Sunday, August 22, 2010

Aliens, Radio Signals, Warp Drive, and Dead Heads: SETI con asks "Are we alone?"

Anyone who’s been reading my blog will know that I’m a big fan of science fiction, and maybe even that I’m a big fan of scientific discovery, which is why I was excited to attend the first ever SETIcon in Santa Clara last weekend.

Although I had read a lot about SETI in the past, my main knowledge of the guys running SETI came from watching the movie Contact, starring Jodie Foster and based on the novel by astronomer Carl Sagan (of “billions and billions” fame).

Those of you who’ve seen the movie will recall Jodie Foster’s radio astronomer character (“Ellie Arroway”) being very upset when the funding for her search for extraterrestrial signals was cut off. In a last ditch effort, after being turned down for funding from everywhere including Hollywood (“Those guys have been making money from aliens forever!”), she ended up getting funding from an eccentric billionaire.

Whether art was imitating life or the other way around, SETI itself used to receive funding from NASA, but this was cut off in the 1990’s. Since then, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (yes, whom some would call an eccentric billionaire) donated quite a bit of money to set up the Allen Radio Telescope array so that the search for ET could go on utilizing private funding.

For those of you who don’t know, SETI basically studies radio (and now light) signals from various stars in the night sky, looking for evidence of an “intelligent” signal that could only come from an “intelligent” species that at the very least has mastered radio technology. SETI stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, and has been going on in some form or another for almost 50 years.

To date, no confirmed signal has been found, though there have been several “candidate” signals that could never be re-acquired for further study.

The SETI institute is located in Mountain View, CA, which is just down the road from where I live (another benefit of being in Silicon Valley), and I was glad to be able to attend this conference so easily (it was held in Santa Clara). There were attendees from as far away as India and Kuwait, and as close as well, Santa Clara.

A Blending of Science, Science Fiction, and the Grateful Dead??

Since science fiction (in all of its forms) has always been a great way to get the public excited about science (everything from the Alien Attack movies in the 50's to Star Trek in the 60's forward), I was glad to see that this conference was not just about Radio astronomy (which I'm sure is a fascinating subject in and of itself), but included an intelligent blending of scientists and sci-fictionists (for lack of a better term). In my opinion not only did this make the conference more fun, but it also helped to open up our imaginations a bit, something that is necessary because the whole idea of extra-terrestrial intelligence is still speculation.

Despite being the first year of SETIcon, and a relatively small number of attendees, there were some great speakers – all of whom were pretty easy to approach and get to know. Here's a small sampling of SETIcon:

  • Mickey Hart - On Friday night, we were treated to seeing a preview of work from Mickey Hart – yes, that Mickey Hart, the drummer of the Grateful Dead , about the “rhythms of the universe”. It turns out he’s been collaborating with the scientists at the SETI institute working on a “sounds of the universe” DVD/CD. Mickey said he loves “timelines” and he always begins his books with a timeline that starts with “The Big Bang” from 13 billion years ago.
    For years, he’s wondered what this most primordial event of the universe (the Big Bang) might sound like. This DVD showed his on-going attempt to capture the sounds of the universe ("Everything is vibrating, so everything has a sound" - Mickey), and mix them with incredible visual images to make "art". Mickey pointed out that the Hindus and others speak of an original sound and the Greeks refer to the music of the spheres, so this isn't a new undertaking.
    Listening to this was almost like having a mystical experience, and added a bit of needed "right brain" creativity to what has been mostly a "left-brained" search for ET, and as a fan of the mystical, I enjoyed Mickey's presentation quite a bit. There were some deadheads in the audience, and you can bet they were more than a little excited to meet Mickey!

  • Dr. Frank Drake – anyone whose investigated the scientific possibility of for Extra Terrestrial intelligence will know of Frank Drake, who started investigating whether radio signals could be coming from intelligent alien signals some 50 years ago, dubbed Project Ozma. Frank Drake is considered the Father of modern day SETI, and he is the creator the of the well known Drake Equation, which is an equation that tries to estimate the number of intelligent civilizations there may be in our galaxy. Anyone who’s looked up at the night sky, marveling at the number of stars and wondering how there couldn’t be any life out there amongst the billions of points of lights will intuitively understand the Drake equation. Wikipedia even has a section on it: click here .
    Basically if you plug in some assumptions about the number of earth like planets orbiting earth like stars, and how many of these might have life on them, and how many of those are intelligent, and how long those intelligent civilizations might last, you end up wtih an estimate of how many intelligent civilizations we might communicate with our galaxy.

