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  • richardmitnick 8:42 am on March 28, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From SETI’s Seth Shostak at NYT: “Messaging the Stars” 

    New York Times

    The New York Times

    MARCH 27, 2015

    SETI Seth Shostak
    Seth Shostak

    SETI Institute


    For more than a half-century, a small group of astronomers has sought intelligent company among the stars. They’ve done so by turning large radio antennas skyward, hoping to eavesdrop on signals from an advanced society. It’s a program known as SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

    But now some researchers propose that we should do more than simply don headphones and await E.T.’s call: We should make serious efforts to encourage a response from putative aliens by deliberately transmitting our own messages. It’s a simple idea, akin to tossing a bottle into the cosmic ocean. But recent arguments for what’s termed active SETI have loosed a storm of controversy, one that has even washed into the halls of academe.

    Why is this? Why has the sending of dispatches to worlds many trillions of miles distant suddenly become a hot-button issue? The simple answer is that there’s now a perception that advertising our existence could be a mortal threat to the planet.

    The reasoning is this: While no one has yet offered decisive proof for life beyond Earth, in the past two years astronomers have learned that tens of billions of habitable planets suffuse our galaxy. Consequently, to believe that only Earth has spawned intelligence is to insist that our world is the site of a miracle. That point of view rarely appeals to scientists.

    The aliens could very well be out there. And that realization has spurred a call by some for broadcasts intended to elicit a communication from at least the nearest other star systems. But we know nothing of the aliens’ possible motives or behavior. Therefore, it’s conceivable that betraying our existence might prompt aggressive action from space.

    Broadcasting is likened to “shouting in the jungle” — not a good idea when you don’t know what’s out there. The British physicist Stephen Hawking alluded to this danger by noting that on Earth, when less advanced societies drew the attention of those more advanced, the consequences for the former were seldom agreeable.

    It’s a worry we never used to have. Victorian-era scientists toyed with plans to use lanterns and burning pools of oil to contact postulated Martians. In the 1970s, NASA bolted greeting cards onto spacecraft that will leave our solar system and wander the vast reaches between the stars. The Pioneer and Voyager probes carry plaques and records with information about what humans look like and where Earth is, as well as a small sampling of our culture.

    NASA Pioneer 10
    NASA/Pioneer 10

    NASA Voyager 1
    NASA/Voyager 1

    Those messages move at the speed of rockets. But in 1974, a three-minute encoded pictogram was transmitted using the large radio antenna at Arecibo, Puerto Rico.

    Arecibo Radio Observatory

    It moves at the speed of light, 20,000 times faster. More recent radio transmissions include a Beatles song beamed by NASA to the North Star, a Doritos advertisement launched to a planetary system in the Big Dipper, and a series of broadcasts sent to nearby stars using an antenna in Crimea.

    When most people believed that aliens were no more than easy black hats for Hollywood, the idiosyncratic nature of these messages could be easily dismissed. But if cosmic company is a legitimate possibility, shouldn’t we offer up something more edifying than pop music and snack food? A deliberate transmission should represent all of humanity — not short-circuit the important question of who will speak for Earth.

    Consequently, recent conferences on the merits of active SETI have sought the advice of social scientists. Among their worries is whether to be up front about humanity’s seamy side: Should we tell the extraterrestrials about war and injustice?

    Personally, I think this concern is overwrought. Any society that can pick up our radio messages will be at a level of development at least centuries beyond our own. They would be no more incensed by our bad behavior than historians who learned that Babylonians attacked one another with spears. It seems naïve to imagine that, by shielding aliens from the less flattering aspects of humanity, we would somehow lessen any incentive to do us harm. If there’s a danger, mincing words is unlikely to eliminate it.

    A better approach is to note that the nearest intelligent extraterrestrials are likely to be at least dozens of light-years away. Even assuming that active SETI provokes a reply, it won’t be breezy conversation. Simple back-and-forth exchanges would take decades. This suggests that we should abandon the “greeting card” format of previous signaling schemes, and offer the aliens Big Data.

    For example, we could transmit the contents of the Internet. Such a large corpus — with its text, pictures, videos and sounds — would allow clever extraterrestrials to decipher much about our society, and even formulate questions that could be answered with the material in hand. Sending the web on its way would take months if a radio transmitter were used. A powerful laser, conveying bits much like an optical fiber, could launch these data in a few days.

    Sending messages — even big ones — is technically feasible. However, there’s still the highly controversial matter of whether to broadcast at all. Who decides? One could simply let the public weigh in, but doing so wouldn’t address the security issue. Even if a majority is comfortable with a transmission, how does that mitigate the possible danger?

    The inability to gauge this peril prompts some critics to argue that, given the possibly existential threat posed by active SETI, we should choose the side of caution. We should simply forbid powerful transmissions to the skies. Indeed, a small consortium of academics in California has drafted a petition urging this.

    It’s a wary approach. It’s also poor insurance. Any extraterrestrials with technology advanced enough to threaten us will surely have antennas larger than our own, instruments that can pick up the television and radio signals broadcast willy-nilly since World War II. We are already shouting into the jungle, albeit with less volume than a deliberate signal. But the dangerous creatures may have good hearing.

    Additionally, if we forbid high-powered transmitters aimed at the sky, we shut out such obvious future technologies as better radars for aviation and tracking dangerous asteroids. Do we really want to hamstring our descendants this way?

