Saturday, March 13, 2010

Is Anybody Out There? -- Revealed

If you're a Star Trek fan, you may recall in the series ST:The Next Generation, in the episode entitled "Relics" (First aired: 12 October 1992), the Enterprise picks up a distress call from a transport vessel that has been missing for 75 years. "As the Enterprise drops out of warp to respond to the signal, the starship is rocked violently by a massive gravitational field. Although initial scans do not find the source of the field, they trace the field to its center and discover a massive spherical structure, 200 million kilometers in diameter (or two-thirds of the Earth's orbit around the Sun). The sphere's dimensions are consistent with those of the (until then) theoretical structure known as a Dyson Sphere."1 This is the episode in which the Enterprise discovers that a pattern has been locked in the transport vessel's transporter buffer these past 75 years, and after some tinkering by the Enterprise crew, Captain Montgomery "Scotty" Scott materializes on the transporter pad.

Dyson Sphere is named after noted physicist Freeman Dyson, who originated the idea in 1959. Via @projectblackcat, I found a link to the Discovery Enterprise blog, which features a video of Dyson from the TED Conference -- Technology, Entertainment, Design -- held in Monterey, California, in February 2003. I'll save you the trouble of clicking on over to the DE blog and include the video below. Dyson speaks on searching for life in the outer Solar System; he is a genius, a space geek, even a comedian, as you'll see if you watch the vid, and though he rambles a bit, if you have the time (approximately 20 minutes), it is well worth the investment. More after the vid....

If you access the Discover Enterprise blog link above, you will also find a reference to an essay by Dr. Gregory L Matloff: "The Reenchantment of the Solar System: A Proposed Search for Local ET’s," published in 1998. But, unfortunately, the link to that essay is broken; in fact, every link in a Google search for that essay was broken or not found. This alone intrigued me, and I'm not one to give up easily. The majority of the broken links led to the domain name "" -- National Institute for Discovery Science. So, I sought out the Internet Archives (aka, the Wayback Machine), searched for that domain name, and then searched the earliest entry, which happened to be April 2000. And, I found the link to Matloff's essay. (I love it when things come together like this!) Matloff writes:

If life is indeed prevalent in the cosmos, where are our talkative neighbors?

Perhaps they are all around us, with some migrants even within our own solar system. Perhaps we have not found them because directed radio signals in the hydrogen and hydroxyl bands is not the best medium of interstellar communication. Perhaps very advanced extraterrestrials are not really interested in talking with us primitives.

To establish contact then, we may have to be the active party. First humanity must unambiguously detect an alien presence, then we must be the ones to clamor for attention. After all, entomologists devote little time to communication with termites. But if a termite colony signaled us in binary or Morse codes, we would immediately take notice.

Conventional SETI is dissatisfying from a human point of view. Even if we detect beamed radio signals from a cosmic civilization located a mere 30 light years from the Sun, a simple exchange of greetings would require a human lifetime.

But the solar system is an immense place, both in time and space. Our exploration of this realm has barely begun. As Papagiannis [see reference in original essay] has noted, extraterrestrial colony ships may have crossed the interstellar gulf within the distant past and may be within our solar system, in world ships that masquerade as asteroids or comets.

If we can detect these objects and communicate with their occupants, the reenchantment of the solar system will have been established. Direct communication with these godlike elders will become possible by masers, lasers, or spacecraft. And the answers to our queries will arrive rapidly. Then, astronomers will begin to fill the roles of the ancient temple priests and priestesses. Terrestrial civilization will enter a new golden age as we learn the wisdom of the "elders" and begin to fulfill our galactic role.

I believe it is Dyson who brings up the idea of using infrared -- searching for infrared -- in his TED talk. Which begs the question: We've been searching for radio transmissions for several decades now, but with no positive results. So, as Matloff suggests, maybe we need to be searching for something different?

TimesOnline for March 4 interviews Jill Tarter, Director of the Center for SETI Research in Mountain View, California. Ms. Tarter is specifically asked: "Why are we searching for radio waves from aliens? Couldn’t aliens have a completely different means of communication?" To which she responds: "We evolved on a planet that is illuminated by the Sun. We developed sensory receptors that are sensitive to electromagnetic radiation that happen to peak at 5,500 Angstroms, where the Sun peaks. Radio is just long light — it’s not very hard to get from sensing light to sensing radio. If you’re trying to attract the attention of an emerging technology -- and we’re about the youngest technology in the galaxy that could have any chance of having an interstellar conversation -- you would probably use something that’s simple and attention-getting." (via @daj42)

The issue I have with Ms. Tarter's response is that she makes the assumption that "others" are trying to reach us, "the youngest technology in the galaxy"; and that's a huge assumption. It could be that there are advanced species in our galaxy, who have absolutely no interest in searching for others, and thus don't know that we even exist. We need to change our assumption: If ETs aren't trying to communicate with us -- and if they're not listening either -- then we need to get their attention in some other manner.

