message was never really intended as genuine interstellar communication—it was chiefly a demonstration of the Arecibo telescope’s might. (The dish was upgraded in 1974, and the three-minute digital transmission, ostensibly sent to an alien civilization, was quite the celebratory attention-getter.)

    Messier 13’s assumed inhabitants may never become our pen pals, but the tantalizing prospect of interstellar communication continues to entice Earthlings. Since the Arecibo message was transmitted into the universe, at least eight other interstellar radio messages have been beamed into the sky—all within the last 15 years.

    In 2001, Russian astronomer Aleksandr Zaitsev and a group of Russian teenagers broadcast a series of transmissions collectively known as the “Teen Age Message.” Targeted at six stars located between 45.9 and 68.5 light-years away, the messages included Russian folk music and works by classical composers such as Beethoven and Vivaldi. All of this music was played on the theremin—Zaitsev referred to the message as the “First Theremin Concert For Extraterrestrials.” Sent from Yevpatoria Planetary Radar in Crimea, the transmission was the first interstellar musical radio message. There have been more: In 2008, NASA sent the Beatles song Across the Universe across the universe, targeting the Northern Star, Polaris.

    team
    “Teen Age Message” being sent into the universe from Crimea in 2001. Photo: Rumlin/Creative Commons

    Yevpatoria 70m dish
    Yevpatoria Planetary Radar

    The question of how best to communicate with extraterrestrials is one of SETI’s ongoing concerns. Earlier this week, the organization held a workshop in California with the title Communicating Across the Cosmos. A common theme was humanity’s self-obsession. In composing interstellar messages, we tend to assume the intended recipients will get what we’re trying to say. But the scientific knowledge and physiology of nonhuman civilizations may be so different to our own that a Beethoven composition or a stick-figure human is totally indecipherable.

    Even the supposedly universal language of mathematics may not be the best lingua franca. During a talk at the SETI conference, Carl DeVito posed a mind-bending question: “Are the natural numbers, 1, 2, 3, 4, … merely creations of the human mind or do they exist independently of us?” You can watch his talk for more, but for the record, here is his own answer: “I think the natural numbers do exist independently of us. The rest of mathematics, however, might not exist anywhere but in our minds.”

    Of the eight interstellar messages sent since 1999, the first to reach its target will be A Message From Earth, which was sent to extrasolar planet Gliese 581 c in October 2008 and is scheduled to arrive in early 2029. The transmission, intended as a digital time capsule, was initiated by now-defunct RDF Digital—a subsidiary of the U.K. production company responsible for the TV show Wife Swap—and Bebo, a social networking website that declared bankruptcy in 2013. The 501 photos and text messages in the transmission were selected by Bebo users via web vote. In about 15 years, the residents of Gliese 581 c, assuming there are any, will receive a deluge of information about faded British pop stars.

    Though each interstellar transmission has varied wildly in tone and content, each reflects a common core message: “We are here. This is us.” Whether they reach other civilizations is almost irrelevant. The chance to sum up humanity to an extraterrestrial audience is an alluring task, and one that allows us to feel absurdly important while inhabiting, as Carl Sagan wrote in Pale Blue Dot, “a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.”

    m13
    The heart of Messier 13, target audience for the Arecibo message. Photo: ESA/Hubble and NASA/Public domain

    NASA Hubble Telescope
    NASA Hubble schematic
    NASA/ESA Hubble

    Visit Atlas Obscura for more on Arecibo Observatory.

    *Correction, Nov. 14, 2014: The post originally misstated that 1,679 was a prime number. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

    See the full article here.

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    Slate is a daily magazine on the Web. Founded in 1996, we are a general-interest publication offering analysis and commentary about politics, news, business, technology, and culture. Slate’s strong editorial voice and witty take on current events have been recognized with numerous awards, including the National Magazine Award for General Excellence Online. The site, which is owned by Graham Holdings Company, does not charge for access and is supported by advertising revenues.

