Labor Day SETI

I nearly missed an interesting development in SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Interesting, and as newsworthy as most Stephen Hawking stories, but probably not significant.

Professor Hawking didn’t start chatting with aliens over the Labor Day weekend. That would be major news.

But an outfit he’s connected with will be listening to FRB 121102. I think it’s likely that they’ll collect useful data, and that this isn’t a prelude to ‘first contact.’

Other scientists say they’ve spotted several planets orbiting Tau Ceti. Two of them may be just inside that star’s habitable zone.


Believing and Learning

I’ve never met anyone who told me Earth is flat. One earnest young Christian seemed convinced that our sun goes around Earth, not the other way around.

Given his assumptions about reality and the Bible, he had a point.

1 Samuel 2:8, Job 9:6 and Psalms 150:1 were written by folks living just west of Mesopotamia.

It’s hardly surprising that their poetic imagery includes bits of Mesopotamian cosmology. It would have been familiar to folks living in that part of the world.

I also see a hint of Pythagorean ideas reflected in Job 38:7.

Natural philosophers weren’t all that far off in thinking about music of the spheres. We started working out the math of orbital resonance about two centuries back, and that’s yet another topic.

I could be a Christian and believe that Earth is a flat plate between the upper and lower waters. (December 2, 2016)

But ignoring what we’ve learned over the last couple dozen centuries isn’t necessary.

I take the Bible seriously. That’s a ‘must’ for Catholics. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 101133)

Believing and studying Sacred Scripture isn’t even close to trying to believe that Genesis, Psalms, Wisdom, Revelation and the rest were all written by someone with an American viewpoint. (May 19, 2017; December 13, 2016)

Then there’s the notion that thinking too much is bad for belief. I’m a Catholic, so faith and reason get along fine. Or should. It’s like St. John Paul II wrote:

“Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth….”
Fides et Ratio,” Pope Saint John Paul II (September 14, 1998) (From vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_14091998_fides-et-ratio.pdf (April 20, 2017))

Science and Religion

I don’t think science replaces God. That’d be as silly as looking for life’s meaning in Newton’s laws of motion.

I think I’m here to seek, love, serve, and know God as best I can. Putting anything or anyone else at the top of my priorities would be a bad idea. (Catechism, 1, 68, 21122114)

That doesn’t make science, family, parchisi, or anything else evil. They’re not problems unless I forget who and what I am, and where my primary focus belongs.

Large and In Charge

This is where I talk about science, God, and being human.

If you’ve read my stuff before, and know why reality doesn’t threaten my faith — feel free to skip ahead to FRB 121102 and Stephen Hawking in the News or SETI, Seriously.

Better yet, leave the Internet for a few minutes. Take a walk. Enjoy a cup of coffee. Read a book. Take a nap. Do whatever.

Some Catholics seem as passionately convinced as their choleric Calvinist counterparts that science is Satanic. Or at least utterly opposed to all that they hold dear.

I don’t hope or expect folks who regard evolution as the religion of the antichrist, or who believe that thinking too much is sinful, to change their minds. It’s not likely that someone with that mindset would be reading this, anyway.

By the same token, I wouldn’t expect a born-again atheist to read this and start looking for the nearest RCIA program.

So how come I keep writing these posts? Partly because I enjoy having an excuse to read about what we’re learning and sharing what I find.

I also think there’s some point to being an example of a Christian who’s also interested in science. (March 31, 2017; January 29, 2017)

Folks who don’t like science, or see it as a threat, aren’t necessarily daft or dim. There’s been a great deal of nonsense published in the last century or so. Some of it, sadly, is still taken seriously.

Feeling menaced by new knowledge isn’t limited to Christianity’s fearful fringe. H. P. Lovecraft wrote that science threatens our “placid island of ignorance.” (March 31, 2017)

“…The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far….”
(“The Call of Cthulhu,” H. P. Lovecraft (1929); via WikiQuote)

I don’t see it that way. I don’t think knowledge can threaten an informed faith. But I know that sometimes knowledge encourages us to reconsider what we thought was true.