    A decision to engage in active SETI has not been made. The benefit — learning our place in the cosmos — is only hypothetical, and so is the danger. But I, for one, would hesitate to let a paranoia based on nothing more than conjecture shackle the activities of our children and our children’s children. The universe beckons, and we can do better than to declare that future generations should endlessly tremble at the sight of the stars.

    Seth Shostak is the director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute, and a host of the radio program Big Picture Science.

    See the full article here.

    SETI Institute promoted the Allen Telescope Array for signal collection.

    Allen Telescope Array

    The Arecibo Radio Telescope is the prime source for data for SET@home a Citizen Science project that runs on personal computers with BOINC software from UC Berkeley.

    SETI@home screensaver

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  • richardmitnick 12:57 pm on February 14, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From New Scientist: “The search for ET: how close are we?” 


    New Scientist

    23 December 2014
    Graham Lawton

    In 1950, Nobel prizewinning physicist Enrico Fermi posed his famous paradox: if extraterrestrial intelligence exists, why haven’t we found it?

    Why indeed? It is not as if we haven’t been trying. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has been going on for over half a century. It has mostly drawn a blank. But once in a while there is a flurry of excitement. Here are some of the highlights.

    First contact

    On 8 April 1960, Cornell University astronomer Frank Drake pointed a 26-metre radio telescope at two nearby stars. The telescope – based at the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in West Virginia – was tuned to a frequency of 1420 megahertz, the wavelength of radiation naturally emitted by hydrogen in space. Thus began Project Ozma, the first experiment explicitly designed to look for aliens.

    Drake was hoping to detect radio waves sent by an extraterrestrial civilisation. He chose the emission frequency of hydrogen because it is the most abundant element in the universe, and hence an obvious signal for any intelligent civilisation trying to get itself noticed by another.

    Although the stars – Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani – were considered promising candidates, being nearby and sun-like, Project Ozma detected nothing in over 150 hours of observation.

    In 1972, astronomers at NRAO had a second go, this time using a bigger telescope that collected as much data in a minute as the older one could in 19 years. They sporadically monitored more than 650 stars for four years, again searching for the hydrogen signal – and again finding nothing. But the Ozma projects established SETI as a credible discipline and set the scene for many more attempts.

    The Wow! signal

    One of the projects inspired by Ozma was the “Big Ear” programme at Ohio State University, which ran from 1973 to 1995. On 15 August 1977, its 79-metre dish picked up a powerful burst of radio waves from the general direction of Sagittarius.

    WOW signal

    Big Ear

    The burst lasted 72 seconds and was very close to the emission frequency of hydrogen – considered a likely candidate for alien messages. When astronomer Jerry Ehman saw the signal recorded on a computer printout, he circled it in red pen and scrawled “Wow!” on the sheet of paper.

    The set-up of the telescope made it hard to work out exactly where the burst came from, but the general patch of sky was identified.

    The “Wow!” signal remains the most promising putative alien signal ever detected by SETI. But despite extensive searches of the same patch of sky it has never been seen since.

    Radio ga-ga

    In 2007, astronomers at West Virginia University discovered a previously unknown celestial phenomenon: a super-intense, very brief burst of radio waves apparently originating outside our galaxy.

    The Fast Radio Burst lasted for just 15 milliseconds but released more energy than the sun emits in about a month. Calculations suggested that it came from an object no more than 1500 kilometres across.

    At the time there was no obvious explanation for the FRB. Astronomers speculated that it came from a single cataclysmic event, such as the final collapse of a dying black hole or the merger of two neutron stars.

    A handful of other FRBs have since been detected but there is still no agreed explanation.

    Inevitably, the gap has been filled by speculation that FRBs are messages from aliens. Earlier this year, Nigel Watson, author of the UFO Investigations Manual, told the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper that FRBs could be evidence of a “vast alien communication network”. Or, he said, it could just be an as-yet-unknown astronomical phenomenon.

    Messages closer to home

    In the absence of a smoking gun from the sky, some alien hunters have looked for signs on our doorstep. For a while, crop circles – strange geometric patterns that began to appear in arable fields in southern England in the 1970s – were claimed by many people to be messages from ET. They are now known to be the work of artists and pranksters.

    Around a decade ago a slightly more serious idea began to circulate: perhaps there are alien messages in our DNA. As Paul Davies, author of The Eerie Silence: Renewing our search for alien intelligence, wrote in New Scientist in 2004: “Might ET have inserted a message into the genomes of terrestrial organisms, perhaps by delivering carefully crafted viruses in tiny space probes to infect host cells with message-laden DNA?”

    A decade on, we have no evidence whatsoever that ET did this. In the past couple of years the idea has been revived in a slightly different form: a pair of Kazakh researchers have proposed that the genetic code would be a better place to plant a signal, and even claim to have found what they call “the Wow! signal of the genetic code”.

    Comin’ atcha

    Our failure to detect alien messages has not deterred us from sending some of our own. As soon as humans learned to communicate using radio waves we began unwittingly broadcasting to the stars: the earliest radio shows are now about 100 light years away and counting.

    The first deliberate attempt to contact ET was in 1972, with the launch of NASA’s Pioneer 10 space probe.

    NASA Pioneer 10
    Pioneer 10

    This carried a gold-plated aluminium plaque bearing pictures of a male and a female nude and graphical information about the origin of the craft, in the (extremely unlikely) event of it being intercepted by aliens. Pioneer 10 is currently on the fringes of the solar system on course for a star 68 light years away. Pioneer 11, launched in 1973, also carries a plaque.