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  • richardmitnick 8:50 pm on November 4, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From SETI: “Workshop Ponders Challenges of Communicating Across the Cosmos” 


    SETI Institute

    November 03 2014
    Science Contact:
    Douglas Vakoch, SETI Institute
    Chair, “Communicating Across the Cosmos” Workshop
    dvakoch@seti.org
    +1-650-960-4514
    Skype: dougvakoch

    http://communicating.seti.org

    David Black, SETI Institute
    CEO
    dblack@seti.org
    +1 650-960-4550

    Media Contact:
    Seth Shostak, SETI Institute
    Press Officer, and Senior Astronomer
    +1 650 960-4530
    sshostak@seti.org

    When astronomers conducting the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) find other cultures in the universe, could we understand their messages? How can we craft a reply that intelligence on other planets would comprehend? To tackle these questions, the SETI Institute will convene the international workshop Communicating Across the Cosmos: How Can We Make Ourselves Understood by Other Civilizations in the Galaxy? on November 10-11, 2014, at its headquarters in Mountain View, California.

    “As we search for a universal language to communicate with civilizations beyond Earth, where should we start? Math? Pictures? Something else?” asked Douglas Vakoch, Director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI Institute and organizer of the workshop. “It may be much more difficult to create an understandable message than we’ve thought in the past, and our workshop faces those challenges head on. “Recommendations from the meeting will be incorporated into the final report of the International Academy of Astronautics’ Study Group on Interstellar Message Construction.

    disc

    “In the past few years, astronomers have shown that most stars have planets, so there could be many worlds where life has arisen,” said David Black, President and CEO of the SETI Institute. “If we discover life beyond Earth, especially technological life, it would have a profound effect on humanity. We need to take concrete steps now to plan for first contact. The SETI Institute just held a workshop on Non-Human Communication that examined the complex languages used by other life forms on this planet. The insights that we gain into the fundamental aspects of communication from those types of studies inform us potentially about communication with non-terrestrial life forms.”

    At the workshop, speakers from six countries will draw on disciplines ranging from astronomy and mathematics, to anthropology and linguistics, as they debate the best ways to create meaningful messages. “As we explore ways to communicate with intelligence in the cosmos, we need to do so intelligently,” explained Pierre Schwob, Vice Chairman of the SETI Institute’s Board of Trustees.

    The SETI Institute searches for radio signals from other civilizations with the Allen Telescope Array in northern California, but does not transmit signals to other worlds. “We’re also seeing increased interest within the international SETI community in actively transmitting messages, trying to elicit a response from other intelligence that may be out there,” said Vakoch. “Before we can do that, we need to be clear about what we would say, and how we would say it—the same questions we’ll grapple with in this meeting.”

    Allen Telescope Array
    Allen Telescope Array

    This workshop is closed to the public, but videos of all talks will be posted on the SETI Institute’s Youtube channel after the workshop. Media representatives who would like to attend or interview speakers should contact Douglas Vakoch, dvakoch@seti.org, phone +1-650-960-4514, Skype dougvakoch. Only queries from media representatives will be answered.

    Visit the workshop website for more information at http://communicating.seti.org

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 8:01 am on October 24, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From SETI: “New Insights on the Origin of the triple asteroid system (87) Sylvia” 


    SETI Institute

    Oct 24, 2014
    Franck Marchis, Senior Research Scientist

    Combining observations from the world’s largest telescopes with those from smaller instruments used by amateur astronomers, a team of scientists has discovered that the large main-belt asteroid (87) Sylvia has a complex interior. This has been deduced by using the motions of the two moons orbiting the main asteroid as probes of the object’s density distribution. The complex structure is probably linked to the way the multiple system was formed.

    two
    Description Discovery of the two moons Romulus and Remus of the asteroid (87) Sylvia
    Date 24 January 2007
    Adaptive Optics observations of (87) Sylvia, showing its two satellites, Remus and Romulus

    The findings were announced last year at the 45th annual Division of Planetary Sciences meeting in Denver, Colorado and were published last month in the journal Icarus.

    The asteroid (87) Sylvia is the first known to have two moons. One moon was discovered in 2001, and the second was found in 2005 by a team led by Franck Marchis, senior research scientist at the Carl Sagan Center of the SETI Institute. Since then, the team has continued to make new observations of the system using 8 to 10 m-class telescopes, including those at the Keck Observatory, the European Southern Observatory, and Gemini North.