Since I think God creates the things of faith and the world we observe, I can’t reasonably fear what we learn. As Pope Leo XIII said, “truth cannot contradict truth.” (Catechism, 159, “Providentissimus Deus,” Pope Leo XIII (November 18, 1893))

My fascination with our growing knowledge of this universe isn’t the reason I am a Catholic and a Christian. But it doesn’t get in the way of my faith, either.

I think that God is large and in charge, and is creating everything we can observe. (Genesis 1:12:2; Catechism, 268269, 279, 301)

Newly-discovered knowledge may mean taking another look at assumptions my great-grandparents made. The same goes for what scientists were pretty sure about when my high school textbooks were written.

As I keep saying, that’s not a problem. Scientific discoveries give us opportunities for “greater admiration” of God’s work. (Catechism, 283, 341)

Living in a Beautiful Universe

The notion that spiritual is good and material is bad predates Christianity. I’m not sure why it’s such a durable belief.

It doesn’t make sense to me, partly because I’ve got eyes and can see this world’s incredible beauty.

Some folks see the same beauty, and apparently decide that it’s a sinful snare, luring the unwary to their doom.

That doesn’t make sense to me, but the ‘gloominess is next to Godliness’ style of piety never did. Good grief, our Lord’s first miracle was getting drinks for a wedding. (John 2:110)

There’s more to it, and that’s yet again another topic. Topics. (Catechism, 528, 725, 1335, 16121617, 2618)

I think God creates everything, and that God doesn’t make junk. Ignoring God’s creation seems silly, at best. More to the point, we’re told that this world is good: basically. We got off to a regrettable start, and that’s still another topic. (Genesis 1:31, 3:119; Catechism, 299, 309314, 385406)

We’re also told that this universe isn’t just beautiful. It’s orderly, following knowable physical laws. We’re supposed to notice this beauty and order, and study it. If we do it right, it’ll lead us toward God. (Catechism, 3135, 159, 279, 283, 289, 299, 337349; “Gaudium et spes,” 5, 15, Second Vatican Council, Bl. Pope Paul VI (December 7, 1965))

Or we can decide that since an ordered creation exists, an orderly creator can’t. Or shouldn’t. We’re human, and can decide what we believe. (Catechism, 1730)


1. FRB 121102 and Stephen Hawking in the News


(From NASA, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(“A Stephen Hawking-led project has detected what could be signs of alien life from a galaxy 3 billion light years away from Earth.”
(New York Daily News))

Stephen Hawking project detects possible signs of alien life from distant galaxy
Megan Cerullo, New York Daily News (September 2, 2017)

“Stephen Hawking’s Breakthrough Listen project has detected mysterious signals that could be coming from intelligent alien life.

Astronomers working to identify alien civilizations picked up 15 repeated fast radio bursts (FRBs) from a dwarf galaxy 3 billion light years away from Earth.

It’s unclear if the signals, observed over a 30-minute period, emanate from black holes, rotating neutron stars, or if they represent signs of alien life….

“…The 15 signals came from FRB 121102. Astronomers had previously detected radio pulses coming from the same source….”

What’s new about this news is the Breakthrough Listen project’s interest. Stephen Hawking may not be as newsworthy as the current top pop media personality, but anything “Hawking” and science-related is news.

He’s associated with Breakthrough Initiatives, one of the more serious SETI outfits.1 (March 3, 2017; December 2, 2016)

I very nearly didn’t pay close attention to this piece. New York Daily News is among America’s more entertaining news resources.

They’re not quite in the “FBI CAPTURES BAT CHILD!” class.

But their FRB 121102 article included links to these ‘related’ pieces:

If you decide to follow those links, be aware that the New York Daily News website is a tad intrusive. They like to start videos while you’re reading, for one thing.

I was taking Labor Day weekend off, so I figured spending a few minutes reading about Professor Hawking and messages from space aliens might be fun.

Tesla, Martians, and FRB 121102

I don’t take journalistic efforts like the Great Moon Hoax and Nicola Tesla’s messages from Mars seriously.

