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Posted on Thu, Sep. 02, 2004

Scientist: To find E.T., don't phone - send a gift




Inquirer Staff Writer

A Rutgers professor believes that, if we're going to reach an alien like E.T., we should send a solid object, not a radio wave.

Computer engineering professor Chris Rose is an unlikely seeker of little green men. He was trying to find a way to make wireless networks faster. Along the way, he discovered something else - that it takes less energy to send an object into deep space than a radio transmission.

In an article appearing today in the magazine Nature, Rose says he believes this could change the way researchers try to contact aliens, and the way they look for messages from the world beyond.

"The results suggest that our initial contact by extraterrestrial civilizations may be more likely to occur through physical artifacts - essentially a message in a bottle - than via electromagnetic communication," he said.

For the most part, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence has been limited to sending and seeking broadcast signals from deep space.

But Rose believes that a lot of that effort is going to waste. Our broadcast signals simply don't get to deep space, he said, they just fade away and are lost.

If haste is not important, researchers should send out some sort of dense, strong material that could store a lot of information instead of bleating out "We are here" across the universe.

"It's hard to scream across a football field, but it's easier to toss a rock across that same field," Rose said. "Your voice disperses everywhere, whereas the rock gets where it's supposed to go."

In the past, space vessels carried simple cards with core human information. The Pioneer 10 spacecraft, launched in 1972 on a path that took it into deep space, included a 6-by-9 inch aluminum plate with human figures, and a depiction of the planets showing where the spacecraft came from.

Now there are satellite projects such as the Allen Telescope Array, named after Paul Allen, the Microsoft cofounder who donated $13.1 million toward its creation. The array, which should be completed next year, will use 350 satellite dishes to scan the sky for radio signals.

Seth Shostak, senior astronomer for the SETI Institute, which oversees the Allen array, said Rose was missing one main point: If the aliens are sending us a message in a bottle, how do we know where to find it?

"It takes tens of thousands of years just to reach the nearby stars," Shostak said. "It's true that what SETI does is look for radio signals, but those signals might be an indicator of where the real message is."

Rose said he doesn't know where or when the messages will come, but he's surprised at the path his wireless research took.

"Now we've just got to figure out what to look for," he said.


Contact staff writer Dawn Fallik at 215-854-2795 or dfallik@phillynews.com.

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