All this, of course, is just a lead-in discussion for the unveiling of the cover for Is Anybody Out There? -- my forthcoming title, co-edited with Nick Gevers, to be published by DAW Books, via Martin H. Greenberg's Tekno Books, in June.

This is my third blog post on IAOT? -- an anthology of all original stories based on the
Fermi Paradox. The first blog post, on March 18, 2009, dealt with the anthology's genesis; the second post, on December 16, contained teasers for the anthology's contents.

After watching Dyson's TED talk, then reading the Matloff essay and the Tarter interview, I realized just how relevant this anthology is to the ongoing discussions on SETI research and attempts to communicate with other intelligent species. I'll end this post with the marketing copy from the back cover of IAOT?

Why is it that, in such a vast cosmos, with hundreds of billions of stars in this galaxy alone, and no doubt billions of Earth-like planets orbiting them, we have found no evidence of intelligent alien life? No evidence that aliens have ever visited Earth (other than discredited UFO mythology), no detectable signals in all our SETI searches with radio telescopes…?

The stories in this anthology offer intriguing explanations for this enigma, looking seriously or comically at solutions. Is intelligent life a fluke, arising only once or twice in the universe's long history? Does intelligence arise frequently, but with gulfs of time and distance keeping technological civilizations irretrievably apart? Do such civilizations inevitably implode or self-destruct within a few hundred years? Is our definition of intelligence fatally subjective? Are aliens among us right now, unseen? Are there aliens everywhere? These are just some of the many possibilities explored in Is Anybody Out There?

Notes and Footnotes

In a
previous blog post, "At Home with Jack Vance," I used the "Wayback Machine" to track down some correspondence of mine, as well as the transcription of an interview I had conducted, both of which were posted on the web in 1996, I believe. My point here is twofold: First, readers need to know about, and take advantage of, the Internet Archives; and second, be careful of what you post online: years from now those words and/or images just may be found in the Internet Archives.

1 Special thanks to website Memory Alpha for refreshing my memory as to which ST:TNG episode contained the Dyson Sphere, and for the quoted text.

2 Thanks, too, to Michael, The Mad Hatter (@madhatterreview), of Mad Hatter's Book Shelf & Book Review blog, for graciously taking the time to transcribe the back cover text for me. Amazon had inadvertently posted a scan (albeit very low-res) of the entire cover flat for IAOT?, and Michael snagged it before it was removed. The Mad Hatter has been very supportive of this anthology, and I'm hopeful he'll enjoy the stories themselves when he finally reads them -- and give the book a fine review. (hint, hint)

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  1. Thanks for sharing the comments by Dr. Matloff. I wonder if our current thinking (such as: "let's look for infrared signatures of Dyson spheres") is as hopeless as would have been pre-Columbian natives watching the ocean horizons for really big smoke signals from distant and advanced civilizations.

    Maybe there is a well known (among galactic civilizations) sociological theorem that says contact between technologically advanced cultures and more primitive cultures always results in more harm than good. Even if we "clamor for attention", any nearby ETIs might just redouble their efforts to hide from us.

    "astronomers [in the role of] temple priests" <-- I wonder how it would work out if all the priests could say was: "We have detected extraterrestrial civilizations, but they seem to be ignoring us".

  2. Hi, John,

    You present a good analogy... And I also like your hypothesis that we are being ignored simply because we are too primitive.

    I'm pleased that you enjoyed the Matloff excerpt, too; the full article is well worth checking out -- as long as the link to the Internet Archives holds up.

    And I appreciate your comments to the blog post.

    - marty

  3. Larry Niven's RINGWORLD books make use of the Dyson sphere concept. I used to teach Ringworld, the first novel in the series, at the U of PA. The Ringworld of the title is an artifact, a humongous loop that represents the circumference of a Dyson sphere--just a tape measure around the biggest part of the sphere, so to speak, not the whole sphere. A loop of ribbon in space, the inner surface of which is completely covered with earthlike topography, mountains, rivers, oceans, many types of intriguing aliens. That book is where I first encountered the name of Freeman Dyson.

  4. Hi, Judy,

    Though no titles/authors specifically come to mind, I recall reading a few very early SF stories whose premise was that we were living inside a Dyson Sphere (though the stories were written before 1959 so that specific term wasn't used). Once humankind achieved Earth's orbit with Sputnik and Explorer 1, well, then the idea was applied to other alien species, as in Star Trek -- and Ringworld.

    Thanks for your comment!
    - marty