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In the lee

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - June 24, 2014

A piece of Mars: This crater (290 m or 950 ft across) is crawling with all sorts of ripples and dunes. The wind mainly blows from the top to the bottom of the frame, and it is responsible for the wonderful textures in the dark gray sand. It has also formed larger, cream-colored ripples. The creamy and dark gray sand have taken turns burying one another, like vines competing for sunlight. (HiRISE ESP_034084_1655 , NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

What Do You Make Of It?

You are surrounded by products. Most of them, factory-made. Yet there was a time when building things by hand was commonplace, and if something stopped working, well, you jumped into the garage and fixed it, rather than tossing it into the circular file.

Participants at the Maker Faire are bringing back the age of tinkering, one soldering iron and circuit board at a time. Meet the 12-year old who built a robot to solve his Rubik’s Cube, and learn how to print shoes at home. Yes, “print.”

Plus, the woman who started Science Hack Day … the creation of a beard-slash-cosmic-ray detector … the history of the transistor … and new materials that come with nervous systems: get ready for self-healing concrete.

(Photo is a model of the first transistor built in 1947 at the Bell Telephone Labs in New Jersey that led to a Nobel Prize. Today’s computers contain many million transistors … but they’re a lot smaller than this one, which is about the size of a quarter. Credit: Seth Shostak.)


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When are photons, photons?

Cosmic Diary by Gerry Harp - June 21, 2014

You’ve probably heard the word “photon” before, as in “photon torpedoes” popularized in the original Star Trek. “Photons” are what physicists call “light” or electromagnetic radiation, when it displays it’s particle-like behavior.

Think of the light from the Sun. The Sun (~6000 K) and emits light over a large range of frequencies. In space, satellites measure x-ray emissions, on Earth our eyes are sensitive to optical radiation and a radio-telescope like SETI Institute’s ATA see’s the Sun as an extremely bright object — the Sun emits radio waves too. We don’t often think about radio waves or x-rays as being made of the same stuff as ordinary light, but that is all there is to it. And everything from x-rays to radio waves can be described as if it were made up of particle photons in the quantum theory of light.

Photons are very special particles. Elementary particles like electrons, protons, neutrons or composite quasi-particles like atoms, molecules, ball-bearings, planets, stars, etc. share one important feature; they have mass. Rest mass. That is, if you stop an electron and weigh it, you’ll discover it has a measurable mass.

Photons in vacuum, lets call them “pure” photons, have no rest mass. If you stop a photon and weigh it… wait, you can’t stop a photon. Pure photons always move at the speed of light (duh!). If you subtract kinetic energy from a pure photon in an attempt to slow it down, it does not slow down, it just oscillates more slowly.

This is all very interesting, but how often do we come across “pure” photons in our universe? NEVER! Why? Because nowhere in the universe is there a perfect vacuum. Matter is dispersed everywhere. In the outermost reaches of space even in the vast gaps between galaxies, there is a tiny density of Hydrogen gas, possibly less than 1 atom per cubic centimeter. Even this much material is enough to disturb the properties of “pure” photons.

When a photon interacts with matter, two things happen : 1) it picks up “rest mass” and 2) it slows down. This happens because regular matter is made up of charged particles like electrons and protons (one each in a Hydrogen atom). When the electromagnetic wave passes an atom, it causes the lighter electrons to “jiggle” around the heavier protons, jiggling with the same frequency as the incident light wave. Momentarily, some of the photon energy is bound up in electron motion, but after a short time the electron releases the energy once more at the same frequency but with a small time lag. Matter imposes a “drag” on the photons, slowing them down. The same is true if light is passing through the space between stars, Earth’s atmosphere, a glass lens, a copper wire, and so forth.

How can photons, or light as we know it, travel slower than the speed of light? This sounds like a paradox. The answer is that photons passing through matter are no longer (pure) photons. The photons pick up a little bit of the material properties and the material picks up a little bit of the photon properties. Physicists say that the photons and oscillating electrons form a “quasiparticle” that travels nearly at the speed of light and carries a tiny bit of rest mass.