    NASA Pioneer 11
    Pioneer 11

    A more detailed message was loaded onto the Voyager 1 and 2 probes, launched in 1977.

    NASA Voyager 1
    Voyager 1

    NASA Voyager 2
    Voyager 2

    Both carry a gold-plated copper disc encoding over 150 images and sounds from Earth, greetings in 55 languages, and brief excerpts of music. (In 2010, Voyager 2 started sending some unusual signals back to Earth, prompting speculation that it had been hijacked by aliens. It turned out to be a computer glitch.)

    The chances of any of these physical messages ever being picked up is remote in the extreme, but they are not our only attempts at contact. At the dedication of Puerto Rico’s Arecibo radio telescope in November 1974, a digital message was beamed towards the star cluster Messier 13 (M13) 25,000 light years away.

    Arecibo Observatory
    Arecibo radio telescope

    The message – encoded in microwaves – included the numbers 1 to 10, various graphical representations of DNA and its constituent atoms, and drawings of a human figure, the planets of our solar system and a radio telescope. The message is currently just over 40 light years from Earth. It has yet to receive a reply.

    Since then, numerous other messages have been broadcast to the stars, including a giant Doritos advert beamed from the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard to a solar system 42 light years away. Such messages are controversial, however: some scientists believe we should keep our heads down so as not to alert malicious aliens to our feeble presence.

    See the full article here.

    There are two major efforts for contact: SETI Institute which operates the Allen Telescope Array.

    Allen Telescope Array


    SETI@home, a project of “Radio SETI” in Citizen Science with processing of data running on home computers on BOINC software from UC Berkeley. SET@home gets its raw data from Arecibo radio telescope.

    SETI@home screensaver

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  • richardmitnick 9:00 am on February 13, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From AAAS: “Researchers call for interstellar messages to alien civilizations” 



    12 February 2015
    No Writer Credit

    Radio Message to ET

    Is it time to send deliberate messages to the stars, in the hopes of reaching alien civilizations? Advocates in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) say that moment is long overdue. But other researchers want to take a more cautious approach and seek an international consensus before outing Earth to the rest of the universe. Scientists in both camps faced off today at a debate held at a meeting of AAAS (publisher of ScienceInsider) here.

    Douglas Vakoch, the director of interstellar message composition at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, doesn’t dismiss the need to consider ethical or political issues, but says that it will be tough to achieve a consensus. “It’s ‘either-or’ thinking,” he says. “Either we have international discussion, or we transmit. We should be doing both.” But David Brin, an astrophysicist and science fiction author here, says that Earth’s relative radio quietude should not be changed so radically, so quickly. “If you’re going to transform one of the major characteristics … of our planet, we’ve learned that small groups shouldn’t do that peremptorily.”

    Since the SETI movement began in the 1960s, it has mostly involved using radio telescopes to listen to bands in the electromagnetic spectrum for something out of the ordinary.

    Allen Telescope Array
    Allen Telescope Array

    In contrast, instances of active SETI, also called Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or METI—beaming deliberate messages to the heavens—have been much rarer. In 1974, a radio message was broadcast from the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico toward a cluster of stars 25,000 light-years away.

    Arecibo Observatory
    Arecibo Observatory

    Brin says there have been other “stunts.” In 2008, for instance, the tortilla chip company Doritos sent an advertisement from a radar station in Norway to a potentially habitable star system 42 light-years away.

    Advocates for active SETI say that keen-eared aliens could already pick up some of Earth’s ambient transmissions. Current radio and TV transmissions could be heard only a few light-years away with the current radio telescope technology on Earth, but Vakoch says that an advanced civilization would have far more developed techniques for listening. Brin says this is the “barn door excuse” and adds that many active SETI techniques would send out focused, powerful messages that would travel many times farther than the day-to-day transmissions from Earth. He views active SETI messages as cosmic pollution, rather than exploration. Although he’s not worried about alien invasions, he thinks the assumption of benevolence—or even the existence of aliens—is overstated.

    Vakoch says the SETI Institute has no imminent plans to start transmitting messages, but he finds that other organizations are not taking the lead in holding international discussions on the issue. He says that one efficient way of transmitting messages would be by adding messages in the regular course of doing planetary science. When the Arecibo radar is used to study asteroids, for instance, messages could be sent to stars near the line of sight of the asteroid without much additional effort. What would these messages include? Seth Shostak, an astronomer at the SETI Institute, wants to beam the entire Internet. Vakoch would prefer something humble that conveys the challenges that humanity faces.

    Brin doesn’t see resolution to the passionate debate anytime soon. “It’s an area where opinion rules, and everyone has a fierce opinion.”

    See the full article here.

    The American Association for the Advancement of Science is an international non-profit organization dedicated to advancing science for the benefit of all people.

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  • richardmitnick 2:13 pm on January 7, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From SETI: “No Signals from Newest Kepler Planet” 

    SETI Institute

    Jan 7, 2015

    SETI Seth Shostak
    By Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer and Director of SETI Research

    A newly discovered planet has been observed with the Allen Telescope Array in a search for radio signals that would betray technically sophisticated inhabitants, but no transmissions have been detected.

    Allen Telescope Array at Hat Creek Observatory

    Allen Telescope Array
    Allen Telescope Array

    The planet is known as Kepler 116454b, and orbits an orange dwarf star in the constellation Pisces. It is 180 light-years away.

    Jon Richards, of the SETI Institute’s Center for SETI Research, used the Allen Telescope Array to look for signals over the frequency range of 1000 – 2250 MHz.

