Report on Visit & Talk at NASA-Ames
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
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