Now for the fun part. First of all, we’ve already discovered that everyday light really does not travel at the speed of light.

It is not possible to transmit light waves of arbitrarily low frequency. Suppose you go to a spot halfway between the Earth and Alpha-Centauri. You set up a large antenna and connect a radio transmitter that generates frequencies of, say, 0.001 Hz. That is one oscillation every 15 minutes, but never mind, there’s nothing to stop you from trying. What happens? Well, no waves are emitted. How can this be?

Because of the small amount of gas, especially ionized gas, between stars in our galaxy, the quasiparticle photon rest mass is equal to that of a pure photon with frequency >0.001 Hz. In a sense, you can try to generate waves with lower frequencies, but the surrounding space will “reject” these photons and they eventually re-enter the transmitter, cancelling out your attempted radiation. Photons with such low frequencies do not propagate. If you turn up your transmitter to oscillate just fast enough to exceed the rest-mass threshold of photons, then you will observe those photons travel very slowly, much slower than the speed of light in vacuum.

We can even imagine, within the boundaries of real physics, the concept of “slow glass,” invented by science fiction writer Bob Shaw in a story in Analog (1966) called “The light of other days.” In this story, a special kind of glass is invented such that optical photons take a long time, perhaps 10 years, to travel through a 1″ sheet of glass. Science fiction? Yes! But slow glass is possible.

Nothing, not even the light that provides us with sight every day, can travel as fast or faster than the speed of light in vacuum. But anything, including light, can be made to travel as slow as we like. This is the flip side of Einstein’s speed limit and allows for some weird possibilities. Perhaps we’ll explore more of these possibilities in a later blog.

Swirly rocks

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - June 18, 2014

A piece of Mars: Never mind the 4 m (13 ft) boulders that have fallen downslope, or the rippled sandy surfaces here. Look at those bright swirls in the ground. Those are the former interiors of sand dunes, which were trapped and incorporated into the bedrock (like dinosaur bones, but without so much rawr). The wind has been blowing sand around on Mars for a long, long time. (HiRISE ESP_036436_2645, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Skeptic Check: Check the Skeptics

One day, coffee is good for you; the next, it’s not. And it seems that everything you eat is linked to cancer, according to research. But scientific studies are not always accurate. Insufficient data, biased measurements, or a faulty analysis can trip them up. And that’s why scientists are always skeptical.

Hear one academic say that more than half of all published results are wrong, but that science still remains the best tool we have for learning about nature.

Also, a cosmologist points to reasons why science can never give us all the answers.

And why the heck are scientists so keen to put a damper on spontaneous combustion?

Studies discussed in this episode:

Chocolate and red wine aren’t good for you after all
The Moon is younger than we thought


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Whither the wind

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - June 13, 2014

A piece of Mars: Which way did the wind blow here? You can tell by looking at the dune and its ripples. The slip face (the avalanching slope of the dune) faces downwind, so the strongest wind here mainly blows toward the upper left. But that’s not the whole story, because, like on Earth, martian winds are always shifting. Recent avalanching and some ripples on the slip face show that the most recent wind blew toward the top of the frame. The dune is 267×110 m (876×361 ft). (HiRISE ESP_036393_2650, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Des mondes similaires au nôtre cachés dans des centaines d’exoplanètes ? SETI PR en Francais

Cosmic Diary Marchis - June 09, 2014

Communiqué de presse de l’Institut SETI et de CASCA
Monday, June 09 2014 – 12:15pm, PDT

Mountain View, CA -
Cette année a été intense pour les chasseurs d’exoplanètes, ces planètes autour d’autres étoiles. Une équipe d’astronomes de l’Institut SETI et du centre de recherche de la NASA Ames a découvert 715 nouvelles exoplanètes enfouies dans les données du télescope spatial Kepler. Ces nouveaux mondes qui tournent autour de 305 étoiles différentes, constituent des systèmes planétaires multiples, similaires a notre système solaire, lui-même constitué de huit planètes. L’annonce de cette découverte a été suivie par une nouvelle encore plus importante dans le monde de l’astronomie : la même équipe a annoncé la découverte de Kepler 186f, une planète de la même taille que la Terre qui tourne autour de son étoile dans la zone dite habitable. Cette decouverte constitue une étape essentielle vers la détermination de l’existence de planètes de type Terre dans la Voie Lactée.

