MGMT 1050 Lecture Notes - Lecture 12: 70 Virginis, Jodrell Bank Observatory, Geneva Observatory

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20 Jul 2016
CH 12 - Are we Alone
'Let the search commence', declared astronomer Jill Tarter as she flung the switch on the biggest
radio telescope in the world.
It was Columbus Day - October 12, 1992 - and we were at Arecibo in Puerto Rico to celebrate the
official start of humankind's ultimate cosmic quest. The giant dish - 26 football fields in size - had
been tuned to listen-in for whispers from intelligent life in the Universe. As the first data began to
pour in, there wasn't a dry eye in the house.
'Is anybody out there?' muses Tarter. 'It's the oldest unanswered question our species has posed
to itself.'
Modern technology may bring us the answers. But, as Jill Tarter points out, the belief in other
lifeforms is nothing new. In the seventeenth century, Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens
wrote: ' It might nevertheless be reasonably doubted, whether the Senses of the Planetary
Inhabitants are much different from ours.' He continued: 'Men reap Pleasures as well as Profit
from the Taste in delicious Meats; from the Smell in Flowers and Perfumes; from the sight of
beauteous Shapes and Colours.'
Speculating about alien life became popular. Huygens wondered if Jupiter and Saturn were
inhabited by great navigators, as each planet has a large number of moons to help guide their
ships. And William Herschel - who, in 1781, discovered the planet Uranus - even believed that the
Sun was inhabited. In 1835, his son, John Herschel, was the victim of a hoax. While observing
previously undiscovered celestial delights in South Africa, the New York Sun newspaper
maintained that he had actually discovered exotic life on the Moon - leading to a memorable
cartoon of naked flying beings.
Some visionaries have even dreamed of making contact with alien life - by signalling our
presence to the Universe at large. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Viennese astronomer
Joseph von Littrow came up with a scheme that was ambitious, to say the least. He proposed
digging trenches in the Sahara Desert in the form of geometrical figures - squares, triangles and
circles. Then - at night - these constructions would be filled with a flammable fluid and set on fire,
beaming our knowledge of mathematics to the nearby planets.
'It turns out that many brilliant people in the past have thought about contacting extraterrestrials.'
observes Frank Drake, the astronomer who is the acknowledged modern father of SETI - the
Search for Extraterrestrial intelligence. 'During my doctoral thesis at Harvard in the fifties, I
became intrigued with the possibility that we might really be able to find ET. But back then, the
ideas of life in the Universe were not considered very reputable subjects in science. This was all a
result of history that had occurred long before: that there were canals on Mars, which turned out
to be very bad science.'
Young Frank Drake was not deterred by the orthodoxy. He was at the vanguard of a
breakthrough in astrophysics: the development of a new astronomy. Instead of using a
conventional optical telescope, Drake surveyed the heavens with a giant radio dish, looking for
exploding stars and violent galaxies.
A B O V E Of all the other worlds in the Solar System, Mars is the most likely to support life. It
has volcanoes (left) which belched organic compounds into the thin atmosphere, and ice frozen
into its soil. The huge scar across the planet is the Valles Marineris: a canyon system nearly 5
miles (8 km) deep and 2800 miles (4500 km) in length - the width of the United States.
OPPOSITE Life on the Moon depicted in an 1835 cartoon in the New York Sun. Despite the size
of the aliens' wings, the Moon's airless environment would have a severe problem in supporting
these cavorting creatures.
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B E L O W Astronaut Pete Conrad, on the Apollo 12 lunar mission, inspects the camera on
Surveyor 3 - an unmanned craft sent to the Moon in 1967. When the crew retu^Med the camera
to Earth, scientists were astonished to find that it contained terrestrial bacteria - which had
survived the harsh lunar conditions for two years.
Then he had his ‘aha' moment. Radio waves travel through space virtually unimpeded, as they do
on Earth (as you'll know from interference on your sound system!). Could extraterrestrials use a
radio telescope 'in reverse' to broadcast signals across the cosmos?
Frank Drake had his wake-up call when he was observing the beautiful Pleiades star cluster. 'I'd
done this many nights before. But on this occasion, there suddenly appeared a very strong
narrow-band signal, which could only be the product of intelligent activity.'
To check if the signal really was coming from the Pleiades, Drake slewed his dish to a different
part of the sky. 'Well - it turned out that when I moved the telescope, the signal was still there. So
it was truly from Earth, which was a disappointment. But the seed was planted.'
At the same time that Frank Drake was making his early forays into the world of extraterrestrials,
Pete Conrad was training to go there. He was to become an astronaut - and the third human
being to walk on the Moon.
We vividly remember the first occasion that a human stepped onto another world. Youngsters at
the time, we watched agog at that first lunar landing in July 1969. Neil Armstrong stepped off the
ladder with the words: 'It's one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.'