    Keck Observatory
    Keck Observatory Interior
    Keck

    ESO VLT Interferometer
    ESO VLT Interior
    ESO VLT

    Gemini North telescope
    Gemini North Interior
    Gemini North

    syl
    (credit: Danielle Futselaar/SETI Institute).
    An artist’s rendition of the triple system showing the large 270-km asteroid Sylvia surrounded by its two moons – Romulus and Remus – gives a pictorial representation of this intriguing triple system.

    The differentiated interior of the asteroid is shown in a cutaway diagram. The primary asteroid may have a dense, regularly-shaped core, surrounding by fluffy or fractured material. The outer moon, named Romulus, is known to be strongly elongated, possibly having two lobes, as suggested by a recently observed occultation recorded by amateur astronomers.

    “Combined observations from small and large telescopes provide a unique opportunity to understand the nature of this complex and enigmatic triple asteroid system,” Marchis said. “Thanks to the presence of these moons, we can constrain the density and interior structure of an asteroid, without the need for a spacecraft’s visit. Knowledge of the internal structure of asteroids is key to understanding how the planets of our solar system formed.”

    The article Physical and dynamical properties of the main belt triple Asteroid (87) Sylvia, published last month in Icarus, is co-authored by J. Berthier, F. Vachier, B. Carry from IMCCE-Obs de Paris, J. Durech from Charles University, Prague, and F. Marchis from the SETI Institute and Obs. de Paris.

    Reference
    Berthier, J., F. Vachier, F. Marchis, J. Ďurech, and B. Carry. 2014. Physical and Dynamical Properties of the Main Belt Triple Asteroid (87) Sylvia. Icarus 239 (September): 118–30. doi:10.1016/j.icarus.2014.05.046.

    Abstract
    We present the analysis of high angular resolution observations of the triple Asteroid (87) Sylvia collected with three 8-10 m class telescopes (Keck, VLT, Gemini North) and the Hubble Space Telescope. The moons’ mutual orbits were derived individually using a purely Keplerian model. We computed the position of Romulus, the outer moon of the system, at the epoch of a recent stellar occultation which was successfully observed at less than 15 km from our predicted position, within the uncertainty of our model. The occultation data revealed that the Moon, with a surface-area equivalent diameter Ds=23.1±0.7km, is strongly elongated (axes ratio of 2.7±0.32.7±0.3), significantly more than single asteroids of similar size in the main-belt. We concluded that its shape is probably affected by the tides from the primary. A new shape model of the primary was calculated combining adaptive-optics observations with this occultation and 40 archived light-curves recorded since 1978. The difference between the J2=0.024-0.009+0.016 derived from the 3-D shape model assuming an homogeneous distribution of mass for the volume equivalent diameter Dv=273±10km primary and the null J2 implied by the Keplerian orbits suggests a non-homogeneous mass distribution in the asteroid’s interior.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 4:59 pm on October 13, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From SETI Institute: “Fingerprints of Life on Mars” 


    SETI Institute

    October 07 2014

    Nathalie Cabrol
    SETI Institute
    Email: ncabrol@seti.org
    Email: Nathalie.A.Cabrol@nasa.gov
    Tel: +1 650-604-0312

    Edna DeVore, Media Contact
    SETI Institute
    E-mail: edevore@seti.org
    Tel: +1 650 960-4538

    NASA’s Astrobiology Institute (NAI) announced that the SETI Institute has been selected as a new member of the NAI for a 5-year research program, “Changing Planetary Environments and the Fingerprints of Life.” Led by planetary geologist and Senior Research Scientist, Nathalie Cabrol, the team’s work will address key questions. How can we identify the signature of life not just here on Earth, but on Mars as well? How does a planet’s changing environment impact the evidence for life?