    In May, 2013 the Kepler space telescope suffered a mechanical failure that ended its ability to accurately aim at the sky. But the telescope has resumed its search for planets in a new mode, using the pressure of sunlight to help it steady its gaze on the sky. Kepler 116454b is the first planet to be found by the reincarnated telescope, and its discovery was announced just before Christmas.

    NASA Kepler Telescope

    The planet orbits its home star in 9 days in an orbit three times smaller than Mercury’s orbit around the Sun. Consequently, temperatures on this world – which is a so-called “super Earth” and larger than Earth but smaller than Neptune – are expected to be too hot for life as we know it.

    Two renderings of possible super-Earths, with Earth itself to the right for comparison

    Nonetheless, and as centuries of experience have shown, observation sometimes trumps expectation, and that is why new exoplanets – whether they seem promising for life or not – are routinely observed by the SETI Institute with the Allen Telescope Array.

    The observations of Kepler 116454b will continue at higher frequencies, Richards notes.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 1:35 pm on December 23, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From SPACE.com: “Would Finding Alien Life Change Religious Philosophies?” 

    space-dot-com logo


    October 10, 2014
    Megan Gannon

    The discovery of extraterrestrial beings — be they slimy microbes or little green men — would dramatically change the way we humans view our place in the universe. But would it shatter religion? Well, that depends on what you believe.

    In his new book Religions and Extraterrestrial Life (Springer 2014), David Weintraub, an astronomer at Vanderbilt University, takes a close look at how different faiths would handle the revelation that we’re not alone. Some of his findings might surprise you.

    Public polls have shown that a large share of the population believes aliens are out there. In one survey released last year by the company Survata, 37 percent of the 5,886 Americans who were polled said they believed in the existence of extraterrestrial life, while 21 percent said they didn’t believe and 42 percent were unsure. Responses varied by religion: 55 percent of atheists said they believed in extraterrestrials, as did 44 percent of Muslims, 37 percent of Jews, 36 percent of Hindus and 32 percent of Christians.

    The nonprofit Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute’s Allen Telescope Array in California has been listening for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations. So far, no aliens have tried to get in touch.
    Credit: SETI Institute

    Weintraub found that some religions are more accommodating to the idea of E.T. than others. Those with an Earth-centric spiritual point of view are the most likely to be made uncomfortable by questions about the discovery of aliens. Certain evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, for example, are of the opinion that God’s sole intent was to create people here on Earth. Some believe that if God created life anywhere else, it would say that in Genesis, Weintraub said.

    But some Christians who interpret the Bible quite literally might actually have an easier time incorporating the existence of aliens into their spiritual cosmology. Many Seventh-day Adventists, for example, are creationists who believe the Earth was literally created by God in six days some 6,000 years ago and that humans descended — and inherited original sin — from Adam and Eve. In that line of thinking, life could exist on other planets, but beings that didn’t descend from Adam and Eve on Earth wouldn’t be inherently sinful, and effectively, they wouldn’t need Christianity to be saved, Weintraub told Live Science.

    Seventh-day Adventism’s flexibility with regard to aliens might be a product of the time in which the religion was founded (the 19th century). During the 1700s and 1800s, there was a strong popular belief in extraterrestrial life, Weintraub said. The telescope (a relatively recent invention) finally allowed astronomers to peek at other planets and moons in our solar system, but scientists didn’t yet fully understand that these celestial bodies were barren. And perhaps it’s no coincidence that the religions that began at that time — Mormonism, Seventh-day Adventism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Baha’i Faith — all have a strong belief in extraterrestrial life, Weintraub said.

    In contrast, the notion of extraterrestrial life was for the most part irrelevant to religions that began thousands of years ago.

    “Ideas about extraterrestrial life — if they’re part of the sacred writings — they’re buried a little bit deeper,” Weintraub told Live Science. “They’re not obvious. They’re layered below the top. In Jewish scripture, there’s pretty much nothing there. You really have to over-interpret to find anything that you can marginally say might have anything to do with extraterrestrial life.”

    Of course, aliens have figured into the beliefs of small cults and fringe religious groups. In a famous example, 39 members of the so-called Heaven’s Gate group committed suicide believing they would leave their earthly bodies and reach an alien spacecraft trailing the comet Hale-Bopp in 1997. Weintraub didn’t look at these groups (nor did he analyze Scientology), but he said it’s likely that future religions would spring up and seize on the discovery of extraterrestrial life.

    “There are a lot of so-called UFO religions, and I’m sure that if we discovered that there really was life beyond Earth, there would be lots more of these kinds of things,” Weintraub said. “There undoubtedly would be people who would find this as an opportunity or an excuse to call attention to themselves for whatever reason and there would be new religions.” [UFO Quiz: What’s Really Out There]

    With advances in exoplanet research and astrobiology, scientists could realistically be on the cusp of finding evidence for life far away from Earth — perhaps not intelligent life, but life, nonetheless. That’s why Weintraub thinks the rest of us should be prepared for the spiritual questions that will follow — and that astronomers should participate in that conversation, since the question “Is there life in the universe?” now belongs to the domain of science, not just philosophy.

    “It almost doesn’t matter what kind of life it is,” Weintraub told Live Science “If there’s any kind of life out there it simply means we’re not alone. And knowing we’re not alone, I think, has a lot of meaning.”