    Of course the big thing that's open about the Drake Equation are the actual factors - which make the resulting number vary widely. Carl Sagan estimated the number to close to 1 million, while Frank Drake himself estimates closer to 10,000. No matter how you slice it though, it's very difficult to make the number come out to "1", which makes it unlikely we are alone! On Saturday night at the conference, we had a banquet honoring Frank’s 80th birthday and 50th anniversary of Project Ozma, which was a fitting way to start the first SETIcon.

  • Dr. Jill Tartar. Jill is the director of SETI research at the SETI institute, and has a host of honors and recognition as a scientist and educator. Many say she was the inspiration for Jodie Foster’s character in the movie Contact, including being the point person for “pitching” for SETI funding after NASA discontinued it’s funding.

  • Tim Russ and John Billingsley Star Trek fans will recognize these names. Tim Russ played the Vulcan Tuvok on the Star Trek: Voyager series, and John played Dr. Flox in Star Trek: Enterprise series. Tim is an amateur astronomer and really committed to both astronomy and the SETI cause, and it was great to hear him on several panels. Although I couldn’t go to all the sessions, I think that he played out one of the most thought-provoking scenarios about interstellar travel (More on this later).

Of course there were many other speakers, including Robert J. Sawyer, an award winning science fiction author (who was the author of the novel that the TV series Flash Forward was based on), Andre Bormanis (who was the science advisor for several Star Trek series), Seth Shostak, SETI’s senior astronomer, who also does their podcast “Are we alone?” each week, Kevin Grazier (science adviser for Battlestar Galactica, who finally answered the question, How does Galactica’s FTL engines work?), Robyn Asmiov (Isaac Asimov’s daughter), and many real scientists - astronomers, astrophysicists and astro-biologists.

The speakers included, on a more personal note, an old mentor of mine from MIT, Greg Papodopolous, who left MIT many years ago to become the Chief Techonology Officer at Sun Microsystems. I did a research project with Greg on parallel computing during my undergrad days at MIT, and it was great fun to see him again and learn that he'd been involved with SETI also.

So, Did we Answer the Question? Are We Alone?

OK , so by now you’ve probably guessed that attending this conference was fun (it definitely was!), and from the speaker list, you probably guessed that I got to mix with a lot of interesting personalities (I did, and am still in touch with some of them!).

But, did I learn anything? More importantly, did it answer the burning question: Are we alone?

Yes and No.

Yes I did learn something, and no it didn’t answer the question of whether we are alone or not (you’d probably have heard about it on CNN if the conference had gone that far!)

But the conference raised a number of related questions which are equally as interesting, and easier to discuss, which the panelists did enthusiastically. On this front, I think mixing science fiction authors and actors with professors and PhD’s was a very smart move, since these questions have no simple answers, and are still to a large part, a matter of speculation.

Here they are, in my humble opinion, five of the most interesting questions raised at SETICON 2010 (other than “Are we alone”, of course), in no particular order:

  1. Should we be sending out signals to extra terrestrial societies? If so, what should we send? And Who speaks for the Earth?
    • This question came up again and again. Of course, SETI’s official charter is to look for signals, not to broadcast them. But there have been many broadcasts from Earth (including our TV signals starting from the 1940’s and 1950’s, as well as broadcast by Frank Drake from Arecibo, the big radio telescope in Peurto Rico).

      As eminent a scientist as Stephen Hawking has suggested that if we broadcast a signal, it could be picked up by a much more advanced civilization than ourselves, and …well you might see something like Independence Day (remember that movie with Will Smith)?
      Actually, joking aside, this a pretty serious concern, as many speakers pointed out that a less technologically advanced civilization has rarely withstood contact with a more technologically advanced civilization (case in point: the Native American population after contact with Europeans). Given my interest in both science fiction and native american history, I find this topic more than a little fascinating … I actually started writing a novel once about what might happen if a more technologically advanced alien civilization arrived here on Earth -it's called Synchronized - and this conference has led me to believe it's worth completing.

  2. Will we ever develop warp drive and be able to travel to the stars?
    • The scientists discussed this at length along with the science fiction authors and consultants to TV shows like Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek. From the point of view of the scientists, this would require traveling faster than the speed of light, something that is not permitted by Einstein’s theories of relatively. Lots of interesting ideas were discussed for “folding space” which wouldn’t violate Einstein's general theory of relativity, but the answer was that it would take so much energy to do this as to be practically impossible. When many members of the audience objected, the scientist pointed out that they weren't saying this to be negative. In fact, most scientists would love to figure out a way to get around Einstein's laws (they'd land a nobel prize if they could), but as far as we know, travelling to the stars at faster than light speeds would violate the known laws of physics.

