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Space Science

SETI Project Scientist Discusses Prospects 384

Posted by simoniker
from the sky-big-and-expansive dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Today Astrobiology Magazine interviewed SETI@home Project Scientist, Dan Wertheimer, about subjects including the first detailed 'best of SETI' candidate reobservations for repeating telescope acquisition on the most promising 166 star candidates. Their policy is not to release precise sky coordinates on the best ones yet (so far a signal called SHGb11+15a), with this type of Gaussian signal shape. The candidates number some 400 million Gaussians and 5.7 billion spikes."
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SETI Project Scientist Discusses Prospects

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  • but I, for one, welcome our new radio communicating alien overlords.
  • by Space cowboy (13680) on Monday December 08, 2003 @01:29PM (#7660574) Journal
    I'd love to give it a go with my very own personal radio telescope (dish.jpg [gornall.net]). Sure it'd be hard to point, and maybe not possible to receive anything at all, but I'd like to try :-)

    Simon.
    • I see a simple problem: it takes 3/4ths the computing power of the SETI project just to parse the data they collected. So, best of luck.

    • by yintercept (517362) on Monday December 08, 2003 @01:47PM (#7660728) Homepage Journal
      SETI actually brings up a very interesting issue. So let's say they do find an alien civilization, would SETI get to copyright and patent the material that they gleen from the alien civilization?

      Could we use any of the alien stuff as prior art to refute patent claims we don't like?

      Considering the amount of money at stake, I have no doubt the SETI lawyers will play the SCO game and resist any actually release of data.
      • by molafson (716807) on Monday December 08, 2003 @01:58PM (#7660823)
        SETI actually brings up a very interesting issue. So let's say they do find an alien civilization, would SETI get to copyright and patent the material that they gleen from the alien civilization?

        Are you joking, I can't tell. If SETI finds conclusive proof of the existence of alien intelligence, I think the last thing on most of our minds will be copyright law.

        I mean, it's like asking if Jesus comes back will he prefer Linux or BSD. The significance of the event so far outweighs the debate that the debate is rendered meaningless.
        • by DaneelGiskard (222145) on Monday December 08, 2003 @02:06PM (#7660889) Homepage
          I mean, it's like asking if Jesus comes back will he prefer Linux or BSD. The significance of the event so far outweighs the debate that the debate is rendered meaningless.

          Well, as long as he does not prefer Windows - I tend to agree. ;)
        • by yintercept (517362) on Monday December 08, 2003 @02:14PM (#7660942) Homepage Journal
          Sorry to break the bad news, but you live in a world full of people. The first thing that will be on the minds of lawyers is how this affects law. The first thing on the mind of investors would be the effect on their portfolio. The first thing on the mind of politicians would be the effect on the next election and the first thing on the mind of the scientists will be who gets top billing on research paper and if their name is spelled correctly. The first thing on the mind of the avid /.ers is who will get first post, and will they get good karma in what will be lively thread. It will probably be that guy who welcomes evil overlords.

          And, yes, I am joking about human nature, but realize that there will be profound effects on all of our fundamental theories of nature. BTW, I suspect that there are lawyers at SETI already thinking about this.
          • by bigpat (158134)
            The law covers humans. Or in some case we have decided to treat certain other creatures a certain way under the law... prior art would have to be human prior art and by the same argument alien's would not have any ability to copyright something unless the law or the reading of the law were expanded to understand that aliens are people too.

            But that would be a legal leap on the order of magnitude as when women abd slaves became considered people too.

        • by DirtyJ (576100) on Monday December 08, 2003 @02:20PM (#7660988)
          You say that now, but wait until SCO claims prior art on anal probing.
        • by ghjm (8918) on Monday December 08, 2003 @02:57PM (#7661286) Homepage
          If Jesus comes back and happens to make a slight positive comment regarding Linux, wouldn't you like to be holding some Red Hat stock at that moment?

          Perhaps we should patent the "business process" of innovating by listening to and applying alien radio transmissions. That way you don't have to bother patenting any of the individual technologies.

          -Graham
      • by kramer (19951) on Monday December 08, 2003 @02:29PM (#7661064) Homepage
        No.

