So you have a quandary on your hands: You like science, and you’d like to contribute in some way to scientific progress, but you’re not trained as a scientist. Not even close. Even if that’s the case, don’t despair. Believe it or not, there are many ways you can help contribute to science. Here are a couple:
(1) Volunteer/Grid Computing
More often than not, when your computer isn’t being used, it goes into a screen saver mode (or sometimes a sleep/hibernate mode). When a computer is in a screen saver mode, it’s still on and its processing power is simple idled. (This isn’t true for sleep/hibernate modes.)
One problem that scientific researchers often encounter would seem to be a good one: they have too much data. To analyze it effectively, they often need a supercomputer. There’s the rub: using a supercomputer, as you might expect, is more than a bit spendy. This leaves many researchers with too much data and no way to process it effectively.
That’s where grid computing comes in. In grid computing, the processing power of thousands of normal everyday computers is harnessed to process scientific data. While each individual computer’s processing power pales in comparison to a supercomputer’s, when thousands of computers are linked together, the processing power adds up quickly, creating a “virtual supercomputer” of sorts. In fact, in terms of sheer processing power, grid computing systems top the standalone systems built by the likes of IBM and Cray. (Some, like the Folding@Home network are actually several times more powerful.)
It’s easy to get involved with grid computing, and you can get involved in all sorts of different scientific projects. The BOINC software is quite popular and makes the process pretty painless. You download it, pick your projects, and then wait for your system to go into screensaver mode. They offer projects of all sorts: You can help combat major diseases via genetic research, run simulations for the Large Hadron Collider at LHC@home, or even search for radio signals from extraterrestrial life with Seti@home. And you can always contribute to more than project, too.
(2) Hands-On (Keyboard) Science
You don’t need to let your computer do all the work, though. You can also join in the fun. While networks of computers can be a serious boon for scientists, sometimes computers just aren’t good at some tasks. Pattern recognition is one of them. Instead of recognizing a pattern in a sea of data, a computer often has to calculate all possible results. When there are many variables involved, the supercomputer’s primary approach–brute force calculation–becomes less and less effective. In fact, once you get to a certain number of variables, a computer can take an impractically long time to solve a given problem. If you don’t believe me, check out this spreadsheet that tabulates the length of time it’d take a computer to break a password. As you can see, the more variables there are, the longer it takes. And once you hit a certain threshold, even a supercomputer would be of little help.
If pattern recognition is involved, humans can often solve such problems faster. NASA’s Kepler planet-hunting space probe is a perfect example of this. It’s currently studying a small region of the night sky and watching for changes in the brightness of stars. When a planet passes in front of its star, the planet blocks some of that star’s light, dimming the star’s brightness slightly. Kepler records these light levels, but computers aren’t very good at recognizing these patterns. What’s more, Kepler has amassed all sorts of data. Humans, it turns out, are far better at seeing these “blips”, and so scientists have enlisted average folks to help literally discover new planets.
Such projects have already made important discoveries, including (I’m not kidding) discovering a giant green blob in space. An entire page of such projects–Zooniverse–now exists. There you can hunt for planets, be the first to see and classify a galaxy (there are literally so many that we need help classifying them), and hear whales communicate.
So get out your lab coat, dust off your goggles and get going. (OK, you won’t need any of that, but still.) Even if you can’t tell osmosis apart from an ostrich, there are many ways you can contribute, too.
As my wife and I are expecting our son Oliver’s arrival in mid-July or thereabouts, we’ve been working away on designing a space-themed room for our little one. Now I’d be lying if this wasn’t partially an excuse to search for space-related Lego sets, sift through NASA photo databases, and most, importantly, allow yours truly to purchase robot toys of all varieties.
Still, it was also something of a science project, as it gave me an excuse to create a scale model of the solar system.
While it was fun for me, it will hopefully teach Ollie a bit about the solar system, and space stuff is just inherently cool, so hopefully he likes it. (I’ll tell you the verdict in a few years when he can speak in full sentences.)
If you’re interested in designing a space room, I’ll walk you through it and give you a few pointers about how to proceed, including what to buy, and what to avoid.
Dust Off the Calculator
First, it should be clear that it’s not possible to make a useful scale model of the solar system that is both to scale distance-wise and in terms of size. (If you did that, your planets–even Jupiter–would be positively tiny and what fun is a scale model of the solar system if you can’t see the planets?)
