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Report on Visit & Talk at NASA-Ames

Radobs 29

 
This is the report on my visit to NASA-Ames on Monday, April 15, 1991, where
I gave a talk about my Optical SETI ideas, rationale and philosophy.  After
my visit was set up, NASA decided to have four days of project review
meetings at Ames, starting on that Monday.  This interfered with our ability
to have more one-on-one meetings.  Some weeks before my talk, I had asked
John Billingham to invite Professors Charles Townes, Albert Betz, and
Dr. Ben Zuckerman to my talk.  Unfortunately, they didn't attend, and I had
not made any prior arrangements to visit Betz at Berkeley.  Perhaps I will
follow that up at some later date.
Before my talk, which was scheduled for after lunch, I met with Harry Jones
(I.F. signal processing), Dr. Kent Cullers and Peter Backus (MCSA expert). 
Harry Jones who was not aware of my approach, seemed amenable to the idea of
Optical SETI.  Kent Cullers was enthusiastic about the optical approach, and
had read my uploads via Jill Tarter.  He has been checking my calculations,
and couldn't find anything wrong with my expressions or math - that's a
relief!  He made the comment that the SETI Institute would like to revisit
Cyclops, and this time take a less conservative approach.  Obviously, I
would be very interested in making a contribution to that effort.  Kent
co-authored the chapter in "First Contact" about Amateur Microwave SETI, and
hence is naturally very interested in Amateur Optical SETI concepts. 
Dr. Cullers pointed out to me the paradox of my belief that interstellar
space travel was quite routine for ETIs, and yet they would still bother to
signal us in the electromagnetic spectrum.  As I have indicated elsewhere,
Electromagnetic First Contact is a kinder, gentler way of making contact
that should mitigate the effects of cultural shock.  A First Contact of the
type which was the theme of a recent Star-Trek TNG is probably not
recommended.  I briefly discussed with Peter Backus the idea of an amateur
MCSA (Multi-Channel Spectrum Analyzer), and a MCSA for the professional
optical system with a top-level bandwidth of 10 GHz and a lower level bin
bandwidth of 100 kHz!
I went to lunch with Dr. John Billingham (a real English gentleman) and made
a point of explaining that Clive Goodall was still very committed to giving
a talk on the Philosophy of SETI.  Dr. Billingham wants to reschedule the
talk at Clive's convenience, and remarked that there are only a couple of
philosophers in the whole of NASA.  Don't ask me what these other
philosophers do!  After my talk, John Billingham invited me to present a
paper at the next big international conference of SETI and Exobiology, which
is to be held in the United States in 1993.  This paper will then be
published in Acta Astronautica.  I believe it is now safe to assume that
what they feel I have to say about SETI and my approach has merit.
John suggested that I resubmit my Nature paper to John Maddox in Nature's
London office, as the Editor-in-Chief is a stronger believer in the merits
of SETI.  I think I will pay a personal visit to his office to discuss the
format of my paper.  He also suggested that I approach John Rummel at NASA-
HQ about Optical SETI funding.  NASA-Ames does not have funding earmarked
for Optical SETI activities at this time.  I will try to arrange that NASA-
HQ invites me to give a similar talk in Washington, after I return from
England.  I intend to get in touch with John Rather again, and Ramon
DePaula, the latter who heads the optoelectronics activities at NASA-HQ. 
Ramon and I have known each other for about the past decade, and he was of
assistance in getting me an interview for a possible position at JPL back in
the summer of 1987.  Unfortunately, the guy who had me in to interview
announced his retirement the same week!  Had I joined the staff of JPL, I
could well have been spending some of my time managing projects associated
with laser communications across deep-space.  John informed me that NASA-HQ
was just starting a program with Albert Betz's group on the first actual
Optical SETI search at the CO2 wavelength of 10,600 nm.  I have yet to
obtain details about this program.
At the start of the colloquium, John Billingham introduced me to his
colleagues as a space enthusiast (read "nut").  This got a good laugh as the
majority of people working in the SETI field are also so inclined.  I didn't
get to meet Dr. Jill Tarter until my talk, and she asked many questions - an
attractive lady.  We didn't have the opportunity to have private discussions
afterwards.  Again, I suppose the pressure of project review meetings
provided a strong distraction.  Jill repeated what she had said to me in
prior dispatches; that they were not down on the optical approach.  I
responded (again) that I hadn't seen anything about the subject in The
Planetary Report on Optical SETI in the past ten years, and very little in
other "popular" books on SETI.  The popular literature doesn't appear to
support her contention - I aim to change that.  The problem could well be
due to Dr. Oliver, since he has a major influence over what gets written
about SETI in the literature; call it cosmic censorship!  Certainly, much of
the popular review books on SETI include his comments.