        You can't copyright something you didn't write. Not counting works for hire and such -- but if they're claiming that they have aliens in far away galaxies working for them, they've got worse problems than copyright infringement.
        • by eyeball (17206)
          You can't copyright something you didn't write. Not counting works for hire and such -- but if they're claiming that they have aliens in far away galaxies working for them, they've got worse problems than copyright infringement.

          I'll just stick to copyrighting my genome [creativetime.org].

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 08, 2003 @01:30PM (#7660586)
    Because the networks haven't been putting out anything but complete and utter crap. Maybe some alien crap will be better.
  • by civilengineer (669209) on Monday December 08, 2003 @01:30PM (#7660589) Homepage Journal
    He says in his book "Age of Spiritual Machines" that if aliens existed and were advanced enough to send us signals, they would in all probability have mastered the use of nano-technology and could probably fit a lot of things into extremely small spaces. So, if they actually wanted to probe earth, they might be sending in virus sized particles which we might not be detecting at all. A very novel idea, considering our view of aliens has been more in terms of flying saucers and ET etc.
    • by trinitrotoluene (713170) on Monday December 08, 2003 @01:34PM (#7660619)
      How advanced would a civilization have to be to send out signals? A simple array of radio transmitters beaming out a simple message wouldn't be too hard to build.

      And a physical object, however small, would take a lot longer than a radio message to reach another star.
      • by Viking Coder (102287) on Monday December 08, 2003 @01:46PM (#7660709)
        The problem with signals is that they're passive. The civilization doesn't gain ANY information by sending signals - only by receiving them. =)

        A physical object (the size of a pea?) could be sent very close to the speed of light - so I don't see that as a problem. What, 90%? Maybe even more?

        But it'd be a pretty amazing technology, indeed, if such a small object were capable of sending back any data to the home system. It'd take a tremendous amount of energy for such a small transmitter to be effective over such distances.

        Right?

        Actually, I guess repeaters could do it. You send out a chain of the pea transmitters, and have them repeat info back along the line. Shoot them out a minute apart, and the signal only needs to be strong enough to be detected at a range of about a light minute. Still, a crazy distance, but a heck of a lot easier than 20+ light-years. Granted, you'd have to send them out for about 100 years - at a pea per minute. Hmmm...
        • by mprinkey (1434) on Monday December 08, 2003 @02:05PM (#7660882)
          A "pea" travelling at 90% of the speed of light contains a lot of kinetic energy. Say, 0.01 grams for the pea at 2.7e8 m/s. That works out to 7.3e11 J. That is about the same energy as exploding 175 tons of TNT per pea.

          Set aside the issue of engineering the "peashooter" to fire them, you are talking about throwing some potentially destructive material at a neighboring star system. Firing them continuously looks like you intentially want to hit something. I think this might be a bad idea from a "just saying hello" viewpoint.
          • by Anonymous Coward
            additionally, I suspect that an object the size of a pea going more than 50% of c would either be eroded by interstellar dust before it ever reached its target or at the very least would get very hot and be obviously visible to infrared telescopes - especially if there are a lot of them.

            So basically, I don't the pea theory is a very good one.
          • That is about the same energy as exploding 175 tons of TNT per pea.

            Hmmm, reminds me of the morning after a night out on the town.
    • by JustAnotherReader (470464) on Monday December 08, 2003 @01:37PM (#7660648)
      if aliens existed and were advanced enough to send us signals, they would in all probability have mastered the use of nano-technology

      How does that follow? We've been sending signals into space ever since we started broadcasting radio and television and we don't have any usable nanotechnology.

      Sending signals into space is fairly simple. building microscopic machines is not. I don't see how the presents of one means we should assume the existence of the other.

      • by Fnkmaster (89084) * on Monday December 08, 2003 @01:53PM (#7660774)
        It's based on our assumptions about the rate of progress of technology. If we assume that nanotechnology is 50-100 years off from practical usage, then we can reasonably state that for our culture and society, the gap between developing radio signals strong enough to send to space in detectable amounts and developing nanotechnology is only about 150-200 years worth of technological development. Assuming that other species rate of technological progress is similar to ours, we can assume that their gap between development of radio wave transmission and nanotechnology is similar, perhaps 200 years worth of technological development.