    It will likely be millions of years before humans discover and are able to communicate with intelligent alien beings — if they’re out there, Weintraub said. But he thinks it’s worth extending the thought experiment to consider how we would treat aliens of different faiths. Would we repeat the mistakes of European missionaries who converted the “heathens” of the New World to Christianity? Or would we adopt a policy that looks more like the no-interference “prime directive” of the “Star Trek” universe? Would sentient aliens have their own religions? Would they try to preach to us?

    “Once you think about this enough, it’s worth recognizing that if it’s OK for somebody in a different part of the universe to have a different religion, maybe it’s OK for somebody else in a different part of the Earth to have a different religion,” Weintrub said. “Maybe we could figure something out down here that could make us get along a little better.”

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 6:13 am on December 21, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From Seth Shostak at SETI: “Mars Methane: Life at Last?” 

    SETI Institute

    Dec 20, 2014

    SETI Seth Shostak
    Dr. Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer and Director of SETI Research


    Mars is a tease.

    It seems that discoveries hinting at life on the Red Planet are as recurrent as Kansas hay fever. Open up the science section of any periodical, and you’ll invariably trip across new research encouraging us to believe that somewhere, skulking in the vast, dry landscapes of that desolate world, are small, wiggling creatures — fellow inhabitants of the solar system.

    Such enticing tidbits are nothing new. Their modern incarnation dates back to the early 1900s, when astronomer Percival Lowell promoted the existence of Martians who had trussed their planet with irrigation canals. This idea was well received by the public, but the astronomical community was at first skeptical, and eventually dismissive. By the First World War, these sluice-happy Martians were vaporware.

    As the century ground on, additional see-saw arguments for martian life made regular appearances. In the 1970s, the Viking Landers, with the best science instrumentation NASA could launch, went looking for life in the martian dirt. The verdict was that they didn’t find any. But one member of the Viking biology team doesn’t agree. Was it a hit or a whiff? We still can’t say for sure.

    NASA Viking

    Then in 1996, claims of fossilized microbes in a meteorite known to come from Mars became the biggest science news story of the year. But were the seductive squiggles seen under the microscope really dead Red Planet microbes, or were they just inanimate features that mimicked croaked critters? Again, the jury has not returned to the court room.

    This litany of teases continues today with the saga of martian methane.

    Methane is best known on Earth as natural gas, and there’s a good chance it’s powering the device you’re using to read this. It’s the simplest of the organic molecules. “Organic,” by the way, doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily the product of biology, or that it was grown on a farm that shuns pesticides. It just means that the molecule incorporates carbon as one of its constituent elements. Since carbon has four covalent bonds, the simplest molecule you can make with this stuff is by attaching a hydrogen atom to each of these “chemical arms.” CH4 is the result, known to savvy 11th graders as methane.

    But in the context of extraterrestrial life, methane is important as a possible biomarker. It’s the exhaust gas of many forms of life on Earth — bacteria, most notably, but also slightly bulkier organisms such as cattle and pigs. If you detect methane in a planet’s atmosphere, you may have found pigs in space. Or more likely, microbes in space.

    In 2004, the Europeans launched the Mars Express orbiter, and did just that. They claimed that their spacecraft had spectroscopically sniffed clouds of methane wafting above the Red Planet. American astronomers, using ground-based telescopes, also thought they had sensed this gas. The claim was important, if true, because CH4 could be caused by underground, martian bacteria. If so, this would be the first detection of life beyond Earth.

    ESA Mars Express OrbiterESA Mars Express schematic
    ESA/Mars Express

    And even more, it would be living life. Not the dead microbes supposedly entombed in a meteorite, but metabolizing Martians that were still kicking. That’s because ultraviolet light from the Sun, untroubled by an ozone layer that Mars doesn’t have, would take apart any methane molecules in the atmosphere within 300 years or so. So if there’s methane around, it’s today’s methane (note to reader: for astronomers, 300 years ago is the same as “today”).

    Given this back story, you can imagine the considerable interest when NASA’s Curiosity rover bounced onto the sands of our little ruddy buddy in 2012, equipped with instruments that could also check for methane. The result, announced in September 2013, was that it couldn’t find any at a level under a part per billion, or roughly ten times lower than expected on the basis of the earlier measurements. You might guess that maybe Curiosity had the bad luck to land in a spot far from the madding, methane cloud. Sure, but scientists figure that — thanks to the circulation of its thin atmosphere — any gas spewed out in one spot would get spread around the entire planet within months. You should be able to detect it anywhere, if there’s enough of it.

    NASA Mars Curiosity Rover

    The 2013 negative result from Curiosity was, indeed, both curious and a downer. But this week, researchers attending a conference of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco heard of the detection of a sudden spike in methane. In a truly remarkable measurement by Curiosity, we find that the gas is back.

    That’s exciting news, but history cautions us not to party hearty just yet. Methane can be produced by geophysics as well as biology, when rocks and water interact chemically. Just because it smells like a duck, doesn’t mean it’s a duck.

    So what gives? No one’s sure yet; the obvious variability in the presence of methane suggests local sources, but the big question is whether the source is geophysical or biological.

    Nathalie Cabrol, a SETI Institute astrobiologist who is especially interested in the habitability of Mars, said, “The good news is that we now know sources of methane exist. This is something that we’ve measured.”

    Cabrol is cautious about concluding that these latest discoveries are even semi-solid evidence for biology, but there’s little doubt that such a scenario is possible.

    “There may not be an easy way to untangle whether the source of the gas is geophysical or biological,” Cabrol notes. “But if life evolved on Mars and survived eons of sudden and drastic climate changes, it might have evolved strategies analogous to dormant species on Earth. Bacteria can survive millions of years in terrestrial permafrost, awaiting the return of favorable conditions to start up their metabolism and multiply.”

