Exploring a Logarithmic Temporal Technology Scale

19 09 2013
Industrial archaeologist performing an underwater survey. (Credit: NPS)

Industrial archaeologist performing an underwater survey. (Credit: NPS)

In a previous, fairly soft-content post, I mused about the possibility of the existence of a logarithmic pattern in history that relates, in a predictable way, the subjective perceptions of technology within a civilization to their pace of technological advancement.  (In a sort of tongue-in-cheek gesture, I called it the McGee Scale of technological advancement.)

At the time, I based the scale itself on our civilization’s history and our historical understanding of the possibility of flight.  Then, I turned the scale around and anchored it to the present day to use it as a tool to make some tantalizing projections about the pace of our own future technological advancements.

However, while a fun, neuron-tickling exercise, after playing around with it a bit more, the scale has taken on something of a more serious light.  With this in mind, I thought I’d share the work and the resulting possibility that such a proposed relationship might actually be more than trivial.

Review: A Logarithmic Scale of Cultural Technological Achievement/Advancement

To begin, let me review what the scale looked like.  Being temporally-logarithmic in nature, it’s an intentionally coarse scale over time, which has the distinct benefit of smearing out statistical noise like wars, upheavals, disasters, and dark ages to provide an average pace of technological development in a civilization.

It’s admittedly subjective and tenuous in that we really only have one technological civilization’s history to base/test this upon (our own), but here’s what it looked like as compiled.  (Note: I also added an extra step at the end of the scale for grins.)

So, from any point in time for a given technological civilization, the scale defines the following general relationship in technological advancement, where “τ” (tau) is a reference moment in a civilization’s past or future technological history, and all units are in solar years:

  • Recent technological achievements at τ+1 year would have also been considered commonplace at time τ.
  • Recent technological achievements at τ+10 years would have been considered generally commonplace at time τ.
  • Recent technological achievements at τ+100 years would have been considered uncommon at time τ.
  • Recent technological achievements at τ+1,000 years would have been considered unachievable/fantasy at time τ.
  • Recent technological achievements at τ+10,000 years would have been considered unimaginable at time τ.
  • Recent technological achievements at τ+100,000 years would have been incomprehensible at time τ.

Granted, this all makes general sense, and the sentiment is a fairly logical one.  So, I’ll admit that at first this seems like an exercise that goes out of its way to justify something that is already straightforward or intuitive.  However, the intriguing and unique factor here is that this scale is based on actual historical information, and its utility is therefore a testable hypothesis.

Navigable balloon by Henri Giffard (1852). 19th century print.

Navigable balloon by Henri Giffard (1852). 19th century print.

Testing the Logarithmic Scale Looking Backwards: Practical Flight

It becomes easier to see how the scale might be tested if instead of working forward through time in the general case, the scale is anchored at the present moment but instead operates backwards through history.

With this conversion, the scale now becomes:

  • At τ-100,000 years, recent technological achievements at time τ are incomprehensible.
  • At τ-10,000 years, recent technological achievements at time τ are unimaginable.
  • At τ-1,000 years, recent technological achievements at time τ are considered unachievable and/or fantasy.
  • At τ-100 years, recent technological achievements at time τ are considered uncommon.
  • At τ-10 years, recent technological achievements at time τ are considered generally commonplace.
  • At τ-1 year, recent technological achievements at time τ are considered commonplace.

Now, let’s dive into specifics.  In my original thought-experiment, I evaluated the technology/science of flight.  So, where the above scale in the general form reads, “technological achievements commonplace at time t,” let’s insert the term, “practical human flight,” to refer to regular use of technological aircraft for transport between settlements.  Let’s also insert real year values, using 2013 as civilization reference time τ, and see what it all looks like:

  • In 97,987 B.C.E., practical human flight is incomprehensible.
  • In 7,987 B.C.E., practical human flight is unimaginable.
  • In 1,013 C.E., practical human flight is considered unachievable and/or fantasy.
  • In 1913 C.E., practical human flight is considered uncommon (but possible).
  • In 2003, practical human flight is considered generally commonplace.
  • In 2012, practical human flight is considered commonplace.

With this, we have real values and predictions, so let’s pick this list apart.

First, in the 98th millennia (or the 980th century) B.C.E., there is no historical information from humanity.  Originating in Africa, anthropological studies suggest humans (homo sapiens) became anatomically-modern roughly 200,000 years ago and began migrating to Eurasia ~100,000 years ago (our target period).  However, evidence suggests humans only became behaviorally modern, (meaning the development of language, music, and other cultural “universals,” such as personal names, leaders, concepts of property, symbolism, and abstraction, etc.)  some 50,000 years ago.  This means that our time period is nearly 90 millennia before the advent of agriculture and some 50 millennia before the widespread development of language and culture, where humans at the time operated only in nomadic groups known as “band societies.”  Therefore, it would have been impossible not only to convey the idea of practical, technological flight to them, but even describing the idea of a human settlement would have been problematic.  Therefore, this one is spot on; to these early humans practical human flight between settlements would have been incomprehensible.

Second, in the 8th millennia (or the 80th century) B.C.E., there is very little historical record to evaluate.  However, all we need to do to break (falsify) this logarithmic scale/model is demonstrate that practical human flight had been considered by that point.  Archaeologically, it can be demonstrated that the first steps toward technological civilization are being taken at this point in history.  Agricultural technology is being developed simultaneously in South America, Mexico, Asia, and Africa; stone tools, granaries, and huts are being developed in Africa; the creation of houses, carvings, stone tools, counting tokens and musical flutes made of bone are developed in Asia; statues, pottery, and evidence of ceremonial burials are found in Greece and the Mediterranean, along with wheat, barley, sheep, goats, and pigs, indicating a food-producing economy.  In all cases listed here, it seems that the problem of sustaining civilization, (i.e., food and shelter) is still paramount.  Of them, the early Greek civilization may have had the most technologically-developed system and therefore the most opportunity to consider technological advancement in the direction we’re considering.  Yet, based on a lack of both technology and historical/archaeological evidence, it appears safe to say that in this tumultuous time of antiquity practical human flight between settlements would have been plainly unimaginable.

