In previous postings I’ve enthused about the difference any one of us can make through our choices and what we do every day in seemingly ordinary ways. Also there are opportunities to take part in activities that may in the past have been out of reach, or placed out of reach, for most people - for example by making a contribution to scientific and medical research – and appreciating the results.
We can all make such a contribution – and it could turn out to be an important one - through an increasing range of 'citizen science' projects in which the nature of the research means that there is a massive amount of data to process even by supercomputer standards.
Public facilities may not exist or official priorities may lie elsewhere, so the idea is to distribute the computing load over the internet to individual volunteers with their own participating computers located all over the world. There are now millions of computers in the various programmes. I have been involved with one such overall scheme for some time. This is BOINC, the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing. After downloading and installing the BOINC software (to get going, Google BOINC) you can select the research projects (one or several) that you would like to support.
At the time of writing there are 43 projects available to choose from including finding cures for diseases, studying global warming, joining a quake-catcher network and much else besides. The blocks of data are seamlessly downloaded, analysed on your computer and then uploaded back automatically to the University in the background.
Within BOINC, the project I’m involved with is SETI – the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence – which is now very much a citizen science project since official support was cut back, presumably due to a lack of results in a political or business cycle. The programme was saved by a vigorous voluntary campaign of fundraising which, incidentally, included the actress Jodie Foster who starred in the film 'Contact' which was based on the novel by Carl Sagan. But SETI is still a small and dedicated team working on a tight budget and based at the Berkeley SETI Research Centre.
With SETI the analysis looks into the data gathered for a ‘candidate signal’ from civilisations elsewhere in the Milky Way. Now I do know that we could do with a good deal more terrestrial intelligence down here, but projects like this might help to gain a much wider perspective – one that current events suggest is vital. SETI is indeed a noble quest and it addresses one of the most fundamental questions that humanity can seek to answer.
My two computers in the SETI programme mainly process data (using their spare cycles – idle time – there is no cost to this) from the huge radio telescope at Aricebo in Puerto Rico - which you may also have seen in the Contact film. There are other large radio telescopes throughout the world that are also taking part in the programme.
All this and more is a real democratisation of science as well as its expansion and it provides an opportunity for people in all walks of life to contribute towards major discoveries or improvements and to push back boundaries. It makes me aware of what a privilege it is to be involved with this inspiring work. I would not want to miss such an opportunity.
Helping with research such as this is just one of the many ways in which we can all make another difference every day of the week. You can, of course, choose a very different project (for my own part I may also get involved with earthquake detection) and you could be part of an international team that makes an important breakthrough in your chosen field.
In terms of SETI, while no intelligent signal has been found as of the time of writing, the area probed thus far is just a drop in the galactic ocean (remember those drops?). And we now know that there are far more potential places for life to arise in the Galaxy and even the Solar System than we would have dreamt of just a few years ago. Part of the range of SETI’s work is to look for new kinds of signals contained in the data and to develop new algorithms – so, I like to imagine, there may already be something there!
There is a real chance of answering definitively, and within the lifetimes of people alive today, the question that human beings have asked since the dawn of our awareness – are we alone? Contact could happen tomorrow, next year, by 2050 or much further into the future. But if we don’t seek, we shall surely never find.
There’s another question I’ like to address. Suppose that SETI did succeed, what would we then do? Firstly I hope that the success would have a salutary effect on undesirable entities such as dictatorial regimes, those with regressive political attitudes, religious extremists and such like.
But this result would by no means be instantly guaranteed as scope for denial by irrational individuals is virtually limitless as is the scope for conspiracy theories (‘they’re making it all up’) and outright mind control (‘you’re forbidden to express belief in this on pain of death.’).
Nevertheless, should there be a copy of Encyclopaedia Galactica included with new physics and new engineering results (albeit with its own associated hazards) I think there would be rapid progress if the rest of the world is mature enough to handle it. It may be no more than belief, but I have great confidence in human capacities to cope with external shocks – and nothing could be much more external than this!
But would ET be hostile or benign? An important question indeed. Benign seems the more likely to me. What would a hostile civilisation be able to gain if it was 1,000 light years distant from us as a lesser civilisation? In contrast a benign civilisation could transmit its knowledge and information about its culture and pitfalls and so propagate its views on the Cosmos and its approach to life and help us to survive natural and human shortcomings. This is assuming of course that the extraterrestrials are not so alien in their form or the environment in which they live as to rule out much of their approach.
Also, if by some faster than light means a hostile civilisation was, in fact, able to engage in conflict, the relative number of such civilisations would I believe go down assuming that conflict with other aggressive civilisations is somewhat more likely than with peaceful ones. Hostile civilisations would also possess extremely formidable weaponry, of almost unimaginable power, possibly with one weapon able to destroy an entire solar system. The more of these weapons were around, the more likely will be accidental destruction.
If a message is received through SETI, should there be a reply? First of all there is no hurry, with a built-in delay of an absolute minimum of 4.2 years (light speed to the nearest star) and more likely 420 or 4,200 years. But you can be sure that some rich egotist would try to jump the gun and defy collective wisdom presumably expressed through the United Nations.
Decency would suggest that we should respond by at least saying “We are here. You are not alone.” and saying something of what we are and what we have accomplished off our own bat – perhaps along the lines of the famous Voyager disk - since the sender may have similar ingrained search imperatives to our own. But what more?
The greater the distance the less the point in asking questions as it is more likely that we would obtain the answers more quickly from our own research, possibly including the work of home grown aliens (intelligent machines).
But the situation would be very different if faster-than-light (FTL) communication or travel is possible notwithstanding General Relativity - and that we have developed this capacity ourselves. If FTL applies only to communication, then a productive dialogue would be possible in which we were, for the most part at least, the pupil.
If physical transportation turns out to be possible, then I believe that great caution is needed and there should be patience with the resulting slow progress. ‘Civilisation shock’ needs to be withstood and we are, of course, capable of being deceived. ‘Contact’ gave one illustration of this very gradual pace of widening awareness with benign extraterrestrials as the guides.
Though it may sound negative, there is something, I think, to be said for carrying on by ourselves secure in the knowledge that we are not alone in the Cosmos. Somewhat selfish perhaps, but there would be less chance of our civilisation being totally destroyed – as isolated peoples have had happen here on earth even when, at least in terms of their social and environmental values, they were arguably more sophisticated than the rest of us and had much to offer.
This said, I can’t help wondering what data my computer has been analysing as I write this piece. You just never know!