Une vue artistique décrivant les systèmes planétaires découverts par le télescope spatial Kepler. Crédit: NASA

Jason Rowe, astronome au SETI Institute, est à l’origine de cette étude. D’après lui, « ces résultats indiquent non seulement que les planètes de la taille de la Terre sont très répandues, mais également que les systèmes multiples peuvent contenir des mondes habitables ». Il souligne néanmoins que « la plupart de ces planètes tournent autour de leur étoile à une distance bien plus courte que la distance entre la planète Mercure et notre soleil. Nous commençons à peine à trouver des systèmes vraiment similaires à notre système solaire. »

Ce déluge de nouvelles exoplanètes s’est intensifié grâce à l’utilisation d’une nouvelle technique d’analyse appelée « vérification par multiplicité ». Les chercheurs ont pu vérifier l’existence de centaines de nouveaux systèmes planétaires à la fois, sans pour cela devoir analyser chaque système un par un. Basée sur une étude probabiliste, elle a permis de confirmer l’existence de ces systèmes autour des 150 000 étoiles observées par Kepler. L’analyse de cet échantillon a ainsi conduit les astronomes à cataloguer 715 nouvelles exoplanètes, portant le nombre total d’exoplanètes découvertes à ce jour à plus de 1 700.

« Ce travail nous a aussi permis d’en savoir plus sur ces systèmes. Ils sont remarquablement compacts et les orbites de ces planètes sont planes et circulaires, tout comme notre système solaire, » note Jason Rowe.

Le 17 avril, l’équipe de Kepler annonça la découverte de Kepler 186f, la première planète de taille similaire à la Terre se trouvant dans la zone habitable de son étoile, là où la température en surface pourrait permettre à l’eau d’exister à l’état liquide. Cette découverte marque une étape importante dans la détermination de la fréquence de planètes similaires à la Terre dans notre galaxie.

D’après David Black, président et PDG de l’institut SETI, « la découverte de ces nouveaux mondes potentiellement habitables dans notre galaxie suggère que l’existence d’une vie extraterrestre, quelque part dans le cosmos, est probable. »

La mission Kepler a cessé d’enregistrer des données en début d’année en raison d’une anomalie rencontrée avec deux de ses roues à réaction qui sont essentielles pour orienter le télescope de manière très précise. Le 20 mai, la NASA a néanmoins annoncé qu’une seconde mission, appelée K2, était sur le point de commencer. Le satellite Kepler a été reconfiguré afin d’utiliser la pression des photons solaires pour compenser la roue manquante et affiner son pointage, lui permettant ainsi d’observer un champ du ciel différent.

« Nous ne pouvons plus maintenir les observations de Kepler dans le champ prévu initialement » annonce Doug Caldwell, scientifique en charge de l’instrument Kepler au SETI Institute, « mais le télescope spatial a été construit par une équipe pleine de ressources et dont l’ingéniosité a permis à Kepler d’avoir une seconde vie. Le satellite cherchera dorénavant des exoplanètes dans une gamme d’environnement très variée, notamment dans des régions de formation stellaire. Nous allons très certainement en apprendre beaucoup sur la formation et l’évolution de notre propre système solaire. »

« Plus nous explorons notre galaxie et plus nous découvrons de mondes parmi les étoiles qui nous rappellent le nôtre » conclut J. Rowe.

