Alone in the Universe, Breakthrough Listen, SETI, The Great Silence, Wow Signal, Writing Science Fiction
It’s been an interesting year for SETI and enthusiasts of the famous Wow Signal, which to this day, remains an unresolved enigma. For those unfamiliar with it, a SETI researcher monitoring signals from the cosmos, picked-up a massive radio spike in 1977 that lasted 70 seconds, then never repeated. It became a seed for Carl Sagan’s tale, Contact. Updated technology detecting similar RFBs (rapidly fired bursts) in recent months, along with the Kepler Telescopic discovery of earth-like exoplanets, has rekindled an interest of our place in the universe.
We go through sinusoidal periods of interest, maxing with news of unique cosmic events, bottoming when reality pundits fire-hose SETI as fanatics wasting money and time. The latest Pluto flyby spiked a minor media frenzy (I use that word lightly). Announced on the anniversary of Apollo 11’s moon landing, a Russian billionaire is now trying to breathe life into the search with a new cosmic dragnet, called Breakthrough Listen, which attracted even Stephen Hawking’s interest.
We love using creative license to fictionalize answers to the are-we-alone debate. In the heyday of Heinlein and Clarke, limited knowledge allowed science fiction writers huge leeway in world building. Even today, we ignore the tenets of Einstein and Hawking that claim traveling to galactic neighbors a probable impossibility. Can’t get there from here … unless of course there’s some truth to Interstellar’s premise of jumping through wormholes (one can hope). Still doesn’t stop us from scribing space operas for fun and profit (mostly fun), but even we writers have to step back and take a reality check, especially when the science outweighs the fiction.
What happens if one of those RFBs turns out to be a real message? Given the time it takes to receive a light-speed transmission, it’s the equivalent of letters-in-a-bottle, navigating the seven seas before reaching its destination. The letter’s author, possibly the author’s world, could be long gone by then.
I touched on The Great Silence last April in, Not Going Anywhere Soon, with excerpts from John Gribben’s book, Alone in the Universe, suggesting sentient aliens may have existed, but with our youngish 4 billion year-old birth certificate in a universe that’s well past puberty at fourteen billion, civilizations may have gone extinct before earth was born. Most people conceptualize life on human time. How does the average person grasp that human existence on earth, is an attosecond in the scheme of cosmic time.
Separation of sentience by distance and time, some would say, was meant to be that way. I remind myself a few thousand years ago, our forbearers thought much the same way in lands isolated by geography. In the last couple of decades, we’ve learned how much we still don’t know. If in my lifetime, we do get mail from somewhere out there, though we may not have technology to communicate in real time, we will learn at last that we are not alone.
That’s good enough for me.
How about you? Do you think ET is going to call us back soon?
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James Pailly said:
I like your message in a bottle metaphor. If we ever do receive a transmission from an alien intelligence, it would be an incredible stroke of luck. Much like stumbling upon a bottle that washed up on shore.
Very true, James. The growing catalog of exoplanets has my hopes up, but then I’m good at imagining things. Thanks, BTW, for following. Seeing your avatar at the bottom makes my day.
Marlo Berliner said:
I never really thought of it that way, but now that you mention it, it makes a great deal of sense. It would be just like a message in a bottle…from a long gone friend. Maybe we really are all alone. What if we’re the last ones anywhere? Chilling thought to be sure. Perhaps even more so than if we are not alone.
Arthur C. Clarke quoted “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” I don’t believe we are the first, last, or only sentient species in the universe, but limitations of traversing great distances in a human timely fashion, may see us earthlings pass into extinction before we ever find out. Sci-Fi guy in me wants to believe we might live long enough to discover “loopholes” in the space-time continuum, like the movie Interstellar. Thanks Margo.
The message-in-a-bottle aspect is an interesting one, but one that makes me sad. Consider this expansion of the metaphor. Imagine you’re on a boat and you see the bottle bob on your wake as you zip on by. There indeed might be a message in it, but it’s lost forever – at least to you.
A single message burst is next to useless, because while it might attract attention, whoever is listening won’t have a chance to record it before the speed of light says ‘too bad you missed it!’. A successful interstellar communication must be repetitive in nature.
As in the story “Contact” by Sagan, repetitive was key in solving the mystery (prime numbers indeed). I’m wondering how bending in the cosmos, and the forces of dark matter that cause it, could impact a repetitive linear signal by scattering it, like a bullet that shatters to become a random shotgun spread of RFBs. Thanks, Chris.