Episode 3: SETI with MeerKAT
with Dr Griffin Foster
In this episode Dr Griffin Foster describes the planned hunt for extraterrestrial intelligence with South Africa’s MeerKAT telescope!
Griffin is from the University of Oxford and is the project scientist for Breakthrough Listen – a program to hunt for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence using radio telescopes.
Griffin explains, in a surprisingly down-to-earth and practical way, why we might expect intelligent extraterrestrial lifeforms to exist elsewhere in the Universe, how they might be trying to communicate and how we might search for these signals.
Griffin and the Breakthrough Listen team plan to conduct part of their search with the new MeerKAT radio telescope. MeerKAT is one of the world’s most advanced radio telescopes and is located in the Karoo in South Africa.
BL@MeerKAT announcement: https://breakthroughinitiatives.org/news/23
Berkeley SETI Research Center: http://seti.berkeley.edu/
This week’s guest:
Transcript by Lynette Delhaize.
Jacinta: [00:00:00] Welcome to The Cosmic Savannah with Dr Jacinta Delhaize
Dan: [00:00:07] and Dr. Daniel Cunnama. Each episode we’ll be giving you a behind the scenes look at the world class astronomy and astrophysics happening on the African skies.
Jacinta: [00:00:17] Let us introduce you to the people involved, their technology. We use the exciting work we do and the fascinating discoveries we make.
Dan: [00:00:24] Sit back and relax as we take you on a safari through the skies.
Welcome to today’s episode. Thank you for joining us again. So Jacinta, what do we have in store today?
Jacinta: [00:00:37] Yes. Hello. Today we are talking about aliens, and how we’re using big radio telescopes in South Africa to search for extraterrestrial intelligence .
Dan: [00:00:51] And how exactly are we doing that?
Jacinta: [00:00:53] Well, recently at a conference, I managed to speak with Dr Griffin Foster from the University of Oxford, and he is part of a team called Breakthrough Listen which will be using the MeeKAT telescope in South Africa to start SETI.
Dan: [00:01:09] SETI being?
Jacinta: [00:01:10] The search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
Dan: [00:01:13] So Jacinta you’re a radio astronomer. Why do we want to use MeerKAT in radio astronomy?
Jacinta: [00:01:18] Yeah, so I guess traditionally astronomy has been done with optical telescopes, and all of us are familiar with optical light. It’s the type of light that we can see with our eyes. But there are many different types of light, and this is called the electromagnetic spectrum. And one of these types of light is radio waves.
Now it’s a common misconception that radio waves are a type of sound instead of a type of light. And that’s because we all have radios, which we listen to, right? But radio stations transmit their signals as radio waves, which are a type of light which are picked up by your antenna on your radio instrument, which converts the light into sound waves.
And that’s what you can hear. But radio waves are a type of light, and they can come from space as well as being generated here on the Earth. And the really useful things about radio waves is that they’re very long wavelength, which means that they can travel straight through dust, and there’s a lot of dust up there in space, in galaxies, in the Milky way.
So that blocks our view of much of the Universe. But if we look at this Universe at radio wavelengths, then we can see straight through the dust and see what’s hiding behind it. And that’s why we want to do radio astronomy.
Dan: [00:02:30] So the Breakthrough Listen project is obviously continuing these misconceptions because they’re actually looking at light.
Jacinta: [00:02:36] True. True. Okay.
Dan: [00:02:38] Good to know. Okay.
So South Africa currently has one of the best radio telescopes in the world. Can you tell us a little bit more about MeerKAT?
Jacinta: [00:02:47] Right. So MeerKAT is a big new radio telescope that’s in the Karoo in South Africa. It was launched in about July, 2018. And it’s currently the world’s most powerful functioning radio telescope.
So a radio telescope kind of looks like a satellite dish. It’s made of these antenna that look like satellite dishes. MeerKAT has 64 of these and they are spread out over about eight kilometers in the Karoo region. And this forms an array of antennae or an interferometer, we call it. This makes it a very powerful telescope.