Au sujet de l’institut SETI :
L’Institut SETI  est une organisation de recherche multi-disciplinaire non lucrative, fondée dans le but d’explorer, comprendre et expliquer l’origine, de la vie dans l’univers, ainsi que sa nature et sa prévalence. Les chercheurs de l’institut rassemblent des expertises dans des domaines aussi variés que l’astrophysique, les sciences planétaires ou la biologie, les sciences sociales ou les sciences informatiques, ou encore le traitement du signal. Par l’étude du passé et du présent, les chercheurs peuvent ainsi entrevoir des bribes du futur. Nous sommes passionnés de découvertes, mais également du partage des connaissances, en tant qu’ambassadeurs scientifiques auprès du public, de la presse et du gouvernement. L’Institut SETI est un partenaire privilégié des agences gouvernementales, institutions académiques et plusieurs compagnies dans le monde entier.


Leslie Sage
CASCA Press Officer
+1 301 675 8957

Jason Rowe
SETI Institute
E-mail: jason.rowe@nasa.gov
Tel: +1 650 276-9092

Douglas Caldwell
SETI Institute
E-mail: dcaldwell@seti.org
Tel: +1 408 857-4353

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

David Black, President, CEO
SETI Institute
E-mail: dblack@seti.org
Tel: +1 650 960-4510

Ce communiqué de presse est basé sur une version anglaise publié par le SETI Institute. Il a été adapté et traduit par Franck Marchis et édité par Elsa Huby.

Apt to Adapt

If you move with the times, you might stick around long enough to pass on your genes. And that is adaptation and evolution, in a nutshell.

But humans are changing their environment faster than their genes can keep pace. This has led to a slew of diseases – from backache to diabetes – according to one evolutionary biologist. And our technology may not get us out of the climate mess we’ve created. So just how good are we at adapting to the world around us?

Find out as you also discover why you should run barefoot … the history of rising tides … why one dedicated environmentalist has thrown in the towel … and an answer to the mystery of why Hawaiian crickets suddenly stopped chirping.


The always-changing landscape

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - June 02, 2014

A piece of Mars: Over time, windblown sand can wear down a surface. This isn’t so common on Earth, where water, ice, and life are more likely to change the landscape, but it’s typical of many places on Mars. Here, we see one moment in time, where neverending sand (blowing from bottom right to top left) creates a pattern on the surface and scours a hole around a resistant rock. (ESP_035558_1830, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

A New Hope for Life In Space

Alien life. A flurry of recent discoveries has shifted the odds of finding it. Scientists use the Kepler telescope to spot a planet the same size and temperature as Earth … and announce that there could be tens of billions of similar worlds, just in our galaxy!

Plus, new gravity data suggests a mammoth reservoir of water beneath the icy skin of Saturn’s moon Enceladus … and engineers are already in a race to design drills that can access the subsurface ocean of another moon, Jupiter’s Europa.

Meanwhile, Congress holds hearings to assess the value of looking for life in space. Seth Shostak goes to Washington to testify. Hear what he said and whether the exciting discoveries in astrobiology have stimulated equal enthusiasm among those who hold the purse strings.



A piece of Mars: This is a bit of the flank of Arsia Mons, one of Mars’ great volcanoes. The big changes in topography are ancient relics of erosion by lava and great tectonic pulling. What I like is that the scene (1.58×1.18 km, or 0.98×0.74 mi) is covered in bright dust (looks a bit like snow here, doesn’t it?). And that dust has been eroded by wind channeled through the topography. So here we see signs of flow, both from ancient lava and from more recent wind. (HiRISE ESP_031944_1790, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Just For the Fund Of It

Get ready for déjà vu as you listen to some of our favorite interviews in the past year. It’s our annual fundraising podcast. Come for the great interviews, stay for the great interviews. Lend us your support along the way.

What’s for dinner? Maybe fried bugs. Listen as we do a taste test. Speaking of dinner, learn why saliva’s acceptable as long as it’s in our mouth. But dollop some into our own soup, and we push the bowl away.