Third, by the 11th century C.E., there are a few small-scale examples of individual flight attempts using kites, gliders, or even bamboo-copters across Asia and Europe.  None of them illustrated practical success.  At the specific time (11th century), of all civilizations on Earth, those of the Islamic world and of China had reached a technological and/or scientific peak.  So, in the interests of breaking this scale as a model, it is there that we’ll look for evidence that human flight might have been considered achievable in a practical sense.  Islamic contributions, insofar as history records them, are restricted largely to mathematics and not practical engineering.  Further, the year 1,013 C.E. preceded the birth of famous Islamic mathematician Omar Al-Khayyam by several decades, and neither he nor his predecessors offered any known discussion of technological flight. On the other hand, the existence of the Song Dynasty in China gives us the greatest run for our money.  There, the relatively advanced use of technology, including boating, magnetic compasses for navigation, horology, along with the development of art, literature, and sweeping advances in science (e.g., geomorphology, climate change,) push this boundary to the limit.  However, despite the sophistication of the civilization at the time as well as their notable use of hot-air Kongming lanterns for nearly a millennia prior(!), it seems that there is no evidence to suggest serious considerations or attempts concerning the development of a practical airship.  Hence, it is safe to say that globally, practical human flight would have been considered either unachievable or simple fantasy.

Fourth, the scale’s prediction for the year 1913 is not hard to corroborate, and further, is right on the money.  The successful invention of the manned, practical, but non-directional hot air balloon was made in the year 1793.  The first dirigible design that could have been utilized in the fashion described for this exercise (for practical transport between settlements) was invented in 1852.  The first commercial Zeppelin was launched in the year 1900, and the Wright brothers’ flight was performed in 1903.  So, yes, it is safe to say that while there was likely widespread belief by the year 1913 that flight was indeed possible, (graduating us out of the previous “bin”), such flights would certainly have been considered uncommon.

The rest, 2003-2012, is obviously correctly categorized – Success!

A printing operation as depicted on a woodblock ca. 1568.

A printing operation as depicted on a woodblock ca. 1568.

Testing the Scale Again: Electronic Text

Now, having gone through the first technical example, let’s attempt another and see if the agreement was a fluke.  This time, let’s leave the time scale intact from the previous example but shift to an entirely different sort of technology: printed language.  Working backwards, in order for this to work, we have to figure out what a “recent technological achievement” in “printed language” means at civilization reference time τ (now).

Well, for the purposes of this experiment, I’m drawn to consider so-called e-books, being digitally-formatted and distributed writings or texts to be displayed and read on electronic devices.   Hence, instead of inserting, “modern human flight,” let’s instead insert the term, “the use of electronic text” to refer to regular use of digital language technology and see what it all looks like:

  • In 97,987 B.C.E., the use of electronic text is incomprehensible.
  • In 7,987 B.C.E., the use of electronic text is unimaginable.
  • In 1,013 C.E., the use of electronic text is considered unachievable and/or fantasy.
  • In 1913 C.E., the use of electronic text is considered uncommon.
  • In 2003, the use of electronic text is considered generally commonplace.
  • In 2012, the use of electronic text is considered commonplace.

Again, since we have real dates and descriptions, let’s see how well they match up with history.

97,987 B.C.E. – Language has not yet been developed, hence this fits the scale’s definition of incomprehensible.

7,987 B.C.E. – Writing has been developed, but printing of any kind (stenciling was the earliest possible technology that qualifies) is still more than five millennia away at best; hence this fits the scale’s definition as unimaginable.

1,013 C.E. – The earliest example of printing with movable text was within a couple of decades of being first premiered in China.  So, the process of printing could be argued to be understood, but extending this to describe self-luminous text, single machines that can store entire libraries of information, and text that can change itself – Yes, this would clearly have been considered physically-impossible fantasy.

1913 C.E. – To start, history reveals that the pantelegraph, which can be considered an early version of a fax machine, was invented in 1865.  This leveraged technological advances to transmit printed text electronically, though it did not store said text, nor display or reproduce it electronically, only mechanically.  Next, electromechanical punch-card data storage was invented in 1880, so it can be truthfully claimed that the technological storage of numeric or text data was at least conceptually available by 1913, though again, this invention did not display any of the stored information electronically.  However, the technology gap regarding electronic displays began to close with the nearly simultaneous invention of the scanning phototelegraph in 1881, which allowed for the coarse electric transmission of imagery, (and at least hypothetically, visual text).  Finally, the invention of the Nipkow scanning disc in 1884 provided the first electromechanical means to scan and display imagery in real-time.  So, by 1913 we can reasonably claim that the existence of these inventions, used with greater prevalence over the course of at least three subsequent decades, implies that the key concepts necessary for using electronic text – electric scanning of visual information, the electromechanical storage of information, and electromechanical display of information – were all acknowledged realities.  Therefore, while perhaps a stretch to say that use of electronic text is merely “uncommon” in the year 1913, I would claim that the concept of electronic text would not seem unachievable or fantastic (the previous temporal “bin”).  Though there was admittedly no market for such a device, one could conceive of a large, hard-wired or wireless invention composed of a punch-card library, text-analogue mechanical counters for mechanically displaying lines of text (as stored on the cards), and a Nipkow televisor to transmit and display that text to a receiving/viewing station.  Highly uncommon, yes.  But clearly possible.  (I think we made it in right under the wire on this one.)

And again, the remaining categorical descriptions for 2003-2012 are obviously correct.  Success again!

The Antikythera Mechanism. (Credit: National Archaeological Museum, Athens, No. 15987)

The Antikythera Mechanism. (Credit: National Archaeological Museum, Athens, No. 15987)

Viewing the Scale in Both Time Directions: Testing the Wheel

First, readers may note that the “forward” and “backwards”-looking versions of the scale are actually two halves of a single scale with respect to arbitrary civilization reference time τ.  In complete form, note that the scale looks like this:

  • At τ-100,000 years, recent technological achievements at time τ are incomprehensible.
  • At τ-10,000 years, recent technological achievements at time τ are unimaginable.
  • At τ-1,000 years, recent technological achievements at time τ are considered unachievable and/or fantasy.
  • At τ-100 years, recent technological achievements at time τ are considered uncommon.
  • At τ-10 years, recent technological achievements at time τ are considered generally commonplace.
  • At τ-1 year, recent technological achievements at time τ are considered commonplace.
  • [τ = the current civilization/technology temporal reference point]
  • At τ+1 year, recent technological achievements would have also been considered commonplace at time τ.
  • At τ+10 years, recent technological achievements would have been considered generally commonplace at time τ.
  • At τ+100 years, recent technological achievements would have been considered uncommon at time τ.
  • At τ+1,000 years, recent technological achievements would have been considered unachievable/fantasy at time τ.
  • At τ+10,000 years, recent technological achievements would have been considered unimaginable at time τ.
  • At τ+100,000 years, recent technological achievements would have been incomprehensible at time τ.