So one has to cheat a bit; I’d recommend starting out by measuring your largest wall (you’re going to need it). Our nursery is pretty small; the biggest wall is only 10 feet wide (120 inches). Unless you live in a palace, your walls are probably going to range from somewhere around 10 feet to maybe 17 or 18 feet (the widest wall in our house).
Then it’s time to do your homework and look up how far away each planet is from the sun. I found Nasa’s website to be quite handy for this. Please note that planets orbit elliptically, so the distance a planet is from the sun varies over the course of a year. When a planet is closest to the sun it is called perihelion; when a planet is farthest away, it’s called aphelion. As you’ll soon find out, the first four planets are quite close together, so I’d strongly recommend you go with the aphelion for each, as it’ll give you a smidge more room for each planet (and you’ll need it).
Then it’s time to come up with a scale. I found that if I made one inch equal to 20 million miles, I could fit all of the planets, to scale, on two consecutive walls, with most of them on the “main” wall. If your wall is larger/smaller, you’ll of course have to tinker with this and tweak the math. Given my scale/wall size, here’s how the math shook down. I’ve included the aphelion distances for each planet for your convenience.
Sun (far left portion of wall, everything measured out from edge of sun)
Mercury = 2 and 3/16ths inches away from sun (43,382,549 miles)
Venus = 3 and 3/8ths inches away from sun (67,693,905 miles)
Earth = 4 and 3/4ths inches away from sun (94,509,460 miles)
Mars = 7 and 3/4ths inches away from sun (154,865,853 miles)
1 foot = 240 million miles
2 feet = 480 million miles
Jupiter = 2 feet and 1 3/8th inches (507,040,015 miles)
3 feet = 720 million miles
Saturn = 3 feet, 10 and 11/16ths inches (934,237,322 miles)
4 feet = 960 million
5 feet = 1 billion, 200 million
6 feet = 1 billion, 440 million
7 feet = 1 billion, 680 million
Uranus = 7 feet, 9 3/8 inches (1,868,039,489 miles)
8 feet = 1 billion, 920 million
9 feet = 2 billion, 160 million miles
10 feet = 2 billion, 400 million miles
11 feet = 2 billion, 640 million miles
Neptune = 11 feet, 8 7/8ths inches (2,819,185,846 miles)
12 feet = 2 billion, 880 million miles
Note: Given its incredible distance away (4.5 billion miles!), Pluto would actually be on the opposite side of the room, located on the closet wall.
The first thing one realizes is that the four interior planets are practically on top of each other, relatively speaking, and the gas giants are rather far away. For example, Mercury and Mars are a mere 111 million miles away, with two planets in between; Jupiter is about four hundred million miles away from Saturn.
Representing the Planets
Now that you’ve got your rough distances figured out, it’s time to find a way to depict them. There are a few options. If you’re artistically inclined, painting them is an option. As I have the artistic skills of a ham sandwich, that wasn’t going to happen. We opted to have decals represent the planets, and I wanted to make sure the decals were based on actual photographs. (What’s the sense of measuring a scale-model system if you use cartoonish decals?)
There are two options for decals: you can make your own, or you can order them online. I had originally intended to make my own (so I could get the decals to scale), but the usual do-it-yourself type outlets (Zazzle, Cafepress) don’t give you the option of customizing decals, and the places that do only have certain (rather restricted) sizes.
Given that I wanted to show the planets off a bit, I had opted for a decal scale of 1 inch=9000 miles, give or take. I then looked up the sizes of each planet. I opted to go with the circumference of each, as it would be a bit bigger than the diameter, thereby letting me show the smaller planets off as much as I could.
At this scale, here are the decal sizes I would have needed:
Circumference: 9,525.1 miles
Mercury = 1.05 inches
Circumference: 23,627.4 miles
Venus = 2.6 inches
Circumference: 24,900 miles
Venus = 2.8 inches
Circumference: 13,233.3 miles
Venus = 1.4 inches
Circumference: 272,945.9 miles
Jupiter = 30 inches
Circumference: 227,348.8 miles
Saturn = 25.26 inches
Circumference: 99,018.1 miles
Uranus = 11 inches
Circumference: 96,129.0 miles
Neptune= 10.6 inches
As you can probably tell from the pictures (and the subjunctive mood I used in the text above), I opted not to make my own decals. It was simply too expensive; the only place I found that could make them quoted me at about $200. That’s not terrible, but there were other downsides, too. At only an inch or two across, the terrestrial planets would have been positively puny. Instead, I opted to find decals that were available online. An Etsy shop turned out to be a lifesaver: they had reasonably priced decals (30 bucks!) with all the planets, and they used NASA imagery for the decals, too.
