August is the month that the brightest star in our night sky rejoins our twilight after a vacation in the daytime sky. Sirius, a neighborhood star 9 light years away, will become visible low in the southeast at dawn, working its way into the nighttime at a rate of four minutes per day. The reappearance of Sirius has been a calendar marker for millennia. Sadly, today it is often assumed to be a "UFO". Why is that what were once natural appearances are now assumed unnatural?
Even diehard UFO believers will admit that the great majority of UFO sightings are natural phenomena unrecognized by a public largely decoupled from the sky. Light pollution, manmade nighttime entertainment, and a lack of astronomy in schools has led to this situation. I remain convinced that the remainder of sightings are other instances of nature unfamiliar to many. Ball lightning, mirages, meteors. Whatever. Until they bring back a piece of one I'll stay a skeptic.
While most astronomers look askance at such reports, many of us do believe that life may exist out there. In the last year a handful of extrasolar planets have been discovered via the tug they exert on their home stars. The possibility of life on other planets is intriguing. And, over the last few decades, the subject of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has become respectable in professional astronomical circles.
Our first contact will more likely be a reception of radio waves than the invaders depicted in Independence Day. Current searches are looking for strong, intentionally transmitted signals. These searches are all privately funded since congress cut NASA's SETI project The $12 million requested when the program was eliminated was paltry on a national level (the US will spend that much while you read this column), but huge within that field of endeavor.
We have a good idea of what to look for since ET will have the same physics we do--we share a common universe and the rules by which it operates. They will have the same engineering (applied physics), and will thus make the same discoveries and developments that we do. Radio transmission, TV, situation comedies.
While ET may be sending out a beacon, it might be easier to find his broadcast TV or radio waves. The majority of our own broadcast waves leak out of our atmosphere, scanning across the heavens as the Earth rotates--we are a radio lighthouse. A system that could detect ET's leaking signals if he's within a distance of 100 light years would cost perhaps $10 billion--two days of the US budget. Expensive but not out of the question. And, Sirius and thousands of other stars are within 100 light years of us.
Imagine what would happen upon discovering the first ET-TV channel! The burden of tax supported SETI will be immediately unloaded as cable and satellite TV services expand the equipment worldwide for continuous reception and redistribution of the signal. The world's business activities will grind to a halt as the world stares mesmerized at the best thing to ever play on the tube. Color commentators from all disciplines and fields will interpret fuzzy images of another existence. Images will discussed by scientists and architects. Engineers and artists. Sportscasters and geographers. Linguists will scramble to decipher languages never before heard. Will we hear music unlike any we know?
Indeed, since our own TV signals have been leaking off the Earth for about 50 years, they have already passed hundreds stars. Shows from 1987 are passing by Sirius right now! Broadcast radio is out farther yet. ET may be trying to figure us out right now!
So why are we not better attacking what is perhaps the most interesting question in science? Do we perhaps fear the eventual discovery? Would it shake our inner soul to find that we are not alone? Were the members of Congress in denial as they joked about NASA and removed the SETI funds under the guise of solving the national debt with pocket change?
Is our universe empty but for us or is it teeming with life? Either is a profound thought! I can think of no scientific reason we should assume we are alone, and religions generally don't explicitly exclude the existence of other beings. And, we should certainly not let our finite intelligence limit God to creating just one civilization.
The sparkling dawn object will not be ET visiting us, but rather a star
that may be warming him. We should check it out!
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