RIP Robert Bradbury

Robert Bradbury the person who introduced us to Matrioshka Brains has passed away.  Here's an eloquent memorium from George Dvorsky. I wonder if we will ever learn that there are billions of Matrioshka Brains in the Milky Way, most of them far from the galactic center.  We currently call them dark matter.

If I had my choice of where to live in the Milky Way I would want to be as far as possible from the monster black hole at its center.

Alien Microbes

Richard Hoover of NASA claims to have found alien microbes inside of a meteorite (right side,  left side is a real terrestrial bacterium).

I predict 2 types of responses:  pathological rejection and people who equate this with sentient space faring beings.

Frankly I think panspermia is the only theory of evolution which makes much sense.  Integrate evolution over 10 billion planets and 10 billion years and you get believable statistics.

Buckyballs in Space

Well it's not scifi but it's still great. As we predicted in 1985, buckyballs have been found in outer space.

It's not a big surprise, but it's a great 25th anniversary present. Here are the data:

IR spectra of buckyballs in space

In 1986 Rick Smalley asked me if I thought that c60 could be the primordial nucleation site for planetary coalescence. He theorized that c60 could survive the extreme UV of the interstellar environment. No other molecule could survive to become a nucleation site.

Godspeed James P Hogan

You meant a lot to me.  Inherit the Stars was one of the first serious scifi books I read as a teenager.  The discovery of a 50,000 year old dead astronaut on the moon was a powerful idea.  I also very much liked your book about prejudice in the scientific community: Kicking the Sacred Cow. I hope you get a flyby of Ganymede.  You deserve it.

SETI Institute Celebration

The SETI Institute will host Celebrating Science 2010 Family Science Faire Saturday May 22, 2010. From their announcement:   At our Celebrating Science 2010 Family Science Faire, you will have the opportunity to meet SETI Institute scientists and discover what the future holds for SETI and astrobiology. Learn about the SETI Institute's pioneering exploration of life, our solar system, and beyond, including the search for signals from other civilizations.

Your opportunity for hands-on science! We will have fun, interactive activities for youth aged 8-15. They will be able to sign up on a first-come, first-serve basis for educational science-based activities. We will also have fun and creative activities for our younger up-and-coming scientists.

Meet the father of SETI and author of the Drake Equation, Dr. Frank Drake. Visit the gift shop for a Drake Equation t-shirt and ask Dr. Drake himself to sign it!

Hear Seth Shostak speak at 2:45 on "Why Your Grandkids Will Live in Space." Dr. Shostak will be available to autograph his latest book, Confessions of an Alien Hunter.

New Dune Novels

I haven't read them yet but here are 2 new Dune Novels, written by Frank Herbert's son Brian, and Kevin Anderson.  Paul of Dune is a sequel to Dune (prior to Dune Messiah) while the soon to be released Winds of Dune takes place between Dune Messiah and Children of Dune. I will read them when I have time.  Hopefully they'll write a sequel to Children of Dune, I'll buy that one immediately, as a hardback.  I find The Tyrant to be the most intriguing character of any science fiction book I've ever read.

Has Optical SETI discovered aliens?

Optical SETI offers a much higher chance of finding a real signal because of the simple fact that there are no known natural sources of nanosecond pulses (or shorter).  Any 10 nanosecond pulse of light can only be from intelligent life (or of course a shocking new natural phenomenon). Recently a researcher in Australia has detected a pulse.  Unfortunately the details of the signal are not available.  Thanks to Sentient Developments for pointing out this article.

The details of optical SETI are a lot more complex than radio based SETI.  Radio SETI is fairly clear, just listen for a signal which shouldn't be there.   But optical SETI requires some understanding of light pulses.  For example, every day our own sun puts out flares, which would look like pulses from a few light years away.  Supernovae, gamma-ray bursters, novae, and variable stars all put out more light at some point than normal.  So what makes an optical pulse natural versus synthetic?  The answer is time.

There are no natural phenomena which generate nanosecond light pulses**.   A nanosecond pulse means that a burst of photons is detected, and all the photons arrive within a few nanoseconds of each other, then no more arrive until the next burst.   In general this means the light was generated with a laser.  Lasers are a little easier to understand, all the photons are the same, same color (or wavelength), and same phase.  There are continuous lasers which have no pulses, they emit a steady stream of photons.

From a few light years away it is plausible to measure the photon color and determine that a light source is a laser, but unlikely.  For example, amateur astronmers know that a planetary nebula emits OIII lines at 501nm.  All these photons are the same color but they are absolutely not from a laser.  With extremely precise spectrometry it might be possible to determine that a certain set of photons came from a laser.  But there would be a lot of arguing.

However, if the laser is pulsed, and the pulse width is less than 100 nanoseconds, then this signal came from a laser built by an intelligent species.  It's not even necessary to measure the color of the photons.  If they are nanosecond pulses then we are not alone.  All that is needed is that the pulse be bright compared with the background.  For example, point an 8" telescope at a magnitude 6 star.  The telescope collects some number of photons/second, let's say it's a million.  So on average about once every microsecond a photon hits the detector.  Now suddenly a pulse of 5 photons arrives, all within 10 nanoseconds.  Even if that pulse is not repeated it stands out like a beacon, 5 random photons never arrive on top of each other.  A 5 photon pulse means we are not alone.  This works until the average photon rate is around a 100 million per second, so really bright stars will drown out possible optical signals.

With a photomultiplier tube, boxcar integrator, and a decent oscilliscope we amateur astronomers could build our own optical SETI equipment and discover intelligent life.


**  There is of course always the chance that a shocking new natural phenomenon will be discovered which emits nanosecond pulses.  If you discover that you might have to settle for a Nobel instead of aliens.