The further you can spread these dishes apart, the better your angular resolution. And this means you can see things that are smaller and of course, things that are further away in space appear smaller to us. So this is helping us to see very distant objects in the Galaxy and in the Universe.
Dan: [00:03:42] And MeerKAT of course, is a precursor telescope to an even larger telescope, which is coming.
Jacinta: [00:03:48] Yeah, that’s right. Even though MeerKAT itself is currently the most powerful radio telescope, it’s only approximately one to 3% the size of a new radio telescope that will be built in the future called the Square Kilometer Array, or SKA for short.
This will also be built partially in the Karoo, and the other part in Western Australia. And this is going to be a really phenomenal scientific instrument, which is probably going to revolutionize our understanding of the universe. But this will be starting to be built soon and will be hopefully functional, the first phase, in about 2025 so we’ve got some time until SKA is up and running to use MeerKAT, which itself is going to produce some really amazing discoveries.
Dan: [00:04:34] I’m looking forward to hearing more about the exciting discoveries MeerKAT is hopefully going to make, and one of those discoveries could be life?
Jacinta: [00:04:42] Could be. Yeah. So there’s this project called Breakthrough Listen, and it’s essentially searching for signals of intelligent alien life elsewhere in the Galaxy using MeerKAT.
Dan: [00:04:56] Sounds fascinating. So are they piggybacking on current observations or are we specifically looking for aliens?
Jacinta: [00:05:02] Right, exactly.
So it’s sort of like a timeshare situation where these telescopes are going to be doing their science observations for other projects. And then Breakthrough Listen can essentially piggyback onto these. So it just uses the data that’s being taken for these other purposes, and then it can be analyzed in a different way to commensally search for aliens at the same time as doing other science. When I say aliens, of course, what I actually mean is extra terrestrial intelligence. So scientifically speaking, there’s no evidence for this existing yet. That’s why we’re doing a scientific search for this with MeerKAT. What do you think, Dan?
Dan: [00:05:44] I think that there is a high likelihood of there being life elsewhere. If it’s transmitting in the radio and it’s near enough for us to see, I think that’s probably unlikely.
Jacinta: [00:05:59] Yeah. So I spoke to, as I said before, Dr. Griffin Foster from the University of Oxford recently, at a conference and we had a long discussion about these issues.
How do we reconcile aliens in pop culture with science? What are the chances of actually detecting a signal from an alien civilization with a telescope like MeerKAT? How exactly do you do that and what kind of signal do you even look for? So Griffin gave some amazing answers, and I think we can have a listen.
Dan: [00:06:34] Yeah, let’s do that.
Jacinta: [00:06:42] Today, we have Dr. Griffin Foster talking to us. Hello Griffin. Tell us who you are.
Griffin: [00:06:46] Hello, I’m Griffin Foster. I’m a researcher at the University of Oxford.
Jacinta: [00:06:50] And what are you doing here in South Africa at the moment?
Griffin: [00:06:54] Right now, I’m at the Bursary conference, the student SARAO Bursary conference. This morning I gave a talk on what Breakthrough Listen is, the idea of how we do SETI and why we search for life.
Specifically how Breakthrough Listen on MeerKAT will work. Basically we will be doing this large commensal backend, which will run anytime MeerKAT is doing scientific observations.
Jacinta: [00:07:22] So I watched your talk at the conference this morning and I really enjoyed it. You started by talking about single celled organisms and their evolution to what we know is life now.
Griffin: [00:07:33] A few years ago, I sat down when I first started working through Breakthrough Listen, I’d think about what do we know about life? And I realized my knowledge goes back to basically when I was in high school and took biology. I didn’t know what the current research was. So I spent a bit of time reading about this and I was surprised to learn, actually, that of course, you know, biologists have spent the past few decades figuring this stuff out to fantastic detail about how one of the main theories is these hydrothermal vent structures were formed that were fairly long lasting, long lasting enough to allow for life to form by basically creating these kinds of cavities, which had potentials between them and kind of acted like a cell before there were cells. And over time, these structures kind of became detached from the vents.
