Sunday, December 18, 2016

Christmas, Carl Sagan, and extraterrestrials

        At this festive season, what topic could be more appropriate for this blog than Carl Sagan's 1977 Christmas lectures at the Royal Institution in London?

        In my previous blogpost I insisted that Carl Sagan may have theorized a possible 10,000 visits to Earth by ETs in his 1962 paper, but he certainly did not hold that opinion for very long. I made reference to his Christmas lectures for support of that proposition, and I'm about to give chapter and verse on that.

        The overall title of the six-lecture series was "The Planets," and it was Carl Sagan at his best--urbane, charming, fluent and full of good information. The R.I. demonstrators were at their best too, providing excellent models and other visual aids to make this sometimes difficult subject accessible. In the last lecture, titled Planetary Systems Beyond our Sun, Sagan started by talking about techniques for detecting exoplanets. Today those techniques have been refined but the general principles are still the same. He talked about the Drake equation, as a way of estimating how many intelligent civilizations there are in the galaxy, and then embarked on an analysis of how radio contact might be established. This included an intriguing demonstration of how a three-dimensional model of a formaldehyde molecule might be transmitted as a message of 29,791 binary digits. The intent of such a message, he said, might be to direct our attention to the natural frequency of formaldehyde where a more elaborate message would be found. He then went on to say this:

47:55 One often comes upon some other ideas about extraterrestrial intelligence -- namely, why go to all this trouble with radio telescopes when the extraterrestrials are already here? We sometimes hear something like that. The ideas are often expressed in terms of unidentified flying objects, and in terms of ancient astronauts. Now there's nothing silly about being able to fly between the stars. We are already doing it although at an extremely slow pace. It's taking us about 80,000 years to go from here to the nearest star with our present space vehicles. But other civilizations more advanced than we might very well be able to do it in much shorter periods of time--so maybe we are, or have been, visited. It's not ridiculous. On the other hand, it's such an important contention that we should demand only the most rigorous standard of evidence. And my judgement is that on the ancient astronaut business what happens is people look at big buildings constructed long ago and say "My goodness, I don't know how that big building was built, probably people from somewhere else built it." Yes--maybe from Egypt, but not from some other star. These ideas often show an ignorance of archaeology--our ancestors were smart, they could build big. There's no artifact in early human history, so far as I know, which requires extraterrestrial intervention.

Likewise, on unidentified flying objects, there are things seen in the sky which are unidentified--that's what an unidentified flying object is, it means we don't know what it is. It doesn't mean it's a space vehicle from somewhere else. And there ought to be things in the sky that we don't understand--the sky is very rich in phenomena--astronomical, meteorological, optical and man-made phenomena. And therefore only a very reliable sighting of an extremely exotic object ought to be considered in any way relevant to our problem of life elsewhere.  And to the best of my knowledge, there are lots of exotic reports, but none of those exotic reports are reliable. For example, a 30-foot diameter metallic shaped object lands in a suburban garden. A seamless door opens. A metallic robot walks out, picks a flower, smells it, pets the cat, waves to a lady hiding behind her sliding glass door, turns on his heel, enters the UFO, the seamless door closes and it takes off into space. Now that I would call an exotic story--no question about it. But when we look closely into that, it turns out no-one in all of Long Island, New York City, besides the old lady noticed that this had happened. And the cat was unavailable for corroborative evidence.  And that's an example of an exotic story that isn't reliable. On the other hand there are reliable stories, lots of people see something, that are not exotic--a light in the sky. There are no cases where 200 people see something as exotic as what I just said, no cases where there's a piece of the spacecraft that someone captures and sneaks into a laboratory so they can investigate it. No-one has ever managed to steal the captain's log book. And until that sort of thing happens, it seems to me we must be very cautious and skeptical because extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It would save us a lot of trouble if those fellows  would come here, instead of us having to go out and find them. I'm not opposed to it--it's just that there isn't a smidgen of good evidence to support those ideas. I wish it were otherwise. 
It's very unlikely I'll be blogging again until 2017, so best wishes to all.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Donald Zygutis doesn't know what he's talking about

        Up for two hours on Coast to Coast AM last night was author Donald Zygutis, plugging his book The Sagan Conspiracy. Since I have not actually read the book and don't intend to, I'm self-disqualified from reviewing it. However, many statements made by Zygutis last night and on his promo website were so wrong that I wish to correct them. His topic is one that I know about--it's in my wheelhouse, as they say. As a TV producer/director of science documentaries I worked closely with Sagan on three occasions.