Sure, the scale wasn’t correct (Earth looks about 25 percent the size of Jupiter, when it really it’s about nine percent its size), but all in all, they turned out to be a pretty good product.
Painting the Sun
After that, it was simply a matter of putting everything together. We traced out the sun; determining its size was a little tricky, given that the planets were not to scale-size wise. I decided to make the sun match the scale of Jupiter. As the Jupiter decal was 14 inches in diameter, and the sun’s diameter is roughly 10 times that of Jupiter’s, a to-scale sun would have to be over 11 and a half feet in diameter. Given my wall is only 8 feet tall, that wasn’t going to happen. Instead, I opted to simply paint the sun from floor-to-ceiling. Given that my last artistic painting attempts were of the finger-painting variety back in grade school, I opted to be really, really careful. After a trip to the hardware store (where I picked up the oh-so-appropriate color of “Sunbeam Yellow”), I traced the general shape, primed the area (using an artist’s paintbrush for the edges), and we let it dry. Two coats of paint later (the color underneath was blue, complicating matters), and the sun was complete.
The Really Fun Part: Robots, Spaceships, and Adorable Baby Clothes
After the main wall was done, it was time to put up all the accessories we’d purchased or received as gifts. A few months after we’d found out Kayli was pregnant, we vacationed in Florida, where we made a point to visit the Kennedy Space Center, and especially its store. Beware: If you are expecting, nerdy like us and planning a space-themed room, you will feel instantly compelled to purchase everything in the store. They have an entire section devoted to babies and children, and that section includes, oh, I don’t know, spacesuits for kids, stuffed animals in the form of Ham the Space Chimp (the first chimp in space), and bazillions of space shuttles and rocket toys, including the rubber duck in the space shuttle depicted to the left.
(True story: I was a total and complete space junkie when I was a kid, and when my family and I visited the Kennedy Space Center, I had something akin to an anxiety attack because I couldn’t figure out what to purchase at their store. There was simply too much amazing stuff. Inexplicably, I ended up going with freeze-dried ice cream, which was terrible, as one would expect.)
In the end, we ended up spending $150 at Kennedy, and we got a boatload of fun toys and outfits for the little guy, including a NASA-jumpsuit onesie, a Star Trek onesie (he already has two, please forgive me Ollie if you are ever teased for this), a space shuttle toy and various other space items. (We didn’t buy a single thing for ourselves, despite the temptation.)
Space + Baseball = AMAZING
Aside from Kennedy, we also had a lot of fun finding stuff online as well as closer to home. Each day when I got home from work, I’d do a little Internet sleuthing for cool space-themed toys, models and the like. As you might expect, there’s a lot out there and if you do a lot of digging, there’s some really nifty stuff that isn’t just space-related.
For example, after doing some research, I was surprised to learn that my Minnesota Twins hosted the 1965 All-Star Game. As they were quite a good team, they also hosted games of the World Series that year, too. I soon found out that the world series program was a perfect fit for the room. It had a great retro appeal and showed both teams traveling via space capsule. (Given that this was the middle of the space race, this makes sense.)
This was something of a double-whammy for us, as my wife and I are as crazed about baseball as we are about space. After doing a bit of bidding online, I managed to snag one on Ebay for a reasonable price. I tried to get the similarly awesome (and literally star-studded) All-Star Game program, but it was more expensive and I couldn’t justify the expense.
Staying with baseball for a second, there are many space-themed baseball card sets available online and some of the major card companies (like Topps) issue space cards within baseball-specific card sets, too. Some of those cards are “relic” cards, which contain material that was actually space-flown(!). The website Cardboard Connection has a good article about such cards.
Other Fun Stuff
Perhaps my favorite item in the room is the Moon in My Room. It’s a realistic model of the moon that doubles as a nightlight. The best part? It actually goes through the phases of the moon. Yes, it is as amazing as one would expect.