        The argument from there relies on the fact that 200 years is a drop in the bucket in cosmological time - just because we happen to be at this particular point in time developmentally doesn't really imply that other species and cultures would be at anywhere near the same point. So it's far more likely they'd either be too primitive to send radio waves, or advanced enough that they have viable nanotechnology.


        Obviously, this argument assumes that nanotechnology is practicable and will be successfully developed in the next 100 years. :)

        • by Drantin (569921) on Monday December 08, 2003 @02:49PM (#7661215)
          I think it's actually more likely than that that there was no parallel to our technological development cycle at all. They may, for example, have developed biology to such a point that they send actual engineered viruses rather than nanobots (eg: biological rather than technical) or maybe aquatics rather than air and space flight(and therefore not sending signals) or telepathic/hive mind so they wouldn't send signals...
        • Mod parent up!

          That's the whole problem with SETI in a nutshell. It only looks for radio signals. Meaning we are looking for signs of alien intelligence in that super-narrow drop-in-the-bucket window in any given alien civilization's development when they MAY have used radio signals, and it assumes those signals penetrated the aliens upper atmosphere so that we could detect them.

          It's like looking for that needle in the haystack, except the needle is only in 1 of a trillion haystacks, and then it's only t
      • Well we are on our way with Nanotechnology, and the vehicle we sent to Mars was a small robotic rover and not a flying saucer with people inside. I would think as soon as we have very small mobile sensor or even motes we would use them in device we deploy for exploration purposes.
    • That's silly. Because the last I checked, humans are capable of sending these radio signals (we already do), but are not capable or sending a virus sized microchip to a far off system to investigate them.

      So, if they are as advanced (or a little more/less), then SETI will do what they have set out to do.
    • Ray Kurzweil is a doomsayer of AI who has said on the record that he wants human being to become machines. He is an enemy to our race and I am sure when our Robot Overlords come he will be only too happy to turn us in. :P

    • by 4of12 (97621) on Monday December 08, 2003 @02:33PM (#7661096) Homepage Journal

      probability have mastered the use of nano-technology

      The thought occurs that we might be the ping packet.

      Send out a clump of amino acids, hope some land in favorable water, then wait.

      We're expected to return electromagnetic waves if and when we're successfully "done" and where we are.

      Not sure what to expect of traffic after that, though.

      The second ping could be a doozy.

      • The second ping could be a doozy.

        Or they could think that we failed their expectations and send the equivalent of a DoS attack.


      • The second ping could be a doozy.

        I guess it would be a portscan next, eh?

        That's a pretty interesting idea--if you're looking for a habitable climate in something as vast as the universe, it doesn't pay to explore each potential system individually--so you do the biological equivalent of "throwing spaghetti against a wall to see what sticks". Then wait to hear from the organism that develops.

        I don't think such line of reasoning bodes well for our future, though, and is precisely why we're in "listen" m
    • First of all, there is no indication that nanotechnology is even feasible. People thought for centuries that they could turn lead into gold by chemical means and yet they never succeeded. Nanotechnology is the new alchemy, hyped by startups starving for money and a few people trying to make a name for themselves with unscientific mumbo-jumbo.

      Second, virus sized or not, those probes still need to get from one star to the next. That's a considerable problem even for very tiny probes. You might be able to
  • by r_j_prahad (309298) <r_j_prahad AT hotmail DOT com> on Monday December 08, 2003 @01:30PM (#7660591)
    It'll probably turn out to be an alien goatse when they finally get it decoded.
  • by hookedup (630460) on Monday December 08, 2003 @01:32PM (#7660608)
    for a long time, being a windows user, I of course used the screensaver version to do the math. However, it's come to my attention that using the command line makes for better efficiency, less CPU devoted to nice graphs, more CPU for crunching numbers. I read somewhere it was between 5-10% faster. Anyway, just a heads up for you seti folk running windows who want to squeeze a few more results out in a day :)
  • by Savatte (111615) on Monday December 08, 2003 @01:33PM (#7660611) Homepage Journal
    damn, i didn't think clearchannel had THAT much influence
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 08, 2003 @01:33PM (#7660612)
    Forget it. They're laughing at us. We're trying to find transmissions based on how we'd transmit data now. We're looking for smoke signals from civilizations that use Wavelet enncoded HDTV. We're trying to find cizilizations similar to our own; intellegent species have probably advanced way beyond some local interplanetary WIFI model. They're probably chuckling at our feeble attempts right now. Chuckling in their own vieny large headed kind of way. Puny humans.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 08, 2003 @01:50PM (#7660751)
      We're not necessarily trying to find transmissions based on how we transmit, we're trying to find transmissions that don't look like background noise.

