Catching Up
1 June 2023 | 3:32 pm

Catching Up

Centauri Dreams began as a website back in August of 2004. I’m startled to realize, looking through the stats that my site’s software provides, that in the subsequent nineteen years, there have been 4,659 posts, along with close to 100,000 comments. The irony is that I started the site simply as a research venue for myself, thinking to keep up with the latest news by building a collection of articles and scientific papers. It took about a year before I even switched on the comments function.

One of the benefits of publishing for such a length of time is perspective, as the interstellar research scene has grown and changed over the past two decades. But one thing I didn’t do is keep up with the software. Always focused on content, I’ve kept writing but have let too many generations of internal programming stay mired in older iterations. The dangers of this are obvious. A site with obsolete internals is all too open to hacking. And now, completely normal upgrades to some of the site’s functionality threaten to break some of the older software. Something has to be done.

What’s now happening is a thorough re-doing of the internals of Centauri Dreams, one that will solve the immediate problems and allow upgrades to some of the external programs I use. The most obvious change to readers will be the site theme, although things should remain pretty familiar. I want Centauri Dreams to continue with its basic layout, and that means no advertising, no pop-up windows, no annoyances to distract from the text. Behind the scenes, the site will be rendered more secure and also more efficient, with less chance of an errant move on my part bringing things down.

Please bear with me as the work proceeds. The new look comes with significantly tightened security. Work behind the scenes will continue on a number of issues I want to resolve. I’ll tweak the look and feel around the edges, but let’s get through the transition first. This should be done within the next day or two. If any late-arriving comments get lost along the way, I’ll get those restored as soon as I can. Anticipating problems – and they always turn up, no matter what – should help to deflect them.


SETI: Asking the Right Questions
25 May 2023 | 9:20 am

SETI: Asking the Right Questions

Did Carl Sagan play a role in the famous Arecibo message transmitted toward the Hercules Cluster in 1974? I’ve always assumed so, given Sagan’s connection with Frank Drake, who was then at Cornell University, where Sagan spent most of his career. But opinion seems to vary. Artist/scientist Joe Davis, who now has affiliations with both MIT’s Laboratory of Molecular Structure and Harvard Medical School, noted in an email this morning that Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, supports the connection, but according to Davis, Drake himself denied Sagan’s role in the composition or transmission of the message.

I mention all this because of Tuesday’s post on the simulated SETI signal being sent via ESO’s Mars ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, as a kind of work of art in its own right as well as a test case in building public involvement in the decoding of an unusual message. The idea of doing that irresistibly recalled Joe Davis because in 1988 Davis performed his own act of scientific art involving SETI, one that involved the Arecibo message and raised the question of whether any recipients would recognize it, much less decode it.

Image: A color-coded version of the Arecibo message highlighting its separate parts. The binary transmission itself carried no color information. Credit: Arne Nordmann / Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0.

The project, called “A Message in Many Bottles,” was set up at MIT’s Hayden Library in 1988. Davis used 1679 ‘Boston round’ 16 ounce glass bottles arrayed in a set of partitioned racks that were displayed in stacks. This is remarkably clever stuff: Each of 18 aisles in the library contained racks of bottles mounted, as Davis told me, 23 across. Empty bottles served as 0s in this digital message, while bottles filled with water represented the 1s. The whole thing reproduced the 1974 Arecibo message.

Now remember, this is MIT. You would think that if there is any place where a population of scientists, academics and students might puzzle out an enigmatic artifact like this, it would be here. Davis puts it this way in his email:

Hayden Library is MIT’s science library and contains all of the information needed to decode the message, all information the message refers to, and supposedly, better-than-average terrestrial intelligence. To the best of my knowledge, nobody decoded it. Instead, there were arguments…about whether or not the racks of bottles constituted works of art.

Image: An evidently baffled student contemplates the “Message in Many Bottles.” Credit: Joe Davis.

In 1997, a year after Sagan’s death, Davis reinstalled the display at MIT’s then new biology facility (Building 68), dedicating the work to the memory of Sagan. A short article on the matter in Nature (27 March 1997) noted the project as an homage to Sagan that accurately reproduced the Arecibo signal, going on to note:

Philip Sharp, chairman of MIT’s biology department, describes the exhibit as a “fitting tribute” to Sagan’s work. “It brings the abstraction of a radar message into an accessible, physical form,” says Sharp. He says he sees “numerous benefits” in having an artist who approaches issues from an unorthodox perspective working alongside more formally trained scientists.

Labeled as a tribute to Sagan and explained so that viewers could decode the message, “A Message in Many Bottles” served as an effective exhibit inhabiting the muzzy borderland where science meets art and creative minds translate research into shapes and forms that interrogate the meaning of our experiments. For that matter, was the Arecibo message itself not a kind of art, given that with a target 25,000 light years away, there was no conceivable way to see it as an actual communication?

Back in 2009 Joe Davis wrote “RuBisCo Stars” and the Riddle of Life for Centauri Dreams, presenting his own work at Arecibo, which wound up, on the 35th anniversary of the Arecibo message, in a new message based on molecular biology that was sent to three nearby stars. How he did this using, remarkably, an analog audio file on his iPhone interfacing with Arecibo’s technology is explained in the second part of his 2009 post, “RuBisCo Stars”: Part II. These two posts are, as everything involving Joe Davis’ work continues to be, invigorating and startlingly thought-provoking.

Image: At Arecibo, Joe Davis ponders transmission options as he holds the possible answer. Credit: Ashley Clark.

In fact, Davis notes in part II, in the midst of explaining to Arecibo’s then interim director Michael Nolan what his project is about, that “projects concerned with the search for extraterrestrial intelligence are really more about a search for ourselves; that they make us look much more intensely at ourselves than we look away into space and that nobody seems to see that part of it.” Nor could the myriad well-trained minds who encountered the Arecibo message in “A Message in Many Bottles” decode its meaning.

Science is so often about asking the right question. What are we staring at right now that we are not seeing? Are we asking the right questions about SETI?

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Links for IRG Interstellar Symposium in Montreal
24 May 2023 | 6:30 pm

Links for IRG Interstellar Symposium in Montreal

The preliminary program for the Interstellar Research Group’s 8th Interstellar Symposium in Montreal is now available. For those of you heading to the event, I want to add that the early bird registration period for attending at a discount is May 31. Registration fees go up after that date. Registering at the conference hotel can be handled here. Registration before the 31st is recommended to get a room within the block reserved for IRG.

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