Hear adventures of space walking and of space hunting: what happens to the search for extrasolar planets now that the Kepler spacecraft is compromised, and an astronomy research project that takes our interviewer by surprise. Plus, the case for scrapping high school algebra. That’s right: No more “the first train leaves Cleveland at 4:00 pm …” problems. Also … why “The Simpsons” is chock-a-block with advanced math.

And, in a world where everyone carries GPS technology in their pockets, will humans ever get lost again – and what’s lost if we don’t.

Plus, Mary Roach gives us a tour of our digestive systems.

All this and more on a special Big Picture Science podcast.


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54 years of space exploration: an updated map that you must see

Cosmic Diary Marchis - May 19, 2014

National Geographic asked 5W Infographics to update its 50 Years of Exploration graphic, a classic that I use often in my talks to illustrate our space exploration program and its focus on the inner part of the solar system.

The updated version, renamed “Cosmic Journey“, is spectacular, better organized and easier to follow than its predecessor. It has been updated to include new missions sent over the past 4 years. The new color code includes the paths of failed, as well as successful, missions and also the nation that led them.

Cosmic Journey by Sean McNaughton, Samuel Velasco, 5W Infographics, Matthew Twombly and Jane Vessels, NGM staff, Amanda Hobbs.

If you are a fan of space exploration, I strongly recommend that you take the time to explore this map in high resolution.

The history of space exploration is still in its infancy, we are not yet the master of this technology, so  we have had many difficult moments that we call today “failures”. For instance, almost fourty missions were launched to explore Mars but fewer than half of them succeeded in reaching the planet and returning useful data. Most successful ones were led by NASA and ESA. Unfortunately, statistic show that Mars is a doomed place for probes from the Soviet/Russian space agency.

The recent diversity of colors around the Moon illustrates quite well that Earth’s satellite is becoming the new “place-to-be” for newest space-faring nations. Dominations of Russian and American (red and orange orbits) before 1990s is being replaced by a more colorful set of orbits which includes missions from the lunar exploration programs of Japan, China and India.


Thanks to the eyes of distant robots, we have also been  taking pictures of far-off bodies like Jupiter, Saturn , Uranus and Neptune, or the outer solar system. And our quest is not over- NASA’s New Horizons, on its way to the dwarf planet Pluto, will flyby that multiple system quite soon on July 15 2015. ESA is already preparing a new mission, called JUICE, to explore Ganymede, a satellite of Jupiter. We have to be patient because this spacecraft will finally enter orbit around Ganymede in 2032. For sake of completeness, I should mention that NASA is also preparing the next mission to explore Europa (e.g. Europa Clipper), with the goal of better understanding the composition and activity of its ocean.

The bottom of the diagram shows the relative positions of these deep space missions, including Voyager 1, which recently reached the interstellar space. Pioneer 10 & 11 are not too far away, but have both been shut down. Voyager 1 is  the robot, or controllable human-made spacecraft,  located farthest from our home planet.

The only downside to this spectacular map is the absence of orbits around minor bodies. Samuel Velasco, one of its creators, told me me that missions to asteroids and comets were not included because the graphic was getting too difficult to read. Tough choices had to be made.

Enjoy the map. Thanks 5Wgraphics and National Geographic for making such a beautiful illustration available to us.

Clear skies,

Franck M.




Debunking Hoagland’s “Glass Worms” with HiRISE

A piece of Mars: Several years ago, a guy named Richard Hoagland claimed that some parallel linear features on Mars looked like the ridges of a transparent earthworm, calling these things “glass worms”. Phil Plait debunked it nicely, but Hoagland stood his ground. He hasn’t said much about them lately, has he? Here’s why. New images show that, as scientists originally thought, these are nothing more than windblown ripples in the floors of channels, just like the many thousands of ripples seen all over Mars. Go science! (HiRISE ESP_035634_2160, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

We Can Rebuild It

What goes up must come down. But it’s human nature to want to put things back together again. It can even be a matter of survival in the wake of some natural or manmade disasters.