    serti

    “I am absolutely thrilled that the SETI Institute is joining the NAI. In the next five years, along with our partner institutions, we will focus on decoding the fingerprints of life—the biosignatures—in extreme environments here on Earth to help us look for life on Mars. Our goal is to understand the survival of biosignatures from an early, wetter Mars to the harsh environment of the red planet today. Understanding the role that the changing Martian environment has had on biosignatures will inform us on how to recognize these signatures, and how to explore them. We bring to this ambitious quest new exploration tools and, with NASA’s Mars 2020 on the horizon, the timing could not be more perfect,” stated Cabrol. “Personally and professionally, this is a tremendously exciting project because we aim to develop a roadmap to biosignature exploration for Mars for future missions.”

    nc
    Principal Investigator, Nathalie Cabrol

    “I am delighted at the news that the SETI Institute led team has been chosen as one of the new members in the NASA Astrobiology Institute. The team worked hard at putting together an outstanding proposal and it is a positive reflection on the process that is in place to review the proposals that their effort is recognized and rewarded by their professional peers. We look forward to an exciting five years of outstanding research under the aegis of this award,” said David Black, President and CEO of the SETI Institute.

    To model and test strategies for biosignature detection, Cabrol’s team will conduct fieldwork in extreme environments on Earth that are analogous to sites on Mars where water once flowed. Fieldwork will be done at Yellowstone National Park, sites in California and Chile, Axel Heiberg Island in the high Arctic, and Western Australia. Each site is an analog to Mars: volcanic and hydrothermal terrain, lake sediments, evaporates, and perennial cold springs. Sites will be explored from satellites, air, ground, and at the microscopic level in the field and laboratory. Understanding how to integrate this multi-scale information will help scientists learn how to select the best sites for discovering biosignatures on Mars.

    Cabrol assembled a diverse team of experts in planetary science, robotics, laboratory experimentation, and exploration to conduct fieldwork, analyze samples, and develop a biosignature roadmap to guide the search for life on Mars. In addition to more than a dozen scientists at the SETI Institute, her team brings together scientists from universities, government agencies and industry partners in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia and South America. In the US, partners include Arizona State University, University of Montana, University of Tennessee, Carnegie Mellon, Georgia Institute of Technology, Honeybee Robotics, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and NASA Ames Research Center. Non-US partners include McGill University (Canada), Centro de Astrobiologia (CAB, Madrid, Spain), Deutscher Wetterdienst (Germany), Friedrich-Alexander University (Germany), and Campoalto for logistics in Chile. Over the next 5 years, more than twenty scientists will work together to help answer the question of where, what and how to search for the right rocks on Mars to discover the fingerprints of life on the red planet.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 7:12 pm on October 6, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From SPACE.com: “Aliens May Be Out There, But Too Distant for Contact” 

    space-dot-com logo

    SPACE.com

    October 06, 2014
    Irene Klotz

    The Milky Way may be home to some 3,000 extraterrestrial civilizations but the vast distances between our galactic cousins will make contact extremely rare, a new study concludes.

    Data collected by NASA’s Kepler space telescope and other observatories scouting for planets beyond the solar system indicate Earth is one of some 40 billion potentially habitable worlds in the galaxy, with about one new life-friendly planet forming every year, astronomer Michael Garrett, head of the Dutch astronomy research foundation ASTRON, said at the International Astronomical Congress in Toronto.

    NASA Kepler Telescope
    NASA/Kepler

    Sounds promising, until you consider the sheer size of the Milky Way, which spans more than 100,000 light-years in diameter. Light travels at about 186,000 miles per second, but a signal will still take more than 4 years to reach neighboring system Alpha Centauri and 100,000 years to travel from one end of the galaxy to the other.

    “On average, you’d expect the civilizations to be separated by at least 1,000 light-years in the Milky Way. That’s a large distance, and for communication purposes you need to allow for twice the travel distance, so you’re talking about civilizations that have to be around for at least a few thousand years in order to have the opportunity to talk to each other,” Garrett said.

    “We don’t really know the time scales in which civilizations persist,” he added.

    The one example available — Earth — indicates that life essentially developed as soon as the conditions were right, but intelligent life arose comparatively late.

    “It’s really just essentially in the last few minutes of the overall evolution of life on the planet,” Garrett said. “I don’t want to be too negative about this, but … my basic conclusion is that SETI signals will be rare in the Milky Way.”

