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  • richardmitnick 7:16 pm on November 12, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Alien life, , SETI   

    From BBC: “Are we sending aliens the right messages?” 

    BBC

    BBC

    12 November 2014
    Tracey Logan

    Despite decades of sending sounds and pictures into space no aliens have responded. Have we been doing it wrong? Tracey Logan investigates, and discovers some novel attempts to make contact – including the smells of our planet.

    ball
    NASA

    For decades we’ve been sending signals – both deliberate and accidental – into space, and listening out for alien civilisations’ broadcasts. But what is the plan if one day we were to hear something?

    Artist Carrie Paterson has long dreamed of beaming messages far out to the emptiness of space. Except her messages would have an extra dimension – smell.

    By broadcasting formulae of aromatic chemicals, she says, aliens could reconstruct all sorts of whiffs that help to define life on Earth: animal blood and faeces, sweet floral and citrus scents or benzene to show our global dependence on the car. This way intelligent life forms on distant planets who may not see or hear as we do, says Paterson, could explore us through smell, one of the most primitive and ubiquitous senses of all.

    ari
    It is nearly 40 years since the Arecibo facility sent messages out into space

    Her idea is only the latest in a list of attempts to hail intelligent life outside of the Solar System. Forty years ago this month, the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico sent an iconic picture message into space – and we’ve arguably been broadcasting to aliens ever since we invented TV and radio.

    However in recent years, astronomers, artists, linguists and anthropologists have been converging on the idea that creating comprehensible messages for aliens is much harder than it seems. This week, Paterson and others discussed the difficulties of talking to our cosmic neighbours at a conference called Communicating Across the Cosmos, held by SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). It seems our traditional ways of communicating through pictures and language may well be unintelligible – or worse, be catastrophically misconstrued. So how should we be talking to ET?

    Lost in translation?

    We have always wanted to send messages about humanity beyond the planet. According to Albert Harrison, a space psychologist and author of Starstruck: Cosmic Visions in Science, Religion and Folklore, the first serious designs for contacting alien life appeared two centuries ago, though they never got off the ground.

    In the 1800s, mathematician Carl Gauss proposed cutting down lines of trees in a densely forested area and replanting the strips with wheat or rye, Harrison wrote in his book. “The contrasting colours would form a giant triangle and three squares known as a Pythagoras figure which could be seen from the Moon or even Mars.” Not long after, the astronomer Joseph von Littrow proposed creating huge water-filled channels topped with kerosene. “Igniting them at night showed geometric patterns such as triangles that Martians would interpret as a sign of intelligence, not nature.”

    cars
    Odours needn’t be pleasant – the smell of gasoline, for instance, could hint at our reliance on fossil fuels (Getty Images)

    But in the 20th Century, we began to broadcast in earnest. The message sent by Arecibo hoped to make first contact on its 21,000 year journey to the edge of the Milky Way. The sketches it contained, made from just 1,679 digital bits, look cute to us today, very much of the ‘Pong’ video game generation. Just before then, NASA’s Pioneer 10 and 11 space probes each carried a metal calling card bolted onto their frame with symbols and drawings on the plaque, showing a naked man and woman.

    NASA Pioneer 10
    NASA/Pioneer 10

    Yet it’s possible that these kinds of message may turn out to be incomprehensible to aliens; they might find it as cryptic as we find Stone Age etchings.

    Antique tech

    “Linear drawings of a male and a female homo sapiens are legible to contemporary humans,” says Marek Kultys, a London-based science communications designer. ”But the interceptors of Pioneer 10 could well assume we are made of several separate body parts (i.e. faces, hair and the man’s chest drawn as a separate closed shapes) and our body surface is home for long worm-like beings (the single lines defining knees, abdomens or collarbones.).”