And as time went on they formed these basic forms of life, you know, and there’s prokaryotic cells. From there planet earth chugged along for quite a long time. It took this kind of special moment. It’s a very rare moment in the story of life where these prokaryotic cells at one point in time decided to engulf another one, a few maybe, and instead of destroying it, it kind of incorporated in kind of the beginning of a eukaryotic life and what’s made a multicellular organism possible.
This moment happened, and it engulfed a chlorophyll, so it could do photosynthesis or engulf something that was like this prototypical mitochondria, so it could do energy production and, kind of complex life shot off from there. And from there it was kind of a slow progress, but there was kind of a steady progress to multi-cellular life.
And then, these various forms of life until here we are now, this kind of life that can form abstract thoughts and build technology and really allowing us to then ask, well, why can’t there be other life out there very similar to us? Maybe not physically, but kind of the same ability to think beyond a basic survival, kind of more complex, informed societies and advance our knowledge.
Jacinta: [00:09:47] So basically one cell ate another cell, and then evolution continued leading to life as we know it today. And then that then leads to the idea that there could be other life out there in the Universe and that we could search for it. So throughout the history of humanity, what has been the search for extraterrestrial intelligence?
Griffin: [00:10:07] Just to start, you said it ate the cell, but that’s just it fundamentally, it didn’t eat the cell it incorporated it. That’s a big leap. Right. Before it would always eat it. Now, it didn’t. But I get your point. So humanity at some point, when we first realized there are planets, I think it was this general thought that, well, we’re on a planet there’s another plant out there. Maybe there’s life. And it’s quite interesting to think that for much of humanity’s existence, probably people thought, oh yeah, it’s reasonable that there’s something else out there. It’s only fairly recently that we’ve looked then gone oh yeah there’s nothing obviously there.
And maybe we’re alone. I’m not sure at what point that happened. But I think people have always been curious to figure out, like, can we communicate? And there’s some famous stories, apocryphal stories likely about people digging big trenches and filling them with oil or kerosene and lighting them on fire and the hopes of like, signaling nearby planets to say hello.
Where they’re building crops or fields of crops in weird shapes, geometric shapes to show off to some other nearby planet oh yeah, we have an idea of geometry. These are great stories. But I’m not sure how many of them are real. The first attempt to look for life beyond Earth in a kind of a systematic scientific way happened about a hundred years ago.
The invention of radio made people realize that you can transmit information across great distances at great speeds. That led people to think, well, why can’t we transmit to other planets and why couldn’t they transmit to us? This happened early in last century. But it was really the development of the radio telescope, post World War II where we developed a lot of radar technology and started understanding how noise works, how information is carried and how we would utilize that.
People started thinking more kind of seriously about how one would send a signal. The first papers were written in the late fifties and early sixties. The first paper on radio SETI happened in 1959. Just the idea of fundamentally, and to this day, in fact, the most basic signal we can think if we wanted to make ourselves known and what we presume an advanced civilization would want to make themselves known would be, a very narrow band carrier wave.
A typical radio station has a carrier wave with information on the side, but you kind of tune in to that carrier. And so we would think maybe an advanced civilization would do the same. It’s a great way to transmit at great distances. Say you have a given energy budget, and by concentrating it down to a very narrow frequency you can transmit that energy at greater distance.
And so to this day in fact, the kind of the standard, the bread and butter SETI observation that we do is to look for these narrow signals. Being incredibly narrow we can notice any sort of drifting and frequency. And there’s a drift in frequency because we’re on Earth. We’re spinning around on the Earth, which is spinning around the Sun, which is spinning around its own part of the Galaxy.
So we’re in a very particular reference frame, which as astronomers we know all about. We have to correct for all often times when we do observations of pulsars or anything that’s kind of variable in time. We have a very particular reference frame so if we saw a signal that was kind of drifting, Doppler red shifting or blue shifting, we would have a sense that that must be because it’s in a different reference frame.
And we would never really expect a signal from an advanced civilization to be in the same reference frame because they’re spinning around their own star, on their own bit of the galaxy and on their own planet. So that back in the late fifties, that’s when the idea started and we still stick to it.