Four months later, Pete Conrad climbed out of Apollo 12 onto the barren lunar surface. A man
fabled for his sense of humour and infectious grin, Conrad was extremely small for an astronaut -
at 5 feet 6.5 inches (1.69 m), he was almost exactly the same height as one of the authors of this
book (Heather).
To this day, he's affectionately remembered for his first words on the Moon. Whoopie! Man, that
may have been a small one for Neil, but that's a long one for me.' Tragically, Conrad died the way
that he would have wanted - driving his Harley Davidson along a winding California road at the
age of 69, and suffering a fatal crash.
One of the wonderful stories about Conrad is that he underwent survival training amongst the
Choco Indians in Panama, and he personally befriended them. After his death, the Choco Chief
made him an honorary Choco Indian. In their belief system, the spirits of the dead fly to the Moon.
But his legacy on Earth lives on. Apollo 12 landed within walking distance of Surveyors- an
unmanned landing craft sent to the Moon in 1967. The astronauts were instructed to dismantle
the camera on the craft and bring it home in a sterile container.
Back in the lab, NASA scientists were in for a shock. The camera turned out to be home to a
living colony of Earthly bugs, which had probably got into the instrument when a technician
assembling it had sneezed.
'I always thought that the most significant thing we ever found on the whole Moon was those little
bacteria who came back and lived,' observed Conrad.
How right he was. For over two years, these primitive lifeforms had endured the vacuum and
radiation of space, temperatures as low as ~20°F (-250°C) degrees, and no access to nutrients or
The lesson was clear: life - once established - clings onto it ... for dear life.
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Life is incredibly hardy. And astrobiologists have recently been discovering just what extremes it
can bear. They call the newly-discovered lifeforms 'extremophiles'. These resilient bacteria can
live in nuclear reactors, at the bottom of deep bore-holes, in the cold of Antarctica, and in the
superheated pools of Earth's hot springs. It seems that life can take in its stride the worst
conditions on Earth.
But it needs brave scientists to research and tackle such challenging environments. Enter
Jonathan Trent - a biologist at NASA's Ames institute in California. Using a long pole, he regularly
trawls the steaming, boiling pools in Wyoming's Yellowstone Park to collect extremophiles. The
tall, bearded scientist warns of the perils of probing into these places out of hell.
'If you fall in, you don't want to be pulled out, because the long and excruciating death from
arsenic poisoning would be worse than the quick one that would happen if you're just boiled in the
So what drives this enthusiastic researcher to take his life in his hands? 'We're going to start
exploring for life on other planets,' he explains, 'and the very first thing we should be doing is to
understand the extent of living things on this planet.'
Other planets? Which of them are in the frame for the possibility of life? Tiny Mercury, closest to
the Sun - and sans atmosphere - is not an option. Venus, secondout, is almost Earth's twin in
size. But its thick atmosphere of carbon dioxide has led
But its thick atmosphere of carbon dioxide has led to a runaway Greenhouse Effect, raising
temperatures at its surface to 870°F (465°C) - hotter than any oven setting. Even extremophile
enthusiasts rule out these two worlds. But what about the next planet, Mars...?
Mars is fabled for being a living world. In 1877, when Mars hoved close to Earth (as it does every
two years), the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli noted regular lines crossing the Red
Planet's surface. He called them 'canali'- channels.
Word spread to the States, where 'canali' was unfortunately translated into 'canals'. Percival
Lowell - a rich Boston banker, and passionate amateur astronomer - took up the baton. The
canals, he believed, were the sign of a doomed civilization on a dying planet, desperately
committed to bringing water down from the icy Martian polar caps to the desiccated deserts at the
Dedicated to seeking out life on Mars, Lowell built an observatory 7500 feet (2300 m) up in the
pine-clad mountains above Flagstaff, Arizona. There, he observed 200 canals - and related: 'They
have grown more wonderful with study. They are the most astounding objects to be viewed in the
Alas - the canals don't exist. Clyde Tombaugh - the discoverer of Pluto - also used the telescopes
at the Lowell Observatory. 'Lowell cut down the telescope's lens with a diaphram to avoid the
rainbow colours, so he could get the sharpest images. This makes the bright patches bleed into
the dark, making the dark markings a lot narrower. So the canals are totally illusory.'
But belief on Mars dies hard. Lowell wrote extensively on the philosophy of fife on the Red Planet:
'They must be globally united and free from the scourge of war.' The
The author H.G. Wells, however, disagreed. The War of the Worlds relates how Martians flee
their doomed world and head for fecund Earth, intent on obliterating all Earthlings and taking the
planet over.
His classic sci-fi novel attained immortality on the night of October 30th 1938. Listeners to CBS
radio in America were horrified to hear what purported to be a genuine interruption of a regular
programme by a continuity announcer. 'Ladies and gentlemen', he intoned solemnly, 'I have a
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