SETI: The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, Part 2


NASA, ESA, S. Baum and C. O'Dea (RIT), R. Perley and W. Cotton (NRAO/AUI/NSF), and the Hubble Heritage Team STScI/AURA

Is there life out there in the cosmos and if so how do we find it? How might it find us? In this episode of Stuff to Blow Your Mind, Julie and Robert discuss the history of SETI as well as what classic TV shows our alien neighbors might be listening to.

Robert Lamb: This episode of Stuff to Blow Your Mind is brought to you by Audible.

Julie Douglas: Welcome to Stuff to Blow Your Mind from howstuffworks.com

Robert Lamb: Hey, welcome to Stuff to Blow Your Mind. My name is Robert Lamb.

Julie Douglas: And my name is Julie Douglas.

Robert Lamb: And this is part two of our SETI episode, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. This - again this is part two. I highly recommend that you listen to part one first. Sometimes when we do a part one and a part two you can kind of take them in any order you want, but this is not the case here. There's a definite narrative structure in place and it just won't make sense if you don't listen to part one first.

Julie Douglas: That's right. We created the set up so that when we get to this part that you guys would have a little bit more of an understanding of the context of exoplanets and aliens. So I hope you guys enjoy part two.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, we're talking about SETI, we're talking the possibility of intelligent alien life elsewhere in the cosmos and we're talking about radio waves. I thought it's important to point out that there's a reason why - why radio waves are so important in all of this. In Neil deGrasse's book, Space Chronicles, he points out that radio waves are a communication band of choice for potential alien civilizations due to the radio wave's ability to traverse the galaxy unimpeded by interstellar gas and dust clouds. So -

Julie Douglas: That's right. They travel really well.

Robert Lamb: Travel really well. So it's something we can look for that we know travels vast distances. And again - and that's one of the things as mentioned when we were talking about affirmative paradox and the Drake equation, is that when we're talking about finding life elsewhere in the universe, we're talking vast stretches of time and space. I mean to the level that it's really difficult for us to - to think about it. It's - think about - think about in terms of like finding your soul mate. It's like that person is out there in the world and they're alive. And they didn't exist five thousand years ago and it's not a situation where they won't exist for another five.

Julie Douglas: But imagine that you're super picky and so you kind of have to apply that Drake equation to your soul mate, right. So they have to be like exactly like 5'10 ¾" and they have to be, I don't know how many more constraints can you put on that, right? You could put like a hundred million constraints on it and that is what it's like searching for that signal.

So SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, there's the SETI agency and this was set up in the '60s in earnest by dedicated astronomists who were trying to figure this out. Could they really pick up a signal? Now the search uses large radio telescopes and what these telescope scientists involved in the study hope to detect radio signals that are leaking - this is what we're thinking - leaking from other intelligent civilizations or that other civilizations have specifically aimed that signal at us.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, so either we'll listen in on - on an alien phone call essentially, or we will receive that alien phone call that we both hope and dread for.

Julie Douglas: Now, according to Marshall Brian, he is the founder of How Stuff Works, he's got a nice blog post on this. He says, "The problem with SETI is that it requires massive computational resources."

Because think of all that data that you have to comb through. SETI is listening to a huge number of frequencies. "Then the computer has to look at each frequency separately and try to decide if it's carrying an intelligent signal as opposed to noise. To give you an idea of the scope of the problem, the antenna used by SETI at home records 35 gigabytes of data every day. It takes millions of hours of computation time just to process one day's worth of data."

Now, he's talking about a program that's called SETI at Home that's sort of runs the data for you in the background that you can install this.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. This was the - yeah, the distributed computing program where you would install this on your home computer, you get up to go use the restroom or go to have lunch or whatever, screen saver kicks in and your computer - instead of working on your own efforts in your word processing or what have you, it then contributes that computing power to SETI's problem of analyzing all of this data.

Julie Douglas: That's right it grinds away on that data, which is really cool. So the other problem - I guess you could say the problem with having so much data is trying to tune it into the most probable frequencies. So one way to go about this is to determine the best range, and the one to ten gigahertz range is the best range to listen in. It's the quietest. SETI also uses large multi-channel bandwidth signal processors that can scan millions or billions of frequencies simultaneously, and that's what they're more leaning toward these days.

Robert Lamb: Yeah and there are so many factors that you have to take into account, too. You have to worry about waves that are actually emitted by us that are just bouncing back from something else, say a piece of space garbage even.

Julie Douglas: Pulsars, too, that are sending signals.

Robert Lamb: Pulsars because that was a big one. Yeah the pulsars are sending this signal, this pulse, and when we first discovered them, we didn't know what they were. They're like, "Oh my goodness. This is it. This could be it."