First, a portrait of disaster: the eruption of Tambora in 1815 is the biggest volcanic explosion in 5,000 years. It changed the course of history, although few people have heard of it.

Then, stories of reconstruction: assembling, disassembling, moving and reassembling one of the nation’s largest T. Rex skeletons, and what we learn about dinos in the process.

Also, the reanimation of Gorongosa National Park in Africa, after years of civil war destroyed nearly all the wildlife.

And a handbook for rebuilding civilization itself from scratch.


SETI – Your Opinion Doesn’t Matter: part 3

This is part 3 and final installment in the Your Opinion Doesn’t Matter blog. Please read parts 1 and 2 for context.

In part 2 I divided spurious opinions regarding topics in SETI into 3 categories: science-free, Anti-scientific, and convicted statements of the “self evident.” Here we take up the last of these categories.

Convicted Opinions that are not so Self-Evident

Steven Hawking is the epitome of scientific hero. He overcame dramatic life challenges to become a peerless leader in the progress of general relativity theory of gravity and quantum mechanics. When it comes to theoretical gravitation, I’m not fit to tie his bootlaces. But he isn’t God. (I hear the jingling of sharpened spoons outside my window.) As far as I know! Speaking of intelligent life elsewhere, he said[4], “To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational.” I quote this only because it is convenient to me, ha ha! I’m about to say that Hawking isn’t the best source for information about ET.

Unlike many people, Hawking still has an imagination, “I imagine they [aliens] might exist in massive ships, … become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach.” Whoa! Where did that come from? Possibly… from a science fiction movie?  Proof that Steven Hawking is really a college undergraduate at heart.  (jingle…) Ahem, that was just my little joke, Mr. Dr. Professor Hawking. Sir.

It is plausible that Hawking’s comment inspired this excellent book[5], penned by scientists** who really are expert*** in SETI issues. For the greater part, experts suggest that aliens are more likely to be altruistic — willing to help us out with no expectation of immediate reward — than predatory. For example, members of a predatory species that have conquered their planet will have only each other to prey upon. This is a state of unstable equilibrium. So they had better lose their predatory instincts fast, or annihilation is inevitable in the long run. Hence, the aliens are not likely to be purely predatory.

**By sheer coincidence, this book is edited by none other than Doug Vakoch, the director for interstellar message construction at the SETI Institute, with an office a few doors down from mine.

*** At least, as expert as anyone could be.

So, what do you think? It doesn’t matter! Whether aliens exist, or don’t, is a question that will someday be answered by science. Provided we don’t give up on the search for them.

[4] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/space/7631252/Stephen-Hawking-alien-life-is-out-there-scientist-warns.html

[5] http://www.amazon.com/Extraterrestrial-Altruism-Evolution-Frontiers-Collection/dp/3642377491

SETI – Your Opinion Doesn’t Matter: part 2

This blog extends part 1 of a blog with the same title, and is followed by part 3.

Albeit imperfect, the radio search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) tests a scientific question (hypothesis), “Did intelligent life get started anywhere else in the universe?” This a scientific question (not a matter of opinion), because it has a definitive answer (yes or no) that can be tested by observing nature (i.e. with our telescope). “Is there a God?” also has a definitive answer, but it is not scientific because we have no hope that observations of nature can answer this question. The God question falls into the realm of “opinion” (sound of jingling spoons) because it can be answered only by methods outside the scientific framework. (Crickets…, OK, that’s better!)

Malformed opinions about SETI topics can be broken down into 3 types : (1) science-free, (2) conflicting with science, and (3) strongly convicted statements of the “self evident” which aren’t, really.