Dear Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity Rover,
It’s been fun to follow your Twitter feed and Facebook posts, and I’m pretty stoked for your landing in August.
My favorite part of your mission is the ChemCam, as I’m rather interested in the geology/chemistry of the planet (I’m a rock geek). Oh, who am I kidding, I’m really just excited that you’ll be carrying a laser(!) and will be vaporizing rocks on another planet.
I can’t believe I just typed that. It’s incredibly awesome. It’s a pretty good thing that I’m not in charge of the rover. I’d probably just drive around blowing stuff up. It’d be like a Sylvester Stallone movie. By the time I was done there wouldn’t be much left of the planet.
If I may ask, does the person who is in charge of the ChemCam laser have a special title? If not, they deserve one immediately. After all, they have the coolest job imaginable. Not only do they get to work for NASA, they also get to vaporize things on another planet on behalf of NASA and all mankind.
Of course, there’s only one suitable nickname for the operator of a laser on Mars: Marvin. An important question: can the laser operator do a good Marvin the Martian impression? If so, when they fire the laser for the first time, they should do so while doing a Marvin the Martian impression. You should record this and post it online. This would be huge on Twitter, I’m sure.
If they don’t do a good Marvin impression, mine is passable. I’d be happy to record an MP3 for them to use, either for that or for their ring tone/entrance music to a room.
Speaking of music, maybe you can resolve a dispute for me. My father and I often chat about space missions, as we’re both fans of astronomy, and I mentioned the other day that the Opportunity Rover has driven over 21 miles on Mars. He immediately said, “Well that’s a long time to be alone, I bet it’s humming as it’s driving along.”
While we both agree that this is likely, we disagree what it’d be humming. He thinks it opts for the dramatic: Strauss’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra from 2001 or Gustav Holt’s oh-so-appropriate Mars: Bringer of War. Given that the Mer Rover is relatively small, the size of a golf cart, that seems a little dramatic. That’s sort of like blasting heavy metal as you tool around in a Geo Metro.
I bet the rover is humming along to something more playful, like the “Manama” song from the Muppets or the theme to Super Mario Brothers. Which do you think is more likely?
Finally, I wish you the best of luck with the landing. I know landing on a different planet is a pretty tricky business, and I know you’re trying out the new landing approach—the sky crane. (By the way, that sounds a lot like a professional wrestling move.)
I hope all goes well and look forward to your dispatches from the Red Planet.
For folks interested in sky-watching, there will be an annular solar eclipse on Sunday, May 20th. While folks in the western portion of the U.S. will get the best show, a partial eclipse will also be visible in a much wider swath of the country, including my very own Minnesota.
This eclipse is a called an annular eclipse. During the eclipse, the moon will pass directly in front of the sun, and the entire moon will essentially appear to “fit” inside the sun, but not cover it completely. (This happens because the apparent size of the moon is not sufficient to block the whole sun.) This will create a blazing halo that should be quite a sight.
The rest of us will get a partial eclipse, as the moon will appear to block a portion of the sun. Still pretty nifty, if you ask me.
In Minneapolis, the eclipse will start at 6:19 pm and last until 7:20 pm. To determine when you should view it, check out this handy table from NASA. (FYI: The table refers to Universal Standard Time, so you have to convert it to your time zone.)
If you plan to view the eclipse, be sure to take precautions. Viewing a solar eclipse without eye protection is dangerous. Also, do not attempt to view a solar eclipse through a telescope or other viewing device unless you have a proper solar filter. (That’s how you melt your face off.) For tips on how to observe the eclipse safely, check out this article by NASA.
For more info: NASA’s Solar Eclipse page (which includes a solar eclipse schedule for the next 1000 years). I’m not kidding. How awesome is that?
Update: I am a total dork. The table refers to Universal Time, not Universal Standard time. Since we are in Daylight Savings Time in MN, the the time period I listed above was an hour earlier than the actual eclipse. You’ve got my apologies if, like me, you went outside and simply saw the sun, sans eclipse.
A great compilation of footage from the Voyager and Cassini probes by director Sander van den Berg.
The coolest part: All of the images are real. Holy cats. Science wins.
Until the locomotive, the horse was the fastest mode of transportation available. With a top speed of 30 or 40 miles per hour, that’s not too shabby (the fastest sprinters, for instance, run about 27 mph and only for very brief periods). Nevertheless, the horse has been domesticated for eons, so for the first few thousand years of human history, if you were a true speed-demon, you were out of luck.