    It might be life, or it might not be. But the good news is that we now have evidence of some sort of activity under the surface of Mars — phenomena subject to solid, repeatable measurement.

    Long everyone’s favorite place to search for extraterrestrial life, the Red Planet continues to taunt us a century after Percival Lowell assured us that it was both inhabited and cultivated. At least the first is still possible.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 2:42 pm on December 9, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From SETI: “Answers Blowing in the Titan Wind” 

    SETI Institute

    Monday, December 08 2014
    Devon Burr
    University of Tennessee, Knoxville
    E-mail: dburr1@utk.edu
    Tel: +1 865-974-6010

    John Marshall
    SETI Institute
    E-mail: jmarshall@seti.org
    Tel: +1 650-325-2239

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

    Using a specially engineered wind tunnel, scientists have solved a puzzle about wind-blown dunes on a world that has some striking similarities to our own.

    Titan wind tunnel with important components labelled. The downwind observation side port through which the data of record are observed is the rightmost of the labelled observation ports.

    Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, has both a thick atmosphere and lakes filled with methane and ethane, making it the only solar system body other than our own with liquid on its surface. In its lower latitudes, the Cassini orbiter has found wind-driven dunes reminiscent of those seen in the deserts of Earth, but hundreds of feet high and hundreds of miles in length.

    This natural color composite was taken during the Cassini spacecraft’s April 16, 2005, flyby of Titan.
    NASA Cassini Spacecraft

    It is a combination of images taken through three filters that are sensitive to red, green and violet light. It shows approximately what Titan would look like to the human eye: a hazy orange globe surrounded by a tenuous, bluish haze. The orange color is due to the hydrocarbon particles which make up Titan’s atmospheric haze. This obscuring haze was particularly frustrating for planetary scientists following the NASA Voyager mission encounters in 1980-81. Fortunately, Cassini is able to pierce Titan’s veil at infrared wavelengths (see PIA06228). North on Titan is up and tilted 30 degrees to the right. The images to create this composite were taken with the Cassini spacecraft wide angle camera on April 16, 2005, at distances ranging from approximately 173,000 to 168,200 kilometers (107,500 to 104,500 miles) from Titan and from a Sun-Titan-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 56 degrees. Resolution in the images is approximately 10 kilometers per pixel. The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging team is based at the Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colo. For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission, visit http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov and the Cassini imaging team home page, http://ciclops.org.

    Dunes are also known to exist on Venus and Mars, but Titan is unlike those worlds. This raises two questions: (a) what are the dunes made of, and (b) why do they appear to be formed in a direction opposite to that of Titan’s prevailing east-to-west winds?

    “The dunes are not made of silicates – sand – as on Earth or Mars,” says Devon Burr, a planetary scientist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and formerly with the SETI Institute, and lead author of a paper in the journal Nature describing the new results. “They’re hydrocarbons, and may possibly include particles of water ice that are coated with these organic materials.”

    While the source of this otherworldly sand remains a mystery, more puzzling is the direction of the winds producing the dunes. This direction can be deduced from the streamline appearance of the dunes when they wrap around high points, such as craters or mountains. These streamlines indicate winds that are more west-to-east, contrary to the prevailing easterlies.

    This conflict of reasonable expectation and appearance was solved when the research team realized that the usual models for wind transport need to be adjusted for Titan’s thicker atmosphere and more viscous sand. The team found that the threshold – or minimum – wind speed needed to transport Titan’s hydrocarbon-rich sand was higher than typical for the prevailing winds on that moon.

    Burr and her coauthors made this discovery using a wind tunnel that had been constructed in the 1980s for modeling aeolian physics on Venus, notes co-author John Marshall of the SETI Institute. “It was a bear to operate, but Dr. Burr’s refurbishment of the facility as a Titan simulator has tamed the beast. It is now an important addition to NASA’s arsenal of planetary simulation facilities.”

    This greater threshold wind speed solved the mystery of the dunes’ alignment. The winds on Titan occasionally reverse direction and dramatically increase in intensity due to the changing position of the Sun in its sky. Because the threshold wind speed is so high, only these stronger winds blowing from the west can move the sand and streamline the dunes.

    “This work highlights the fact that the winds that blow 95 percent of the time might have no effect on what we see,” Burr says. Much like the damage produced by infrequent, but “perfect” storms at sea, it is the relatively rare events that have shaped the dunes of this intriguing moon.

    The new research provides important insights into wind-borne transport on other bodies, both those with very thin atmospheres (Mars, Pluto and comets) and thick, such as might be encountered in Earth-like exoplanets.

    Burr says that these results also have down-to-Earth applications.

    “We see today sediment being wafted over the Sahara desert, across the Atlantic to South America. This wind-blow material accounts for much of the fertility of the Amazon Basin. So understanding this process is essential.”

    Wind transport dynamics are also important to unraveling climate changes in the past, including the ice ages, and the so-called “snowball Earth” episode when the entire planet was encased in ice and snow.

    Marshall says that the research “has raised many questions about Titan. There we have low gravity, a dense atmosphere, and light-weight materials – a recipe for unusual aeolian activity. Our work has just begun.”

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 2:16 pm on December 9, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From SKA: “SKA talk – Jill Tarter – The SKA in the world of 2050″ 

    SKA Square Kilometer Array


    Live from Jodrell Bank Observatory, Dr. Jill Tarter from SETI is the final keynote speaker concluding a day-long workshop on the wider benefits of the SKA in society. Dr. Tarter will present her vision of the SKA’s impact and role in tomorrow’s society, in 2050.