And it is a kind of a, what’s the dumbest thing we can do? And that was what was thought first. Of course there’s a ton of other ideas people have and there’s a lot of philosophy into you know, what’s the best way to search? Should we even search? What does it mean to look for life? But if we want to do something practical, this is what we tend to do.
And we kind of expand from there and try to look for other signals as we kind of think of them up but that’s what we stick to. Also in the late fifties, early sixties another type of SETI was thought of, and instead of doing the radio, you’d do optical SETI, we call it . That’s because back in the early sixties lasers were developed.
It turns out lasers are a very good way to transmit information great distances, because you’ve basically made a coherent beam that you’re transmitting out. If you know where you want to send the signal to you can point your laser at it and shoot at it. So the idea is we could do the same. As maybe some advanced civilization is shooting shiny lasers at us.
And then we could find that also within by using our optical telescopes.
Jacinta: [00:15:34] So there’s been this whole history of SETI. Why are we doing it now?
Griffin: [00:15:38] You know, I’ve been doing astronomy for maybe a decade now, maybe more. I did my degree in astronomy and astrophysics. It wasn’t that long ago when I was doing my degree and taking my course, there was kind of this unknown about whether there’s exoplanets or not.
Everyone kind of assumed there was, but there wasn’t really much evidence other than a few particular examples. And over this last decade, last 20 years, there’s been this boom and we now know that there’s planets everywhere. Most star systems have a planet, if not many planets. And the fact that we know this now is kind of an exciting thing.
This idea that of course there’s so many planets. I mean it seems so obvious now, but we now have this evidence and an obvious question next is when there’s a planet, what’s on this planet? Do they have atmospheres? Do they also have life? And people are, are kind of moving from finding planets and now figuring out what these planets are made up of. And this is a really a great moment because at the same time, this kind of brings forward the idea of doing SETI again. I think over the past few decades SETI’s been very quiet. People continue to do research in it, but I think this kind of discovery of exoplanets has really boosted the interest in SETI again. What’s happened about three years ago this kind of interest built to a really phenomenal event is that the Breakthrough initiatives. Which is this organization founded by some fairly interested people, but also fairly rich people who wanted to fund science to look for life beyond Earth in a number of ways. The initial project is called Breakthrough Listen and Breakthrough Listen is a project that’s funded for over 10 years. It’s been going for three years now to use radio telescopes to look for signatures of advanced life on other planets.
Jacinta: [00:17:29] So what is the Breakthrough project working on at the moment?
Griffin: [00:17:33] Right, when we started three years ago we kind of came up with some foundational goals.
Broadly, we want to survey, if not all nearby stars, a significant sample of them. We picked a number ambitiously, we want to do a million nearby stars. We also want to survey the Galactic Plane, and particularly the Galactic Center. You know, if you were an advanced civilization like us, you would build telescopes and you would realize the Galactic Center is very interesting and you’d want to point telescopes there. And so it’d be a great place to put a signal if you’re a very advanced civilization who thought they wanted to be known. There’s this idea of a civilization might create a beacon, a lighthouse to shine basically and this beacon can be directed in many locations, or it could be kind of in all directions.
And if you’re going to create a beacon, you might put it in places people would look. And the Galactic Center would be a great spot to do it because it’s fantastically interesting. And so we’re not just looking there, but kind of on all the other planets we’d be interested in finding a beacon. And then the third point is we’re interested in looking at nearby galaxies.
For an extremely advanced civilization with kind of unlimited energy budget they might be trying to let other galaxies, nearby galaxies be known. That reaches more into the realm of science fiction about how this would work. It’s beyond kind of our understanding of how energy and technology would work.
But it’s potentially, you know, this is exciting. Who knows what we’ll find. And so for the past three years, we’ve been using the Green Bank telescope in the United States, which is a hundred meter steerable, a Gregorian offset dish. It’s a fantastic instrument that’s in the Northern hemisphere.
And then we use the Parkes telescope in Australia, and these are great dishes but they can only point at one thing at a time. And so it takes a long time, especially if we want to observe a million stars. It’s going to take a really long time. So in the past few years, we’ve observed a few thousand stars, but we need to go bigger because it’s going to take a long time to get a million.
