February 4, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

SETI Signals Could Be Loaded with Information

Unusual properties of electromagnetic waves allow for a higher carrying capacity of information than thought.  SETI researcher Seth Shostak reported on Space.com that Swedish researchers have found a possible “subspace channel” in the orbital angular momentum of narrowband radio waves that might allow the encoding of information.  This information would be impervious to the jumbling across space that hampers wide-band communications.
    SETI has typically considered narrow-band waves incapable of coding more than very simple, short messages.  “While such monotonic messages may seem to be elementary and devoid of much information,” he said, “they could be laden with additional, hidden complexity.”  (For another example of hidden signal in the art world, see this story by Science Daily).  If researchers can decode this kind of steganography (information hidden in plain sight), SETI signals could be loaded with information – a galactic wi-fi, as Shostak dubbed it.  “A simple signal may only be a cipher for a more complex message, and there may be more things in heaven and earth than even Maxwell had dreamt of,” Shostak said, referring to the electromagnetic wave theory proposed by James Clerk Maxwell in 1861.
    Speaking of radio waves, Beatle fans got NASA to go along with an anniversary celebration of sorts.  At 4:00 p.m. on February 4, the Deep Space Network beamed the song “Across the Universe” written by John Lennon 40 years ago to the day (also the 50th anniversary of the founding of NASA).  A JPL Press release accompanied the occasion.  One fan even created a special website for it; even Wikipedia was quickly updated.  A proud Paul McCartney said, “Send my love to the aliens” and Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono said, “I see that this is the beginning of the new age in which we will communicate with billions of planets across the universe.”

Good; beam it into space where no one has to listen to it.  The mishmash of meaning in Lennon’s meandering lyrics is incoherent and anti-rational.  The song has nothing to do with astronomy.  It pushes Transcendental Meditation while repeating, over and over, “Nothing’s gonna change my world.”  Is this the kind of scientific attitude NASA really wants to promulgate?  What does it mean?  We no longer have to worry about global warming?  The Beatles don’t understand the second law of thermodynamics?  Saying something 12 times doesn’t make it so.
    NASA should be teaching kids physics and engineering instead of encouraging them to follow the 60’s countercultural slogan, “tune in, turn on, drop out.”  The space program of the future needs sober-minded, bright students who have higher values than sex, drugs and rock-n-roll, and who believe smarter things than to chant meaningless mantras given by a charlatan guru like the Maharishi.  (Sorry, we wrote this before hearing he had just died.  There is no pleasure in the death of the wicked.)
    As for SETI in the other direction, it is interesting that Shostak (an ardent evolutionist and critic of intelligent design) acknowledges the information-bearing capacity of electromagnetic signals from unknown minds.  A natural EM wave contains no purposeful communication.  If a carrier signal is present, information can be impressed on it through amplitude modulation (AM) or frequency modulation (FM), or now by orbital angular momentum modulation.  In any case, the information is detectable if one has the key.  Without the key it looks like gibberish.  Shostak’s article exposes the lie of his December 2005 article that claimed all they were looking for is a persistent narrowband whistle.  Despite his objections, his new article has intelligent design written all over it.
    Read up on the life of James Clerk Maxwell, a towering giant among scientists, and a fervent Christian.

Leave a Reply