This all changed in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. With the development of steam engines and railroads, we soon usurped the horse. As far as I can tell, the first time our equine friends experienced velocity-defeat was when the “mile-a-minute” Antelope, a Boston and Maine Railroad locomotive, traveled 26 miles in 26 minutes, for an even 60 mph. Reportedly, horses everywhere were somewhat sad about this, but then they shook their heads, snorted, and went back to eating hay.
While 60 mph is fast, even that wouldn’t get us a bronze at the planetary Olympics, as at least three other critters are regularly faster than that: pronghorns, which can reputedly touch 65 mph; cheetahs, which reach 70, and the gold medalist, the peregrine falcon, which can exceed 220 miles per hour. (I’m also assuming a number of bird species in a dive exceed 65 mph as well.)
It wouldn’t be until the early 1920s and the perfection of powered flight until humans could claim to be the fastest organisms on the planet. While it may have taken us nearly all of the 6,000 years of recorded history to claim the title, we soon made up for lost time. In the next two decades or so, we approached—and then broke—the sound barrier.
A mere 22 years later(!), Apollo 10 would exceed 24,000 miles per hour, and a few months later after that, Apollo 11 would land on the moon.
Here’s a rough breakdown:
Prior to the domestication of horse (manually running): 27 mph tops
Up to the 1840s: Horse, 40 mph
1848: Railroad, 60 mph
1920s: Plane: 240 mph
1940s: Plane: 700 mph
1969: Rocket, 24,000 mph
So in other words, over the course of less than a century, our top speed went from 60 mph to 24,000. Not surprisingly, we went pretty darn far in that amount of time—one could make one heck of a case that the twentieth century was the most prolific period of human exploration ever. After all, we discovered the South Pole in 1911, reached the summit of Everest in 1953, and visited the deepest portion of the ocean in 1960. Just a year later, Gagarin went into orbit, and amazingly, Neil Armstrong and company visited the Moon less than a decade after that.
Other fun firsts:
Farthest humans have traveled away from the Earth: 248,655 miles, Apollo 13, 1970.
Farthest a human probe has traveled away from the Earth: Voyager 1: 11,160,000,000 miles, which is at the very edge of our solar system.
Deepest we’ve drilled into the earth: 40,230, feet, Kola Super Borehole, Russia.
First Craft to Land on another Planet: The Soviet Venera 7, which landed on Venus in 1970.(We didn’t get pictures until Venera 9, see the picture below.)
The night sky was humanity’s first map, and for most of history, the heavens were also the primary calendar. This did—and still does—make a great deal of sense. Each night the stars move in a predictable pattern, so if you’re paying attention, you’ll always know which way you’re headed. In the northern hemisphere, even a passing glance at Polaris (the North Star) can tell you what your latitude is, as the North Star is always at the same (Fun Fact: If the North Star is at the zenith [the top of the sky], you’re at the North Pole. If it’s at 45 degrees, you’re somewhere along the 45th parallel.) Similarly, certain constellations are visible in some seasons, but not in others, so if can recognize them, you can tell what time of year it is, when you should plant your crops, and so on.
But for much of history, the stars were much more than a compass and calendar. Ancient astrologers believed that study of the stars could also predict the future, and that the stars associated with one’s birth could tell something—perhaps even a great deal—about that person.
Here’s the rough science behind astrology: Because of Earth’s rotation, the sun appears to arc across the sky in a continuous band. That band is called the ecliptic. The ancients took note of this (what else are you going to do when you’re a shepherd?), and they divided up that band into twelve different regions or “signs.” Those signs corresponded roughly with a specific constellation (Taurus, Aquarius, and so on) that the sun appeared to rise in at a given time of year. The constellation that the sun appeared to rise in on your date of birth was your sign. It’s a bit tricky, I know, so here’s a nifty zodiac simulator.
Now that you’ve got the idea down, let’s take it to pieces.
First, there’s the obvious problem: astrology assumes that the position of the sun and other celestial bodies (stars, planets, the moon) on the day of one’s birth somehow imparts character specific character traits.