So that’s where MeerKAT comes in. MeerKAT’s this fantastic array where we have 64 dishes that are quite small compared to these really large dishes. They’re 13 and a half meters. Which means they have a large field of view and they roughly have a one degree field of view, but it’s actually quite bigger if you want to take into account other structures.
What this means is that we can look at multiple places within this field of view at once. And so we build what’s called the digital beam former. And there’s 64 of these dishes and add it all up they’re just as sensitive. They’re in fact more sensitive than the Parkes telescope. There’re about as sensitive as the Green Bank telescope. And so by combining them all together, we have this big field of view where we can see dozens of stars at once and then we can point, we can form these a little beams in multiple directions. And so it’s almost like having dozens of massive telescopes at once.
And this is going to allow us to observe a million stars over three to five years. Kind of the run of this initial large survey projects at MeerKAT.
Jacinta: [00:20:54] Well, you’re taking the Breakthrough Listen project from having looked at a few thousand stars to looking at a million stars. You must generate an enormous amount of data.
What are you going to do with this data and how are you going to process it?
Griffin: [00:21:07] That’s a fantastic challenge we have right now. We’re working on that right now. The MeerKAT system, because it’s so much data coming through, we have to do it in real time. We basically can’t save all the data, we have to choose what to keep.
And so we’re basically taking our processing pipeline, which typically we do this thing where we channelize the data down to very narrow bands. So the number we pick is roughly one Hertz, and that’s narrow compared to other radio astronomy. Most radio astronomy, you’re interested in tens of kilohertz, hundreds of kilohertz, maybe a megahertz band or more.
The reason we picked this is because we expect these kind of artificial signals to be incredibly narrow band. That’s another way that we’d indicate that something was artificial. You know, there’s this natural limit to how narrow natural physical processes are in the Universe. And we know this fairly well.
Masers are kind of the narrowest band things and even those are tens of kilohertz. There is a natural maser it’s different than a laser or maser that we make. But a natural maser is a cloud basically of elements within the molecules within the Universe that actually kind of coherently transmit. Quite interesting objects that they can form a coherent transmission.
So once we do this narrow channelization, we then do the search where we look in to see if the reference frame is different. A big challenge we have is the fact that humans make a ton of artificial signals. So we call this radio frequency interference or RFI. And so we’re kind of, we have this problem where we’re looking for artificial signals in other artificial signals, and it turns out the vast majority of the things we detect are manmade things. And so we spend most of our time trying to get rid of those. We have good ways to do that, but still we’re flooded with them. So we’re always trying to find new solutions. And in fact, there’s a limited number of us. And so we have kind of within our mandate, not only to find to seek out advanced civilizations or signals from the advanced civilizations, but make this as open as possible because we know that there’s not enough of us. And this is really a challenge beyond us. I mean, it’s really an interesting challenge that I think most people in the world can understand that and could be excited about and given that we have limited time we want to make it possible for other people to help on this. And so not only is all that data open, we’re very open about what we search for, how we do it. We’ve created tutorials, our code is open and we strongly encourage interested parties to join in if they feel like they can contribute or want to contribute. You know we’re all aware of pop culture, we all are interested in it. We watch films or books and aliens get into pop culture quite often. And we think about this and a lot of times it’s fairly nefarious or there’s some like conspiracy theories.
And so, really an important aspect to us is that we make sure everything we do is open. Everything we do is our codes open source. We’re very public about our discoveries, we want to make it very clear that everything we do is not nefarious.
Jacinta: [00:24:47] So you do want people to be involved in your search for “aliens”, quote un quote.
What about the general public? Can they get involved as well?
Griffin: [00:24:56] Yeah, absolutely. We are trying to figure out ways for everyone to be involved. Not just skilled engineers and programmers and astronomers, but yeah, the general public. We’ve decided to start a project using Zooniverse and Zooniverse is this great project that’s been running for I’m not even sure how long, but well over a decade now. And it’s a citizen science project and started as a way to classify radio galaxies. And the idea would be that a bunch of scientists would upload images of radio galaxies that they just didn’t have time to classify. But they’ve built a tutorial and a guide for how to do it, and they sent it out into the world and they built a really nice interface and it was enormously successful.