More accurately, I do take them seriously: as entertainment, and as examples of what at least a few folks can be counted on mistaking for fact. (December 16, 2016)

Like I said, I was taking the weekend off, decided to see what Hawking was supposed to have been doing: and was pleasantly surprised.

Megan Cerullo’s article discussed something Project Listen might do, without implying that Hawking was talking shop with space aliens. She went into more detail than some, naming Breakthrough Initiatives’ founder Yuri Milner as well as Professor Hawking.

There’s a bit more than the usual information about this particular FRB, too: and the name of one of the scientists who reported its recent activity. That gave me enough to find Cerullo’s source.

It didn’t take long. Quite a few of the scientists working with Project Listen are with University of California, Berkeley.

Berkley News gave a nice summary; and linked to the original report:

“…These are the highest frequency and widest bandwidth detections of bursts from FRB 121102 obtained to-date….”
(“FRB 121102: Detection at 4 – 8 GHz band with Breakthrough Listen backend at Green Bank,” Vishal Gajjar et al., The Astronomer’s Telegram (August 29, 2017))

The Repeating FRB

Whatever FRB 121102 is, and whatever it’s been doing, it was quite active recently.

Radio astronomers using Green Bank’s C-band receiver picked up 15 bursts of radio energy during 10 30-minute scans. These observations started August 26.2

We’re still quite sure that this FRB is several billion light years away.

It may be in or near a dwarf galaxy that’s in the same direction as the radio bursts, and a couple billion light-years away. Roughly.

Seen from Earth, it’s in the constellation Auriga, between the stars Capella and Elnath. I don’t know if the galaxy is something amateur astronomers can detect, but if you want to try it’s at 05h 32m +33° 05′.

FRB 121102 probably isn’t an exploding black hole or colliding neutron stars. That sort of thing would only happen once. It’s hard to imagine how something could explode twice, or collide and merge more than once.

It is, so far, the only FRB that’s produced more than one burst of radio waves.

Interesting Times

FRB 121102 is probably a magnetar. Or it could be highly-magnetized pulsars going through one or more asteroid belts at irregular intervals. Or maybe it’s a neutron star-white dwarf binary, or something else.

At this point, “something else” seems reasonable. Scientists are having trouble trying to fit observed data into what we’ve learned about physics so far.

My guess is that we’re looking at something we haven’t noticed before.

It’s likely enough that FRB 121102 is a natural object.

But I think scientists who say that FRBs look a great deal like what we’d use to push starships may be on the right track. Fast radio bursts might, maybe, be artificial.

We can’t build anything on that scale. Not yet. But we know why we’d build a transmitter that powerful, and how it would work.

I’m a bit dubious about the “power beam” model: partly because we understand the physics involved. I’ll get back to that. Again. (December 16, 2016; September 16, 2016)

What’s stopping us from building starships at the moment are mainly technical and economic limitations. (March 3, 2017)

I suspect that today’s situation is like the 1880s and 1890s, when Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and others were working out the math and science of interplanetary navigation.

British balloons, Clément Ader’s steam-powered Eole, and Chuhachi Ninomiya’s model airplane were the most advanced aerospace tech at the time.3

A century later, we were discussing when we would go back to Earth’s moon.

I’d be surprised if we’re less than a century from ‘out and back’ travel to the stars. But there’s a remote chance that I’ll live long enough to see the first robotic probes launched. These are interesting times.


2. Worlds Around Tau Ceti, Maybe


(From F. Feng, University of Hertfordshire, UK; via Sky and Telescope, used w/o permission.)
(“This illustration compares the four planets detected around the nearby star Tau Ceti (top) and the inner planets of our solar system (bottom).”
(Sky and Telescope)

Four Exoplanets Might Orbit Sun-like Star
Monica Young, Sky and Telescope (August 15, 2017)

“When exoplanets were first being discovered by the handful in the 1990s, teams competed to measure the wobbles of nearby stars, induced by the gravitational tugs of orbiting planets. A star’s radial velocity (its motion toward or away from Earth) can be measured by its spectrum, where the Doppler effect will shift spectral lines as the star wobbles. The tinier the wobble, the tinier the shift — and the tinier the planet doing the tugging.