      Even if you can't decode wavelet-encoded HDTV, it's certainly still going to be identifiable as a signal that didn't happen by accident.

      steve
      • undetectable (Score:3, Interesting)

        by penguin7of9 (697383)
        Even if you can't decode wavelet-encoded HDTV, it's certainly still going to be identifiable as a signal that didn't happen by accident.

        Not at all. New ultra wide band radio (UWB) is low power and looks like noise, at least to the analysis methods SETI is employing. We probably wouldn't be able to distinguish it from natural background noise.
  • by kutuz_off (159540) on Monday December 08, 2003 @01:34PM (#7660622)
    What will be the next step after we detect a signal?
  • Radio? Radio?!? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Volatile_Memory (140227) on Monday December 08, 2003 @01:42PM (#7660682) Homepage
    What can we possibly learn from a buncha backwaters critters still interested in such a primitive form of communication as radio?

    -or-

    What can THEY possibly learn from a buncha backwaters critters still interested in such a primitive form of communication as radio?

    v.m
    • Re:Radio? Radio?!? (Score:3, Insightful)

      by geekoid (135745)
      " What can we possibly learn from a buncha backwaters critters still interested in such a primitive form of communication as radio?"

      That they exist.

      "What can THEY possibly learn from a buncha backwaters critters still interested in such a primitive form of communication as radio?"

      That we exist.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 08, 2003 @01:43PM (#7660694)
    Seti keeps looking for easily discernable patterns in the signals they receive.

    But look at what has happened here on earth as we moved toward digital communications. The more we compress the data, the more random it seems at first glance. I'll bet someone could prove that mathematically.

    For example, consider the sound that a modem makes over the phone.

    Also, to avoid interference when transmitting, signals are multiplexed over multiple wavelength. Again, I'll bet further technology improvements will make those future signals seem even more random to a current receiver.

    In order to see through the apparent randomness in digital signals, you need to know how the signal is encoded.

    Therefore, what SETI should be looking for are signals that, at first, appear as white noise. Then try to decode them.

    By looking for simple patterns, like carrier waves, SETI will only be able to detect an advanced civilization for a period of around 50 years, and that's assuming that they start broadcasting signals that will reach space before they make the transition to digital.
    • by ShieldWolf (20476) <jeffrankine@nDEG ... et minus painter> on Monday December 08, 2003 @02:09PM (#7660908)
      Therefore, what SETI should be looking for are signals that, at first, appear as white noise. Then try to decode them.

      That is single-handidly the dumbest thing they could do.

      The sky is ABSOLUTELY FILLED with white noise. Nature is random, that is the whole point of looking for NON-random signals; they suggest intelligence at work.

      Another point is that we are not just looking for signals that are essentially radio-pollution from another civilization, we are looking for DELIBERATE signals from a society trying to communicate with us. Why would they encrypt or otherwise obfuscate those signals?!?!

    • by javatips (66293) on Monday December 08, 2003 @02:37PM (#7661127) Homepage
      Your argument are full of crap.

      It's quite easy, even with a transmition over multiple frequencies, to detect that you have an artficial signal at frequency X. You may have are really hard time deconding it, but the transmition will still be very easy to detect.

      When you yak on your cell phone, I may have a difficult time to capture and decrypt everything (especially if I have no prior knowledge on how the tramsition is done) but I will have no trouble locating you because of all the carrier signal you emit that don't look like any natural phenonema.

      SETI is not trying to decrypt any signal, they are just trying to find if some signal appear artificial.