    Man-made tech may also be an issue. The most basic requirement for understanding Voyager’s Golden Record, launched 35 years ago and now way out beyond Pluto, is a record player. Aliens able to play it at 16 and 2/3 revolutions a minute will hear audio greetings in 55 world languages, including a message of ‘Peace and Friendship’ from former United Nations Secretary General Kurt Waldheim. But how many Earthlings today have record players, let alone extraterrestrials?

    spa
    Our sights and sounds of Earth might be unintelligible to an alien audience (NASA, Pioneer)

    What if the aliens we’re trying to talk to are utterly different from us, physically and mentally? What if alien life is like the type encountered in Stanislav Lem’s Solaris, for instance, where a planet is surrounded by an intelligent ocean. The ocean itself is the alien being, a disembodied mind.

    “Supposing an “alienish” speaking human wished to explain the whole concept of sexual reproduction to a homogenous sentient ocean, would there be any chance for the human to become understood?” says Kultys. “Sharing the same context is essential for comprehension.”

    Time capsule

    Inevitably such messages become outdated too, like time capsules. Consider the case of the Oglethorpe Atlanta Crypt of Civilization – a time capsule sealed on Earth in 1940, complete with a dry martini and a poster of Gone With the Wind. It was intended as a snapshot of 20th Century life for future humans, not aliens, but like an intergalactic message, may only give a limited picture to future generations. When, in 61,000 years, the Oglethorpe time capsule is opened, would Gone With The Wind have stood the test of time?

    Oglethorpe Atlanta
    Oglethorpe Atlanta Crypt of Civilization interior

    two
    This message was taken into the stars by Pioneer – but we have no idea if aliens would be able to understand it (Nasa)

    Kultys argues that all these factors should be taken into account when we calculate the likelihood of communicating with intelligent life. The astronomer Frank Drake’s famous equation de allows anyone to calculate how many alien species are, based on likely values of seven different factors. At a UK Royal Society meeting in 2010 Drake estimated there are roughly 10,000 detectable civilisations in the galaxy. Yet Kultys points out that we should also factor in how many aliens are using the same channel of communications as us, are as willing to contact us as we are them, whose language we hope to learn, and who are physically similar to us.

    Another barrier we might consider is the long distance nature of trans-cosmos communication. It means that many years ‒ even a thousand ‒ could pass between sending a message and receiving a reply. Paterson sees romance in that. “Our hope for communication with another intelligent civilisation has a melancholic aspect to it. We are on an island in a vast, dark space. Imagine if communication… became like an exchange of perfumed love letters with the quiet agony of expectation… Will we meet? Will we be as the other imagined? Will the other be able to understand us?”

    Ready for an answer?

    Anthropologist John Traphagan of the University of Texas in Austin has been asking the same question, though his view is more cautious. “When it comes to ET, you’ll get a signal of some kind; not much information and very long periods between ‘Hi, how are you?’ and whatever comes back. We may just shrug our shoulders and say ‘This is boring’, and soon forget about it or, if the time lag wasn’t too long, we might use the minimal information we get from our slow-speed conversation to invent what we think they’re like and invent a kind concept of what they’re after.”

    scene
    The aliens in Independence Day (1996) did not come in peace (20th Century Fox)

    While we have been sending out messages, we have not been preparing the planet for what happens when we get an interstellar return call. First contact could cause global panic. We might assume those answering are bent on galactic domination or, perhaps less likely, that they are peaceful when in fact they’re nasty.

    Consider how easy it is to mess up human-to-human communications; I got Traphagan’s first name wrong when I e-mailed him for this article. An apology within minutes cleared up the confusion, yet if he had been an alien anthropologist on some distant planet it would have taken much longer to fix. He later confessed: “I could have thought this is a snooty English journalist and our conversation might never have happened.”

    Even if Earth’s interstellar messaging committees weeded out the typos, cultural gaffes are always a possibility. These can only be avoided by understanding the alien’s culture – something that’s not easy to do, especially when you’ve never met those you’re communicating with.

    Rosy picture

    So, what is the best way to communicate? This is still up for grabs – perhaps it’s via smell, or some other technique we haven’t discovered yet. Clearly, creating a message that is timeless, free of cultural bias and universally comprehensible would be no mean feat.