Dr. Bernard Oliver sat in the front of the room and asked me a lot of
questions, many of which he had already posed to me in prior correspondence.
For many of my objections to his objections he had no counter-arguments,
such as why degrade the EIRP of long-range optical transmitters by using
very small mirrors, when the simplest method of broadening the beam for
nearby targets is to de-collimate a narrow beam produced by a large mirror. 
As you know, I have painted Dr. Oliver in the role of the "heavy" for
staunchly defending the microwave approach.  Towards the end of my talk he
said quietly "I thought I told you not to say anything about tight beams",
though I don't know if that comment was heard by others in the room.  It is
hardly possible for me to talk about superior ETI technology, my SETI
rationale and the benefits of the optical approach without mentioning tight
beams.  Because of his numerous interjections during my talk and the project
review meetings, we agreed to dispense with a post-talk private meeting that
had been scheduled by John Billingham.
It became apparent to at least one person in the audience, that to a large
extent I treat SETI as just another communications systems problem, and try
to take out some of its mystique.  Since I was their guest, for my "First
Contact" with the NASA SETI people, I took a low-key approach.  This does
not mean that in future I will not more aggressively market the Revisiting
of Optical SETI.  I concluded my talk as I ended by OSU talk, with the
comment that "small is beautiful" and that the jury was still out on the
relative merits of the two approaches.  I really enjoyed myself, and felt
very comfortable talking to the NASA people.  This is perhaps not
surprising, for since my OSU talk, I had done another five months of
analysis and thinking on this subject; giving me more time to have
consolidated by ideas and time to commit them to writing on RADOBS.
Bob Arnold, the SETI Institute's PR person, gave me some more literature,
publications, and another copy of the Cyclops report, since the glue had
perished in my previous copy, causing the pages to fall out.  Bob also
supplied me with a paper-back copy of the excellent publication "Life In The
Universe", a book that I had previously borrowed from my Bexley library.
Yesterday I received a paper from Robert Arnold by Albert A. Harrison and
Alan C. Elms.  This paper was titled "Psychology and the Search for
Extraterrestrial Intelligence", and was published in Volume 35 of Behavioral
Sciences last year.  I think Clive will be interested in this paper.  On the
second page of the paper (page 208), at the top of the right hand column, it
suggests that our galaxy is three billion light years in diameter and one
billion light years thick!  This incredible piece of information is
attributed to a book by N. McAleer called "The mind-boggling universe". 
Those numbers are certainly mind-boggling.  Where did they get those numbers
from, and who reviewed the paper?
As a slight digression, and to follow up on a comment he made at Big-Ear
last Sunday, I would like to point out again to Steve Brown, that while I
think it is very unlikely that ETIs would signal to us with NTSC TV
transmissions, unless they have been able to receive and demodulate our TV
broadcasts, it is quite reasonable to suggest under my superior technology
rationale, that their signals may contain video information.  Sequential
raster scanning is probably a very basic video technique for sighted species
(the theory of mediocrity).  On the basis that most intelligent species will
have the sense of sight, a picture worth ten thousand (or more) words would
probably be the most efficient way to break down language and cultural
barriers.
Having met Dr. Oliver, I have decided that there is no point in trying to
make Barney Oliver see the error of his ways.  It will be more profitable
for me to work on the rest of the community.  I cannot explain why he is so
adamantly opposed to the optical rationale.  Perhaps he more than most, has
more to lose if he has to eventually admit that optical communications
aren't so bad after all.  Being clever and having imagination are two quite
different human attributes.  I can only conclude that Barney's imagination
failed him in the area of ETI - a paradox since he co-authored the earliest
papers on optoelectronics (the word had yet to be invented) with Professor
Charles Townes.  Perhaps the real difference in our thinking arises from the
fact that I am born of the generation for which almost anything is possible,
given enough time and effort.
May 5, 1991
RADOBS.29
BBOARD No. 501
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
* Dr. Stuart A. Kingsley                       Copyright (c), 1991        *
* AMIEE, SMIEEE                                                           *
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