      You really have a bad understanding of what SETI is looking for.
    • by stwrtpj (518864) <p...stewart@@@comcast...net> on Monday December 08, 2003 @02:38PM (#7661139) Journal
      Therefore, what SETI should be looking for are signals that, at first, appear as white noise. Then try to decode them.

      Other than this being like looking for the needle in the proverbial haystack, this is not what is behind the SETI project. SETI works under the assumption that someone out there is beaming a signal into space with the express intent of being discovered. A civilization attempting to do such a thing would attempt to make the signal as unambiguous as possible, at least the initial "greeting" message. This is why "Contact" used the plot device of having the initial signal be pulsed to represent the first few prime numbers. The idea behind it was that certain mathematical concepts are universal, and this would be a clear indication that there is an intelligence behind it.

  • by nacturation (646836) <nacturation@@@gmail...com> on Monday December 08, 2003 @01:45PM (#7660706) Journal
    The study also mentioned that they processed the radiotelescope signal to extract the audio component. Listen to SHGb11+15a [funwavs.com].
  • If Alien were trying to communicate with use why wouldn't they use radio/tv signals that would get out attention. If there technology was great enough to detect our presence why would they want to contact us. Are humans trying to contact and communicate with deep sea fish in the atlantic? When you were in school did you talk and hang out with the dumb kids. No cause there was no reason to communicate.
  • big number (Score:5, Funny)

    by tjw (27390) on Monday December 08, 2003 @01:47PM (#7660722) Homepage
    From the article:
    The number of stars in the visible universe, for instance, is estimated to be 70 sextillion, or 70,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 [seven followed by twenty-two zeros].
    • one hundred billion times the number of letters in the 14 million books in the Library of Congress
    Whew, I'm glad that got quantified in standard LoC units.
  • by kippy (416183) on Monday December 08, 2003 @01:55PM (#7660794)
    I've contributed over 5000 work units to SETI and even found one of those "interesting" signals. I stopped a while ago. Why? a few reasons:

    1. I realized that the amount of time a civilization would use anything recognizable over radio waves would probably be pretty short. From the invention of radio until every signal is compressed and/or encrypted would probably be a few hundred years at best. compressed and encrypted data would just look like noise and probably wouldn't stand out. So it's either no-radio or unintelligible radio signals for billions of years with a small "hearable" window. not too promising that we'd be able to catch that.

    2. There are better or at least more interesting causes out there for CPU donators. Folding@home [stanford.edu] has the potential to contribute to a nanotechnological or medical revolution. United Devices [grid.org] is a project to test cancer drugs and the results go to Oxford in case you're wondering about the for-profit nature of the company behind it. Finaly, the climate prediction project [climateprediction.net] is contributing to a better understanding of planetary climate dynamics.

    My side interest is Mars exploration and terraformation which is a pretty much just consists of reading literature on the subject. However, with contributing to nanotech, cancer drugs and climate prediction, I am making a small dent in the effort to adapt both ourselves and technology to making a new world.
    I realize that last part was a bit offtopic but I thought I'd at least give a little reasoning behind why I choose to run those ones.
    • Not sure I agree (Score:3, Interesting)

      by HarveyBirdman (627248)
      One of the reasons the military, for example, uses a lot of encryption is that it's very hard to hide a signal of any kind. This is why frequencies are still so sensitive- you have to hide anything possible you can about which signal is yours because it's very easy to scan the spectrum and find them. I don't think any information signal can truly melt into the background and still carry usable information.

      If there is anything coherent at all in a signal, it will differentiate itself from the background no

    • compressed and encrypted data would just look like noise and probably wouldn't stand out.

      This is false, and a confusion of data from transmission. Compressed data does in fact look fairly random (in fact, the less random it looks, the poorer your compression is). However, the only way to get the random data is to decipher the transmission, which is bloody obvious and would stand out like a sore thumb. Assuming what you're saying is true, we'll receive signals we have no hope of deciphering, but they wi

  • 4.7 million users? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by skurk (78980) on Monday December 08, 2003 @02:00PM (#7660840) Homepage Journal
    Running a little off-topic here, but I feel I need to quote this from the article:

    SETI@home is now our planet's largest supercomputer, averaging 60 teraflops, thanks to 4.7 million SETI@home volunteers in 226 countries.