    But for starters, being honest about who we are is important if we want to have an extra-terrestrial dialogue lasting centuries, says Douglas Vakoch, director of interstellar message composition at Seti. (Otherwise, intelligent civilisations who’ve decoded our radio and TV signals might smell a rat.)

    disc
    The golden discs aboard the Voyager spacecraft require aliens to understand how to play a record (NASA)

    “Let’s not try to hide our shortcomings,” says Vakoch. “The message we should send to another world is straightforward: We are a young civilisation, in the throes of our technological adolescence. We’re facing a lot of problems here on Earth, and we’re not even sure that we’ll be around as a species when their reply comes in. But in spite of all of these challenges, we humans also have hope – especially hope in ourselves.”

    Voyager’s Golden Record paints a rosy picture of humanity. It doesn’t mention our wars or famines, Earth’s pollution or nuclear explosions. According to Traphagan, any aliens who came to Earth on the basis of that would say: “Hey, I thought this was a really nice place but they’ve polluted the crap out of it.”

    Yet ultimately what matters, says Paterson, is that they stop and consider the beings who sent them a message; the people who wanted to say: “Here are some important things. Here’s our DNA, here is some maths and universal physics. And here is our longing and desire to say “I’m like you, but I’m different.”

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 2:57 pm on August 19, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , SETI,   

    From The New York Times: “The Intelligent-Life Lottery” 

    New York Times

    The New York Times

    AUG. 18, 2014
    George Johnson

    Almost 20 years ago, in the pages of an obscure publication called Bioastronomy News, two giants in the world of science argued over whether SETI — the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence — had a chance of succeeding. Carl Sagan, as eloquent as ever, gave his standard answer. With billions of stars in our galaxy, there must be other civilizations capable of transmitting electromagnetic waves. By scouring the sky with radio telescopes, we just might intercept a signal.

    But Sagan’s opponent, the great evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr, thought the chances were close to zero. Against Sagan’s stellar billions, he posed his own astronomical numbers: Of the billions of species that have lived and died since life began, only one — Homo sapiens — had developed a science, a technology, and the curiosity to explore the stars. And that took about 3.5 billion years of evolution. High intelligence, Mayr concluded, must be extremely rare, here or anywhere. Earth’s most abundant life form is unicellular slime.

    Since the debate with Sagan, more than 1,700 planets have been discovered beyond the solar system — 700 just this year. Astronomers recently estimated that one of every five sunlike stars in the Milky Way might be orbited by a world capable of supporting some kind of life.

    That is about 40 billion potential habitats. But Mayr, who died in 2005 at the age of 100, probably wouldn’t have been impressed. By his reckoning, the odds would still be very low for anything much beyond slime worlds. No evidence has yet emerged to prove him wrong.

    Maybe we’re just not looking hard enough. Since SETI began in the early 1960s, it has struggled for the money it takes to monitor even a fraction of the sky. In an online essay for The Conversation last week, Seth Shostak, the senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, lamented how little has been allocated for the quest — just a fraction of NASA’s budget.

    “If you don’t ante up,” he wrote, “you will never win the jackpot. And that is a question of will.”

    Three years ago, SETI’s Allen Telescope Array in Northern California ran out of money and was closed for a while. Earlier this month, it was threatened by wildfire — another reminder of the precariousness of the search.

    Allen Telescope Array
    Allen Telescope Array

    It has been more than 3.5 billion years since the first simple cells arose, and it took another billion years or so for some of them to evolve and join symbiotically into primitive multicellular organisms. These biochemical hives, through random mutations and the blind explorations of evolution, eventually led to creatures with the ability to remember, to anticipate and — at least in the case of humans — to wonder what it is all about.