And over the years the Zooniverse has expanded to a ton of other scientific project. There’s been a project to decode scraps of papyrus that people found in a rubbish bin from many centuries ago. There’s like a project to encode weather logs from the 18 hundreds. I mean, not just astronomy, but all these other really interesting things.
And they’ve built a really nice framework to allow us to create this. These projects are very accessible to mainly the ideas is for school children, but also high schoolers and general interested parties. And we’ve gone and built this little program where people will be able to go through all our signals and help us at least describe what they are.
As far as we know all these signals are human made, but, they’re really hard to figure out what they are and kind of filter through them and get rid of them. And so we need help to kind of classify them and this is kind of the entry point in how we build a model that will filter them out. We’re beta testing this Zooniverse project right now and hopefully in the next few months we’ll have the official announcement and we’ll get a lot of people to help us.
Basically the next step is really to build these models that allows us to kind of filter out all this human made radio frequency interference, and try to get to the astronomical signals.
Jacinta: [00:27:10] All right, so astronomers and the public and everyone are going to be searching for these radio signals from alien civilizations, but what actually makes us think that they want to talk to us?
What makes us think that they are putting out signals for us to find.
Griffin: [00:27:25] Well for me, a bit of optimism. A bit of a hope for humanity and hope for humanity that stretches off to other advanced civilizations. You know, you’re absolutely right. You can take a pessimistic approach and think, well, you know, maybe they wouldn’t transmit signals.
I’d like to believe that our own interest in this means that we’re curious about the Universe and any other civilization would also be curious. And at some point decide, well, we’ve advanced technology sufficiently, we kind of have control of energy in a way that we’re comfortable with and that it might be reasonable to say something more, just try and say hello to the rest of the Universe and kind of make themselves aware or make other civilizations aware of themselves. Yeah, I think that it’s an optimistic dream, I guess. And I’m hopeful about that. I think that’s a reasonable thing because I’m hopeful for humanity.
Jacinta: [00:28:23] So are we transmitting any signals? Are we trying to communicate with aliens?
Griffin: [00:28:28] Well, indirectly we are, you know, this radio frequency interference I’m talking about is us transmitting. This is the radios, this is mobile data, this is radar systems. You know, the Earth has a radio leakage signature we call it, of just all the technology that’s leaking out around it.
Turns out the signature is actually, because it’s not directed and it’s not coherent, and in a particular kind of focus, the leakage kind of fades fairly quickly. And so we might be able to detect a similar leakage from nearby planets, but really distant planets, it can be really hard. And so similarly, a civilization would have a hard time seeing our leakage, but we do have large radar systems.
We have this large planetary radar system. At Arecibo in Puerto Rico in the United States, which is used to map objects, near-Earth objects and things within our Ssolar System. And that uses the radar system that we transmit to a very, very high power to map these out. But a similar system could basically be used to communicate at very large distances.
And in fact, this is what we typically use as a measure, an indication of kind of how far we could detect a signal.
Jacinta: [00:29:46] And there were concerted efforts to put out a signal with Arecibo a few years, wasn’t there?
Griffin: [00:29:50] Oh yeah, yeah. Many years ago, in fact. But there have been in the past, and there’s been other radar systems where people have transmitted on to nearby stars.
And so there’s been these little moments, no long term kind of signal. And the signals are fairly basic kind of encoding little bits of mathematics into it. And figures. But we haven’t really done this in a long time or in a serious effort.
Jacinta: [00:30:20] That’s just the beginning for large radio telescopes in South Africa. Of course, we’ve got coming up the international Square Kilometer Array, much of which will be built here in South Africa. This will be an even bigger instrument. Is there plans to perform SETI with the SKA?
Griffin: [00:30:36] Absolutely. I mean, this is, you know, MeerKAT is a fantastic instrument and it’s going to run for as long as it can and we can get amazing science out, but it will also be the core of the SKA mid-frequency array.
It won’t just when MeerKAT ends. Hopefully MeerKAT doesn’t end for a very long time. But it will continue with the SKA.