    That doesn’t mean astronomers shouldn’t look, he added. Quite the contrary, given the huge technological leaps in radio astronomy and in data processing techniques compared to what was available for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, programs 60 years ago.

    SETI also is benefitting from sister radio astronomy projects, such as the ongoing quest to find the source of mysterious transient radio bursts.

    SETI@home screensaver
    SETI@home from Space Science LabSpaceScienceLabs at UC Berkeley

    “SETI is not easy, but it’s a pursuit that is well worth doing. The question is so important,” Garrett said. “Everyone is interested, not just scientists and space enthusiasts. People in the street are interested to know what else is out there.”

    See the full article, with added material, here.

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  • richardmitnick 2:40 pm on September 26, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From Seth Shostak at SETI Institute: “So What Really Goes Down if We Find the Aliens?” 


    SETI Institute

    September 26, 2014
    By Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer and Director of the Center for SETI Research

    SETI Seth Shostak
    Seth Shostak

    If we trip across life that’s not of this world, do we blast it or befriend it? What impact would it have on our society?

    This was the topic of a two-day symposium held at the John W. Kluge Center of the Library of Congress last week. Several dozen researchers — astronomers, philosophers, theologians, biologists, historians, and other tweed-jacketed specialists — opined on what might happen should we find we’re not alone.

    A lot of the discussion, unsurprisingly, was about discovering life that’s intelligent. This prompted a symposium leitmotiv that was dished out repeatedly: when thinking about aliens, beware of anthropocentrism. In other words, don’t assume that they will be similar to us ethically, culturally, or cognitively.

    Well sure, I can get down with that. I agree that we tend to view everything in the universe through the prism of our own natures. Mind you, I note that the squirrels in my front yard seem to do the same. They’re awfully squirrel-centric. That ensures that they attend to activities that are truly important (mostly acorn management). I don’t think less of them for that.

    Where this leitmotiv became more than a neo-Greek caution against hubris was when it was used to argue that SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is fatally flawed. We were told that our hunt for aliens assumes that they are like us. That kind of provincial attitude, it was said, will doom SETI to endless frustration. If we don’t think outside our own biological box, we’ll fail to find any company in the cosmos.

    But wait a minute: That’s akin to arguing that the 1976 Viking landers — with their complex instrumentation for sensing microbial Martians — were a clear non-starter because they were sensitive to carbon-based metabolism; in other words, life as we know it. Well, that’s true, but it was really hard to design experiments that were good at finding life as no-one-knows-it.

    Actually, when it comes to SETI experiments, we try not to make assumptions about the aliens’ cultural, ethical, or even biological makeup. We don’t assume they are similar to us. Rather, we assume that their physics is similar to ours — that they use radio transmitters or lasers to send information from wherever they are to wherever they need it. That’s no more anthropocentric than assuming that — if aliens use ground transportation — at least some of it is on wheels.

    Anthropocentrism is always a bugaboo, but to say that it might irretrievably cripple our efforts to find evidence for intelligence elsewhere is certainly arguable. So let’s consider that SETI experiments are not as myopic as some would aver. The big question then becomes, what happens if we pick up a ping?

    First, allow me to dispense with the false, but nonetheless ever-popular idea that the public wouldn’t be told. That’s goofier than Big Bird, and easily disproved by a cursory reference to SETI’s occasional false alarms. This paranoid idea probably derives from the widespread claim that 67 years ago some wayward aliens made a dismaying navigational error, and piloted their craft into the dirt near Roswell, New Mexico. The fact that this event is not the subject of much investigation by research scientists is often explained as the consequence of a government cover-up. The feds don’t want you to know about extraterrestrials.

    One could make the same argument about the lack of academic interest in leprechauns. Maybe the Irish government is hiding the bodies. I don’t find that a compelling argument. But I think the popular notion of secret evidence sparks the mistaken belief that a SETI detection would be hushed up. It won’t be.

    Of greater relevance to the subject of this symposium — preparing for discovery — was what would the signal reveal? What could we learn about the senders’ construction or culture?

    The most plausible answer is “not much.” Just as hearing a rustle in the forest provides precious little information on the flora or fauna that caused it, so too would an alien ping be largely uninformative, at least at first. There might be an accompanying message, but new and different instruments would be required to find it.

