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Beyond Contact: A Guide to SETI and Communicating with Alien Civilizations [Hardcover]

by Brian S. McConnell
3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)

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Book Description

March 15, 2001 0596000375 978-0596000370 1st

"What do we need to know about to discover life in space?" --Frank Drake, 1961

In the early 1960s, Frank Drake, a young astronomer with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Bank, West Virginia, developed what is now known as the "Drake Equation" in an effort to determine how many intelligent, communicative civilizations our galaxy could harbor. For forty years, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has combed the skies in search of signals from star systems within the galaxy. In Beyond Contact: A Guide to SETI and Communicating with Alien Civilizations, author Brian McConnell goes behind the scenes and examines what goes into the search for intelligent life.

SETI is a four-step process. First we have to know where to look; then we must be able to send and receive signals to that star system. Once signals arrive, scientists then need to be able to interpret those signals into something that can be understood. And although we haven't yet received any signals (except for our own Earth-based transmissions), we'll eventually have to figure out a protocol for responding.

Beyond Contact introduces you to:

  • The history of SETI research, including the early searches of Project Ozma, traditional radio astronomy, the search for intelligence in optical wavelengths (known as Optical SETI, or OSETI), and the SETI@home project.
  • An overview of the Drake Equation and the Rare Earth Hypothesis, which scientists use to estimate the number of planets in our galaxy that could harbor intelligent, communicative life forms.
  • How signals are sent and received over interstellar distances. The author explains the principles of signal and image processing, and how SETI researchers identify and process analog signals using Fourier transforms to see how the power in a signal is distributed across different frequencies.
  • How to build a general-purpose symbolic language for sending signals, and even computer programs, with present-day SETI equipment. The ability to transmit computer programs enables us to let another civilization know about our knowledge and technological capabilities.

The author also shows how SETI research--though often thought to be a mere flight of fancy--has spawned technological improvements in astronomy, computers, and wireless communications.

Beyond Contact: A Guide to SETI and Communicating with Alien Civilizations sidesteps the "little green men" approach to take a hard, realistic look at the technologies behind the search for intelligent life in our universe.


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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

As many earthlings already know--including more than 2 million computer users with firsthand experience--our best hope for finding extraterrestrial intelligence might just lie with an ingenious little screensaver. So it's not surprising that this introduction to searching for and communicating with intelligent life begins with some of the details behind UC Berkeley's groundbreaking, massively distributed SETI@home project, which processes intergalactic noise for pennies on the teraflop. But that's just the start of the story. Inventor and software developer Brian McConnell continues with an overview of whether and why we might find something out there, who's doing what to look for it (including the folks at Berkeley), and--once some ET picks up on the other end--what we might say and how we might say it.

This last problem, which occupies the final half of the book, proves to be the most thought-provoking, and McConnell has put together a methodical, nuts-and-bolts walkthrough of both the challenges involved and how binary code might be enlisted to solve them. If you've taken even a single computer-science class in your life, you'll probably skip ahead through explanations of data structures and Boolean arithmetic, but McConnell doesn't want to leave anyone behind in fleshing out his alien-friendly lingua numerica. The book's first half surveys various SETI projects, past and present, and includes generous sections on signal processing, what sort of radio and laser hardware has been mobilized for the search, and how exactly SETI@home works. (So, if nothing else, now you can know how your computer decides if it's talking to aliens while you're off having lunch.) --Paul Hughes

Review

"'Beyond Contact' summaries well what is the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. I recommend it for anyone as an entry level book on the subject." -- Stephane Dumas, Physicist

"A refreshingly even-handed treatment of one of the greatest puzzles of our age, the question of our apparent loneliness in the universe." -- David Brin, author of

"Remarkably fresh ideas on how to achieve contact. Wide-ranging engrossing, enjoyable. This book is definitely a winner!" -- Dr. Allen Tough, coordinator of the Web-based

"This thought provoking book ventures boldly where I fear to tread." -- Kent Cullers, Signal Detection Team Leader, Director for SETI Research and Development, SETI Institute