Jacinta: [00:30:59] You recently went to the MeerKAT site in the Karoo. What were you doing there?
Griffin: [00:31:04] Yeah. We installed our very first equipment there, which has been very successful and we’ll be installing more equipment over the coming months.
You know, we announced officially in October that we’ll be doing this collaboration with MeerKAT. Of course, it’s been in the planning for a very long time and part of this planning has been to invest in the HCD program, the human capital development program that SARO has been running for a long time now.
And it’s this fantastic program. In fact, not too long ago, I was part of that program. I did my first, research fellowship here, after I did my PhD. And, I couldn’t be more happy to be back. In fact, there’s an incredible excitement in South Africa about doing radio astronomy, it’s probably the best place in the world to be doing radio astronomy at this moment.
And I think the interest from SARAO to have us here has been great. And we’re excited to, you know, we’re based throughout the world and we want a presence here specifically. And we hope in the near future we have people that are not just contributing on a volunteering basis, but we’ll be kind of financially supporting them to expand, interest in SETI in South Africa.
And there’s really been a lot of great feedback and great support from South Africa. And, I think it’s going to continue.
Jacinta: [00:32:29] Well, it all sounds very, very exciting. Thanks very much for talking to us today, Griffin.
Griffin: [00:32:33] Thank you so much.
Dan: [00:32:39] Great. Fascinating stuff. I mean, I’ve always been skeptical. Like I don’t, I really don’t expect us to be able to detect anything. I mean, the scale of the Universe is so large that the chances of something being near enough and in the right developmental stage to be transmitting has always made me, and I think a lot of scientists is probably, a little disinterested in the actual search for extraterrestrial intelligence. But it’s great to see that people are doing it and taking it seriously.
Jacinta: [00:33:13] Yeah, and I guess if you don’t look, you definitely 100% are not going to find. Right. So somebody’s gotta be looking, and I think it’s worthwhile doing it, especially if you can do it at the same time as doing other science.
So you’re not losing telescope time. You’re not losing data products. You’re just gaining and why not?
Dan: [00:33:31] Yeah, I mean, I think that’s absolutely the point here. Like it’s kind of hard to motivate for spending time and telescope time and money on the search when the likelihood of finding something is so low. But if you can just piggyback on amazing science that’s already happening and possibly discover something incredibly amazing, then why not?
Jacinta: [00:33:54] Yeah, exactly. I mean, it’s high risk, high reward. I mean, if you actually found a signal that’s potentially from an extraterrestrial civilization, that’s game changing.
Dan: [00:34:05] Well, in this case, it’s pretty low risk, right? I mean, they’re using observations which are already happening.
Jacinta: [00:34:11] Right, exactly. So I think all in all, this is just awesome that it’s really happening and that it’s happening in a really rigorous scientific way and that it’s happening right here in South Africa.
Dan: [00:34:24] Well, I mean, I hope the aliens don’t take offense. Independence Day. They’re all going to come and kill us,
Jacinta: [00:34:31] Oh right. Oh, sorry. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen that movie.
Dan: [00:34:35] Gosh, it’s a classic!
Jacinta: [00:34:36] And that’s it for today’s episode. Thanks very much for listening and we hope you’ll join us again for the next episode of The Cosmic Savannah.
Dan: [00:34:44] You can follow us at thecosmicsavannah.com that’s Savannah, S A V, A, N, N, A, H, where we will have links related to today’s episode.
Jacinta: [00:34:53] Special thanks to Dr. Griffin foster for speaking with us.
Dan: [00:34:58] Thanks to Mark Allnut for the music production. Janus Brink, for astrophotography and Lana Ceraj for the graphic design to create the podcast art. This episode was created with the support of the South African National Research Foundation and the South African Astronomical Observatory.
Jacinta: [00:35:12] We’ll speak to you next time on The Cosmic Savannah.
Dan: [00:35:19] Next time on The Cosmic Savannah.
Lerato: [00:35:21] They were wondering like, what is this bright star like that shines in their radio? What is it? And later on with better instruments, with better telescopes, they were able to see that, okay, no, actually there’s more to it.