Well, considering this now-complete scale (operating in both temporal directions) and presuming that the previous two examples demonstrated some general agreement between this scale and the history of technology, let’s explore what happens if we do not anchor time τ at the present-day.

For the following exploration, let’s consider advances in the technology of the wheel, but let’s set time τ instead to the height of Classical Civilization – smack in the middle of the scientific Hellenistic Period in the year 250 B.C.E. seems about right.  Where was the wheel then?  Well, the spoked wheel and chariot had been invented more than a millennia earlier.  So what was new then?

The answer, as it turns out, is the water-wheel, newly invented by the Greeks and used both for irrigation as well as for a mechanical power source in mining, milling, and other industrial activities.

So, including this in the scale as “the use of a technological water wheel,” the predictions in both directions are now:

  • In 100,250 B.C.E., the use of a technological water wheel is incomprehensible.
  • In 10,250 B.C.E., the use of a technological water wheel is unimaginable.
  • In 1,250 B.C.E., the use of a technological water wheel is considered unachievable and/or fantasy.
  • In 350 B.C.E., the use of a technological water wheel is considered uncommon.
  • In 260 B.C.E., the use of a technological water wheel is considered generally commonplace.
  • In 251 B.C.E., the use of a technological water wheel is considered commonplace.
  • τ = water wheel technology reference point in the year 250 B.C.E.
  • In 249 B.C.E., advances in wheel technology would have been considered commonplace.
  • In 240 B.C.E., advances in wheel technology would have been considered generally commonplace.
  • In 150 B.C.E., advances in wheel technology would have been considered uncommon.
  • In 750 C.E., advances in wheel technology would have been considered unachievable/fantasy.
  • In 9,750, advances in wheel technology would have been considered unimaginable.
  • In 99,750, advances in wheel technology would have been incomprehensible.

So, here we go:

100,250 B.C.E. – Language, agriculture, and settlements had not yet been developed amongst humans, and so technology like a water wheel for irrigation and mechanical power cleanly fits the scale’s definition of incomprehensible.

10,250 B.C.E. – While language and culture have been developed by this point, the world’s oldest known wheel dates back to roughly 5,300 B.C.E., which is five millennia into the future; hence the concept of a functioning water wheel fits the scale’s definition as unimaginable.

1,250 B.C.E. – The spoked wheel and the chariot had been invented a few centuries prior, yet it would still be seven or eight centuries before the first invention of the water wheel – essentially a giant wooden wheel powered by a stream to automatically deliver water to fields or grind grain.  The description in this context would likely have been considered unachievable/fantastic (in the technical sense), and therefore fits the scale’s definition.

350 B.C.E. – Being that the waterwheel was invented in in third century B.C.E., and we’re not quite there yet, the use of one certainly qualifies as “uncommon.”   Yet, is that too generous?  Would it have been considered unachievable or fantastic then?  To answer this, let’s look at the technological innovation going on at the time.  Hellenistic scholars of the 3rd century employed mathematics and dedicated empirical research to further technological and intellectual advances.  Specifically, there is evidence to suggest that finely-machined gear systems to represent the motions of the Sun, Moon and planets had been constructed (see: Antikythera Mechanism).  Thus, considering that 350 B.C.E. is just a century before the creation of such finely-tuned machines that their precision would not be reproduced for another two-thousand years, while a waterwheel might have seemed unusual prior to widespread adoption, it would certainly not seem impossible or fanciful.  Therefore, I would argue that its characterization is accurately predicted by the scale.

260, 251, 249, and 240 B.C.E. qualify with generally commonplace use of the water wheel and no major loss, upheaval, gains, or advances in wheel technology.

150 B.C.E. – Moving forward, this is where subjective decisions must be made about what the evolution of “water wheel technology” means in order to continue.  In my mind, what we’re really talking about is the mechanical use of the wheel – a circular disc – itself in technology.  From this generalized perspective, we now have the latitude to consider technological innovations that incorporate the wheel, but are not necessarily direct evolutions of a “water wheel,” as technological descendants of the technology under consideration at the reference point.  (This is doubly-reinforced by the reality that innovation is anything but linear.)  So, what wheel-based technologies came into being approximate a century after our reference point in 250 B.C.E.?  The astrolabe, which functioned as an analog calculator typically used in solving astronomical problems.  While precision technology using the wheel had been occasionally in existence for a couple of centuries prior to the reference time (250 B.C.E.), its use in this fashion would have definitely been considered uncommon.  This is accurately predicted by the scale.

750 C.E. – The early centuries of the Common Era are pretty tough on this scale, as coincidentally it is a period of particular turmoil and conflict… and therefore not much innovation.  However, a monk, astronomer, and engineer under the Tang Dynasty in China was notable for advancing the use of clockwork mechanisms with an escapement and integrating it with the movement of a large celestial sphere.  In common terms, he enabled the construction of an impressive, accurate, and automated astronomical display not unlike what is found in a modern planetarium.  Despite their relatively advanced technological achievements at the time, describing such a device to someone from the year 250 B.C.E. would have arguably seemed fantastic.  Therefore, the scale holds up.

9,750 C.E. and 99,750 C.E. – Now, here’s where we run out of data.  However, considering the many unbelievable technological achievements of even the last century that incorporate wheels or discs, including electrical dynamos, automobiles, two-wheeled personal transports (see: Segway PTs), electronic interface devices (e.g., Intellivision), etc., etc., all of which would have been either unimaginable or incomprehensible to someone from the year 250 B.C.E., it isn’t a stretch to say that technological innovation at these proposed times in the distant future would be even moreso.  And so, by convenient definition and temporal increments, the scale holds up here.

So – this makes three examples of using the scale with real-world data.  Is there any utility to it?