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 350 pages
  • Publisher: O'Reilly Media; 1st edition (March 15, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0596000375
  • ISBN-13: 978-0596000370
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.4 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,653,089 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars can't take it seriously April 14, 2002
Format:Hardcover
Here's a book that superficially looks like a serious technical discussion of SETI, even to the point where many potential readers may be intimidated by the diagrams, equations, jargon, and so on. But in reality, it's very lacking in solid scientific information.
For example: On page 116, one of the factors mentioned as a limit to OSETI (finding laser beacons and such) is extinction--the attenuation of light due to dust in the intersteller medium. This, it is said, limits our ability to see laser beacons to "a few dozens light years" for visible wavelengths. Really?? Then how come you can go and see stars farther away than that with your naked eye? Oh, because they're brighter! Well, how bright does a laser beacon need to be? How much attentuation is there, in per cent, dB or whatever, at, say, 100 light years? How much does a beam spread out over, say, 100 light years? How much variation in the signal is there over time as a result of dust? Not a BIT of quantitative data on this stuff!
Like all other SETI enthusiasts I've seen, they also ignore another issue: As communication techniques get more advanced, they look more and more like random noise. Our millions of chattering cell phones and internet hosts will almost certainly be undetectable to anyone outside the earth environment, let alone the solar system: Those transmissions have no directionality, they are low power precisely because they are efficient and advanced, and their advanced modulation causes them to look like white noise. Consider a 300 bps modem, with its old-fashioned tone signaling; then listen to a 56k modem, which, except when it's hooking up, sounds almost like rushing steam.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
<.>
I like the idea of this book, but the execution left a bit to be desired.
The first two sections ("Are We Alone?" and "Getting a Dial Tone") do a passably good job of introducing some of the basics of interstellar communication, ably introducing both the fundamentals of radio and optical technologies and the unique challenges of communicating a signal (any signal; the details of the signal to be sent are reserved for Part III) across interstellar distances.
Problems with the first two sections are:
(1) inconsistent readability: the author seems not to have found a consistent tone for the book, and wanders between wide-eyed pie-in-the-sky speculation and bone-dry technical detail;
(2) organizational flaws: the author routinely discusses a concept or entity throughout early chapters without a decent introduction or explanation, only to treat the subject in question at length (with the proper explanatory introduction) later in the text -- the discussion of the SETI@home distributed computing project is particularly guilty of this;
(3) lack of investigative reporting: almost every piece of information in these sections could have come out of a textbook or a web search, and it's clear that the author hasn't bothered to interview the movers and shakers in the SETI community and find out anything much about the "story behind the story," which might have made for some interesting reading;
(4) bad editing: there is a typo every few pages, which is a minor beef but in the age of spell-checkers hardly excusable.
Nonetheless, if you've never read a "Scientific American" article about SETI, the first two sections of the book would be educational.
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A highly technical book on interstellar communication January 15, 2002
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Readers who want a general introduction to questions related to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence should look elsewhere. This is a highly technical book on the techniques and problems of communication across interstellar distances. People with strong backgrounds in science or engineering may find this material fascinating, but general readers soon will get lost. Overall rating (for techies): four stars.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
By ANON
Format:Hardcover
This is a very all-encompassing book about extraterrestrial communication, and goes to considerable length explaining how it would be done through binary language. It is a very intelligent book about life on other planets, The Drake Equation, etc. People need to know what they're getting into if they buy this book - it really is for those who have a more technical/scientific bent towards the whole SETI process. If you think Speilberg's ET or Sagan's Contact are the bees knees when it comes to intellectual sci-fi, then this book is definitely not for you.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars We Are Not Alone..or Are We? May 27, 2001
Format:Hardcover
This question has confounded people for generations. Are we the only intelligent lifeform capable of space travel and communicating with others, or are there other similar races of intelligent beings in the cosmos? With the increasingly popularity of the SETI@home project, which lets PC users use a downloadable screen saver to help in analyzing radio transmissions from space it would seem numerous folk want to help in discovering if others are "out there."
This book describes in detail the "history" of SETI (Search for Extraterrestial Intelligence), its motivations for desiring contact with extraterrestials, theories on how likely extraterrestials do exist and if they indeed do exist, how likely they would be able to communicate back to "earthlings." There are also chapters devoted to how our technology would enable us to communicate, starting with radio and laser communication, signal processing, teleporting computer bits, using symbols, pictures, and abstract language as a form of communication, and how to go about translating any form of communication we would receive from an extraterrestial.
A fascinating book about a fascinating idea and while I don't expect "ET" to show up on my doorstep any time soon, at least now I know enough that if he does, I'll have some idea of how best to communicate with him.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars more technical information
This is not a good book for the average reader as it is very technical and involves math and
electrical information and other difficult studies.
Published 11 months ago by beverly talbot
2.0 out of 5 stars too boring and technical.
This book might be enjoyable for those who love technical
details, math, formulas, theories of contact with aliens, etc. Read more
Published on August 6, 2009 by Gomar Holnyuk
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting Premise and Valid Questions
This book examines the questions that will need to be resolved at some point in our existence (my opinion). It's good to ask and it's good to get thinking on this. Read more
Published on November 30, 2007 by Fred
5.0 out of 5 stars Awesome!
This is the kind of book you need to understand the details of SETI, how does it work, what its limitations would be, and what technology is behind. Read more
Published on July 11, 2007 by J.A.
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting info about SETI but too boring part 3
Good introduction to SETI and the description about the mechanisms used is very good.
The third part of the book is much too boring. Read more
Published on December 29, 2001 by Gerhard Poul
5.0 out of 5 stars Essential SETI Reading
Easy to understand and yet almost exhaustive in it's survey of SETI past, present and future.
This book's presentation is exemplary. Read more
Published on June 17, 2001
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent
Along with 'Are We Alone In The Cosmos' (edited: Ben Bova), this book is the most comprehensive and up to date summary of SETI. Read more
Published on June 10, 2001 by D. A. Murray
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