Tuesday, August 15, 2006

A Load of Crop (Circles)

Every man is a damn fool for at least five minutes every day; wisdom consists in not exceeding the limit. ~Elbert Hubbard

No sooner do I write my magnum opus, or at least, wordy essays on SETI and the possibility of life on other planets, than the article is rendered obsolete by a news item. A good chunk of Part 1 involved the Drake equation, one element of which is a variable relating to the number or proportion of potentially habitable in a system is much lower than any of the estimates typically given. In this article, scientists are saying that a potentially habitable planet may be circling 55 Cancri, which is great. But, the piece also notes that, so far, such planets have proved to be difficult to find. One implication is that there may not be many to find.

Of course, the methods available to us for detecting planets lend themselves to finding systems with gas giants, generally those close to their star. Such systems aren't likely to hold smaller, rocky planets with water on them because the gas giants would have swept them up as they spiraled into tighter orbits.

And I knew that. Just from looking at the systems found to date, it would appear that Carl Sagan's estimates for viable planets would have to be considered optimistic. But, cut me some slack. As we develop better techniques for planetary discovery, we may find systems holding many potential homes for life. Besides, the point of my essays is still intact whether there are millions of inhabited planets, thousands, or hundreds.

However, some other reading I've done over the last few days has caused me to consider whether SETI is, in fact, using the best methods for attempting to communicate with those LGM's out there. LGM, of course, stands for “Little Green Men”; it's a technical term astronomers use when they don't want to sound kooky. At any rate, here are the SETI folks, aiming radio telescopes at this star and that one looking for some sort of mathematically significant sequence, e.g., the first 10 prime numbers, a bit of a Fibonacci series, or the winning digits of the next PowerBall lottery. Yet, the aliens are communicating with us right here on good ole planet Earth.

Yes, I'm talking about crop circles.

I don't understand why crop circles get people (with the exception of the farmer whose crop is stomped down) so atwitter, but they do. Personally, I admire the handiwork and the industriousness involved, but if you've seen one, you've seen most of them. They are, of course, relatively easy to make. In an article on DailyMail.com, Robert Harman recounts the fairly well-known story of how two middle-aged men began making the designs as a lark, confessing in 1991, when the wife of one of them began to suspect that her hubby's late night outings involved some sort of marital hanky-panky.

Despite the confessions, there are still people who believe that the designs are messages from spirits, aliens, or druids (who sometimes appear to be a combination of the first two). But, according to Mr. Harman, the fad appears to be in decline for a variety of reasons (angry farmers would be one, if you ask me). Yet, a couple of days later, Nigel Watson writes for Wired.com that crop circles are on the rise or at least getting more interesting.

Now whether there's more of them or less of them, whether they've become more involved and more 3D in nature, what they aren't is alien communication. Let's think about this for a moment. Let's say that you are on a spaceship circling a planet that has life on it. You can tell it has life because you have excellent sensors that can detect all the tell-tale signs of planet-despoiling technical civilization. You also are picking up broadcasts from the planet's surface. Now if you're as smart enough to have discovered an anti-gravity, non-relativistic space craft that can go faster than the speed of light, you surely have a computer powerful enough to translate the languages you're hearing.

After a suitable period, you're ready to communicate with these beings. Do you a) send a mathematically-based message to get their attention, b) attempt to send a message in the most widely-spoken language, or c) do you drop down in the middle of the night with some rope, boards, and poles and draw circles in some farmer's alien wheat crop (kidnapping a couple of drunks from the planet's bayou area while you're at it)?

Apparently, a rather significant number of people on our planet feel that c) is the way to go at it. I don't know whether to chuckle, laugh out loud, or cry when I think about that. I have had people attempt to rationally explain how the Air Force is hiding Little Green Remains at Area 51. I have heard some of the most ridiculous abduction stories you could imagine told with great seriousness.

“Why exactly would an alien want to abduct a drunken bum from a swamp?”

“Because then no one would believe his story.”

“Gee, I guess those aliens are smart, because that plan is certainly working, isn't it?”

So if one is to believe these folks, SETI is aimed way to high. However, another alternative is being offered by some devotees of the cover-up theories. The Register published a letter they got in response to an article, as they put it, “full of aliens, alleged cover-ups, and general space science.” What they got was a letter chastising them for falling for the SETI conspiracy to cover up the fact that they have already received alien transmissions but are keeping them secret! Well, that's one way to garner interest and funding; don't tell people you're actually succeeding.

But, to add fuel to the flames of conspiracists everywehre, it seems that the gang from SETI in conjunction with scientists from NASA (however few they'll have left after Mr. Griffin gets done) have decided that a plan needs to be in place to communicate to us unwashed masses any information about the discovery of life on Mars, should it be found. So, if Spirit or Opportunity sends back a pic of a silicon giraffe strolling by, or, more likely, if a sample-return mission to Mars comes back with evidence of microbial life having existed there, these experts feel that we'd need to make sure that the news didn't get out until everything was properly investigated. In others words, the proof of alien life would have to be covered up!

The only way to make it better would be to name Area 51 as the central repository for information about life on Mars. The whackos would be dancing in the streets.

Or around the crop circles.

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