Seti or Weti?

Today I listed to one of my favorite podcasts, Astronomy Cast episode 110 "The search for extraterrestrial intelligence" where good buddy Fraser Cain and the lovely Pamela Gay (yes, I am a fan of Pamela's) talk about Seti (the Search for extraterrestrial intelligence) and the possibility of finding extraterrestrial life via catching their "stray" radio or tv broadcasts.

Seti has been going on since the 60s and still has not shown any "alien" signals. That does not mean they are not there as every good skeptic knows that "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" but its apparent lack of success has not necessarily contributed to being a well funded endeavour, which I think is a shame.

Success or lack of it aside, the idea of extraterrestrial life is most intriguing. Basis the premise that the Universe is a very large place and that Earth is basically insignificant against the gigantic backdrop of what we know exists, extraterrestrial life looks like a logical conclusion - if life happened on Earth it must have happened elsewhere, once we also accept the fact that there may be nothing particularly especial about Earth, the sun and the human race in general. Life may be rare but that doesn't necessarily make it unique.

But if life is not unique to Earth, does that mean we will meet an extraterrestrial civilization? No one really knows as the progression of events leading to contact between two separate civilizations may indeed make such contact very improbable if not impossible:
  • Right conditions for life must exist
  • Life must arise and evolve
  • Evolution must lead to intelligence
  • Intelligent life forms must develop technology
  • This tecnology must allow for interstellar travel or communication of some sort
  • The communication capability must exist for a finite amount of time

Each one of the above must be a very low probability event. These probabilities, taken together, offer an insight into a possible number of "communicative" civilizations. Dr. Frank Drake developed Drake's equation, in 1961 (read more about it at the Seti website). As solved by Frank Drake himself, the equation yields a number of 10,000 "communicative" civilizations in our galaxy.

The last term in Drake's equation refers to the lifetime of this "communicative" civilization. I haven't heard or read anything about this particular term but I have indeed thought about it.

Our sun seems to be a third generation star as it contains a lot of heavy elements (heavier than iron) same as the solar system. Without these elements, life as we know it could not have evolved.

Considering that the lifetime of a star like the sun may be 8 to 10 billion years, we seem to be indeed early in the "history" of the universe. That would present an argument for saying that we may be among the first technologically capable civilizations in the galaxy and that we may be, eventually, the first or one of the first to venture out into the unknown.

On the other hand, there was a huge meteor impact on Earth about 65 million years ago, that nearly wiped out all life on the planet and led to the disappearance of the dinosaurs or at least that is the generally accepted view. But I keep wondering if species of dinosaurs like velociraptor could not have evolved into sentient, intelligent beings much like humans but with a 65 million year head start?

Actually there is a Star Trek Voyager episode which depicts descendants of dinosaurs that escaped destruction on Earth and now living on the Delta quadrant of our Galaxy, wherever that is (Season 3 episode 23 "Distant Origin") . Obviously this is highly especulative but so is Star Trek. These intelligent reptiles are the kind of advanced civilization that a 65 million head start on us would lead to.

So, if that 5-6 mile piece of space junk had not hit, we might all be dinosaurs roaming the skies. And if other civilizations had that same kind of a head start, we are late to the party. Probably too late.

After all this ranting, what is it going to be? Seti... or should we wait and see? That is what WETI stands for, Waiting for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence to arrive.

Me, I am sitting back and relaxing waiting to see if our velociraptor cousins show up. Good piece of advice from Pamela.

Listen to the podcast. You will be enlightened while being entertained.

Why skeptics like science fiction?

I have been following the skeptical movement for about two years now and I feel very identified with it because I have always been a skeptic at heart. And I feel more and more a part of this way of thinking when I realize that my passion for science fiction is shared with so many of my skeptical colleagues.

Maybe skeptics like science fiction because many of the best and best known SF writers of the 20th century were also skeptics. Arthur C. Clark lets readers clearly see his agnosticism/atheism; Isaac Asimov defends science and the scientific outlook in both his fiction and non-fiction writings; he was the original skeptic. And you can feel the skepticism in Heinlein's and Van Vogt's work. While you are at it, don't forget Gene Roddenberry and his Opus Magnum, Star Trek.
So, many good SF writers were (or probably were) skeptics. But what about our own mindset when we read (or watch) science fiction? Interestingly, us SF fans classify these works of art into "good SF" and "bad SF". How come? Most SF requires some suspension of disbelief in order to be enjoyed. Yeah, yeah, Dr. Krauss, I understand that beaming someone using a Star-Trek-type transporter would require so much information storage as to make it unpractical... but watching the special effects of Captain Kirk being "beamed up" and "down" does get us thinking how good a change to our daily conmute that would be and wouldn't it be good to have one of those at home. On the whole, Star Trek is regarded as good science fiction, warp drive non-withstanding. On the other hand I personally consider Star Wars a very low grade SF work... although many of my skeptically minded friends like the movies. What is the difference?