    Jill Tarter holds the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI Research at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California and serves as a member of the Board of Trustees for that institution. Tarter received her Bachelor of Engineering Physics Degree with Distinction from Cornell University and her Master’s Degree and a Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of California, Berkeley.

    She has spent the majority of her professional career attempting to answer the old human question “Are we alone?” by searching for evidence of technological civilizations beyond Earth. She served as Project Scientist for NASA’s SETI program, the High Resolution Microwave Survey and has conducted numerous observational programs at radio observatories worldwide.

    She is a Fellow of the AAAS, the California Academy of Sciences, and the Explorers Club, she was named one of the Time 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2004, and one of the Time 25 in Space in 2012, received a TED prize in 2009, two public service awards from NASA, multiple awards for communicating science to the public, and has been honored as a woman in technology.

    She is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at USC, Asteroid 74824 Tarter (1999 TJ16) has been named in her honor. She is the Jansky Lecturer in 2014.
    Since the termination of funding for NASA’s SETI program in 1993, she has served in a leadership role to design and build the Allen Telescope Array and to secure private funding to continue the exploratory science of SETI. Many people are now familiar with her work as portrayed by Jodie Foster in the movie Contact.

    See the full article here.

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    About SKA

    The Square Kilometre Array will be the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope. The total collecting area will be approximately one square kilometre giving 50 times the sensitivity, and 10 000 times the survey speed, of the best current-day telescopes. The SKA will be built in Southern Africa and in Australia. Thousands of receptors will extend to distances of 3 000 km from the central regions. The SKA will address fundamental unanswered questions about our Universe including how the first stars and galaxies formed after the Big Bang, how dark energy is accelerating the expansion of the Universe, the role of magnetism in the cosmos, the nature of gravity, and the search for life beyond Earth. Construction of phase one of the SKA is scheduled to start in 2016. The SKA Organisation, with its headquarters at Jodrell Bank Observatory, near Manchester, UK, was established in December 2011 as a not-for-profit company in order to formalise relationships between the international partners and centralise the leadership of the project.

  • richardmitnick 3:21 pm on November 28, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , David Black, SETI Institute   

    From SETI: “New CEO Shares Vision for the Future” 

    SETI Institute

    Sarah Scoles

    SETI David Black
    David Black, the SETI Institute’s new President and CEO

    David Black, the SETI Institute’s new President and CEO, has been steeped in science since his adolescence. Thinking about the huge power locked within a single atom sent him to the library stacks and, eventually, to physics college classes. Since those teenage years, he’s blazed a unique trail for himself, mixing pure research with the strategic planning and leadership necessary to make science happen in the real world. He’s known for his work in star- and planet-formation, as well as the evolution and makeup of planets once they do form. He was the first Chief Scientist for the International Space Station, the Deputy Chief for Space Science Division at the NASA Ames Research Center, Director of the Lunar and Planetary Institute, and the President and CEO of the Universities Space Research Association.

    He retired from the latter position in 2006. But after he finished the long list of things his wife wanted him to fix around the house, he thought it was time to take on another title. In April, the SETI Institute chose Black to head up the organization.

    When he’s not riding his road bike around Mountain View or frequenting the farmer’s market, Black is crafting a vision for the SETI Institute and guiding it into the future. It’s an organization, he says, dedicated to investigating the origins, abundance, and variety of life on Earth and elsewhere: a place full of people asking big questions, getting big answers, and inspiring the question-askers of the future.

    How did you come to be the head of the SETI Institute?
    I got a call from Jill Tarter, who was coming to Houston last year for the 100-Year Starship Symposium.

    SETI Jill Tarter
    Jill Tarter

    She was leading a panel that was supposed to talk about SETI, the search for other planets, and other connected things. But the person who was scheduled to talk about extrasolar planets bailed at the last minute. I was sort of the father of planetary detection, having started it at NASA, and I happened to live in Houston. So Jill called me and asked if I could come down to the symposium and fill in—this is a day and a half before the event. So I said I would do it, provided we met for breakfast first. During the meal, Jill mentioned the SETI Institute was looking for a replacement for the head of the organization. And more or less jokingly, I said I should consider that. And she said, “I think that’s a great idea. Do you mind if I throw your name in the hat?” One thing led to another, and here I am.

    What drew you from primarily research to being in management?
    I’m not sure it was always a conscious decision. As you go through life, there are certain times in the path you’re walking when you find a fork in the road. Mine started early on, when I was asked if I would be the chief of the theoretical studies branch at NASA. It afforded me the opportunity to represent the interests of all the people in that branch, which seemed like a good idea at the time.

    For whatever reason, I seem to be one of the people who other people like to have lead them. I’ve been on two juries, and I’ve been elected as foreman for both. But once you go on the leadership path, you don’t stop doing research. You just put on more than one hat.

    In the course of that research, what’s the coolest or most surprising discovery you’ve made?
    Unquestionably, it would be the discovery of all these planets. I haven’t personally been involved with any of the teams that have done the detection, but I started the planetary detection program at NASA. That, to me, has been one of the most exciting things, and that story is still unfolding.

    Here at the SETI Institute, people study everything from terrestrial fossils to exoplanet atmospheres. How do you see all of those things as related to each other?
    There’s a simple construct formulated by Frank Drake many years ago called the Drake Equation. And it’s not an equation in the way that we theoretical physicists think of an equation. It’s a tool to help consider and understand the various pieces that go into the question “Is there intelligent life out there?” What are the factors that determine that?