Assumptions (Weak Spots?)

Immediate objections amongst the astute may be that this scale is too coarse to be testable and/or of any meaningful value to us, (which may ultimately be true).  However, even this does not necessarily mean that the use or consideration of such a scale has no utility.  Perhaps where it fails can lead to even more interesting territory.

Of course, such a scale presumes human existence tens or hundreds of millennia into the future.  Is it too bold to be that optimistic? =)

Thoughts in general?

Relating Different Cultures via “τ-Power” Values

Used in another way, I propose that this scale may find its greatest utility in providing a means to compare the technological development within or between different cultures at separate stages of technological development.

Logarithmic scales may be thought of conveniently in powers of ten.  So, if we consider the technological time-position of a given reference culture to be the origin, or τ^0 power, the relationship of the technological level of a target culture to the reference culture may be simply described as a sequential power integer in either the positive or negative direction, as illustrated in the following converted scale:

  • Technology in use by the reference culture is incomprehensible to the target culture; (τ-100,000 years) = τ^-5 culture, or a negative-fifth-power culture.
  • Technology in use by the reference culture is unimaginable by the target culture; (τ-10,000 years) = τ^-4 culture, or a negative-fourth-power culture.
  • Technology in use by the reference culture is considered unachievable and/or fantasy by the target culture; (τ-1,000 years) = τ^-3 culture, or a negative-third-power culture.
  • Technology in use by the reference culture is considered uncommon by the target culture; (τ-100 years) = τ^-2 culture, or a negative-two-power culture.
  • Technology in use by the reference culture is considered generally commonplace by the target culture; (τ-10 years) = τ^-1 culture, or an order-of-magnitude culture.
  • Technology in use by the reference culture is considered commonplace by the target culture; (τ-1 year/τ+1 year) = τ^0 culture, or in other words are both considered to be technologically-equivalent cultures.
  • Technology in use by the target culture is considered generally commonplace by the reference culture; (τ+10 years) = τ^1 culture, or an order-of-magnitude culture.
  • Technology in use by the target culture is considered uncommon by the reference culture; (τ+100 years) = τ^2 culture, or a two-power culture.
  • Technology in use by the target culture is considered unachievable/fantasy by the reference culture; (τ+1,000 years) = τ^3 culture, or a third-power culture.
  • Technology in use by the target culture is considered unimaginable by the reference culture; (τ+10,000 years) = τ^4 culture, or a fourth-power culture.
  • Technology in use by the target culture is incomprehensible to the reference culture; (τ+100,000 years) = τ^5 culture, or a fifth-power culture.

Utility of the “McGee Scale”?

By considering the technological time-position of a reference civilization (which may itself possess different “t-power” values for different technologies within it), I believe the development of such a scale at least conceptually achieves or enables two objectives:

First, it provides an alternative means to describe, compare, and (at least roughly) quantify past cultures in terms of technological development.  This may yield new insight into both the relationship between evolving technologies and cultural change as well as the effects of introducing foreign technology (e.g., from a culture of a more advanced t-power) to the evolution of a given culture.

Secondly, gaining the ability to describe technological cultures in simple and quantifiable terms (based on human history of technology and not solely upon speculation, as is the case with the Kardashev Scale), also provides a more formalized method of evaluating the concepts underlying pursuits proposing non-terrestrial cultures and technology, such as the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

So – with all of that, I think I’ll fire this post off into the cyberwild.  Critical feedback is very welcome.  This whole concept scheme evolved organically, and if left to my own devices for much longer, I just might convince myself that this is worthy of a full write-up and submission to a journal – (perhaps Contemporary Archaeology?)…

Thoughts, anyone?





The “Wow! Reply” – SETI Stunt, Science, or Threat?

22 07 2013

A little less than a year ago, the  National Geographic Channel (NatGeo) executed a truly novel crowdsourcing initiative that I feel is deserving of greater critical attention.

Hailed by some as innovative public engagement, derided by cynics as mere marketing spectacle, and condemned by others as a threat to our very way of life, hindsight suggests that this bold and yet somewhat understated event may have been the most significant contribution of the entire (and much maligned) television project.

The Wow! Reply

Specifically, the initiative’s concept was to solicit tweets from the public, collect and compress them into a digital package, and then “beam” the collective message into space as a potential reply to the famed, so-called “Wow! Signal.”

[The Wow! Signal refers to a 72-second-long radio signal picked up momentarily by SETI's Big Ear radio telescope in Ohio on August 15, 1977.  As an enigmatic signal that appeared for all the world to represent Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) paydirt, it remains to this day arguably the strongest candidate for radio evidence of extraterrestrial life, though that isn't saying all that much, as the signal has never been rediscovered for confirmation.  As a result, current SETI Institute director of interstellar message composition Douglas Vakoch has claimed that the signal has received more attention than it scientifically merits.  ...But that's a different story.]

In short, NatGeo was keen to supply anyone with access to a computer or smart-phone a chance to say something to the rest of the universe, all in promotion of its newest extraterrestrial-life-themed television show.  There were no restrictions on public participation or the content of anyone’s messages, save the 140-character limit built into Twitter tweets.

In my experience, this so-called “Wow! Reply” was a definite first:  An innovative collaboration between public media and research academia – in this case NatGeo and the famed Arecibo Observatory – that manifested as a public-outreach and active-SETI experiment on a global scale.

The Reply was ultimately successful (in that the interstellar broadcast was successfully performed from Arecibo), and the transmission was targeted back toward the location of the original Wow! signal precisely 35 years to the day from the original signal’s receipt.

An ambitious undertaking for an endeavor entirely conceived and funded to generate interest in a television show, indeed!

However, to understand the varied reactions to the Reply, it’s necessary to first explore how and why the Reply was crafted and executed in the first place.

Arecibo – the largest single-dish telescope in the world.
(Credit: National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center [NAIC]/Cornell U./NSF)

Designing an Interstellar Hook

The idea of the Reply was innovated by Campfire, a consulting firm specializing in “transmedia” storytelling (involving multiple media forms and channels).  The initiative itself was kicked off by soliciting Wow! Reply videos from celebrities and scientists, (to which I contributed).

Some of these videos were over-the-top, while others were serious and science-based.

A personal favorite is Stephen Colbert’s riff on the event.

