Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Gliese 581g, Space Aliens, and the Canals of Mars

"Claim of Alien Signal from Planet Gliese 581g Called 'Very Suspicious' "
Denise Chow, Space.com (October 11, 2010)

"The recent discovery of Gliese 581g, an alien planet in the habitable zone of another star, has been an exciting development for scientists probing the galaxy for signs of extraterrestrial life. At least one claim of a possible signal from the planet has already surfaced – and been met with harsh skepticism among the science community.

"Following the Sept. 29 announcement of the discovery of Gliese 581g, astronomer Ragbir Bhathal, a scientist at the University of Western Sydney, claimed to have detected a suspicious pulse of light nearly two years ago, that came from the same area of the galaxy as the location of Gliese 581g, according to the U.K.'s Daily Mail online. [Alien Planet Gliese581g: FAQ]

"Bhathal is a member of the Australian chapter of SETI, a non-profit scientific organization that is dedicated to research, exploration and education in the field of astrobiology. ..."

So far it's like that stock situation in old-school science fiction: brilliant scientist discovers new planet/alien menace/mutant mouthwash; tries to warn others; is ridiculed by scientists who aren't as handsome as he is; is vindicated in the final reel.

Think Jor-El and the Kryptonian Science Council.

That can make a pretty good story.

In this case though, I think we're looking at something a bit more like the canals of Mars. Back to that Space.com article:

"...'Whenever there's a clear night, I go up to the observatory and do a run on some of the celestial objects,' Bhathal told the Daily Mail. 'Looking at one of these objects, we found this signal. We found this very sharp signal, sort of a laser lookalike thing which is the sort of thing we're looking for – a very sharp spike. And that is what we found.'

"Still, there are some scientists who are skeptical of Bhathal's assertion.

" 'I know the scientist, and when he first announced it, I asked him for the details, and he wouldn't send them to me,' astronomer and SETI pioneer Frank Drake told SPACE.com. 'I'm very suspicious.'..."

Scientists, when they've got something really hot to share with others: generally share it. Moderately hard evidence of space aliens signaling us from a planet that was discovered just last month? That's hot.

Or would be, if the evidence exists.

Rainbow Acres, Percival Lowell and Barsoom

There are three (at least) reasons why something that doesn't really exist may be presented as if it's real.
Honest Mistake
The Lemming's mentioned Percival Lowell before. He's the astronomer who says he saw "canals" on Mars. He probably did: or, rather, thought he did. There's a bit of a story behind that. (March 14, 2009)

Opticians, psychologists, and others have written quite a bit about just what they think Lowell really did see. But when we started sending spaceship to Mars, the canals weren't there.

The Lemming thinks that Lowell really did think that he saw "canals" - helped along by a bad translation of an Italian astronomer's observations. And less-than-stellar viewing conditions. He lived before adaptive optics and orbiting observatories.
Writing Fiction
Then there's Barsoom: Edgar Rice Burroughs' setting. That was a fictional Mars, and Burroughs knew it. Unless he was nuts, of course: and that idea I haven't run into. (Most) of Burroughs' readers knew Barsoom was a fictional setting, too.

Burroughs wasn't lying, as the term's usually used. He was writing stories. People don't, generally, expect places like the worlds of the Star Wars movies or Burroughs' Barsoom to be real places.
A novelist is expected to make up 'facts' for the story. The rules are different when property's being sold.

Shady real estate brokers of a few decades back inspired terms like "rainbow acres." Quite a few folks heard or read glowing descriptions and rushed to grab a 'deal of a lifetime.' When the suckers got a look at their property, it often turned out to be a tract of swamp, a forsaken patch of the American southwest, or some other comparatively useless bit of land.

"Secluded" was one of the terms used to describe places like that: as in "you need a helicopter to reach it."

Aliens on Gliese 581g - And Drumbeats Across the Water

I rather hope that we're looking at a 'Percival Lowell' scenario here - and that the astronomer's unwillingness to let others look at the data has an innocent explanation. One possibility is that he took another look, and got skeptical himself.

Last excerpt from that article:

"...Bhathal claimed to have detected the puzzling signal in Dec. 2008, almost two years before researchers announced the Gliese 581g finding, and long before it was announced that habitable planets were found orbiting the star Gliese 581 itself.

" 'I'm not aware of the location that was claimed for the source of that light, and [Bhathal] refused to tell me where it came from,' Drake said. 'I think it's very unlikely that it came from the direction of Gliese 581.'..."
'Puzzling' Doesn't Mean 'People'
Puzzling signals are nothing new. For example, the first pulsar discovered didn't act like stars were expected to. It flashed, or pulsed, too quickly. Then another rapidly-pulsing star was found. Pulsing at a different rate. As more pulsars were discovered, it wasn't entirely unreasonable to speculate that we were looking at navigation beacons set up by some starfaring culture.

More data came in, and it turns out that pulsars are stars. Odd ones, really small, and spinning like crazy: but stars.

So much for the 'beacon' idea.
Space Aliens May Not be Human
The Lemming would be delighted if there really were people out there - who were so much like us that they:
  • Wanted to communicate
  • Used communications channels that we do
Wouldn't everybody use radio, or light, or something like that, to communicate over long distances? Here on Earth, for the last hundred years or so - yes. Actually, semaphore signaling is much older than radio.

Space aliens might use radio, or some sort of electromagnetic radiation, to send signals to other stars. Or, they might not.

Think about it this way: let's say that folks living on a really, really remote island decided to try detecting signals from someone 'out there.' The islanders use drums to communicate - so they sent folks with unusually keen hearing out as far from shore as was safe: and listened for drums.

Those drum-listeners had the right idea: listening for signals. What they didn't take into account was the possibility that not everybody uses drums to communicate over long distances.

Finally, the drum-listeners and most SETI proposals I've encountered share a common assumption: that the people 'out there' are very much like us.

That assumption may be accurate. Space aliens, if they exist, may all be highly social people with an occasionally-lethal urge to boldly go where anyone with good sense - wouldn't. Like Antarctica, or Minnesota in winter.

Or, ET may be - alien. I've discussed that in another blog. (Drifting at the Edge of Time and Space (December 9, 2009))

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