And then we looked a little deeper and we've realized that actually there are these things and we'll call the pulsars because they're pulsing stars.

Julie Douglas: Yes, exactly. Stars emitting a pulse. And I also wanted to mention, too, that most of study research has been done by renting time on existing radio telescopes. So it's not even something that's an endeavor that we can do constantly, right? You have to rent the time because it's super expensive to even get the sort of technology for your own devices, right?

Robert Lamb: Yeah. And it's a nonprofit and they depend on the funding from a variety of different sources, NASA kicks in as well as even just individuals and various groups out there contribute to the steady effort. Because it's something that's - it's - a lot of people believe in it and for good reason because it is if you consider the - even the possibility that there's life out there in the universe, then it's essential that we find out what it is, what it might consist of.

Julie Douglas: Yep and the three main radio telescopes are the Parks radio telescope in Australia, there's the telescope in Green Bank, West Virginia and the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, and I believe that's the one that was in the movie contact.

Robert Lamb: Yes, at least in the intro stuff.

Julie Douglas: Yeah, yeah.

Robert Lamb: And of course SETI continues to evolve with the times. Laser technology has made it possible to search the optical portion of the electromagnetic spectrum for pulses of laser light that are just a few nanoseconds long in duration. So short, you have to really fine tune it to actually record them and analyze them. But during that nanosecond, they can actually briefly shine brighter than the light of nearby stars. So it's just another area of studies looking for the possible clues in trying to intercept that phone call.

Julie Douglas: Yeah, and just to give everybody an idea of really huge this is, this idea of trying to pick up this particular signal. There are a couple of different ways to go about it. One is called the wide field search. So you have this expansive sky beyond, right? What do you do? I mean that's a ton of data that's coming at you at any little point that you decide to concentrate on. So with the wide field search - in this method you survey large chunks of the sky one at a time for signals and it allows the entire sky to be searched at a low resolution for a short period of time.

The problem is the low resolution, right?

Robert Lamb: Right.

Julie Douglas: But if you get some data back that says, "Hey, this seems kind of like a hot area." Then you can go back later with higher resolution. That's the idea at least. And then you have targeted searches and this method you make intensive investigations of a limited number of sun-like starts. So again, that's that sort of that goldilocks area that you would be looking for. And a targeted search allows for more detailed investigations of small areas that we think might be probably locations of ET.

Now, what happens if you think you've heard a signal?

Robert Lamb: Well then you have to analyze that signal. You don't just run to the press and say, "We got it!"

Julie Douglas: We got it!

Robert Lamb: Aliens are coming.

Julie Douglas: They're here.

Robert Lamb: Yeah.

Julie Douglas: They said they just totally Morse coded us. From the article house study works on howstuffworks.com, if a signal is detected there are a series of steps that follow to confirm that signal is extraterrestrial. First, the radio telescope is moved off the target. The signal should go away, right? And then it should return when the telescope is pointed back. So they kind say, "Let's just make sure that this is the real deal. Move this off access and then take it back."

None earth or near earth sources such as satellites must be ruled out as originators.

Robert Lamb: Yeah because you don't want stuff that's originating from that object or bouncing back from - earth signal bouncing back off that object.

Julie Douglas: Similarly, quasars, pulsars have to be ruled out as well. And then the signal has to be confirmed by another radio telescope, preferably one on a different continent. To say, "Are you guys hearing the same thing that we are hearing?"

All right. So, so far we don't - we haven't really had that contact, but in 1977 there's something called the Wow! signal that was detected. And this got people really excited because it is still an anomaly. It's certainly - the 72 second signal is something that - that seems to be something that was picked up by the big ear radio telescope in Ohio.

Robert Lamb: Yep, just outside of Delaware. And the main astronomer in all this, an American astronomer Jerry R. Ehman, Ph.D. And he's even kind of gone back and forth on it. I was reading some of his writings about it. And for a while he was just - he was of the mindset, "No, there's gotta to be a terrestrial explanation for this" and what have you.

But on the 30th anniversary of the Wow! signal, he had this really cool bit to say. I'm just going to read the quote here. He says, "Thus, since all of the possibilities of a terrestrial origin have been either ruled out or seen improbable, and since the possibility of an extraterrestrial origin has not been able to be ruled out, I must conclude that an ETI (extraterrestrial intelligence) might - the might is bolded and italicized - might have sent the signal that we received as the Wow! source. The fact that we saw the signal in only one beam, it could be due to an ETI sending a beacon signal in our direction, and then sending it in another direction that we couldn't detect. Of course, being a scientist I await the reception of additional signals like the Wow! source that are able to be received and analyzed by many observatories. Thus, I must state that the origin of the Wow! signal is still an open question for me. There is simple too little data to draw many conclusions. In other words, as I stated above, I choose not to 'draw vast conclusions from the half vast data.'"