-In any case, for something as seemingly esoteric as radio SETI, (which is essentially radio astronomy), this was an unprecedented amount of exposure!

Alongside, official word from National Geographic Channel was somewhat divorced from the show it was loosely designed to promote while being surprisingly inspirational and forthright in tone:

“We wanted to come up with some sort of social experiment where we would galvanize people to tap into the curiosity about whether there is life and intelligence elsewhere.”  (Courtney Monroe, NatGeo spokesperson)

“…curiosity around the Wow! Reply is rooted in one of mankind’s oldest unanswered questions: Are we alone in this universe?” (NatGeo Wow! Reply website)

“…[Intelligent extraterrestrial life] would have to decode [the Wow! Reply].  We have carefully structured our encoding and transmission so that it would be difficult to recognize the signal as anything random.  However, decoding the messages … They simply would not have the social context to do that. …no one involved in this project sees it as a truly scientific step toward finding intelligent life in the universe.  After all, this is not a SETI project. … But, that doesn’t mean it’s not a fun exercise, designed to provoke a whole range of questions and conversations down here on Earth – what do we believe is our place in the cosmos?  If we had to sum up the human experience for another civilization, what would we say?” (NatGeo Wow! Reply website)

Ultimately, one could say the Reply served its purpose, as more than 20,000 people tweeted specific messages on the appointed date (June 29, 2012) in order to be included in the transmission, and countless others were made more aware of SETI, radio astronomy, and the existence of the Wow! Signal as a result.

But forgetting the far-fetched and tantalizing possibility of contacting aliens for a moment, what of our own reactions to the Reply?

The Wow! Reaction… from Us.

Prior to the Jun 29 2012 tweet-collection date, there was significant and generally neutral-positive press coverage of the Wow! Reply, which crossed public and professional-level publications, including articles from Slashgear, Huffington Post, and Phys.org.

Unfortunately, however, any fanfare associated with the Reply was quickly siphoned and/or overshadowed by its association with the premier of a television show that, regrettably, communicated a much less scientific or exploratory message.

The press coverage quickly shifted toward neutral-negative, as seen in this NPR article, fading by the time of the transmission of the Reply itself to a simple, short blip on the newswire, exemplified by this NPR piece.

Then, coverage vanished entirely.

Now, a little less than a year later, the collective response from the scientific community and the general public on the Reply has been mixed, running the gamut from enthusiasm to fury.

Why mixed, you might ask?  What could possibly be perceived as negative about something that engaged so many people in the history of science, the wonders of radio astronomy, and possibility of life in the universe?

For the answer, let’s step squarely out of the realm of public media and discuss what NatGeo, wittingly or unwittingly, really engaged in when they conspired to undertake the Reply: METI, or Messaging Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.

The original 1977 print-out of what, based on the note written on the paper's margin, became known as the "Wow! Signal."

The original 1977 print-out of what, based on the note written on the paper’s margin, became known as the “Wow! Signal.”

Intragalactic Smoke Signals

Sending a message between stars may sound straightforward enough, but actually accomplishing the collection and broadcast of 20,000 tweets into space is a non-trivial technological feat in and of itself.

Addressing the problem of creating something even hypothetically translate-able by a non-terrestrial civilization is an altogether separate and even more daunting task.

Now, it should be mentioned that we – humanity – have been broadcasting signals into space since television broadcasts first began.  Our radio signals travel upwards and out into space in addition to traveling sideways where the antennae on our old TV sets would be best positioned to receive them.

Much like a beacon, these signals travel outward at the speed of light with time, some of which may have reached as far as 80 light years distant from us since then, (a radius that includes upwards of 5,000 stars!).  And crudely, like a smoke signal, the on-and-off of these transmissions has the ability to hypothetically alert another civilization (with the technology to detect them) to our presence on the galactic scene.

File:Arecibo message bw.svg

The 1974 Arecibo Message.

However, with all of this in mind and especially considering that SETI itself is approaching half of a century of maturity as a scientific pursuit, many are surprised to learn that a broadcast with the specific intent of transmitting information to – i.e., communicating with – hypothetical Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (ETI) has only been attempted eleven times in human history, nine of those being prior to the Wow! Reply.

Think about that.  Eleven times since we developed radio technology.  That’s the galactic equivalent of being trapped in a basement for a year and only calling out for help on the order of (very, very generously) 3 hours.

Not very good odds of being heard at all.

Most notable amongst these earlier transmissions was the Arecibo Message of 1974, a powerful, 210-byte message created by eminent SETI scientist Frank Drake and astronomer Carl Sagan, which was aimed at M13 – a star cluster located a cool 25,000 light-years from Earth.  (Read: It will be 25,000 years before that message reaches its destination! …but a quirk of astrophysics dictates that the stars won’t even be there by the time it gets there.  Everything is moving, after all.)

After that, it is interesting to note that the next message wasn’t even attempted until 25 years later, in 1999 (Cosmic Call 1).  The remaining six broadcasts were conducted in the aughts (2000-2010).

Now, and literally aimed a bit closer to home, we finally arrive at the NatGeo Wow! Reply on August 15, 2012.

The Wow! Reply Transmission

So, how was the Wow! Reply itself transmitted?  Using the Arecibo radio observatory’s formidable 1-megawatt  continuous-wave (CW) S-band transmitter, the project organizers used a 2380 MHz (12.6 cm wavelength) carrier wave to send what promotional materials referred to as a “global tweet” into space.

More specific technical details of the Reply’s assembly, construction, encoding, and transmission have been, somewhat surprisingly, fairly hard to come by.  Even more curiously, I was ultimately able to recover this information in a primary-source context only from an article removed from the National Geographic website not long after it was posted.   (I’m honestly not sure what to make of that.)

In any case, here goes.  Because of uncertainty in the source location of the original Wow! Signal, the Wow! Reply was targeted toward three different stars, which were each selected based on a trio of criteria.  Namely, they were selected based on their location, proximity to our own star system, similarity to our sun, (and I suspect a fair amount of opportunism with respect to the dish’s orientation at the time).

The ultimate winners were/are:

It’s a bit sobering to not just imagine but to know that these stars are not just numbers in a database but are actual stars, whirling about the Milky Way in the precise fashion that our sun does the same, dragging the Earth and the other planets along with it.

