Monday, January 30, 2012
A 17th-century UFO report?
In the proceedings of an international conference on extraterrestrial intelligence (Carl Sagan (ed.), Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence (CETI), Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1973), one of the participants, G.M. Idlis, discussed the possibility of past visits to Earth by extraterrestrials. He dismissed most stories of such visits but said that "we have found a certain number of cases that do merit certain study . . . " He gave the following one as an example:
This is a case from a document published in 1842—that is 130 years ago when there was no discussion about CETI [communication with extraterrestrial intelligence]. That, of course, makes it all the more reliable. This is a report of a monastery clerk in Northern Russia addressed to a high dignitary of the Russian Church who reports that on August 15, 1663, there was a visitation of the earth between 10 and 12 hours from the clear skies. A sphere appeared, about 40 meters in diameter; from the lower part two rays extended earthward and smoke poured from the sides of the vehicle. The body disappeared and reappeared again, again disappeared and reappeared, changing in brightness in the course of these peregrinations. The phenomenon occurred over a lake and lasted for an hour and a half. At the place where the sphere touched the water, a brown film appeared, resembling rust. The phenomenon was observed by two groups of people. Some watched it from the church; others from a boat which happened to be in the middle of the lake.
There are of course problems when considering such old cases. For example, some of these stories were probably never meant to be interpreted literally and their real meanings can no longer be interpreted, as we do not know enough about the contexts in which they were written. This one, though, does give the impression of describing an actual event, although it is possible that the clerk who wrote the report was not a witness but was basing it on a distorted account of the incident.
Tuesday, January 17, 2012
SETI and space probes
The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) seems to be largely concerned these days with attempting to detect radio signals from distant star systems. See, for example, the web site of the SETI Institute, which says of possible civilisations elsewhere in the galaxy, that
. . such a civilization could be detected across interstellar distances, and may actually offer the best opportunity for discovering extraterrestrial life in the near future.
However, it has long been realised that this would be very unlikely to yield results. In a book by I.S. Shklovskii and Carl Sagan (Intelligent Life in the Universe, Dell Publishing Co., New York, 1968) chapter 31 is devoted to consideration of the possibility of interstellar contact by alien space probes, based on the ideas developed by Ronald Bracewell. The authors were not optimistic about receiving messages from other planets. They commented:
The detection of artificial signals, even in the simplest situations, is a difficult and intricate task at our present level of advance, provided that we are listening to a vastly more advanced civilization. But it would become incommensurately more difficult if, over many centuries or millennia, we must direct beams of electromagnetic radiation with great precision at tens of thousands of stars, while patiently waiting, perhaps in vain, for a reply.
Those who consider interstellar space probes to be impractical should take note of the Voyager space probes, launched in 1977. Their progress can be followed on NASA's Voyager - The Interstellar Mission web site.
Apparently, Bracewell believed that an alien probe arriving in the solar system would listen for artificial radio signals. If it detected any it would record them and play them back to their source. Then it would attempt to establish two-way radio contact.
However, anyone who has enjoyed the interstellar adventures of the characters in the Star Trek series will know that this would be a violation of the Prime Directive, which forbids outside interference in the development of planetary civilisations. Surely any open intervention in human affairs, even if entirely benign, would effect profound changes in the development of our society.
Thus I speculate that the two main possibilities regarding space probes in our solar system are:
- There are no space probes in the solar system.
- There are alien space probes in the solar system, but they merely gather information for those who sent them and avoid contact.