Julie Douglas: Yeah, there's this great quote, too that he says that it was sort of like a tug on the cosmic fishing line. So it doesn't prove that you have a fish on the line, but it does say that you should keep your line in the water because there might be something there. And what is so mysterious about the signal is that it was being admitted from an area that was not a goldilocks zone. It was sort of the void. It was sort of like there was nothing there. So they couldn't figure out what was the - what was originating. What was making that. And a couple really interesting theories came out of that, which I think helped to sort of color our ideas of why we haven't picked up a significant signal since. And that's this idea that - that it was a lighthouse signal. So rather than it just being a like, "Hey, we're just going to send this universe - this signal out into the universe constantly," it was sort of like we have limited energy and resources and maybe even technology and it's going to be more of a lighthouse signal that just kind of goes around and we'll see if we pick anything up.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, and that was one of the ideas that Ehman mentioned. The idea that it's blasted the signal at earth and then it turned and blasted another direction. So we didn't get a repeat signal because it's - it's going in a circle or what have you. It's trying to send out this signal to anybody who might be out there and letting them know, "Hey. What's up?"

Or if it is indeed, in keeping with a true lighthouse saying, "Stay away because we have rocks or hideous monster gods here and you shouldn't come anywhere near us."

Julie Douglas: Well, there is that zoo theory, right, that we have been picked up on and there's an intelligent extraterrestrial out there. They're saying, "Hey, just let them do their thing and evolve. We'll just watch them from a distant like a colony of ants and see what they're up to."

Robert Lamb: They are hilarious.

Julie Douglas: And then there's also the idea that maybe that technology died - the technology from that society died out or maybe it's just we didn't overlap. So in other words, by the time that we started listening, we missed any sort of signals that might have been sent out.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, I mean the whole thing - that possibility as well as just the lighthouse possibility, it reminds me of any of these movies where someone is stranded on a desert isle and that plane flies over and generally they're asleep or doing something else or talking to a volleyball when it happens. Plane's flying over so they frantically try and get that plane's attention, but it's too late. It's already passed over and maybe there just wasn't a very good way to get its attention to begin with.

So there's kind of like haunting feeling, what if they did - what if that was an attempt at communication from a distant civilization? And in one way or another, we were too late. We were just - we didn't have the technology to respond or our time - the time line or the life cycle of our civilizations didn't overlap or didn't overlap enough for that to be possible. You know it like star torn lovers out there in the cosmos.

Julie Douglas: Aw, that's beautiful.

Robert Lamb: Yeah.

Julie Douglas: But that's what makes people so obsessive about it because they say, again, we've got the ingredients for this primordial soup, there has got to be a possibility here. Let's just keep listening. And that is what SETI is trying to do. And SETI is not just listening, they're preparing, too. We had mentioned this in a previous podcast. I guess about a couple years ago. I think it was called Alien Etiquette 101.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. It was one of the early ones that we did together.

Julie Douglas: They - the study institute had a workshop in Paris in 2002 inviting people from all different disciplines to discuss the ways in which might communicate with aliens and the best modes to do it. And then - I really loved this one. 2008 NASA sponsored a course at the University of Wyoming called Interstellar Message Composition, and students were asked to ponder how aliens might communicate and how you would translate between languages and so on and so forth.

One of the students wrote a poem about menstruation with syllables arranged in the Fibonacci sequence in her quest, I think, to try to let extraterrestrials know about some of the human biology.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, I mean, because you never know what the talking are going to be. You want to be like, "Hey do you guys have menstruation?"

And they're like, "Yeah, yeah, we do actually."

And then you have something to talk about.

Julie Douglas: Like, "Oh, how quaint."

Robert Lamb: It's like a first date between species, civilizations.

I mean you could make the argument that you need to appoint somebody like, what if Dennis Rodman was the go to man? He's doing so well -

Julie Douglas: Dennis Rodman?

Robert Lamb: Well, yeah, I mean, he's been doing so well in terms of just being an international embassary, going out to North Korea on unofficial behalf of the United States.

Julie Douglas: Okay.

Robert Lamb: So maybe we send him to other worlds to talk to the hideous monster gods. I don't know.

All right, we're going to take a quick break and when we come back, more SETI.