    Three years ago I created one extra seti account by mistake, for which I processed 3 packets.

    According to the seti@home individual user stats page [berkeley.edu], this account has processed more packets than 46.361% of their users.

    I wonder if they count the idle and non-active user accounts when they claim 4.7 million users?

    If not, it's probably safe to exclude about 50% of that user mass.
  • by wackybrit (321117) on Monday December 08, 2003 @02:00PM (#7660841) Homepage Journal
    Nothing in these stories specify why they're not releasing the co-ordinates yet, and I thought Slashdot readers might be particularly interested in this.

    I work at a computer lab which is used by a branch of a certain space agency (not NASA, but they have similar policies) and we process a lot of data for these folks (It's a bit like SETI@Home, but we get what are called the 'higher level' packets, given only to accredited packets of ramen.)

    When you're dealing with signals from large distances (over a few thousand miles) you need a lot of gain on your aerial to get a strong signal. This is why they use giant dishes at places like Aribico, because the largeness of dish allows the signal to be taken and magnified when it gets here, so you get a clearer signal from a noisy signal (for the non scientific people here.. it's like how in CSI they can zoom in a noisy picture and 'clean it up' or look round corners and stuff).

    Well, this high gain aerial 'sucks up' (again, non science speak) a lot of the signal. This means if they gave out the co-ordinates everyone would try to listen in to the stuff coming from that area, and diminish all of the signal so that SETI couldn't pick up anything even on their big aerials. It's kinda like how if a radio station has more listeners, they have to turn the signal up.. but we can't tell the aliens to do that!

    The same thing happens with light, but to a lesser extent. Theoretically if you had a million people looking at a single LED, the light would be so spread out that it would appear to go off. This is why, as children, we're told not to look at the sun, because if we all did that, we would be plunged into darkness.

    Anyway, I hope that cleared it all up.
  • Whoa... (Score:3, Funny)

    by skebe (707438) on Monday December 08, 2003 @02:02PM (#7660854)
    "Their policy is not to release precise sky coordinates on the best ones yet (so far a signal called SHGb11+15a), with this type of Gaussian signal shape." Guess they're afriad of someone /.'ing the coorodinates?
  • Correlation? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by BallPeenHammer (720987) on Monday December 08, 2003 @02:23PM (#7661016)
    I'm curious about whether there's any correlation between the signals they find most "interesting" and the locations of known extrasolar planets. I'd say if any of the interesting signals come from a place with planets, it has to be significant.

    • by ianscot (591483) on Monday December 08, 2003 @02:52PM (#7661234)
      The more than 100 known extrasolar planets are mostly whoppers, 'cause we're mostly still looking for cases in which a planet's big enough to cause the light coming from a star to wobble. (Exceptions involve cases like Vega -- it's got a dust field around it, and the computer models say the best explanation for how that dust looks is a Neptune-sized planet in about Neptune's orbit. Again, it's a planet discovered indirectly, by inferring things about its gravity.)

      None of the known extrasolar planets are supposed to be particularly good candidates for life, though that Vega case maybe indicates a solar system a little like ours, with rocky planets in the interior orbits... or that's the speculation.

      We've still got a ways to go in refining our way of just looking for the things. To narrow any search based on them would be premature.

  • by jhines (82154) <john@jhines.org> on Monday December 08, 2003 @02:39PM (#7661151) Homepage
    Does anyone know what the overall earth looks like? in the radio spectrum at least.

    Have we ever launched a radio telescope way out in space, and looked home?
  • by zeux (129034) * on Monday December 08, 2003 @03:09PM (#7661384)
    I still strongly think that we should maybe just 'shut up' instead of sending signals all over the place and trying to contact another planet.

    One of these days a civilization will catch one, spot us and they will destroy us just because we could later hurt them if we continue to develop and spread.

    Damn we are sending signals since the 30s and even if they are weak, they must be quite far now.

    I'm fine with listening but I wouldn't send high power messages like we are doing.

    Remember about that guy that used to send his spam in deep space ? It was covered by /.. The aliens will be pissed off if they get a couple million 'grow your penis' messages.

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