Ignorance is bliss (science-free) Opinions

A very readable book (meaning that I could read it all the way through), “The Elusive Wow: Searching for Extraterrestrial Intelligence,” by Robert H. Gray discusses the “WoW!” signal, observed at Ohio State University in 1977. I am critical of “WoW!” because the signal did not even pass the candidate tests in the original experiment, so why should we believe it based on arguments made after the fact? A review on Amazon [2] speaks differently. It discredits Gray’s book with the argument that, signals from far away are very weak. Wow! That’s convincing. Especially compared with actual science showing that an Arecibo-like transmissions from nearby stars can be detected, right now, by us, if we look hard enough.

Anti-scientific Opinions (conflicting with science)

A certain blog [3] states that there are even (50-50) chances of finding intelligent life around the recently-discovered exoplanet Kepler 186-f. Remember, Kepler 186-f is a “goldilocks” planet orbiting a star 500 light-years from ours. 186-f is almost the same size as Earth, presumably a rocky planet and in a “hot” (that is, not hot) orbit around its star to keep the temperature just right (that is, possibly close to a temperature) where (microbial) life (as we know it) can flourish (that is, be not immediately destroyed). And then the life must be intelligent like us and be actively transmitting in our direction. 50-50 chance, huh?

In round numbers, all targeted SETI searches until now show that fewer than 1/1000 “likely” stars harbor planets that are intentionally beaming signals toward us.* We think 1/1000 is still a pretty big number compared to something like 100000000000 planets just in our galaxy. Even better, exoplanets discovered by the Kepler telescope and other probes show that most stars have planets, and somewhere around 1/5 of stars host “habitable” planets that are favorable for the evolution of life. Promising indeed. Even so, these probabilities don’t add up to a 50-50 chance of finding intelligence.

*Are you surprised that 50 years of SETI research can say no more than that? This actually shows how little effort (money) has been expended over the years to do SETI. Not for lack of scientific interest, but simply because scientists have to eat. Write your congressional representatives and urge them to support funding for SETI research.

If anyone wants to place a bet, we have insider information on Kepler 186-f, thanks to first author Elisa Quintana, a scientist at the SETI Institute. In the few weeks between submission of the paper and announcement of the discovery of 186-f, the SETI Institute pointed its telescope ATA at Kepler 186-f as much as possible (>8 hours / day) looking for technology-generated signals between 1-9 GHz. Sadly, our observations did not discover any evidence for artificial signals from that direction. So far.

This blog is continued in part 3.

[2] http://www.amazon.com/review/R13G7YIOCUL0WN

[3] http://www.science20.com/quantum_gravity/blog/a_better_than_5050_chance_kepler186f_has_technological_life-134555

SETI – Your Opinion Doesn’t Matter: part 1

Ha ha! The title should garner angry crowds bearing sharpened spoons*, chanting before my office window in Mountain View.

*Because spoons are the only tools their caretakers will allow.

Not so seriously, a hilarious article in the tabloid, Daily Mail, is illustrative, and reminds me of the famous “heavy boots[1]” questionnaire:


Even the link is funny! An apparently reputable journal recently published results of interviews with 116 college undergraduates describing their scientific “opinions” about SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence). We leave aside the societal relevance of opinions from 18-23 year olds who’ve never worked a day in their life! (Uh oh, I hear jingling spoons again.) Ha ha, just kidding, all you large, young, and physically intimidating people attending their first years of college!  The crucial results:

(a) 82.1% think it is important to have a space agency.

(b) 71.4% think the military should have the main role in the event of contact with an alien civilisation.

(c) 80% believe if we find aliens more advanced than us they will try to conquer us.

(d) 78% believe there is a chance we’ve been visited by aliens in the past.

From (d) we infer that most undergraduates received their foundational science education from science fiction movies. This helps explain the rest. I’m most worried about question (b). Should the military be the first of “diplomats” that aliens meet?  The army has a hammer, called war. What better way to start a war than by throwing spitballs at aliens?

Actual posted comments to the article:
” When the Old Ones, who dwell among the stars return, they will put us in our place.”

“It would destroy religion and the oil industry.”

Fan favorite:

” The Vatican is at this very moment expecting to meet an alien to save the world. This will be the seed of Satan!”