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Julie Douglas: Well, a lot of this has been us looking out into the cosmos, but what about trying to take the perspective of an extraterrestrial life form looking at us. What would earth the exoplanet look like?

Robert Lamb: Yeah, because we're talking about other signals, signals that we receive. That we may be listening in or being told directly. So it's kind of like in this situation it makes me think of when you're at a restaurant or something, or any public place and you're having a conversation with somebody or maybe you're on the phone, and then you realize too late that you're in earshot of someone else. And you're like, "Oh my goodness, did they listen to that whole conversation up to this point?"

And then - only then can you maybe have a directed comment to them and greet them or whatever. So the idea here is that long before we even thought about sending a signal - a radio signal out into the great, black beyond, we were inadvertently leaking all these radio signals and it wasn't the worse stuff that we've necessarily - that we've contributed, but not all of it is exactly something that we would put on the galactic resume otherwise.

Julie Douglas: You're right. It's sort of like cleaning up our Facebook page if we could, right? It's an 18 year old and then you see yourself as 30 year old.

Robert Lamb: Exactly.

Julie Douglas: So yeah, like you said we've been kind of leaking out this - the tryst of humanity since the 1930s in the form of AM and FM radio broadcasts, TV broadcasts and then satellite radar broadcasts and then there's also just the other sort of ambient noise. Like every time you open your garage door, these are all signals that are being sent out there -

Robert Lamb: So we have lots of groaning noises, we have lots of - I mean, ultimate a lot footage of us, of us as a biological specimen that I think is going to be good regardless. But then you have us dressed up in monster costumes, you have various levels of fiction and fantasy; you have actual depictions of humanity at its worse, of us waging war on each other, waging genocide. I mean just some really horrible images for another culture to look at and go, "Uh, I don't know if we need these guys on friend group."

Julie Douglas: Yeah and what's interesting about that is say that you pick up on our frequency and then it's sort of like this ocean of sound coming at us and the first thing that you hear is from the 1930s and then you move onto the 1950s and it's like bits and pieces from the Honeymooners, that's the name of the show, right?

Robert Lamb: Yeah, yeah the Honeymooners.

Julie Douglas: I Love Lucy. Trying to make sense of all this.

Robert Lamb: I find that really interesting that the edge of this radio bubble that is emitted by our planet and by our culture, is about 70 light years away, just spreading out ripples in a pond. And near that edge, that's where you find stuff like I Love Lucy and the Honeymooners. And I looked it up, I was like, "Oh I wonder if - I never really watched those shows, I wonder if interplanetary relations were ever covered."

And of course they were to a certain extent. There's an episode of the Honeymooners call "The Man From Space" in which Jackie Gleason dressed up in like a really bad Robert/alien costume, and then Ralph comes in through the door and is scared, like he's terrified. He's like "Ah!"

And then he voices some concern over the possibility of alien invasion. So even right there in the Honeymooners, they might click up and say, "Whoa, there's some sort of underlying fear that we might invade them and maybe we should lay low."

And then there's an I Love Lucy episode called "Lucy is Envious" that features two different sets of bad Martian costumes. Like Lucy and her friend are on the roof wearing Martian costumes trying to scare people off the roof for some reason, and then I think their -

Julie Douglas: Someone's paying them to do it. I don't know.

Robert Lamb: And then their - I think their husbands come in and scare them wearing Martian costumes. It's -

Julie Douglas: And so this is the thing that's out there on that bubble, right?

Robert Lamb: Yeah.

Julie Douglas: And it's concerning what we think are - is intelligent extraterrestrial life, which is very interesting.

Robert Lamb: I did find it really fascinating that Jackie Gleason was apparently a big UFO enthusiast. So I wonder what he would make of that. To his end to the idea of extraterrestrial life as it was, that's he's kind of an embassary of it.

Julie Douglas: It's hard to say because then there's the whole thing about how we project all sorts of things onto other being and we have these expectations and really we don't even know what we're dealing with because as we have pointed out in one of the slime episodes, intelligence can be many different things and many different forms. So it may not be what we expect. I wanted to point out, too, that if some sort of extraterrestrial life were looking at us, they might pick up that we are just chemically all over the place. They might look at earth and they might look at the biomarkers that indicate our planet is rife with flora and fauna and they would do this through spectroscopy, the analysis of light through a spectrometer which allows us to look at the chemical fingerprint of every element and chemical and see how much of it is absorbed, emitted and scattered throughout a particular atmosphere.

So if intelligent aliens were to set their spectrometer sights on us, what would they see? They'd see an unusual amount of methane as we noted, thanks in part to the belching cows and such, they would see sodium from sodium vapor street lights switching on. They would just see all sorts of things that they wouldn't necessarily expect.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, you'd see smog and all sorts of industrial pollution as well.