    What we could learn quickly are a few, mostly astronomical facts, to wit: (1) How far away is their solar system; (2) What type of star do they orbit? (3) The length of their day and their year.

    That might be it for a while. And “a while” would be years, at minimum.

    If we find intelligent beings elsewhere in our galaxy, you’ll not be quickly confronted with complex philosophical problems of understanding their mode of thinking or their biological blueprint — or even knowing whether they are biological. You won’t be misled by anthropocentric thinking, because there will be precious little information about whether they’re like us or not. For years, all we’ll be able to say is that there’s something out there that’s at least as technologically competent as we are.

    But of course, that’s still saying a lot.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 12:42 pm on September 26, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , SETI Institute   

    From SETI: “To Find Alien Life, Expect the Unexpected” 


    SETI Institute

    temp

    Highlights of a Library of Congress symposium on first contact with extraterrestrial life

    September 25, 2014
    Dirk Schulze-Makuch

    Last week experts from a variety of fields answered a call from Steven Dick, the Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology at the Library of Congress, to meet for two days and discuss the possible discovery of extraterrestrial life and the impact such a discovery would have on society. The symposium consisted of individual talks and panel discussions, along with remarks by Rep. Lamar Smith, chair of the House science committee, Mary Voytek of NASA’s astrobiology program, and Steven Dick, who spoke on how far we have advanced our understanding.

    cows

    Some spectators from the media and “UFOlogists” in the audience may have been disappointed when Seth Shostak from the SETI Institute opened by stating that no signal from extraterrestrial intelligent beings has been discovered as yet. On the first afternoon I gave a talk about the “Landscape of Life,” which—as philosopher of science Carlos Mariscal put it—is extremely difficult to evaluate, since N still equals 1: There is only one biosphere we know of. And given that life on Earth is already extremely diverse, we can only image how diverse it would be in the universe.

    bio
    Description
    English: SeaWiFS Global Biosphere September 1997 – August 1998; This composite image gives an indication of the magnitude and distribution of global primary production, of both oceanic (mg/m3 chlorophyll a) and terrestrial (normalized difference land vegetation index), see Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NVDI).
    Date 25 October 2005
    Source http://oceancolor.gsfc.nasa.gov/SeaWiFS/BACKGROUND/Gallery/index.html and from en:Image:Seawifs global biosphere.jpg
    Author Provided by the SeaWiFS Project, Goddard Space Flight Center and ORBIMAGE

    Neuroscientist Lori Marino continued with a presentation about the “Landscape of Intelligence” among animal species on Earth, and anthropologist John Traphagan spoke about how cultural and ethnic differences influence how we imagine aliens (and often reveal more about ourselves than about the aliens!). Marino pointed out that human interactions—such as historical encounters between aboriginal and western cultures—are often used as analogs for a first contact with extraterrestrials. A better analog, she says, would be our relationship with whales, dolphins, and other intelligent species on Earth.

    The morning session of the second day included philosopher Carol Cleland taking up a question that nicely complemented Marino’s talk: What would be the moral status of indigenous microbes on Mars or intelligent extraterrestrial animals? Philosopher Susan Schneider spoke about artificial intelligence and whether we might expect to contact not organic beings, but rather a “machine mind”—some sort of robot, android, or Borg. Brother Guy Consolmagno of the Vatican Observatory then considered the theological implications of first contact. To the question “Would you baptize an extraterrestrial?” he responded, “Only if he desires so!”

    The second day’s afternoon session included more elaboration on the theme of cultural bias in the field of astrobiology/SETI. Clearly, we’ll have to free ourselves of our own cultural mindsets to fathom what aliens really might be like. A technologically advanced octopus? A superior hive mind? Or maybe a smart, individually inclined warm-blooded animal like we see in the movies?

    Personally, I expect—based on evolutionary biology—a social predator, probably an omnivore (eating both animals and plants). There is a reason why cows are pretty stupid. They only need to graze and run away from predators. On the other hand, the predator has to be smart to eat the cow and anticipate its future movements. And of course, there’s always the possibility of swarm intelligence, as in my own sci-fi novel Alien Encounter.