    Every step was a matter of happenstance, like the arbitrary combination of numbers — 3, 12, 31, 34, 51 and 24 — that qualified a Powerball winner for a $90 million prize this month. Some unknowing soul happened to enter a convenience store in Rifle, Colo., and — maybe with change from buying gasoline or a microwaved burrito — purchase a ticket just as the machine was about to spit out those particular numbers.

    According to the Powerball website, the chance of winning the grand prize is about one in 175 million. The emergence of humanlike intelligence, as Mayr saw it, was about as likely as if a Powerball winner kept buying tickets and — round after round — hit a bigger jackpot each time. One unlikelihood is piled on another, yielding a vanishingly rare event.

    In one of my favorite books, “Wonderful Life,” Stephen Jay Gould celebrated what he saw as the unlikelihood of our existence. Going further than Mayr, he ventured that if a slithering creature called Pikaia gracilens had not survived the Cambrian extinction, about half a billion years ago, the entire phylum called Chordata, which includes us vertebrates, might never have existed.

    Gould took his title from the Frank Capra movie in which George Bailey gets to see what the world might have been like without him — idyllic Bedford Falls is replaced by a bleak, Dickensian Pottersville.

    For Gould, the fact that any of our ancestral species might easily have been nipped in the bud should fill us “with a new kind of amazement” and “a frisson for the improbability of the event” — a fellow agnostic’s version of an epiphany.

    “We came this close (put your thumb about a millimeter away from your index finger), thousands and thousands of times, to erasure by the veering of history down another sensible channel,” he wrote. “Replay the tape a million times,” he proposed, “and I doubt that anything like Homo sapiens would ever evolve again. It is, indeed, a wonderful life.”

    Other biologists have disputed Gould’s conclusion. In the course of evolution, eyes and multicellularity arose independently a number of times. So why not vertebrae, spinal cords and brains? The more bags of tricks an organism has at its disposal, the greater its survival power may be. A biological arms race ensues, with complexity ratcheted ever higher.

    But those occasions are rare. Most organisms, as Daniel Dennett put it in “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,” seem to have “hit upon a relatively simple solution to life’s problems at the outset and, having nailed it a billion years ago, have had nothing much to do in the way of design work ever since.” Our appreciation of complexity, he wrote, “may well be just an aesthetic preference.”

    In Five Billion Years of Solitude, by Lee Billings, published last year, the author visited Frank Drake, one of the SETI pioneers.

    “Right now, there could well be messages from the stars flying right through this room,” Dr. Drake told him. “Through you and me. And if we had the right receiver set up properly, we could detect them. I still get chills thinking about it.”

    He knew the odds of tuning in — at just the right frequency at the right place and time — were slim. But that just meant we needed to expand the search.

    “We’ve been playing the lottery only using a few tickets,” he said.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 2:49 pm on August 13, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , SETI, , ,   

    From SPACE.com: “Hairspray Chemical Could Aid Search for Alien Life” 

    space-dot-com logo

    SPACE.com

    August 13, 2014
    Charles Q. Choi

    Chemicals once found in hairspray may serve as signs of alien life on faraway worlds, researchers say.

    These compounds may reveal that extraterrestrials have disastrously altered their planets, scientists added.

    To detect biomarkers, or signs of life, on distant worlds, scientists have often focused on molecules such as oxygen, which theoretically disappears quickly from atmospheres unless life is present to provide a constant supply of the gas. By looking at light passing through atmospheres of alien worlds, past studies have suggested future instruments such as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope could detect telltale traces of oxygen.

    But the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has mostly concentrated on “technosignatures,” such as radio and other electromagnetic signals that alien civilizations might give off. Now researchers suggest that searches for atmospheric biomarkers could also look for industrial pollutants as potential signs of intelligent aliens.

    SETI ATA
    SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array

    SETI@home screensaver
    SETI@home, citizen science, Public Distributed Computing running on BOINC software

    Astronomers at Harvard University focused on tiny, superdense stars known as white dwarfs. More than 90 percent of all stars in the Milky Way, including our own sun, will one day end up as white dwarfs, which are made up of the dim, fading cores of stars.

    sirius
    Image of Sirius A and Sirius B taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Sirius B, which is a white dwarf, can be seen as a faint pinprick of light to the lower left of the much brighter Sirius A.

