Saturday, February 16, 2008

Delhi ‘Fiasco’ cacies

Just back from the Capitol Grub.

Moral of the entire experience: Just decent food doesn't satisfy the appetite; definitely not if the service is bad and there is a hungry stomach grumbling for food within you.

Result: Storming out of the grub in anger doesn't satisfy the desire to break something; it's highly advisable to actually break something before leaving…

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence

“The size and age of the universe incline us to believe that many
technologically advanced civilizations must exist. However, this belief seems
logically inconsistent with our lack of observational evidence to support it.
Either the initial assumption is incorrect and technologically advanced
intelligent life is much rarer than we believe, our current observations are
incomplete and we simply have not detected them yet, or our search methodologies
are flawed and we are not searching for the correct indicators.”

At SETI, scientists and researchers are trying to find the search methodologies that will give us correct indicators about the existence of intelligent life in other parts of the universe, a task complicated very much by our limited reach within the universe and the relatively high turnover (read low lifespan) of humans as compared to the extent of the universe.

Here’s an interesting news item on a recent development in the apparently growing uncertainty regarding the direction to be taken by SETI researchers in pursuing their search for extra-terrestrial life.

SETI stands for Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. Some of the important facts about the organization are:
  • The mission of the SETI Institute is to explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe.
  • Their motto: ‘We believe we are conducting the most profound search in human history — to know our beginnings and our place among the stars.’
  • The SETI Institute is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to scientific research, education and public outreach.
  • Founded in 1984, the Institute today employs over 100 scientists, educators and support staff.

Always at the epicenter of many modern sci-fi stories, especially those that involve discovery of extra-terrestrial life, SETI quite possibly acts as the hand put forward by human beings to intelligent extra-terrestrial beings.

But there are a few other things about SETI that interest me, one of them being their SETI@home project. SETI@home is an extremely popular volunteer computing project that was launched by U.C. Berkeley in May 1999. It was funded originally by the The Planetary Society and Paramount pictures and later by the State of California. Any individual can become involved with SETI research by downloading and running the SETI@home software package, which then runs signal analysis on a "work unit" of data recorded from the central 2.5 MHz wide band of the SERENDIP IV instrument. The results are then automatically reported back to UC Berkeley. Over 5 million computer users in more than 200 countries have signed up for SETI@home and have collectively contributed over 19 billion hours of computer processing time. As of January 29, 2008the Seti@home achieves an average throughput of 387 TeraFLOPS, making it equivalent to the second fastest supercomputer on Earth.

There have been two distinct approaches that SETI researchers have tried to follow in their search for intelligent beings outside the planet.

1. The Ordinary SETI approach involves using an array of radio telescopes to listen for signals sent out by alien civilizations.
2. The Active SETI approach involves sending out powerful radio signals in the hope that alien civilizations can receive and listen to them.

On the superficial level, it might seem that these approaches are nothing but a fool’s hope of trying to find out about sentient life in other parts of the universe. As I remember, Abhinav once expressed his extreme displeasure about the day and age we are born in. If I remember the argument correctly, somebody predicted that the nearest distance between life forms at different places in this universe would be 200 light years at best, which means any chance of us finding intelligent extra-terrestrial beings within our lifetime, is unlikely, improbable and impossible at best. Unless of course, we have aliens actually knocking at our doorstep, which is probably what’s rankling with many of the opponents of the active SETI approach.

Ultimately, it is one of those ethical questions that confront researchers quite often, especially these days. How far do you push the boundaries and dimensions of science before it starts infringing upon our beliefs and our seemingly convoluted sense of what is ethical and what isn’t.
Although the two fields seem far removed from each other and one might be inclined to think that the purported long term nature of extra-terrestrial search makes this an issue which isn’t quite as relevant, I find many parallels between the opposition to cloning and the opposition to active SETI. Both stem from a fear of the unknown for one.

In the former case, people are afraid that cloning and stem cell research might prove the natural order of things wrong. And worse still, they are afraid that advances in these technologies might actually put a big question mark over their own belief systems – they are afraid that their belief in God, Genesis and the like might prove to be false. People reckon man shouldn’t play God. But why shouldn’t he? The essence of an intelligent being is to try and gain more knowledge. Man is trying to do that. Why stop him? Why curb his thirst for more of the driving force behind civilization – knowledge?

On similar lines, why must we stop people from seeking out other intelligent life forms – life forms that might be so technologically advanced than us that all of our questions regarding life, its inception and the universe could answered by them? Why must we stop looking for others, whose existence would prove to us that we are not alone in this infinitely empty universe? A lone person seeks comfort in the company of others of his kind. Can’t a lone intelligent civilization seek to find solace in other civilizations rather like its own? Isn’t that a cause worth pursuing? Isn’t that a cause worth risking everything we own for?

It is my belief that there are others around us – some of whom are more advanced and others less so. It is also my belief that all civilizations undergo the same stages of development – establishment, infancy, coming-of-age, glory, wane and finally, self-destruction. It is indeed debatable as to which stage we have reached (depends on the point of view, doesn’t it?) but one thing is certain – the ultimate quest for our civilization’s survival will involve meeting other life forms and taking their aid – it will involve intermingling and cross-civilizational learning. That will be the only way wherein we might be able to ensure the establishment of a new civilization – ready to tread on the same cyclic path of establishment, infancy, coming-of-age, glory, wane and self-destruction.