    There was plenty to talk and think about at the meeting, and it’s not too soon to start the discussion. Some SETI researchers expect to detect intelligent signals within the next 25 years, given the current progress in technology. Who knows, perhaps we’re receiving the signals already, and just don’t see them or know how to interpret them!

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 5:03 pm on September 8, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From SETI: “Moonlets Created and Destroyed in a Ring of Saturn” 


    SETI Institute

    Monday, September 08 2014

    Robert French
    SETI Institute
    E-mail: rfrench@seti.org
    Tel: +1 650 960-0239

    Mark Showalter
    SETI Institute
    E-mail: mshowalter@seti.org
    Tel: +1 650 960-0234

    Seth Shostak, Media Contact
    SETI Institute
    E-mail: seth@seti.org,
    Tel: +1 650 960-4530

    Preston Dyches, Media Contact
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
    E-mail: preston.dyches@jpl.nasa.gov
    Tel: +1 818 354-7013

    There is an ongoing drama in the Saturnian ring system that causes small moons to be born and then destroyed on time scales that are but an eyeblink in the history of the solar system. SETI Institute scientists Robert French and Mark Showalter have examined photos made by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft and compared them to 30 year-old pictures made by the Voyager mission. They find that there is a marked difference in the appearance of one of the rings, even over this cosmologically short interval, a difference that can be explained by the brief strut and fret of small moons.

    rings

    NASA Cassini Spacecraft
    NASA/CAssini-Huygens

    NASA Voyager 2
    NASA/Voyager

    “The F ring is a narrow, lumpy feature made entirely of water ice that lies just outside the broad, luminous rings A, B, and C,” notes French. “It has bright spots. But it has fundamentally changed its appearance since the time of Voyager. Today, there are fewer of the very bright lumps.”

    The bright spots come and go over the course of hours or days, a mystery that the two SETI Institute astronomers think they have solved.

    “We believe the most luminous knots occur when tiny moons, no bigger than a large mountain, collide with the densest part of the ring,” says French. “These moons are small enough to coalesce and then break apart in short order.”

    The F ring is at a special place in the ring system, at a distance known as the Roche limit, named for French astronomer Edouard Roche who first pointed out that if a moon orbits too close to a planet, the difference in gravitational tug on its near and far side can tear it apart. This happens at a distance dependent on the mass of the planet, and in the case of Saturn, happens to be at the location of the F ring. Consequently, material here is caught between the yin and yang of forming small moons, and having them pulled apart. The moons in question are typically no more than 3 miles (5 km) in size, and consequently can come together quickly.

    This chaotic region is given additional stir by Prometheus, a moon that’s roughly 60 miles (100 km) in size that orbits just inside the F ring. Every 17 years, Prometheus aligns with the F ring in a way that emphasizes its gravitational influence on the ring’s particles, precipitating the formation of the mini-moons, or moonlets.

    “These newborn moonlets will repeatedly crash through the F ring, like bumper cars, producing bright clumps as they careen through lanes of material,” says Showalter. “But this is self-destructive behavior, and the moons – being just at the Roche limit – are barely stable and quickly fragmented.”

    This scenario can explain the rapid variation in the number of bright clumps in the F ring, but is it true? If the periodic influence of Prometheus is causing the waxing and waning of the clumps, then there should be an increase in their prevalence over the next few years, a prediction that the astronomers will be checking with Cassini data.

    In addition to the drama of moons that come and go over less than a human lifetime, studies of the ring system give insight into how solar systems in general are built.

    “The sort of processes going on around Saturn are very similar to those that took place here 4.6 billion years ago, when the Earth and the other large planets were formed,” notes French. “It’s an important process to understand.”

    This research was published in the online edition of the journal Icarus on July 15, 2014.

    Link to paper: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0019103514003625

    The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency. The mission is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 7:42 pm on September 1, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , SETI Institute   

    Seth Shostak of SETI Institute at his Eloquent Best. 


    SETI Institute

    Seth Shostak. ’nuff said.

    SETI Institute – 189 Bernardo Ave., Suite 100
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