And like our Sun, we actually know that at least in one of these cases, these stars are also surrounded by actual alien worlds.  A system of planets not unlike our own.  Astronomers and planetary scientists call them Extrasolar Planets, or Exoplanets.

Comparison of the inner planets of en:55 Cancri and the innermost three planets of the Solar System.  (Credit: Wikipedia user Chaos syndrome)

Comparison of the inner planets of Wow! Reply recipient star system 55 Cancri and the innermost three planets of our Solar System. (Credit: Wikipedia user Chaos syndrome)

Specifically, there are at least five planets orbiting the yellow dwarf star within the 55 Cancri system (see the above image), one of which may skirt that system’s habitable zone. In other words, not only are they available to harbor hypothetical alien life, but one planet in particular (unceremoniously titled) “55 Cnc f” may even be able to support life as we already know it.

A heady endeavor, indeed.  But what is it we actually sent there (to arrive in the year 2053)?

To prepare the message to be delivered to each of these stars, all of the public videos and tweets were first converted to binary data.  Then, scientists at Arecibo were claimed to have added what they refer to as a “training header” to help a hypothetical recipient decode the message, as well as regular repetitions of header sequences prior to each tweet (meaning at least 20,000!) to help distinguish the signal from cosmic noise.

Then, at the power level mentioned above, which is roughly 20 times greater than the most powerful conventional radio transmitter, the enormous surface area of the Arecibo antenna would have boosted the signal to an effective power of more than 10 TeraWatts.

For reference, this is enough power (properly harnessed) such that Doc Brown could have sent Marty McFly back to the future more than 8,000 times.

Pretty powerful, indeed.  But then again, it would have to be.  The nearest star on the recipient list is, in conventional distances, 2,410,000,000,000,000 (nearly two-and-a-half quadrillion) miles away.

And as for how to make the 1 and 0 parts of the radio message, astronomers use what is known as a Binary Phase Shift Keying modulator that literally flops the carrier signal to represent up or down, or 1 and 0.

Now, having sent the Wow! Reply is one thing.  The idea that an extraterrestrial civilization could produce any meaningful information from it is another entirely.

Carl Sagan, one of the first serious proponents and implementers of interstellar messaging.

Carl Sagan, one of the first serious proponents and implementers of interstellar messaging.

Communicating with the Unknown 

The odds of translating an alien message is remote.  Vastly remote.  So remote, in fact, that NatGeo in their own description of the event declares the possibility to be zero:

“[An alien civilization] simply would not have the context to do that.”

So, was this all in vain?  Has the truth of the advertising and marketing aspect of this endeavor finally been laid bare?  Well, not necessarily.  While the broadcast may have been a blast of indecipherable binary code, it may still function as a lighthouse-style beacon, and further, it provides excellent context for explaining the difference between so-called Active SETI and METI here at home.

The Chief Scientist of Russia’s Institute of Radio-engineering and Electronics Alexander Zaitsev has eloquently laid out the argument for the difference between and importance of SETI and METI in his paper, “Messaging to Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.”

Quite simply, on the one hand the mission of SETI is to produce confirmation of extraterrestrial intelligence.  From this inward-directed vantage, messages such as the Wow! Reply seem to be of little value, as they present a disappointingly remote “shot in the dark,” as it were, of being received, translated, and acted upon.

However, METI proponents possess a much more outward-directed motive, which is to not only ideally communicate with ETI but also to inspire their Wow! Signal moments, even if they are unable to reply.  What a mental back-bend to consider such a possibility!

In Zaitsev’s words,

“METI pursues not a local, but a more global purpose – to overcome the Great Silence in the Universe, bringing to our extraterrestrial neighbors the long-expected annunciation “You are not alone!””

Clever work is being done today on the design of universally-translate-able METI, such has modulating the signal itself to represent physical elements, (e.g., invoking pattens in the radio wave itself so that it serves as the message), yet Zaitsev’s point is that doing so may not even be essential to fulfill a much more significant role to another civilization.

The Hawking Warning

So, that brings us to the next chapter of this interstellar adventure, which is the opposition to METI.  It’s easy to imagine the benefits of such a philosophically-lofty endeavor, e.g., inspiring a “first contact” moment with another civilization that has the capacity to, in turn, broaden our cultural horizons to include a galaxy that has satisfied one of our longest-standing questions – revealing that we are indeed not alone!

However, what of the potential pitfalls?

As it turns out, objections to METI are not new.  In reaction to the famed Arecibo Message of 1974 mentioned earlier, Nobel laureate and astronomer Martin Ryle championed that any attempted extraterrestrial messages be strictly outlawed, at least pending some sort of rigid global review and risk assessment.

Why?

In what may be seen through the lens of future history as either paranoid or prophetic, Ryle’s objections were repeated in 2011 by eminent physicist Dr. Stephen Hawking, who issued an infamous alert warning humanity away from attempting to contact extraterrestrial life.

For someone as engaged in public science outreach as Dr. Hawking has been throughout his career, the proclamation was seen by many as puzzling or counter-intuitive.  However, his concerns were based on hard historical data – something that is obviously difficult to come by when talking about any scenario for which we have no practical example.

In Hawking’s words:

“If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans … We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.”

Now, there is nothing saying that this must be the case, but the objection certainly merits critical thought.  If relevant, shouldn’t any attempts at interstellar contact be limited as these precautionists warn – at least until we possess a means of planetary defense?

And if the concern is not applicable, why not?  Can we be sure?  (This relates in a way to what I like to refer to as the Andromeda Strain and War of the Worlds spectrum for interplanetary or interstellar lifeform interactions…)

Jamesburg Earth Station, currently transmitting for the Lone Signal project.

Jamesburg Earth Station, currently transmitting for the Lone Signal project.

Domino Effect: The Lone Signal

In perhaps the most intriguing development of all, it appears that the concept of the Wow! Reply earned the attention of an entirely unexpected group – public outreach space scientists themselves.

Just last month, a crowdfunded METI/Active SETI program called Lone Signal began continuous operation at California’s Jamesburg Earth Station.  In a strikingly-similar sort of outreach initiative to the Wow! Reply, the objective of Lone Signal is to continuously transmit “tweet”-sized messages from the public toward Gliese 526, a red dwarf star located a mere 17.6 light years away.