“Now astronomers are testing the limits of what this planet-finding method can achieve….

“…But if astronomers want to detect an Earth-size planet at an Earth-like distance from its star, they’ll need far more sensitive radial velocity measurements — around 0.1 m/s. And things get tricky when astronomers begin reaching below 1 m/s. It’s easy to confuse the motions on a star’s surface for the motion of the star itself or with internal signals generated by the instrument itself. A small planet’s signal can become lost in the noise….”

“Signal” in this case isn’t a message sent by someone. It’s “an indication of a situation,” as Oxford Dictionaries puts it.

Signal-to-noise ratio means slightly different things for engineers and scientists. It’s how much of whatever’s being measured is meaningful, compared to what’s not.

Doppler spectroscopy, the ‘wobble method,’ uses the Doppler effect. It’s the apparent change in wavelength as the observer and source move at different speeds relative to each other.

Maybe you’ve heard it at a railway crossing. A train’s horn will seem as if it’s at a higher pitch when the train approaches, then drop to a lower note as it passes.

Doppler spectroscopy isn’t the only way we find exoplanets. Astronomers found some, particularly big planets around nearby small stars, by measuring how much the star moves back and forth in our sky.

Some, like GJ 1132b and the TRAPPIST-1 planets, pass between their star and Earth during each orbit. We can “see” a few, like 51 Eridani b, whose stars are bright and nearby. (June 30, 2017; April 21, 2017; July 29, 2016)

The ‘wobble’ caused by planets like Earth isn’t much, as the article said. Folks studying gravity waves have similar challenges, sorting gravity wave effects out from background noise. (March 24, 2017)

Other Suns


(From Torsten Bronger, Kxx; via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Cetus constellation map, Tau Ceti circled.)

Our star is unique in the sense that it’s the one our planet orbits. But we’ve found other stars that are very much like ours. One, HD 164595, is a bit over 94 light-years away. Others are closer, many aren’t.

Tau Ceti is more like the star Earth orbits than most, but isn’t a solar twin: more like a solar analog. It’s a bit cooler and dimmer, and less massive than our star. But not by much.

It’s also much less active. Astronomers have found little to no evidence of magnetic activity, so Tau Ceti probably doesn’t have sunspots and flares: not nearly as often as our star, anyway. Not now.

Maybe we’ve been observing it during something like the Maunder minimum, from around 1645 to 1715, when our star had almost no sunspots.

We were dealing with the Little Ice Age around that time, which may or may not have had anything to do with what our star was doing.

We’re currently observing more than the usual number of sunspots. But I haven’t noticed anyone saying that might have something to do with current climate changes.

Tau Ceti is also almost in our back yard: not as close as Alpha Centauri, but just under 12 light-years away.

Since it’s so much like our star, and so close, Tau Ceti was one of two stars observed by Project Ozma.

The Project Ozma SETI effort did detect evidence of intelligent life. On April 8, 1960, the Green Bank radio telescope detected a signal from the sky. It was from an aircraft built by humans, flying in Earth’s atmosphere.

Like Our Star, But Not Quite

Tau Ceti’s metallicity is lower than our star’s. To astronomers and cosmologists, metallicity is how much of a star isn’t hydrogen or helium.

Scientists still figure that stars with higher metallicity are more likely to have planets.

But we’re finding low-metallicity stars with planets, so it looks like there’s more to learn about that.

It’s likely enough that a we’ll find connections between a star’s metallicity and what sort of planets it has. Tau Ceti’s low metallicity may mean that its planets, if they’re actually there, may not be as rocky as the Solar System’s inner worlds.

These scientists have measured something. What we aren’t sure about is exactly what they’ve measured. Variations in radial velocity this small — about 0.2 meters per second — may be from something else. These changes could be “noise.”

Or Tau Ceti may have planets. This team seems to have done a good job of sorting out signal from background noise. We could very well be looking at another planetary system, close to home.4

Tau Ceti’s Dust

Assuming that Tau Ceti’s planets exist, they may not be a good place to look for life.