This doesn’t make a great deal of sense, but it makes a heck of a lot more sense when one realizes that astrology is a relic of a geocentric worldview. The geocentric worldview shines through. The folks who invented this had no idea that the Earth rotated; they referred to the visible planets as stars. To their knowledge, we weren’t just the only possible sentient beings, we were the only planet, and our sun the only star.
When you view it like that, it wasn’t just a small universe; it was a personal universe. And the sun was the brightest object in that universe; its life-giving properties have been recognized forever. It wasn’t worshiped as one of the first deities for nothin’, so it’s understandable why folks thought that an object that had a prominent role in their present survival would have a prominent role in their future.
But fast-forward 7000 years and astrology runs into all sorts of problems.
First and foremost, the geocentric worldview is wrong; no matter how much we’d like to think so, we’re not the center of the universe. Far from it. We’re one relatively typical galaxy among about 100 billion, and we’re not even at the center of the galaxy, as we’re located on one of the Milky Way’s spiral arms. The star we’re orbiting isn’t particularly notable, either. It’s nice, don’t get me wrong, but there are millions like it. The very focus on the sun makes astrology provincial (as it literally one star in trillions). And even our fine home seems to be fairly common; the jury’s still out (the science on exoplanets is only 20 years old, after all), but it looks that planets are quite common, and it seems sensible to think that Earth-like planets are, too.
In other words, we’re residents of a hut in a tiny town in a far-flung province in a landlocked country.
It’s simply egocentric of us to think that all of the various celestial objects somehow inform and affect every person’s life and personality. So it seems it doesn’t much matter which specific group of stars the sun rose against on the day of your birth, and that sign certainly didn’t somehow give you the characteristics you have. (If it did, how? Sunbeams? Personality photons?)
Even if it somehow did, it’s not clear why those specific stars matter; your zodiac “sign” represents only 1/12 of the sky, and it leaves a lot out, including some pretty impressive stuff. For instance, one would imagine that astrologers would want to figure in the impact of much more impressive stars—such as Betelgeuse in Orion. It’s positively mammoth.
If it were placed in our solar system, the star itself would extend at least to the asteroid belt. It’s probably one of the larger objects you’ll ever see.
Now if we’re talking impact, you imagine that Betelgeuse would have more of an influence than some of the dimmer stars in, say, Cancer or Aries, but it’s not mentioned. The same goes for all sorts of the other major players in the Milky Way (Giant star clusters? Nebulae?) and one would imagine, fate-altering—objects in the Milky Way and beyond.
There’s another problem with traditional astrology—the signs are out of date. Keep in mind that astrology is olllllld (7000 years, give or take). As the Earth orbits, it slowly wobbles, like a top. That’s why the pole star shifts over time. Right now, it’s Polaris, but when the Egyptians were playing limestone legos in the desert, it was Thuban (in Draco). In about 10,000 years, it’ll be Vega. (That’d be a sight to see.)
Because of this wobble (called precession), over great periods of time (say, 7000 years) the sun appears to rise under a different zodiac sign. That means that everything you’ve been told about astrology is probably wrong.
For instance, I grew up being told I was an Aquarius. If had been born in ancient Babylon, that would have been true. On the day of my birth 7000 years ago, the sun rose into Aquarius. (By the way, ‘60s songs notwithstanding, the Age of Aquarius isn’t for another 600 years or so.) Here’s a screenshot from a great (and free!) planetarium program called Stellarium.
Fast forward 7000 years, and on the date of my birth, the sun actually rises closer to Capricornus. (Many astronomers have also noted that the sun also appears to pass through a 13th constellation—Ophiucus, the Snake Handler, but that this constellation was disregarded.)
Now lest you think I’m a great hater of the ancients, that’s not the case. They were the first stargazers, and they studied the sky as carefully as they could. That earns them my respect; they were just wrong when it comes to the predictive power that the stars hold over us. Modern science is not free from faults (they are going to laugh at us for calling it dark matter); we certainly don’t know everything there is to know.
It’s one of the ironies of science that astrology claims to tell us about the future, but modern astronomy—which arose from largely from the attention paid to the skies by astrologers—has taught us exactly the opposite; when we gaze at the stars, we’re seeing backward in time rather than forward. (This occurs because the stars we see are so far away that it takes light (zipping along at 186,000 miles per second) years and years to get here. The light we’re seeing is, quite literally, old news, but we’re learning quite a bit from it.