Here's a summary of the book, in its author's own words:
"[H]ow many Carl Sagan fans know that while the renowned scientist was at Stanford University, he produced a controversial paper, funded by a NASA research grant, that concludes ancient alien intervention may have sparked human civilization?

Recently rediscovered by the author, Sagan’s lost Stanford paper is the central theme of The Sagan Conspiracy. ... I’m thrilled and honored that The Sagan Conspiracy includes the complete and unabridged text of the breakthrough scientific paper on ancient alienism that Carl wrote at Stanford University in 1962, that the United States government has gone to extreme lengths to suppress."
        The problem with that thesis is that Sagan was not at Stanford in 1962-- he was at Harvard. I don't know whether he wrote any such paper--I can find no reference to it but of course Zygutis would say that's because it's been suppressed by the PtB. Zygutis maintains that Sagan believed that extraterrestrials "may have visited Earth thousands of times in ancient history, and may have even 'terraformed' the planet to make it habitable by humans." However, I know that Sagan had no such belief. On the contrary, in the original Cosmos PBS-TV series he stated quite the opposite belief, and in his writings and lectures he firmly advocated the position that there is no evidence of extraterrestrial visitationnote 1. UFOnuts love to cite Sagan as supporting their wingnuttery, but all Sagan ever said about UFOs is that they are worth investigating.

Is Anybody There?
        Last night Zygutis and guest-host Richard Syrett spent some time discussing the Drake equationnote 2 and the Arecibo message, and revealed significant ignorance on both topics.

        Zygutis said the the Drake equation reckoned the odds of ever receiving a message from an intelligent extraterrestrial civilization, and that Frank Drake himself had solved his equation and come up with an estimate. That is not true. The equation sets out a mathematical way of estimating the number of extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy advanced enough to potentially communicate with us. Drake only gave an extremely wide range of possible values for his term N--from 1,000 to 100,000,000. The point about the equation was not that it could be evaluated with any precision at all, but that the value of N was probably non-zero. Sagan's estimates (see note 2 below) ranged from 0.3 to 10 million.

        Syrett asked about the Arecibo message that Sagan sent from the huge radio telescope in 1974, and Zygutis made two errors in answering. First he said that radio telescopes can only receive information, not transmit it, and then he said the experiment was an obvious failure since no answer was ever received. Well, the fact is that Arecibo did transmit the 1679-digit message, and considering that it was directed toward a globular cluster at a distance of 25,000 light years, it's more than a little premature to be saying that no answer has been received. Again, fans of the paranormal cite Sagan, incorrectly, as believing in the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations. In fact, to Sagan this was a question, not an answer, and he simply felt that the investigation of it should be led by science, not fantasy or religion.

         Well, speaking of religion, I see Donald Zygutis is a graduate of Corban University. Corban describes itself as "a gospel-driven community of scholars and leaders who seek to bring a biblical perspective to all areas of study and practice." OK, now we know.

        Ah, I found the 1962 paper after all. Its title is Direct contact among galactic civilizations by relativistic interstellar spaceflight, and 18 handwritten pages of it are in the Library of Congress here. Sagan had a brief postdoc appointment at Stanford, in the department of biology under the supervision of Joshua Lederberg. That would have been around 1962, so I may have to concede that point too.

        I found this through Jason Colavito, who covered Zygutis's ideas on 6th October this year. Well done Jason--meticulous as ever.

        Colavito thoroughly refutes the idea that Sagan's paper was ever suppressed, and writes that the meat of the paper was not nearly as optimistic as Zygutis claims. In fact, it was really just an attempt to evaluate the Drake equation--Sagan wrote "For purposes of the following discussion, we adopt N=106"--but that does not mean he thought planet Earth had had a million visits. Far from it.

       Colavito also points out that Sagan once said "The idea that we are being visited or were once visited by powerful benign beings who live in the sky is after a religious idea, the terminology is slightly different, we don't talk about angels, we talk about extra-terrestrials but the emotional significance is identical.” So we're back at religion after all.

