As part of the 60th Annual International Astronautical Congress hosted by KASI in Daejon this year (which is, by the way, the International Year of Astronomy!), Dr. Rhee Myung-hyun (an astronomer I met while taking part in the SOAO workshop earlier this year) organized a workshop on SETI and sent me an invitation to it. I decided to set aside a couple of classes (with makeup classes to be held, of course) to make the trip down to Daejon and hear what the discussion would entail. My friend Mark, also known as the physicist down the hall, joined me and we drove down fopr the talk.
Four speakers were present, and I’ll give the gist of what each said:
The SETI Institute’s Seth Shostak (the well-known host of the radio program Are We Alone?) discussed the oft-asked question, “When will we find ETI?” His answer went beyond the usual shrugging of shoulders to note a few interesting things like for example how little searching has actually been achieved thus far (in proportion to what there is out there to look at — in other words, we’ve only just scratched the surface in terms of searching), as well as the fact that the pace of SETI research is not static but instead accelerating… in fact, keeping pace with Moore’s Law. He also noted that the implications for how long it takes us to find something could be suggestive of interesting facts about the distribution of life (or intelligent life) in the universe.
The second speaker, Doug Vakoch, is a clinical psychologist working with the SETI Institute, and he discussed the question of what to say to ETI when we actually communicate to them. The difficulties involved in message construction, the question of what to communicate, the problem of securing broad consultation as well as seeing what the masses would like to say, were all part of his discussion, in the course of which he mentioned the very interesting experiment Earth Speaks, in which people all over the world can write whatever messages they feel should be communicated to ETI should we ever get into an exchange. You can see the ongoing results (and make your own contribution) at the Earth Speaks website, and there is a twitter feed for the site.
H. Paul Shuch, with the SETI League, discussed the history of SETI Technology, stressing the role of amateurs in the development of radio astronomy and encouraging people to consider starting up SETI operations in Korea. He also mentioned a couple of interesting reasons why SETI research has focused on radio waves and light, rather than more exotic communications systems. His answer was, basically, “We know how to look for light and radio waves, so that’s what we look for.” But he also mentioned — or was it Seth Shostak, over dinner? — that using infrared would be a good way to go, since it gets through the interstellar medium a lot more cleanly. (Less dust interference, something I was happy to congratulate myself about already knowing since I learned it at Launch Pad this summer! Post on that upcoming soon!)
Finally, Claudio Maccone spoke very entertainingly (in the way scientists scare average people, but entertain clever ones — “It’s really trivial!” he’d declare, shooting through pages of equations that would give me a brain haemorrhage, which is my definition of entertaining!) about three different topics: his proposal for a Radio Quiet Zone on the far side of the moon (not only the scientific but also the political issues connected to the idea); his proposal to switch from FFT (Fast Fourier Transform) to KLT (Karhunen–Loève transform) in processing massive amounts of radio-telescope data. At least, that’s what I think he was talking about, but you can read one of his papers on the subject for more information. (I’ll be honest, I was a tiny bit lost but it sounded good to me.) Finally, he discussed a Statistical Drake Equation, the usefulness of which escaped not just me but a few others, though it might be more useful than seemed apparent. (Can’t find a freely accessible paper about it online, but some of his charts appear here with a brief discussion).
Afterwards, we went for dinner and had a fun evening with all of the above as well as a small group of Korean astronomers, before Mark and I drove home. Oh, and for those wondering about gaetnip, here’s a blurb from Wikipedia (not the only place I’ve seen the distinction raised between sesame leaves and perilla leaves, but it’s one place).