The point I’m making is that SETI is a branch of science. The opposite of “science,” for want of a better word, might be called “belief.” (jingle, jingle…) Example: Recently at the ATA (visitor hours 9am-3pm M-F), a courageous young man told me straight to my face, “I don’t believe in aliens.” What was I to do? I said, “Well, it’s not a religion.” (jingle, jingle…) Ah! Not to disparage religion or any other system of beliefs.  To avoid the imminent mobs, I’ll re-label what I called “beliefs” as, “convicted opinions that cannot be tested by observations of nature,” or opinions for short.

Whether or not aliens exist is not a matter of anyone’s opinion. It is a scientific question that can and should be answered with science.

For more see parts 2 and 3 on this blog topic.

[1] http://blog.sciencegeekgirl.com/2009/11/09/myth-because-the-astronauts-had-heavy-boots/

Looking for signs of life on Kepler 186-F

Ya know? I’m really turned off by posts like this:


I should not give this guy any air, but he is an example of folks who make decisions about the value of the SETI research coming from a point of ignorance. A very readable book by Robert H. Gray discusses the observation of the “WoW!” signal, observed at Ohio State University in 1977. I see this work panned by “Tom:”


Tom discredits the book with the argument that signals from far away (alpha-centauri) will be weak. (Add your favorite sarcastic exclamation here.) There is plenty of solid physical evidence that an Arecibo-like transmission from Alpha Centauri can be detected with current Earth technology. While alpha centauri is not a particularly good location for life (as we know it), and the WoW! signal was probably an experimental glitch, I’m annoyed by criticisms that are not scientifically founded.

This blog is really about Kepler-186-f, a recently discovered proto-Earth planet that made the cover of Science on 18-April-2014. First author Elisa Quintana is a SETI Institute principle investigator. Thanks to this “inside track,” we at the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) had a 3-week head start doing SETI on 186-f before any other observatory, looking for signs of extraterrestrial technology. In case you haven’t heard, the ATA is a radio interferometer telescope designed especially for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) in the terrestrial microwave window (TMW, 1-10 GHz) and running 12 hours every day, looking for signs of interstellar communications. The ATA is especially suited for SETI searches since it has an instantaneous coverage from 1-9 GHz, and we’re not afraid to use it! Most SETI searches look only in lower frequencies (1-3 GHz). The ATA leads the field in recognizing that the entire TMW is fair game for interstellar communications.

In the 3 weeks leading up to announcement of 186-f, the ATA covered 1-9 GHz looking for technological signals 2-3 times, with a sensitivity of ~100 Jy in 1 Hz (that is, a very good sensitivity). Looking back more than just once is important at frequencies >4 GHz, because SETI signals may experience fading (an AM radio term, and familiar to anyone who’s tried to pick up AM radio from Chicago) on the way to Earth. Multiple observations increase the likelihood that our telescope will detect the signal.

Simply put, if about 500 years ago, 186-f were transmitting a tuning-fork like radio beacon, then we would have seen it.  Provided their transmitter were at least 8x as powerful as the most powerful transmitter on Earth, the Arecibo planetary radar. Considering that ET probably has better technology than humans do (since they are older than us), this is far from impossible.

Kepler 186-f is just the first of uncountable planets that could harbor life “as we know it.” Extrapolations of Kepler results suggest that Earth-like planets are abundant. Still, life as we know continues to be evasive. As Fermi put it, “Where are they?”

How we know wind blows down Olympus Mons’ flanks

A piece of Mars: It’s similar to my last post, but I love these wind tails. This is a tiny bit of the eastern slope of the gigantic volcano, Olympus Mons. The dusty surface has been covered by boulders (the largest of which is ~20 m, or 65 ft), probably flung there from a distant meteor impact on Mars. Winds screaming from the top of the volcano (from the left) have formed wind tails in the lee of these boulders. And there are some funky little ripples on them. (ESP_035663_1985, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)


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