For me at least, the difference is that, while Star Trek at least tries to base some of the stories on some kind of science, Star Wars does not. When Captain Janeway asks for a "tachion beam", we already know that time disturbances are somehow linked to these "tachions" which, maybe, will now be discovered by the LHC. But "the Force" is so "mystical" and "religious" that I am personally turned off by it. It is like the Matrix - they do things that are impossible, only you know that "in the Matrix" they can be explained by manipulation of the "reality-producing" algorithms while there is no good explanation of how "the Force" works short of being a deist and considering a mysterious spiritual bonding of every atom of the universe... a concept I really shy away from.
So that most be the reason why Asimov and Clarke are considered among the top SF writers of the last century - two authors who consistently used good science and reasonable extrapolations of current knowledge throughout their stories, while some other writers (and I don't read them, so I don't want to name them) might best be classified as fantasy rather than SF authors.

And there is the "in-between" category. For instance, I am currently listening to J. C. Hutchins "7th. Son" trilogy. J.C.'s story has a wonderful flow that really grabs you and forces you to listen forsaking TV, sleep, sex and meals... well, maybe only TV. But I find that the need of suspension of disbelief is, at times, a little too much. For instance, J.C. postulates the existence of the mysterious "Aurora" aircraft and then narrates that it takes an Aurora 20 minutes from Virginia to the middle of Texas. OK, I think, maybe fly over Virginia and into Texas in 20 minutes... but landings and take-offs would easily consume an additional 10 minutes each considering the extreme heights at which such an aircraft would have to operate. And then you have the refueling problem (no refuelings occur...) and the Auroras, in the novel, seem to be kind of a flying 4X4, able to take off and land in almost any strip. It really strains my skepticism until I remind myself that "7th. Son" is a thriller more than a SF novel.

Maybe that is the reason I, as a skeptic, like SF. It flexes my critical thinking muscles and forces me to look beyond and try to see these things really happening... are they at all possible? If most of them are, in light of our current knowledge and a reasonable extrapolation into the future, then you are reading good SF.
J.C. Hutchins novel is available at While you are there, be sure to check Mur Lafferty's excellent "Playing for keeps", which is now also in print and available at I highly recommend both even if they are not all that "believable" but they are definitely enjoyable. Image above was found in this excellent blog, Trevize's computer.

LHC: End of the world postponed?

Of course I do not believe that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will cause the end of the world! But since the chicken-Littles of the world have been crying wolf... I thought I would have a little laugh at their expense.

What is the Large Hadron Collider? Simply put, it is the largest particle accelerator ever built (actually, the largest atom-smasher) and it will allow us to peer into the very fabric of the universe and re-create conditions that were only present a few nanoseconds after the Big Bang. If you don't know what a particle accelerator is and what it is used for, go check wikipedia, which also has a nice article on the LHC.

Now, seriously, we science fans are more than a little disappointed. The LHC (see news here) was initially turned on on September 1oth. A good day for science! The giant magnet was powered on and protons were spun around the 27 km circunference successfully. Unfortunately on September 19th, a failure in two of the magnets used to accelerate and confine the proton beam caused a helium leak. Helium is used as a coolant, the LHC magnets being kept at an extremely low temperature of 1.9 K - that is more than 270°C below cero!

Imagine the challenges of operating equipment at such extreme temperatures! Science fans have been further disappointed by the fact that the LHC is now only slated to be re-started in the early spring of 2009 - which for me means march or april.

There have been all sorts of reactions from the fans of the LHC protesting such a lengthy repair. But the challenge is to bring the failed section up to room temperature: from 1.9 K to 300 K it may take several weeks, in order to avoid any damage during heat up. And once the repairs are conducted, it will then take some more time to cool down everything to operating temperature - not to mention the planned winter shut down, which is closing fast!

In any case, 2009 should be the year when the LHC will make headlines (at least in the media outlets that we, science fans, read) and who knows, maybe string theory will get confirmation... or not!