Science

Search For Alien Intelligence: What India’s Absence In The Race Says About Our Science Culture

Artist’s concept of interstellar asteroid 1I/2017 U1 (‘Oumuamua) as it passed through the solar system after its discovery in October 2017. (European Southern Observatory/M. Kornmesser)
Snapshot
  • India as a democracy and rightfully aspiring world power needs to make very strong course corrections in its science education and direction of popular culture, not to mention a political will to implement mega science projects.

They named it the 'first messenger'. That is what the name 'Oumuamua' meant in Hawaiian. It is a strange object the astronomers discovered this October. Observations suggest that Oumuamua is deep red in colour; is 800 metres long and 80 metres wide.

Is it a comet? But comets sprout tails when they get close to sun. This is because as they get closer to sun, the comet gets warmer and the gases get released – a process called 'outgassing'.

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Could it be an asteroid? But no asteroid spins every seven hours and 20 minutes. Such a spin, according to Lee Billings, associate editor of Scientific American “could tear a loosely-bound rubble pile" and hence he concludes that Oumuamua "appears to be quite solid – likely composed of rock, or even metal – seemingly tailor-made to weather long journeys between stars”.

That naturally raises the next interesting question – is Oumuamua an alien probe from another star system?

How can we find it out?

If Oumuamua is artificial then there is a very strong possibility that it may be emitting radio signals. Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) telescopes can pick up the signal by tuning into the right frequencies. SETI is the scientific search for the possible presence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

Driven by what is famously known as Drake's equation and popularised by astrophyisicist Carl Sagan, SETI is a civilisational dream and a more primordial yearning of the only intelligent species we know that is lost in the vastness of the space-time fabric of the universe – us the humans.

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In the United States, the SETI Institute founded in 1984 is involved essentially in developing signal-processing technology and using it to search for signals from possible alien civilisations in our galactic neighbourhood.

In 2011, the programme received a setback because their Allen Telescope Array (ATA), a group of 42 radio dishes in northern California, which needs an annual budget of $2.5 million, ran into budget cuts. Then, in 2015, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner committed at least $100 million to support the SETI.

Carl Sagan (1934-1996): Astrophysicist and science popularising humanist  Carl Sagan (1934-1996): Astrophysicist and science popularising humanist 

So far, limited observations of Oumuamua using facilities such as the SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array, have turned up nothing. But the interstellar object already leaving our solar system is a rotating one. So, on Wednesday at 3 pm Eastern time, the West Virgina-based 100-metre Green Bank Telescope, supported by the Breakthrough Listen project of Milner, started a 10-hour observation covering the entire rotation, in a wide range of frequencies, looking for signals that may suggest an extra-terrestrial civilisational origin for Oumuamua.

On 13 December, 'Breakthrough Initiative', which has an open-data policy, announced on its website that there is “no evidence of artificial signals emanating from the object so far detected by the Green Bank Telescope, but monitoring and analysis continue”. The announcement further said: “A search for signals that may be of artificial origin has begun, but despite the impressive computational power of the Breakthrough Listen computing cluster at Green Bank, the large data volumes mean that this will take some time to complete.”

As the search continues, a question comes to mind. What about India's role in it?

Carl Sagan, who globally popularised SETI almost single-handedly to public conscience, while simultaneously countering the pseudo-scientific unidentified flying object (UFO) cults, was also an Indophile. SETI itself was conceived during the Cold War time. Sagan, also a pacifist, saw in SETI an opportunity to unite the two blocks in a scientific pursuit.

In his 1985 novel Contact, Carl Sagan introduced Devi Sukhavati, an Indian biologist as a minor but an important character. She was “born to a Brahman but unprosperous family with matriarchal proclivities in the southern state of Tamil Nadu” and fell in love with “Surindar Ghosh, a fellow medical student ... a harijan, an untouchable, of a caste so loathed that the mere sight of them was held by orthodox Brahmans to be polluting”.

Devi Sukhavati speaks in the international conference on whether or not to build a machine whose blue print had come to Earth through the SETI-like programme. She emphasises that we should build the machine. In a conversation with the heroine of the novel, she even talks about the Aryan invasion and its relation to the evolution of deities in India. I don’t wish to go into the literary and historic merits and limitations in the portrayal of the Indian character but highlight that for Sagan, an Indian character seems natural and needed in his novel on an international science project that he expected to happen in the near future.