They’re not quite at what we consider a comfortable distance from their sun.

That’s probably not the biggest problem, though. Astronomers spotted dust circling Tau Ceti.

It’s in a belt around the star, concentrated about 55 AU, astronomical units, out.

They figure the dust comes from collisions in an analog to the Solar System’s Kuiper belt. Most of the Kuiper belt is between 30 and 55 AU away from our star.

To get the concentration of dust they found, there would have to be a lot of collisions. Tau Ceti’s Kuiper belt analog, if that’s what it is, has something like 10 times as many comet- and Pluto-size objects as the Solar System’s borderland.

Since we figure many comets come from the Kuiper belt, Tau Ceti’s inner planets would have roughly 10 times as many comets in their skies as Earth.

That would be scenic, but not necessarily good news for life. We’ve been learning that impact events like the one that made the Chicxulub crater happen at irregular intervals. (May 19, 2017)

The last big extinction event was probably helped along by the Chixulub impact.

Life on Earth recovered, but recovery takes time. It took about 30,000,000 years for a new ‘normal’ to happen after the Permian-Triassic extinction event.

Some critters survived each time, obviously. Some, like scorpions, lived before and after the dinosaurs. (December 23, 2016; September 30, 2016)

Maybe complex life wouldn’t have time to reset itself if extinction events happened ten times more frequently.

Then again, maybe folks living on one of Tau Ceti’s planets never considered the Solar System a likely place for complex life: because we didn’t get reset often enough.

And that brings me to our search for extraterrestrial intelligence, faith, science, and why I’m not worried about the universe being too old.


We’re Alone: Or Not

First, what I don’t think.

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers,” “Invaders from Mars,” and “”Plan 9 from Outer Space” are entertainment.

I’d like to think that most folks realize their ‘science’ is very fictional.

Some folks “believe in” extraterrestrial intelligence. I don’t. Not like folks in the Aetherius Society.

UFO religions are a bad idea, although not often as obviously lethal as Heaven’s Gate. (August 13, 2017)

We don’t know if we have neighbors in this universe: free-willed creatures with physical bodies, like us; but not human.

I think we have neighbors: or not. Either way, it’s not up to me. God’s God, I’m not; and I’m quite content with that situation.

Part of my job is appreciating God’s work: not telling God what should or shouldn’t be real. (April 16, 2017; December 9, 2016; December 2, 2016)

SETI, Seriously

Scientists who take SETI seriously are not the screwball ‘flying saucer’ enthusiasts of the 1950s.

But I think many make overly-big assumptions about non-human intelligence.

Or maybe they’ve thought this through, and don’t want to risk spooking folks who sign checks for their research grants.

That may help explain why some of the clearest thinking I’ve seen about SETI comes from folks like XKCD’s Randall Munroe.

I’m not on the same page, philosophically, as H. P. Lovecraft. But I give him credit for realizing that people who aren’t human — may not be human. Not even close.

Obvious as that seems, the assumption that everybody will be pretty much like us apparently runs through our efforts to locate extraterrestrial intelligence.

The Fermi paradox, Drake equation, and Kardashev scale may indicate that we’re doomed.

I agree that we’re not selling trinkets to alien tourists and up to our hips in the Galactic Conglomerate’s equivalent of six-pack rings and empty oil drums.

But this may not show that intelligence leads to smog, nuclear winter, climate change, and death. I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t, actually.

I could be wrong about this.

Maybe people must be highly social. And maybe everybody uses technology we started developing about 98 years back, based on science that’s a few decades older. And maybe we’re the smartest, most advanced folks that ever were and ever can be.

Or maybe we’re the oddballs, and very young. Maybe our neighbors are hoping that we’ll soon get around to transmitting less radio noise. Imagine an unruly college fraternity in a senior living community, and you’ll see what I mean.

Even assuming that our neighbors are exactly like us, psychologically, I’m not convinced that slit gongs, wireless telegraphy and wavelength-division multiplexing are the ultimate communication technologies.