      I actually thought the best answer to this question came from Tim Russ, of Star Trek: Voyager fame, and the only member of the panel who had actually flown faster than light (at least in a TV series). He said to imagine that we were sitting at a similar symposium at the time of Columbus, and the question we were being asked wasn’t about traveling over the water to the other side of the earth, but of traveling to the moon. Using the technology of the time, wind power and sails, it would seem “impossible” to ever get to the moon, even if all of the wind power on earth was utilized in the effort. So Tim was suggesting that there may be some kind of breakthrough that we don’t know about yet, which will let us travel to the stars – his bet was that it might have something to do with quantum mechanics and parllel realities. The scientists bet was that it wouldn't happen.

      I agree whole-headertedly with Tim that most scientists of today, just like the scientists of every other era, are a bit short-sighted and only looking at a limited perception of reality - that which has been proven in the past. I'm reminded of the head of the US patent office who resigned in the early 1900's because "everything that could ever be invented had already been invented"! Boy, was he wrong! Someday, there will probably be some unexpected new discovery or breakthrough that may make it possible to travel to the stars.

  3. If Aliens exist, where are they, why aren’t they here?
    • On an not-unrelated note, there was the more serious issue that if travel across stars will ever be possible, then we should assume some technologically advanced races (say a million years more advanced than we are) would have mastered that technology already. So, why haven't they visited us?

      This is a pretty controversial topic, because it relates to UFO theories and sightings, which pretty much every speaker on the panel dismissed as "lacking credibility".

      The only answer that made sense to me was that Earth is in a relatively uninteresting corner of the galaxy, and given the millions of likely planets out there, it’s unlikely that an intelligent species would visit here without some concrete reason to (other than to abduct us and do experiments on us). Since we've only mastered radio signals in the last 100 years, this means that any star that is more than 100 light years away wouldn’t have received any transmission from us, making Earth an unlikely place that someone from another part of the galaxy would want to visit. This seemed logical answer.

  4. Is Radio Astronomy the right way to look for Alien civilizations? How will we communicate with an alien civilization?

    • We are taking our current technology (radio signals) and using that as the basis under which a more advanced civilization might be broadcasting to us. This of course, gets at two core questions – will aliens communicate like we do, and is SETI looking in the right place?

      In my personal opinion, this is an interesting question and there’s no good way to answer it, and it probably deserves a much more investigation than was done at the conference. The best answer, given by senior Astronomer Seth Shostak, was that this is the best we can do right now, and any advanced civilization might realize that less advanced civilizations “come of age” when they master radio technology or wireless communication. Just as columbus didn't wait for better ships to be built, we can't wait for better radio telescopes to start our quest.

  5. Is SETI a worthwhile endeavor, should we continue to fund it?
    • Underlying many of the other questions, this was the pink elephant in the room. If it's such a difficult task to scan the whole night sky, and aliens might not even be communicating in ways we understand, is SETI worthwhile to do? Well, actually, as I mentioned, the government is no longer funding SETI proper (i.e. the search for radio signals, though NASA does fund astrobiology research at the SETI institute).

      100% of funding for SETI proper comes from private donations and tickets for events like SETI con. Personally, I think SETI has the ability to light up the imagination of the young, to make them more interested in math and science in a way that few other “official activities of our day” do. Whether an alien signal is found or not, it makes sense to have a program like SETI. Of course, if an alien signal IS FOUND, then this would probably be the biggest discovery in the history of the human race ... so I think i can speak for everyone at the conference who thought that we should all help fund SETI to a certain extent, since it concerns us all - not a single state or profession or nation. So, let's all chip in - at the very least if you're interested in the answer to these questions, be sure to attend SETICON 2011!

As you can see, answering each of these questions is not simple; I think I could easily write a separate blog post (or even a chapter in a book) on each of these questions. The panelists (and attendees!) brought up many thought-provoking points and counter-points on each of these and many other topics. (see ) to see the full program.

In short, I think the conference was not only fun, it was also worthwhile. These kinds of questions force us to think of ourselves as a common species on a common planet, and not as individual fiefdoms known as countries or religions, which is why it’s very important to have something like SETI.

In the meantime, while SETI continues to search the heavens, it was pointed out again and again at the conference that that our TV broadcasts have been in space for more than 50 years already, which means that someone out there (within 50 light years) may have detected our presence already.

Which means that even if there were no signals directed at us in the past, there may very well be something – a signal or who knows what - coming our way in the future… all we have to do is keep our eyes (and ears and telescopes) aimed at the sky!

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