Dr. John Elliott is a British scientist. As head of SETI UK he is looking for extraterrestrial intelligence. He hopes that understanding Dolphins will help him understand Aliens.
During a conference at the university of Basel, John Elliott stands on the stage and plays a strange noise to the audience. It’s a rather uncomfortable noise, not very exciting to listen to. Yet Elliott considers it one of the most interesting signals SETI has ever intercepted. In an interview he tells us why.
Dr. Elliott, what makes the sound we just heard so spectacular?
The interesting thing about the recording of March 2003 is mainly the rhythm, how it fluctuates and the frequency at which we’ve received it. Also, this wavelength is in the relatively quiet hydrogen line frequency (1420 MHz) – the frequency at which hydrogen absorbs and emits photons (aka the Waterhole region) and announced in New Scientist on September 1, 2004 – that’s why it is perfectly suited for the transmission of signals and messages. If we wanted to send out a signal, then we would opt for this frequency. Whatever we have received there, was sent exactly where we would expect the signal of an extraterrestrial intelligence. We received the identical signal three times on the exact same frequency. It could be of natural origin, but as yet, it could equally be from an extraterrestrial technology.
What do you believe?
Unfortunately, the signal is too short to draw any conclusions. We cannot speculate about the origin of this signal, this would expose us to too much criticism. The only thing we can do is to state what we’ve heard, that we cannot discount that it comes from an extraterrestrial intelligence and explain why we think it is interesting.
From a practical point of view, how does this search of yours look like?
We practically listen to the sky with our radio telescopes. In addition to that, we also use optical methods, telescopes and lasers. Our arsenal of instruments is getting larger the further the technology evolves. Our performance depends also on the computing capacity of our computers.
Is it hard to be taken serious as a scientist who’s looking for aliens?
As SETI began several decades ago, we were considered alien hunting eccentrics . Our credibility, however, has greatly improved. The idea of a life form somewhere out there in the vast universe around us, is quite widespread among scientists. Recently, there have been discoveries of several planets with Earth-like conditions within our own galaxy. On these so-called exo-planets, life is likely. And there are billions of other galaxies. The probability that there is intelligent life somewhere out there is just huge.
Your field of research being rather exotic, how regularly are you confronted with clichés and prejudice?
They often play Star Trek music, when I’m interviewed on the radio. This is of course a trivialization of our work, bringing it in context with a fictional television series. It’s probably not intentional, but it happens all the time. And of course there are letters from people who believe they have been visited by little green men in a flying saucer. To be quite honest: It is highly unrealistic to assume that extraterrestrials would ever visit us, travelling with such a spacecraft.
The journey from one planet to another is so costly, time consuming and expensive in every meaning of the word that an intelligent life form would never go through with this effort. If anything can be expected, it would be an unmanned machine. But the most effective and therefore the most likely way to contact us are radio signals. They cost nothing and travel with the speed of light.
This must be a big disappointment for all the Alien fans.
The likelihood of us getting a brief covert visit in a remote region of the planet, by an alien, is very small. But people have all these images and ideas from movies and science fiction novels and this has nothing to do with our work. Therefore we have to make it clear over and over again that we apply the strictest scientific criteria to our work. Speculation and adventure stories have absolutely nothing to do with it.
Is that what you meant when you said: «If we say we heard something that we find interesting. You want to believe us.»
If we publish results, then it means that we were able to exclude all known natural sources of the signal or have cause to highlight an event that cannot be discounted. Our first and most important principle is to discount our findings, if possible. We are very strict with ourselves, otherwise we would expose ourselves to ridicule.
You work on the assumption that an alien message would reach the earth in the form of sound waves. What makes you so certain that is the case?
We are not. It actually is an assumption. We have to start somewhere, so we work with what we have. The equipment dictates your possibilities, you can’t play golf with a rugby ball. Radio telescopes were relatively easily available, so we started to listen to certain areas of the night sky. We use these tools in downtime, when no one else is using them. Lately the planet hunters are increasingly funded. This helps us indirectly, because we have a clearer idea of what planet we should target with our telescopes. SETI in California has recently been funded by Paul Allen of Microsoft, to develop an array of telescopes: the Allen Telescope Array.