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It will be interesting to compare Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a 1977 film based on UFO sighting hysteria that pervaded the US to the movie Contact. While the former is heavily laden with symbolism, UFO abduction and contact through musical notes etc, Contact, based on Carl Sagan's novel is based on rigorous scientific approach to the subject and also has a deep psychological dimension to it. Close Encounters too had a scene from India where the musical notes for contact with the aliens are obtained from a religious gathering in India. The comparison demands a separate article and we are digressing here.

However, today, after more than a quarter century has passed, China has taken that place and perhaps even beating the United States to build the facilities to make the contact even as Russian-funded Green Bank Telescope scans 'Oumuamua' for alien signals.

Just as in quantum teleportation and artificial intelligence research, China is combining a ruthless approach to make itself a front runner in the international race to make contact with the aliens. For example, China has built FAST (Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope) evacuating villagers (officially 9,000). This is the largest radio telescope in the world, beating the 305-metre Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, which held the title before.

In January 2017, the Chinese Academy of Sciences invited Liu Cixin, the country's most popular science-fiction author to visit the FAST. It is not a coincidence that Liu Cixin, the author of a science fiction trilogy The Three-Body Problem, is often hailed as China's answer to Star Wars and even Arthur C Clarke’s works.

Science fiction meets reality: (Left) World’s largest radio telescope built by China (right) Movie poster of Liu Cixin’s science fiction. Science fiction meets reality: (Left) World’s largest radio telescope built by China (right) Movie poster of Liu Cixin’s science fiction.

These efforts of China to position itself as the leader on the cutting edges of science, should be a cause of concern for India. Interestingly, in these fields Indian contribution is in no way smaller.

Despite clearly having all the problems of being a democracy, India does have an impressive record in the field. For example, the ISRO balloon project proved for the first time the presence of microbial life in upper stratosphere. In 2003, famous Indian physicist, J V Narlikar, along with Wickramasinghe of Sri Lanka with the help of ISRO, launched the balloons to sample the dust from upper stratosphere for possible extraterrestrial mircobes.

Micro-organisms collected by ISRO at the height of 41 kilometres (2003) Micro-organisms collected by ISRO at the height of 41 kilometres (2003)

In his paper on the 2003 balloon experiment by Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Dr Narlikar made the following observations in his concluding remarks:

Viable living cells have been detected ... at all heights ranging from 21 km to 41 km. Terrestrial contamination is ruled out because of the sample collection at altitudes well above the tropopause during a time when there were no extraordinary terrestrial events like volcanic eruption etc. ... Assuming an average of 100 individual bacterial cells each of mass 3 x 10 ^ -14 g in a clump, a daily mass input of about a third of a tonne of biomaterial is deduced. Although these estimates are very tentative, they serve the purpose of illustrating the amount of infall matter involved, if the results of this investigation are accepted and a prima facie case for a space incidence of bacteria into the Earth is seen to be established.
J.V.Narlikar et al.,’A Balloon experiment to detect microorganisms in the outer space’, Astrophysics and Space Science 285: 555-562, 2003

Subsequent works (Shivaji et al 2006, 2009) have isolated strains which have been found to be new species. However, these discoveries were not given their due importance in the Indian press.

India too has been in the SETI circuit. In Pune district of Maharashtra is the village Khodad. Here stands the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT). Dr Govind Swarup, former director of the National Centre for Radio Astrophysics, was the man behind GMRT which was installed in 1999. In a recent interview to a weekly magazine, Dr Swarup had said that though India’s SETI capability is high, it requires suitable human and financial resources.

Astrophysicist Dr Govind Swarup and the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) array, Pune. Astrophysicist Dr Govind Swarup and the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) array, Pune.

Interest in SETI (as against sensationalist and cultish interest in UFOs and ancient aliens) is in a way an indicator of how much interest a society and its culture has in science. A widespread interest in such big questions of science can have a great impact in developing quality scientific manpower. Unlike China, a Marxist state of party oligarchs, with global ambitions who can ruthlessly evacuate villagers in thousands to eavesdrop alien signals, India is on the other extreme.

Astro-physicist Jayant Vishnu Narliakr and his sci-fi novel (1989) Astro-physicist Jayant Vishnu Narliakr and his sci-fi novel (1989)

While at one level there is a dark inertia in Indian educational system, at another level the leftist-Luddite menace against every major science project has been on the rise as evidenced by the expulsion of neutrino project from Tamil Nadu. India as a democracy and rightfully aspiring world power then needs to make very strong course corrections in its science education and direction of popular culture, not to mention a political will to implement mega science projects.

Oumuamua exits our solar system: courtesy: NASA Oumuamua exits our solar system: courtesy: NASA

Meanwhile, Breakthrough Initiative continues to monitor Oumuamua, which has already started leaving our solar system, perhaps never ever to return.

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