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[1] The Demon-Haunted World New York: Random House 1995  pp. 81–96, 99–104
See also Sagan's 1977 Christmas Lectures at the Royal Institution in London, esp. lecture #6

[2] N = R* fp ne fl fi fc L

Key, with Sagan's 1962 pessimistic/optimistic estimates in parentheses:

R* is the rate of formation of stars in the galaxy (1 per year / 3 per year)
fp is the fraction of stars that have planets (1/100 / 1/10)
ne is the number of planets per star that can possibly support life (3 / 3)
fl is the fraction of such planets that actually develop life (1 / 1)
fi is the fraction of such planets supporting intelligent life (1/10 / 1)
fc is the fraction of those that actually release radio communication (1/10 / 1/10)
L is the average lifetime of such radio-communicating civilizations (from 1000 to 100,000,000 years, yielding pessimistically 0.3 < N < 3 × 104 , optimistically 100 < N < 107)

NOTE THAT much more recent results have dramatically increased the probable value of fp.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Mike Bara has his own idea of what the word "tribute" means

        Mike Bara was handed two hours to flog his latest horrible book on Coast to Coast AM last night. It was a typical George Noory interview--no challenges at all, just wall-to-wall marketing. There were some oddities, as indeed there were in the book. Somehow the topic of secret space programs expanded to include the airships of the Sonora Aero Club and the EM drive. The airships may have been secret but they had nothing to do with space, and the EM drive may connect with spaceflight but it's not secret.

        Toward the end, Bara suggested the listeners might like to go read his blog, which today contains "a tribute" to John Glenn (who kicked the bucket yesterday at the grand old age of 95--the last of the "Original Seven".) Well, it was the wee small hours in my time zone, but, hearing that, I mustered enough strength to pound my bedside radio into tiny pieces and throw it down the canyon.

         Just kidding. But my point is, Bara's blog piece, far from being a tribute, is a repeat of his totally mistaken accusation that John Glenn was a liar. This is an echo of the same Mike Bara's "tribute" to Neil Armstrong on the Book of Faces in 2012:

"RIP Neil Armstrong - a true American hero who wanted to tell the truth but was loyal to his oath.note 1"

        So much for de mortuis nil nisi bonum dicenda est. Bara doesn't understand latin (or much of anything else, come to that) so he just gives himself permission to shoot his mouth off as he pleases.

        Bara's snide blogpost wasn't even original. It was a verbatim copy of a page from Richard Hoagland's web site, written in February 2012 to mark the 50th anniversary of Glenn's historic Mercury mission. Bara only attributes it to Enterprise Mission, not to its author, although here I must allow that Bara ghost-wrote plenty of pages for Hoagland, so it's possible that the author is himself. The bottom line, as I have written before, is that Glenn's guest-spot on Frasier was A JOKE. The liars are Richard C. Hoagland and Michael Bara.

        Last night I noted, as I have before, how well Bara performs on the mass media as long as you judge the performance and not its content. He's articulate, and delivers interview answers of just the right length. He does have a few too many intrusive "you know"s, but not to the point of real annoyance. So it might exasperate me, but it shouldn't surprise me, that he gets these free marketing opportunities after every book. And indeed, he scooped the traditional reward--the book ranking on Amazon (Kindle edition) went from 533,780 on November 2nd to 56,489 this morningnote 2. Nowhere near good enough to sustain Bara's lifestyle for very long, but a boost nevertheless.

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[1] On that occasion, Yelp Pacifica ran a thread titled What do you think of somebody calling Neil Armstrong a liar when his body isn't even cold?

[2] From 274 to 34 in Nonfiction > Science > Astronomy & Space Science > Astrophysics & Space Science.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Hoagland in retirement

        It's been a while since I had any reason to check Richard Hoagland's 1990s-style web site, so when I did today, for research purposes, I was dead surprised to find something missing. That something was the principal navigation graphic, right at the head of the page. This one:

credit: Enterprise Mission

        Using the Wayback Machine, I discovered that the last date on which the graphic appeared was 19th April this year. What now heads the page is the garish announcement of The Other Side of Midnight -- a new radio show. That's "new" as in dating from July 2015. So it really does look as if Hoagland has abandoned this site, although his domain registration is paid up through next December. Removing the main way for your users to browse your site sends a pretty definitive message.

Under construction
        Not that the nav was ever well maintained anyway. The links to Bridge, Physics Lab and Stores did at least lead somewhere useful, although the Physics Lab contains such stunning material as a transcript of RCH's radio interview from 1996. Communications and Library both led to an UNDER CONSTRUCTION graphic. Conference Room was the real joke--a forum for members only, moderated by Keith Rowland and costing $3.95 a month to join. Hoagland and Rowland both walked away from that quite soon after it was established in 2002, while continuing to collect membership fees for several months.note 1

Death of a Radio show
        Say, does that remind you of anything? It should do. Hoagland has been collecting $5/month membership fees for "Club 19.5" for two months now, without providing any new content at all. A replay is billed for tonight, so that puts the kibosh on any hope of a return this week. At this point, and given his documented record, I'd be surprised if he's ever back.

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[1] Then there was the vanishing newsletter from 2010, which James Concannon blogged about.
And here's another Hoagland walk-away.