Lone Signal began sending these transmissions on June 17 of this year.  If successful, they hope to activate a network of stations across the Earth, greatly enhancing our star system’s galactic profile, in a manner of speaking.

As for Hawking’s warning about the dangers of exactly such an increase in visibility to the brotherhood of advanced and potentially-threatening alien civilizations that may or may not exist?  Lone Signal’s chief scientist has stated that he believes any nearby advanced extraterrestrial civilizations are already aware of our existence due to radio leakage, and humanity’s previous high-power transmissions could be detected with relatively simple equipment.

While engaging the public in an active outreach program, Lone Signal hopes to resolve what is essentially another civilization’s Wow! Signal problem – since our previous broadcasts have been short bursts that have never repeated, any civilization just tuning in could have caught just a fragment.

Lone Signal aims to broadcast continuously for the foreseeable future, giving other civilizations that which we ourselves have yet to find: the power of confirmation.

The Wisdom of Active SETI and METI

You be the judge.  Was the Wow! Reply the first in a series of media efforts to engage the public in a world that extends beyond our horizons?  Was it simply advertising masquerading as science?  Will it be looked upon as the lure that attracted what may become an unprecedented future conflict over resources with life hailing from another star system?  Or might it hasten the day that we realize we are not alone in the universe, helping us resolve our internal quarrels and participate in a broader spectrum of interactions in our stellar neighborhood already in play?

Time will tell.

But this is the conversation I sincerely wish we would have been in a position to facilitate a year ago.

Comments welcome.





Pushing Asteroid Mining on the Wow! Signal Podcast

26 06 2013

Just a quick note today on a fun, recent interview I gave with Paul Carr on the Wow! Signal Podcast, where I had the opportunity to discuss the very conceptual genesis of my personal scientific journey as a geologist and space scientist: the lure, importance, and incredible promise of asteroid mining and capitalizing on extraterrestrial resources!

photo

My original 2004 NASA KC135 proposal for an asteroid mineral separation “mining” system. …Still looking for an opportunity to fly this thing…

(Paul is a space systems engineer, skeptical investigator, and a prolific writer who keeps not only the aforementioned podcast but also his own blog and several websites, most of which communicate a fascination with space and life in the cosmos…  Thanks for reaching out, Paul!)

So, for any readers interested in hearing me attempt to talk extemporaneously while simultaneously trying to keep a lid on my enthusiasm for the potential in space resources, now’s your chance. =)

Additionally, I should note that I had the good fortune to share the podcast airspace with engaging planetary system scientist (and dabbler in numerical astrobiology) Dr. Duncan Forgan, as well as Isaac Stott of Stott Space Inc., future asteroid miner and ardent proponent of space resources development.

The only thing that could have made the podcast more of a kick was if the interviews had been temporally-simultaneous and supplied with science-fueling spirits of some kind…  All in good time, I suppose…





New ideas on the altar of science

23 05 2011
    • How are ideas that had once been considered speculative best adopted into the practice of serious scientific investigation?
    • How are speculative ideas most effectively graduated from the realm of science fiction and introduced into scientific discourse?
    • By what benchmarks of conceptual “distance” are speculative concepts evaluated before being considered too fringe for serious consideration?

A Greek altar to Zeus. (Uncredited)

These are questions with which I find myself (quite unexpectedly, and perhaps, naively,) faced after the publication of my latest article, “A Call for Proactive Xenoarchaeological Guidelines: Scientific, International Policy, and Socio-Political Considerations” in the journal Space Policy.

In it, I discuss the practical realities and considerations necessary to conduct a rigorous investigation of a suspected “alien” artifact – whether conducted on Mars, in orbit, on a returned sample, or around another star.

My logic in writing such an article was straightforward and fairly simple.  With an ever-expanding suite of (primarily robotic) extraterrestrial exploration activities, I argued that it is only a matter of time until we stumble across something we think might be evidence of astrobiological activity (alien life).

Whether or not the suspected site or artifact turns out to be anything special is irrelevant.  The moment we have the suspicion that an item may be of interest is the very instant a preconceived xenoarchaeological methodology becomes useful.  Therefore, we should start thinking about things like xenoarchaeological methodologies ahead of time.

A terrestrial archaeological dig site. (Credit: Lorna Richardson)

After a literature search, it became clear to me that the “scientific endeavor,” (if one could reasonably call it a single thing,) had not yet adequately considered the practical, logistical, and scientific considerations such an investigation would require.  (To the point: when are planetary geologists taught to consider site context from an artifact forensics perspective?  Conversely, when are archaeologists taught to consider different gravity, temperature, pressure, etc., environments in their analyses?)

So, I assembled a general outline based on SETI protocols, COSPAR sample return guidelines, and basic archaeological principles, and I laid it bare upon the altar of science (read: peer review).  I truly believed that it was time to elevate what once existed only in the province of Arthur C. Clarke and Jack McDevitt to serious consideration.

The Apollo 17 field site. (Credit: NASA)

Now, the journal Space Policy is an interdisciplinary journal, which is the level of consideration I was after.  While my first thought was to submit to the journal Astrobiology, the people interested in space exploration concepts at the 40,000-foot-level are the ones I sought to engage rather than the scientists currently entrenched in their own niche work.  I wanted to stimulate the big-picture types to start thinking about what we can and should do in the event of a potential “artifact” discovery by a rover, etc., and to perhaps encourage others to engage and develop these concepts further.

While I received many positive responses and enough constructive feedback to consider the article fruitful, (much of it from astronomers and archaeologists,) not everyone viewed my contribution so favorably.  Chief amongst the opposition turned out to be Dr. Linda Billings, a communications researcher at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.  (You can find her blog here).  As it would turn out, she has a longstanding relationship with NASA and has spent decades helping to craft their science message.  Recently, she has been working to promote astrobiology to the public…  and she didn’t like my article one bit.

Mars rover at Victoria Crater, Mars, as seen from orbit. (Credit: HiRISE, MRO, LPL, NASA)

Like a fervent acolyte leaping to the defense of her faith, she plunged an emotionally-charged response straight into the fray.  Clearly, my proposition stepped on some of her conceptual toes.