A million years is a long time, or a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ interval: depending on what scale you use. (December 16, 2016)

My guess is that if we do have neighbors, we’ll learn that humanity’s diversity barely scratched the surface of what’s possible. And I’m quite certain that we have a very great deal left to learn.

A Matter of Scale


(From Jet Propulsion Laboratory/NASA, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

We don’t know whether this universe is actually infinite, but it is really, really big.

Scientists like Fermi understood how big the universe is, but folks like Thomas Paine maybe didn’t.

That may explain why Paine thought that if other worlds exist, God doesn’t.

I can understand an engineer living in the 18th century having an imperfect understanding of infinity.

A scientist writing in the 21st century making the same basic assumption — not so much. (August 20, 2017; April 14, 2017; September 16, 2016)

We’ve known the universe we live in is big and old for a long time.

“Terrible and awesome are you, stronger than the ancient mountains.”
(Psalms 76:5)

“Raise your eyes to the heavens,
look at the earth below;
Though the heavens vanish like smoke,
the earth wear out like a garment
and its inhabitants die like flies,
My salvation shall remain forever
and my victory shall always be firm.”
(Isaiah 52:6)

“Indeed, before you the whole universe is as a grain from a balance, or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.”
(Wisdom 11:22)

All that’s been happening in the last few centuries is how much we know about this universe. That might disturb someone who imagines God as merely someone who is a little bigger, smarter and stronger than we are.

I figure that God is — God. Infinite, ineffable, eternal, beyond anything we can understand. (Catechism, 202, 206209)

And I’m okay with that.

More; mostly about life, the universe, and being human:


1 Serious SETI:

2 Fast radio bursts, still a puzzle:

  • Wikipedia
    • Fast radio burst
    • A direct localization of a fast radio burst and its host
      S. Chatterjee, C. J. Law, R. S. Wharton, S. Burke-Spolaor, J. W. T. Hessels, G. C. Bower, J. M. Cordes, S. P. Tendulkar, C. G. Bassa, P. Demorest, B. J. Butler, A. Seymour, P. Scholz, M. W. Abruzzo, S. Bogdanov, V. M. Kaspi, A. Keimpema, T. J. W. Lazio, B. Marcote, M. A. McLaughlin, Z. Paragi, S. M. Ransom, M. Rupen, L. G. Spitler & H. J. van Langevelde; Nature (Received November 1, 2016; Accepted November 16, 2016; Published online January 4, 2017)
    • The Host Galaxy and Redshift of the Repeating Fast Radio Burst FRB 121102
      Shriharsh P. Tendulkar, Cees Bassa, James M. Cordes, Geoffery C. Bower, Casey J. Law, Shamibrata Chatterjee, Elizabeth A. K. Adams, Slavko Bogdanov, Sarah Burke-Spolaor, Bryan J. Butler, Paul Demorest, Jason W. T. Hessels , Victoria M. Kaspi, T. Joseph W. Lazio, Natasha Maddox, Benito Marcote, Maura A. McLaughlin, Zsolt Paragi, Scott M. Ransom, Paul Scholz, Andrew Seymour, Laura G. Spitler, Huib J. van Langevelde, Robert S. Wharton; The Astrophysical Journal Letters (Submitted on 4 Jan 2017 (v1), last revised 5 Jan 2017 (this version, v2)) via arXiv.org

3 Aerospace tech in the 1890s:

4 A nearby planetary system, maybe:

About Brian H. Gill

I’m a sixty-something married guy with six kids, four surviving, in a small central Minnesota town. I mostly write and make digital art. I’m only interested in three things: that which exists within the universe; that which exists beyond; and that which might exist.

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4 Responses to Labor Day SETI

  1. Peggy Haslar says:

    A science fan with much to learn, I always appreciate your posts on this topic! Thanks for the links and insight.

  2. irishbrigid says:

    Missing word: “It’s the apparent change wavelength as the observer and source”

    Also missing word: “Maybe you’ve heard in at a railway crossing.”

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Thanks for taking time to comment!