    For life to exist in any way we know it, they have to be around a star. So we start with the rate of star formation. And then we go to planets. And then how many are good for life, how many evolve intelligent life, how many evolve technology. We have several intelligent species on this planet, for example, that don’t have technology at all. Looking for radio signals from whales is not going to happen. You can imagine another planet covered in water, having evolved very smart swimming animals, but we’re never going to find out they’re intelligent, because they aren’t technologically advanced.

    But at the SETI Institute, we have people who look into all aspects of that equation, not just the technology part. We have people who look into star formation, people who hunt for planets—probably half of the Kepler telescope team are Institute employees. Some of our scientists also look at planets’ atmospheres for reliable indicators of life. Is it oxygen? Methane? Here on Earth, cows and termites produce much of the methane in the atmosphere. So if you were to look back at the Earth’s atmosphere, you could deduce in a minute there was life on this planet. You wouldn’t know if it was intelligent, but you would know it was there.

    NASA Kepler Telescope

    And at the end of the Drake equation, there are also societal considerations. At the SETI Institute, we’re interested in looking at social interactions here and figure out what they might tell us about alien life. How long will we survive? How would we interpret a message? Should we send a message, or is that inviting danger? These discussions are informative not just for SETI, but for the whole human condition.

    Part of what we do here is study the past and the present to help inform us about what the future might be.

    If you had to sum the SETI Institute scientists up in one sentence, what would you say?
    They’re intellectually stimulating, and it’s my job to make it possible for them to succeed, and to put together creative opportunities to help them do what they do.

    So why should the public care about and support the research here?
    You could ask why the public should support basic research of any kind. But basic research is where you’re going to discover the early steps for how you cure cancer. Not here, of course; that’s is just an example. But sometimes you have an announcement like the one we had here recently: that we discovered an Earth-like planet. Somewhere out there, there’s a girl named Susie Smith who saw that and got really excited and decided she wants to become a scientist. She may be the one who figures out how to cure cancer, because she got excited about this planet and chose science as a career. You don’t get that kind of excitement with applied science. And that excitement is worth investing in.

    What first drew your interest in science?
    I was about 12 years old when I decided I wanted to go into nuclear physics. I used to dive under a desk at school for nuclear bomb drills. And the idea that you could get that much energy out of a small amount of material fascinated me. I started checking books out of the library about it. And when I got to college, my interests began to evolve more into astrophysics—how the Sun and solar system came to be, and then other stars … and by then I’d stepped on a slippery path.

    If you went back in time and told your 12-year-old self that you were the CEO of the SETI Institute, what would he say?
    I don’t think he’d be surprised about the SETI thing. I think he’d think that was pretty cool. But if he heard about some of the business stuff I was in, he’d say, “What are you doing? Boring.”

    If you were not an astronomer, what would you be?
    If I wasn’t going to be a scientist, I think I’d have something to do with athletics. I played football, basketball, baseball, ran track. I was never going to do it at a professional level. But I love sports. I almost got into race-car driving as a teen. I watch NASCAR. Shoot me; I love it! But I prefer the road course stuff. One time, my wife surprised me with one of those race-car-driving experiences in Dallas. And it was actually raining, so there were standing puddles, and driving through those in a Corvette was just a ball.

    What do you do in your free time?
    Road cycling. I don’t do wheelies down stairs, but I admire the skill of the people who do .. and wonder how stupid they are. But they probably say the same thing about race-car driving. I enjoy the peace you get riding a bike. I do a lot of thinking while riding, which may not be safe. But I also enjoy riding with people. There’s a camaraderie.

    What is your philosophy of life?
    Enjoy what you do. Be honest with yourself. Walk away at the end of the day knowing you did everything you could. If it’s not enough, it’s okay. It’s when you walk away and you know you didn’t do everything you could that you really fail.

    What’s the biggest adventure you’ve ever been on?
    I spent a year in London. It taught me a lot that even if we speak the same language, there can be huge differences between the two countries. It also gave me an appreciation of my own country. I think travel, in general, is great. Because of my profession, and the fact that scientists have a proclivity to have meetings in interesting places, I’ve had the opportunity to see places I wouldn’t have seen. It’s given me the chance to broaden my perspective, see the world from different points of view.

    What are five things you can’t live without?

    Definitely my wife.
    My bike. It’s the way I unwind.
    Being intellectually challenged. Not having that stimulation is a quick path to bailing out of life.
    My dogs. I have five, ranging from a three-legged pit bull to a lab retriever mix. They’re all rescues, and they’re part of the family. Dogs are very special animals. I have the ashes of my dogs who have passed, and my mother’s ashes are right next to them.
    A good microbrew.

    What is the SETI Institute’s version of Utopia?
    Our vision is to become the world’s leading research organization studying the origin and nature of life. In my view, whenever anybody anywhere in the world says, “I want to do work on X, Y, Z, and it’s related to some aspect of the Drake Equation,” someone else will tell them, “Go to the SETI Institute.” That’s Utopia.

    See the full article here.

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

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    Mountain View, CA 94043
    Phone 650.961.6633 – Fax 650-961-7099
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  • richardmitnick 12:48 pm on November 16, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , SETI Institute   

    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.

    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.

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

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    Mountain View, CA 94043
    Phone 650.961.6633 – Fax 650-961-7099
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