However, I would argue that when one weighs the immense “deep time” available to exoplanetary systems, the current pursuits of astrobiology and SETI, (which emphasize microbiology and technologically-advanced extraterrestrial life respectively,) leave a gaping conceptual whole where our first physical investigations are actually likely to exist:  An in-situ study of the remains and/or artifacts of extinct alien life.

How would we conduct a rigorous investigation of such artifacts?  What are the pitfalls and likely biases intrinsic to such work?  These are the sorts of questions I sought to spark.

Based on Linda’s failure to address my article’s technical propositions, and considering the fact that she spent the great majority of her time either misstating (or apparently misunderstanding) the article, it seemed almost as though she didn’t really read it.  Instead, it was as though Linda was responding to something I represented to her – perhaps a UFO-hunter seeking to justify sending spacecraft to the “face on Mars” … (which is, after all, just a mesa.)  She preaches semantics at length, (which I argue are inadequate,) and she spends a great deal of time deconstructing arguments my article never made - contradicting herself in the process.  In all, I was quite taken aback, and I was frankly fascinated by the response.  I don’t mind critical feedback, but I would like it to be constructive.

I’m curious if anyone else agrees – she seems to be responding to more than just my article.

As I said earlier, Linda’s response seemed very emotionally-charged to me, and the editor was kind enough to offer me the opportunity to run a counter-response.  (Despite the fact that I was limited by a extremely-confining word count, I was able to address most of her inconsistencies and misstatements in my rejoinder, which ran in the same issue.)

Otherwise, the direct feedback in some circles was positive enough that collaboration has resulted, (in the true spirit of scientific exploration,) and I have a couple of follow-on papers in the works.  In my mind, that’s what this is all about.

In any event, the questions I leave to you are these:

  • When is it too early to begin discussing concepts scientifically?
  • Are we to wait until a discovery and then rush to try and think clearly through the thick of it all?
  • Can and should science be proactive?

We have spacecraft flying all over the place these days.  Personally, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to plan a couple of chess moves ahead.

Who knows?  The effort may just even come in handy.





Xenoarchaeology Online

9 10 2010

I am excited to report that my article, “A call for proactive xenoarchaeological guidelines – Scientific, policy and socio-political considerations,” has been published online by the journal Space Policy as an in-press corrected proof as it awaits publication in an upcoming issue.  (I mentioned working on it previously in a post here.)

The thrust of the paper is that when you consider the galactic timescales and hazards we know to be in play against the evolution of alien life, we’re likely to discover evidence of life before we discover astrobiology itself.  Further, it’s only a matter of time before we identify suspected material evidence of astrobiological activity.  -And regardless of whether or not it turns out to be a real find, we should be prepared to investigate and evaluate it will the scientific rigor deserving of an actual find, with the foresight to successfully manage information verification and public dissemination.

The paper is a stab at highlighting the applicable scientific protocols, planetary pitfalls, and social snags a xenoarchaeological investigation might face in the hopes of stimulating discussion toward the development of a fully-fledged field of study.

Here’s to making it one step closer (academically, anyway) to the stars.  Feedback welcome.

UPDATE 11/2010:  The article has been officially published in Space Policy Volume 26, Issue 4, November 2010, Pages 209-213.





Differences between SETI, Astrobiology, UFOlogy

17 08 2010

Based on some recent feedback, I’m tempted to pose a question to the cyberverse:

  • What differences do you see, if any, between SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), Astrobiology (study of locations and potential biochemistry of extraterrestrial life), and UFOlogy (study of UFOs)?

I ask this as a general point of discussion because some have expressed concern that working toward a preconceived methodology for xenoarchaeology, like I’ve been working on, will confuse Astrobiology, SETI, and the more pseudoscientific UFOlogy in the public mind.

So, what do you think?  Just how different is your perception of SETI, Astrobiology, and UFOlogy?  How legitimate a scientific pursuit are each?  How illegitimate?

Clearly, all three concepts are related.  Without Astrobiology, SETI and UFOlogy cannot logically exist.  UFOlogy implies “ETI,” but it makes some pretty incredible assumptions that in my mind remove it from the realm of hard science, or even speculative science, for that matter.

So, have at it.  Comments welcome.





Alien archeology – now a real science?

15 05 2010

Concept sketch of Mars xenoarchaeological site from movie Total Recall. Credit: Steve Burg

Well, I’ve done it.  Making good on a promise I made to myself while presenting a poster at the Society of American Archaeology conference in 2008, I recently submitted an article to the journal Space Policy outlining a framework for a science that doesn’t quite exist yet: Xenoarchaeology.

“Xeno” is Greek/Latin for “foreign” or “stranger.”

Seriously.  I drew from SETI protocols, interplanetary geological sample return guidelines, archaeology fundamentals, and historical examples to make a call for a proactive set of xenoarchaeological guidelines.  My argument?  -The moment that we find something we think might be the real deal on another planet is the wrong moment to try and figure out how to study it correctly and credibly.  And we’ve got spacecraft and landers everywhere these days.  -It’s only a matter of time until we do cross over something that makes us double-take.

To paraphrase my general points in the paper, an archeological mindset is particularly well-suited to analyzing a site of truly unknown character, but there are planetary science landmines a regular archaeologist would be completely unprepared to dodge.  Gravity, temperature, chemistry, and electromagnetic environment can all be (and likely are) very different on another world, which will affect essentially every property of an object.  On Earth we can take all of those things for granted – the strength and effectiveness of friction, for example.  On Mars?  We had to completely redesign the drill bits used on our Mars rovers simply because the effectiveness of a cutting edge on Mars is only half what it is here on Earth because the atmospheric pressure is so low, which is in turn because the gravity is 1/3 weaker.  See what I mean?

If it walks like an arrowhead, and it talks like an arrowhead… it might not actually be an arrowhead on Mars.

So, that’s my stab at taking a scientific discipline out of the realm of science fiction and elevating it to reality.  -The paper made it favorably through editorial review, and I am waiting to hear back on comments from the peer referees.

My ulterior motive?  I really do believe it’s only a matter of time until we find something – and if I center myself in the burgeoning discipline, when we do find something (if I don’t happen to be the one who stumbles across it, myself)… they’ll have to call me.

Fingers crossed.

(NOTE, 10/2010:  The paper was accepted and published!  Find it here.)

(NOTE, 05/2011: See the follow-up post on article responses here!)








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