“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – A.C. Clarke’s Third Law
Last month we were encamped with two other couples at Hat Creek in northern California. It was a delightful trip – the weather was fine, the food, drink, and the friends superb. Actually, we’re all experienced “road warriors” having traveled much with each other over the last years. This was our second trip to the Hat Creek RV Park which is located far away from cities and towns in the middle of a broad and very ancient volcanic caldera with walls reaching up several hundred feet. Hat Creek is a quiet place with few people, but because it is located in a bowl, it is also quiet in the electromagnetic (EM) sense which is important to radio astronomers and people searching the galaxy for evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligence (ETI).
For that reason, the Hat Creek caldera is home to the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) that was built for the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute to support their ETI search program. We men, of course, had to go visit the observatory since it was only about 1.5 miles from the RV park. We drove over, went into the facility, talked to the staff, walked into the array of dishes, saw the data gathering and control equipment, and watched the obligatory video extolling the virtues of the radio observatory and its mission. Then we took a lot of pictures, one of which you see here is a close up of one of dishes.
We were told that the ATA currently serves the radio astronomy needs of both the SETI Institute located in Menlo Park, and the Stanford Research Institute in Palo Alto. The array signal feeds go directly to those locations for further analysis, and from there the surveillance directions for the array are transmitted.
After returning from our visit, my little feverish mind started recalling all the things I’ve been reading and thinking over the years about ETIs and the galaxy with multitudes of post-Singularity super-intelligences. And the constant points that I always had to revisit was Drake’s formula for estimating the number of intelligent civilizations in the galaxy, and Fermi’s ‘Where are they?’ or ‘Where is everybody?’
Physicist Enrico Fermi’s question is even more poignant today than it was over sixty years ago when he first posed it to John von Neumann. Because to date we have spent a lot of money and brainpower pointing sensitive radio telescopes at the sky, and we have heard nothing but radio noise – no sign of intelligent transmissions. So, is there really anybody out there, or are we really alone? What can explain the silence?