I'll Understand If You Don't Reply Before I'm Dead
February 15, 2013 9:12 PM   Subscribe

5,000-Year Min Delay for Scrapped Reply to LGM from 1967 SETI I get frustrated at the reporting careerists. All of them.
MIT Technology Review recently posted a story about the SETI's discovery of pulsars in 1967, and the possibility that the radio signals we were getting from them were artificially generated.

Artificial. Signals. Mind-blowing then and now.

The gossipy tone of back-room sciency near-skullduggery in the article makes it crazy strong nerd bait. Nerds love to tell war stories, and many of the best ones are about crazy theories that someone heroically refuted, or crazy theories that someone heroically defended.

So, hey. SETI. Real Astronomers, maybe with lab coats on, sitting in an office and debating whether the regularity and aim of that object's signal means that Something is Trying to Talk to Us. This is Half-Life-level shit. (Remember? You're in the chamber and they tell you to put the sample in the reactor core and all hell breaks loose and next thing you know pissed-off monsters from Xen are tearing shit up?)

What are the consequences if we respond? What should we say? What if the Little Green Men turn out to be Keyser Soze?

Why the gripe about reporting? MITTR didn't bury the lede, they missed it entirely! Here's the right headline:

5,000-Year Min Delay for Scrapped Reply to LGM from 1967 SETI

(You try making it shorter! Shut up. I'm not a newspaper editor for a reason.)

You read that right. Five thousand years, minimum. Here's why: The first pulsar that Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered was eventually named PSR B1919+21. It's just a hair over 2.25k light years away.

Under ideal conditions an electromagnetic pulse or wave that far away will travel at near light speeds from the source and arrive here roughly 2,250 years later.

Probably more, considering two variables:
  • Particle/wave energy pulses moving through space rarely meet the ideal of "light speed." I'm not a particle physicist, but I'd guess the fudge factor is somewhere from 5-15% of theoretical average light speed. In short, it's probably safe to just call the one-way journey ~2.5k years in our time. 
  • Relatively speaking, we only just yesterday got the brain power and tech to have any knowledge of cosmic radio signals. (Tesla!) As far as we know, the pulsars we're looking at didn't just suddenly wink into existence. Odds are, if it's a message, it's been pointed at us for a Very Long Time, and we just didn't stumble into it until just a moment ago.
Consider this. Plato is one of our early Classic artists. We have works from others, thousands of years older, but Plato and others in his age represented reason and philosophy. Earlier works, like the Epic of Gilgamesh perhaps don't get the press they deserve, but they usually aren't as rich or complete as Socrates or Pliny.

The person waiting for our reply is the equivalent of us reading about a Super-Plato who was technologically advanced enough to build and drive a colossal, galactic transmitter. Our SPlato sent a message, over two thousand years ago, and expects her many-greats grandchildren--5000 Earth-years hence--to understand the original message well enough to make the reply meaningful.

If we come up with a witty answer (overlinked! yes.) quick, we might get a retort in five thousand years. We'll have to get right to work on our new transmitter.
posted by SlyBevel (9 comments total)

This post was deleted for the following reason: Sorry, but this is presented as a sort of "Here-Are My Thoughts About This" essay-type thing you might put on your own blog; maybe try again tomorrow focusing more on just presenting the main links. Let us know if you have any questions. -- taz

Probably missed a Previously or eight. Sorry 'bout that. First Meta post!
posted by SlyBevel at 9:16 PM on February 15, 2013

How much marihuana have you been smoking tonight, son
posted by Tyrant King Porn Dragon at 9:18 PM on February 15, 2013 [23 favorites]

Um... so apart from the first two article links and a Asimov short story link ( one of my faves, thanks) , plus one going to a Boingboing post, all the other many links in this post go to Wikipedia.

I'm happy to read through and click through MeFi performance art posts when they come along- they can be very good - and well done for having a try but you gotta dig harder and deeper for the interesting links, sonny.
posted by Bwithh at 9:34 PM on February 15, 2013

This "Wikipedia" site you've discovered seems profoundly useful and interesting.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 9:36 PM on February 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

(Remember? You're in the chamber and they tell you to put the sample in the reactor core and all hell breaks loose and next thing you know pissed-off monsters from Xen are tearing shit up?)

posted by homunculus at 9:42 PM on February 15, 2013

I'll be long dead in five thousand years. I say we answer them [/human]
posted by fshgrl at 9:56 PM on February 15, 2013

Hah? They discovered a neutron star. They talked about what to do if the signal turned out to be from aliens. A moment for the history books to be sure, but am I missing something? Did you guys bring me back any Taco Bell?
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 10:08 PM on February 15, 2013

Ah, mefi snark. I've missed you, my friend.
posted by SlyBevel at 10:10 PM on February 15, 2013

So, rather than the commonly accepted theory that pulsars are pulsating stars, you're sticking with the quickly-discarded LGM hypothesis, with an added dollop of nerd-conspiracy reddi-whip on top?

Otherwise, some of us are definitely missing your point.
posted by dhartung at 10:37 PM on February 15, 2013

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