Julie Douglas: Right. Right. Yeah, they would see - exactly, they would see some of the - what we call the amphrofeseen era markers. That's manmade chemicals and they would know automatically like there's - this is very loud planet with a lot of different things going on and it would be pretty obvious that something was afoot.

Robert Lamb: Yeah in his book, Neil deGrasse also mentions the possible reasons that we haven't been discovered. Like the idea that we're not - it's easy to get into your mind the idea that a super intelligent species out there and they're just all-knowing and they just - either they found us and they just don't want to do anything about it, or they're -

Julie Douglas: Or you assume they know what we know.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, but it it's a big universe. It is a big universe. It is a lot of time and a lot of distance involved here. And it's easy to - it's like finding a needle in a haystack. And so there are possibilities that the earth is a little too close to the sun, that even if they were receiving this data, it would be confusing and they wouldn't really know exactly what they were looking at. And you have the wrong extraterrestrial analyzing the data that day, that maybe he wants to get home to his wife. So maybe he doesn't give the due diligence that required.

Julie Douglas: Well, does this point the limits of knowledge, too, because as noted that intelligence and intelligent life can be something beyond what we know or we define as intelligent life. And if there is an extraterrestrial civilization out there that is intelligent, I'm putting that in air quotes, maybe they're a completely different form that's different from ours that they wouldn't be able to recognize the markers of what our intelligent civilization is.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, I'm - a lot of our fears of alien invasion and all of this, a lot of that is because we're reflecting our understanding of ourselves out there in the void. And like I was saying earlier, a lot of it comes down to there's sort of a self-centeredness even in our attempt to understand what's going on beyond us. We want to know how we fit in, how we related, how we stack up and so as we're - we imagine a being. We image a civilization out there that would take at least some of the same interests that we have. So you look at humans and what have we done? We want to plant our flag on things. We want to put our name on things. We want to colonize other worlds in the long term because that's the - that is what would allow the long term survival of the species itself. We want to keep what we are and ultimately we're terrified of change. We want to - in many cases we want to ravage other places for their resources. We want to continue to grow and to fuel ourselves. So we look to the possibility of other civilizations and we kind of expect shades of this as well.

But what if the extraterrestrial life is more of a passive species, a more passive culture? What if they aren't interested in interfering or reaching out to us? What if they just want to check us off on a list, like, "Oh there's life here. Well, let's just write it down, tell us what it is and we'll put it to the books." Maybe that's all they want.

Julie Douglas: Indeed. Maybe it is. And in the meantime we'll continue to be listening, right?

Robert Lamb: Yeah.

Julie Douglas: Or rather study well. And there's not a huge future right now for study. There was a dedicated telescope array that was called the Allen telescope array, but budget cuts have sort of put that into hibernation. But in the meantime study continues to eavesdrop on the universe through rented radio telescopes.

Robert Lamb: As of now they still have an artist in residence, Charles Lindsey, creating these cool structure - installation pieces with the sound component and all and it's really cool stuff, but that was like a 2011 through 2013 gig, so I do not know if they're going to have a second artist in residence.

Julie Douglas: It would be awesome if they did because the whole point of that was to try to change our perspective of what intelligent life may be, right?

Robert Lamb: Yeah.

Julie Douglas: And through different forms and shapes and I think he captured some really interesting imagery. In fact, we'll definitely put that up on Facebook.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, yeah. In SETI, again, it's something that even casual observers to space exploration, people with a casual interest in science fiction or what have you, it's a very relatable, noble goal. It's like - I think it's a great entry point for people to learn more about science and get excited about science and space exploration.

Julie Douglas: Indeed.

Robert Lamb: All right, so there you have it. A little bit about the history of SETI, some of the big points in their history, what they're doing and what the future may hold for them. And we could sit around and ponder and hypothesis and imagine what alien life might consist of all day, but you have to keep that confined to certain hours of the day so you can get stuff done.

Julie Douglas: That's right.

Robert Lamb: So we would love to hear from you guys if you have anything to add on this. What do you think about the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe? Do you think it exists? Do you know it exists? We love those stories as well. So let us know. You can find us on Facebook and you can find us on twitter and you can find us on Tumbler. On Facebook and Tumbler we are Stuff to Blow Your Mind and on twitter we go by the handle blowthemind.

Julie Douglas: And you can always drop us some binary code at blowthemind@discovery.com

For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit howstuffworks.com

Robert Lamb: This episode of Stuff to Blow Your Mind is brought to you by Audible.

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Duration: 28 minutes