May 25, 2020
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ET, Give Me A Tinkle!

India is well placed to do some serious cosmic pow-wow—both geographically and, hmm, culturally

ET, Give Me A Tinkle!
ET, Give Me A Tinkle!
In the late sixties, Satyajit Ray wrote a story of a diminutive, benign humanoid creature that lands in the boondocks of Bengal in a spaceship and makes contact with a simpleton. The Alien, a story of fantasy and human frailty, never got made into a Hollywood film that the auteur dearly wanted. But four decades on, Indian scientists seem to have taken up the thread, joining the search for clues to the world’s most exciting riddle in right earnest: is there life in outer space?

Two years ago, evidence surfaced of living bacterial cells in the earth’s upper atmosphere from a joint project involving Indian and UK-based scientists. In this ISRO-funded research, space balloons containing cryogenically preserved cylinders were sent to outer space to collect cosmic samples. The samples tested later revealed bacterial and dna contents, prompting efforts at another similar balloon sortie by ISRO this winter. And now the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescopes (GMRT) in Narayangaon, 80 km from Pune, are attracting the attention of the world-famous California-based Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence (SETI). They are interested in forging a collaboration with GMRT and take telescope time for their research for intelligent life in outer space.

These 30 remote-controlled, 80-tonne, 140-ft-wide stainless steel mesh telescopes, each the size of a football ground, are some of the biggest in the world and cover a frequency range to receive radiowaves from the sky like no other. The telescopes basically observe various celestial objects like galaxies (conglomeration of stars), quasars (qausi-stellar radio sources) and pulsars (pulsating radio sources). The Narayangaon telescopes keep getting signals from the stars and process those signals to find anything, as the scientists say, "out of the ordinary". "In the last 50 years, we haven’t had any evidence of extra-terrestrial life," says S. Ananthakrishnan, observatory director, GMRT. "But who knows? For 400 years, people have been looking for planets outside the solar system. Till 1996, no new planet was seen. In the last six years, more than 80 new planets have been discovered. So we don’t discount extra-terrestrial life at all," he says.

SETI’s interest in taking time from these telescopes and involving India in the search for life in outer space has an interesting reason: the GMRTs are "wonderfully positioned" to view the centre of our galaxy because the Pune observatory is closer to the Equator than telescopes in North America. The hub of the Milky Way is also visible much more of the time from Pune. It fits in well with the SETI Institute’s ‘Project Phoenix’ that observes individual stars in the neighbourhood of the sun.

Alternatively, astronomers can look at many stars at once, in a larger part of the sky. Using this approach, they can easily survey billions of distant stars from Pune. "We are very intrigued by the possibilities offered by the world-class observatory near Pune," says Douglas Vakoch, director of the California-based Interstellar Message Composition for SETI Research and the SETI Institute, who visited the facility. "By searching along the dense swathe of stars crossing the heavens, 90 per cent of the stars in our galaxy could be surveyed by looking at only 10 per cent in the sky. If very advanced civilisations live on any of these distant stars, they may be able to transmit powerful signals that could be detected from earth."

There’s a more prosaic reason why SETI is interested in the Narayangaon telescopes. Every observatory in the world has a fundamental limitation: as the earth turns, stars rise and set, just as the sun rises and sets each day. If any one of them detects a signal from a distant star, astronomers would like to monitor it round the clock. By having SETI programmes on opposite sides of the world, a telescope in India could keep tracking signals while the star is invisible in America. The only hitch, according to scientist Govind Swarup, former project director, GMRT, at Pune’s National Centre of Radio Astrophysics, is that these telescopes were conceived and designed by the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research for regulation astronomical programmes, "and our scientific and engineering team naturally has first commitment to that". But Swarup, who has visited the SETI Institute, says, "we can easily build a small scientific and technical team for SETI, but it would be possible to undertake SETI programmes here only if we can get some financial commitments from private individuals or organisations in India or the US".

Clearly, SETI is keen that Indian scientists join the search for extra-terrestrial life. Vakoch is upbeat: "India has the potential of becoming a world leader in SETI, given its expertise in computing. The key to SETI is finding an artificial signal in the midst of the cosmic static naturally produced by the universe. This requires sophisticated computer programming, a field in which India excels." Scientists in California also feel that India provides an excellent base to grapple with some of the most important human implications of detecting intelligence on other worlds.

"For example," says Vakoch, "if some day we detect a signal from another civilisation, we will need to decide whether or not to reply. If we do send a response, what should we say?" So where does India fit into this scheme for the ideal interstellar message ‘research’? "India is the ideal place to discuss the sorts of messages we might send to other worlds. Within the borders of a single nation, India offers tremendous cultural diversity."

In fact, Indian scientists have already been roped into a project under way at the SETI Institute and funded by the John Templeton Foundation that explores how we can explain the ideal of altruism to another world. But why altruism? In SETI’s over 40-years-plus history, scientists and engineers have considered what sort of messages they might send to life beyond earth. Most of the proposals have focused on maths and science, the reasoning being that if we detect a signal from another world, it would be reasonable to say that ‘they’ have powerful radio transmitters. That would require some basic knowledge of maths and science. "But," says Vakoch, "I would be very disappointed if all we learned from another world was 2+2=4. I’d like to learn about their culture, philosophy, how extra-terrestrials get along with one another."

Altruism, according to Vakoch, is an "excellent starting point" to describe ourselves to the other world. "We can tap into some of the basic principles of maths and science to explain how and why we humans care for one another. For example, biologists can explain why an animal will sometimes sacrifice its own life for the benefit of its close relatives. Though the altruistic animal dies itself, part of the genes can be carried on to the next generation by its relatives. We can describe this process of self-sacrifice in interstellar messages through some simple maths, explaining how much genetic material is shared by relatives in precise mathematical terms. Also, we can talk about the genetic basis for such altruism through a chemical description of the dna, something that should be understandable to scientists in other worlds." So this fall, scientists from SETI will hold a conference with scholars at Bangalore’s National Institute of Advanced Studies on the Indian Institute of Science campus to try and understand the many meanings of altruism, "both from scientific, and specifically Indian philosophical, perspectives". Ray might well have thought of resurrecting The Alien if he lived today.

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