    Though white dwarfs are quite cold for stars, they would still be warm enough to possess so-called habitable zones — orbits where liquid water can exist on the surfaces of circling planets. These zones are considered potential habitats for life, as there is life virtually everywhere there is liquid water on Earth.

    The scientists examined how Earth-size planets in the habitable zones of white dwarfs might look if they possessed industrial pollutants in their atmosphere. They focused on chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which are entirely artificial compounds, with no known natural process capable of creating them in atmospheres.

    CFCs are nontoxic chemicals that were once used in hairspray and air conditioners, among many other products, before researchers discovered they were causing a hole in Earth’s ozone layer, which protects the planet from dangerous ultraviolet radiation.

    “Very hairy extraterrestrials may be a little easier to detect,” joked lead study author Henry Lin, a physicist at Harvard.

    CFCs are strong greenhouse gases, meaning they are very effective at absorbing heat. This means that if CFCs are in the atmosphere of a distant Earth-size planet, they could alter a white dwarf’s light when that world passes in front of that star — enough for the $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is due to launch in 2018, to detect them.

    In addition, the researchers noted that CFCs are long-lived molecules, capable of lasting up to about 100,000 years in atmospheres. This means they could even serve as markers of long-dead alien civilizations. [10 Alien Encounters Debunked]

    The investigators simulated the amount of time it would take JWST to detect the fluorocarbon CF4 and the chlorofluorocarbon CCl3F in the atmosphere of an Earth-size planet in the habitable zone of a white dwarf. They modeled concentrations of these gases 100 times greater than the highs currently seen on Earth.

    The scientists found it would take JWST three days of looking at such a white dwarf to detect signs of CF4, and only a day and a half for CCl3F.

    NASA Webb Telescope
    NASA/Webb

    “The most exciting aspect of the results is that within the next decade we might be able to search for excessive industrial pollution in the atmospheres of Earth-like planets,” study co-author Abraham Loeb, a theoretical astrophysicist and chair of Harvard’s astronomy department, told Space.com.

    Ironically, “aliens are often referred to as green little creatures, but ‘green’ also means ‘environmentally friendly,’” Loeb said. “Detectable CFC-rich civilizations would not be ‘green.’”

    The scientists did caution that it would take much longer to detect these industrial pollutants than it would biomarkers such as oxygen, which JWST could find after about three hours of looking at such a planet. Astronomers should only attempt to discover technosignatures such as CFCs if initial searches for fundamental biomarkers like oxygen were successful, the research team suggested.

    The astronomers cautioned it would be 100 times more difficult to detect industrial pollutants on planets orbiting yellow dwarf stars like the sun, making such searches beyond the capabilities of JWST. It would also take an unrealistically long time to detect CFC levels on alien planets that match those currently found on Earth, Loeb said.

    One potentially sobering future discovery might be of alien worlds that possess long-lived industrial pollutants such as CFCs but no longer have any short-lived biomarkers such as oxygen.

    “If we find graveyards of other civilizations, most rational people would likely get engaged in protecting the Earth from a similar catastrophe,” Loeb said.

    “We call industrial pollution a biomarker for intelligent life, but perhaps a civilization much more advanced than us with their own exoplanet program will classify industrial pollution as a biomarker for unintelligent life,” Lin said

    However, if astronomers discover a world heavy with CFCs that exists outside the habitable zone of its star, that could mean an extraterrestrial civilization may have intentionally “terraformed” that planet, making it livably warmer “by polluting it with greenhouse gases,” Loeb said. Scientists have previously suggested terraforming Mars by warming and thickening the Red Planet’s atmosphere so that humans can roam its surface without having to wear spacesuits.

    The scientists detailed their findings in a paper submitted to the Astrophysical Journal.

    See the full article here.

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