Dear Folks at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence,
I’ve been a fan of SETI for some time (I run SETI@home, username: gutenfrog) on my computer, but I’ve got a couple of SETI- and space-related questions that I saw weren’t answered on your website, so I thought I’d send y’all a note.
First of all, as I understand it, SETI listens for evidence of intelligent life in outer space, most often in the form of radio signals. But do we ever take the signals that we’re broadcasting into space into consideration? If not, I think we should. I know we’ve beamed a few messages out into space (the Arecibo message, for instance), plus we’ve sent interstellar snail mail in the form of the Pioneer plaques and the golden discs on Voyager 1 & 2. I mention this because we should probably apologize for the 1990s and the early Aughts.
After all, there are about 40 stars that are 20 light years away or less, and the signals we broadcast in the late 1990s are just now reaching some of them. That’s just embarrassing. I mean, take the Gliese 867 system. It’s about 15 light years away, and we already know it has planets. Our radio and TV signals are just getting there, and any life there is being treated to Jewel and infinite discussion about James Cameron’s Titanic. If there’s life there, they probably think our entire planet is inhabited by fourteen-year-old girls. I bet they are planning a full-on invasion just for the sake of the galaxy. I know I would.
And even if they aren’t planning a giant attack, they probably got right in their super-fast light-speed spaceships for the ten-year trip and on the way, they probably produced a whole bunch of ‘90s-era clothing so they’d fit in. So when the President steps forward to greet our new interstellar neighbors, he’ll be wearing a great suit and they’ll pop out in a flannel shirt, torn jeans and a Hi, How Are You? T-shirt.
Even when one looks at more recent history, 10 years ago, say, things don’t look much better. In 2002, CSI: Miami was released. That show is terrible! We’re really sending David Caruso’s acting performance out as a representation of our species? Yikes. Even worse, 2002 was the year American Idol was released. That’s far worse than CSI; in some cultures, that could be viewed as an act of war.
Anyway, so as I figure it, working at S.E.T.I. must be like waiting to get a call back from a prospective date. But instead of waiting by a telephone, we’re waiting by a giant array of radio telescopes. And instead of expecting a call from a boyfriend or a girlfriend, we’re waiting for an alien lifeform that may or may not have tentacles. (I know it’s anthropomorphic/geocentric of me to project cephalopod features onto aliens, but you have to admit, tentacles are cool. There is rarely a day when I don’t wish I had them.)
Anyway, when things are frustrating searching for extraterrestrial intelligence, do you ever consider cheering yourselves up by searching for extra-intelligent terrestrial people? You could certainly do this by listening to terrestrial radio, and if you did, you wouldn’t even have to search on the AM band! (Top 40 would be out mostly, too.) On the FM side, there are some pretty smart people on NPR, but you might happen to receive their transmission during a member drive and then you’d (justifiably) think that your radio signals were on a loop, as 95 percent of the words you’d hear would be “insightful” “in-depth coverage” and “unparalleled” or other paeans intended to entice you to become a sustaining member. (In any case, a public radio member drive makes for a great adjective drinking came.)
If you couldn’t find any proof of extra-intelligent terrestrial people via radio, you could always try television, though that might be problematic, especially if you only get the over-the-air signals. That means you’d be doomed to watch endless infomercials and you might determine our society is obsessed with creating complicated, inefficient solutions to simple problems, such as how to cut up produce in a timely manner (the Magic Bullet), how to handle hot things (the Ove Glove) or how to lose your hearing as a guy tells you to GET ON THE BALL and simultaneously encourages you to buy a cleaning product (Oxiclean).
Of course, one could take a more direct approach and actually interview living humans, but you’d have to promise not to interview SETI employees, as that wouldn’t be fair, as y’all are wicked smart. Going to MENSA meetings would be cheating, too. Besides, I wouldn’t want to subject you to Mensa, as it’d probably be pretty awful to hang out at the Look-at-me-I’m-Really-Smart-Club. I bet it’s a one-upping fiesta there.
In any event, I sincerely wish you luck in your search, and I’m damn excited to try out SETI Live, which I just heard about this week. And I’d like to make it clear that this is just one letter in a series of wacky letters; I mean no disrespect by it and was just hoping you’d get a kick out of it. I’d love a response.
You can see more letters here: www.brettsletters.com