If the acceptance within the scientific community increases, will this also increase the likelihood of you finding something?
Yes, of course. With our current resources, we can only listen to a tiny section of the sky and this only within a certain time frame. At the moment it is as if we’re looking at the sky through a straw. Our goal must be to monitor the entire sky 24/7. This would be a huge step for our work. We are only at the beginning and have no intention to stop. It is one of the biggest questions in science whether there’s life out there.
Your field of expertise is communication. You created a software to decipher foreign languages and messages. Perhaps it will enable us to communicate with extraterrestrials.
Actually I created several programs that can perform different analysis steps. Unfortunately I cannot just push a button, and the program does all the work.
What do these programs do when you feed them with a sound sample?
In a first step, my program checks whether a signal has a certain structures. By that I mean complex structures that can’t be of random origin. This first step means to distinguish plain noise from an interesting and structured signal. After that a second program performs a mathematical analysis to find out whether there are inner connections within the signal, as they are typical for communication. Then I try to identify the individual components of the signal in order to recognize if there is a syntax. If a syntax exists, that already is a sign of high complexity which can indicate an intelligent source. From this, further analysis can categorise many components of the unknown language, as a precursor to full decipherment. From this, any affinity to a known structure type on this planet could be realised and used as an additional aid, if it exists.
And then decryption is close?
On the contrary. Unless they send us a primer [crib] that is when the real problems could start. The identification of individual structuring elements is quite easy to accomplish, in comparison. But then you want to understand what meaning a word bears, then you need what we call the «shared code book». A kind of dictionary. To associate the syntax with the semantics is a problem that can’t be solved by any computer program. The good news however, is that at least all human languages are similar in their underlying structure, underneath the initial veneer of the arbitrary sounds and symbols we use to encode our meanings. This similarity allows us to at least make first steps on the way to understand an unknown, possibly alien language.
Do your programs understand my swiss german?
There are relatively simple programs, which can determine languages within a very short time. The reason being that each language uses certain combinations of letters more frequently than others and we are able to precisely model each one, so we can compare these profiles. So if a certain frequency of such combinations occur within a given sample the program can locate the language. That’s how I can distinguish your Swiss dialect from Danish quit easily. This goes even further. There are programs that can determine whether a patient is even psychotic. or not by just listening to his voice. However, my work has little to do with such things. I analyze audio signals in a much more general sense. I try to find out whether a given signal is language.
Have you any idea how Alien language could sound like?
Assuming that these aliens live on a planet that is similar to ours, their physiology will be similar too. So their language is likely to sound similar. If we’re talking about a life form, however, which lives on a gaseous planet, then it probably has a physiology that I can’t even contemplate at this moment. If we continue to spin this thought, it might even be possible that this life form lives in a completely different environment. Then it is very possible that their way of communicating is completely outside of our spectrum but possibly one we could speculate on and ultimately include in our detection software.
Isn’t that a bit daunting?
I am convinced that communication works the same no matter the environment. This is supported by my studies of dolphins. These animals live in the water and their way of communicating is yet extremely similar to ours. Our evolutionary paths have separated a long time ago and yet the Dolphins have come to a very similar solution when it comes to communication. This is an indication of how effective our form of communication must be. Efficiency prevails and therefore it the conclusion is reasonable that other life forms have come to a similar solution.
Assuming you would be able to make contact with an intelligent extraterrestrial life form, what would you say? What would be your message?
I would just say «Hello» and perhaps include more information such as «that’s where we live», «that’s what we look like», «that’s how it looks like down here». We certainly should not mention our history and our tendency to fight each other. After the initial ‚hand shake‘ greeting further information should than follow, to communicate what we feel is important to us, as humans. Any dialogue exchanges will take many years or generations to complete, so we need to get our message across effectively and efficiently. However, above all else, an initial realisation that we have detected evidence of an alien technology, will be one of the most profound events in human history. Our natural curiosity will demand to know more.