Ask Dr. SETI ®
by Elisabeth Piotelat
SETI League Regional Coordinator for France
"So, did you receive THE signal?" A lot of SETI League members have already heard this question from acquaintances, friends, colleagues, or neighbors. It may be hard to answer that this is not really the right question to ask, that they should instead have asked what signals we've received so far. The Richter scale is used by journalists who never studied geology, so why not have such a clear, understandable tool for SETI?
The idea of the Rio scale came from Ivan Almar and Jill Tarter, who proposed it at a conference in Rio in 2000. In 2003, the SETI Permanent Committee of the International Academy of Astronautics officially adopted Revision 1.2 of their Rio Scale. No changes have been made for the past 15 years, whereas it had been designed to be a work in progress.
The actual Rio Scale is subjective, and that's both a good thing, and a big problem. We would like to have a scale so strong, so robust, that every SETI League member, every astronomer, every institute would arrive at the same figure. For this, we need to have a lot of people of different backgrounds scoring a lot of candidate signals, in order to improve the scale by asking more objective questions.
Instead of giving just a number from 0 to 10, we have to consider both credibility and consequences. When we read headlines such as “NASA Expected to Reveal a Major Discovery Beyond the Solar System in a Press Conference,” we need to understand that, were we to have two verified signals with the same credibility, but one coming from a nearby star and the other a distant galaxy, the consequences would be vastly different, for both humanity and the media.
As a SETI League volunteer coordinator from France, I have to answer journalists' requests from time to time. I'm not a communications professional, but I've quickly understood that speaking about the SETI@HOME screen saver in 1999, or the extensive SETI League technical manual, is really a waste of time. I still remember SETI League executive director H. Paul Shuch's advice after my first interactions with the press: keep it 12 words maximum per sentence, and use no words longer than 3 syllables.
I was once asked to write a one page scenario for a 2 minute science video. The editor requested a revision, because I used the word “radio-telescope” and four members of his team didn't know what that was. A few years ago, I tried to describe the Rio Scale to a scientific journalist who told me she used to work at the Paris Observatory. The effect was the same as if I had given her a detailed technical description of a project Argus station. Everything I said about this scale ended up being cut from her radio show, which was ironically called “the scientific method”.
On august 27, 2016, Paul Gilster wrote a blog post about “an Interesting SETI Candidate in Hercules”. The signal was received by RATAN-600 radio-telescope, in the direction of HD164595, on May 15, 2015, 18:01:15.65 (sidereal time), at a wavelength of 2.7 cm. The estimated amplitude of the signal was 750 mJy. Imagine explaining all that to the general public! The data came from Dr. Alexander Panov's paper at IAC 2016. The title was “SETI observation with the RATAN-600 telescope in 2015 year and detection of a strong signal in the direction of HD164595,” and there were some e-mail discussions about it among radio astronomers and SETI professionals.
When the signal was announced to the media, every available SETI antenna began to look for it, every SETI institution wrote press releases, saying they are looking for this signal but have heard nothing yet, or that they found nothing in their databases. Good and bad news articles were published, mainly in the English language, in newspapers or on web pages with lots of advertising and big headlines about contact, aliens and so on. The first papers in French appeared a few day later, mainly awful translations of buzz web pages illustrated by pictures from “Contact”, “ET” or “Independence day”.
By the time the news came to France, in French, the Russian TASS agency had already announced that the signal turned to be terrestrial interference, and most experts had given the observation a very low Rio Scale score. That's the reason why, when a journalist asked me for an interview on the 21st of September, I found it logical to speak not directly about the reported signal, but rather about the IAA SETI permanent committee, the SETI protocols, and the Rio Scale.
Here are the questions one must attempt to answer in determining a Rio Scale value, and the responses I selected regarding the RATAN-600 detection:
Select class of phenomenon: Leakage radiation, without possible interpretation, or an ET artifact the purpose of which is understandable.The HD164595 signal makes it rather easy to answer the first three Rio Scale questions. For the last one, there's some subjectivity. Having never heard about Dr. Alexander Panov before, I choose “Possible, but should be verified before taken seriously.” But, I do know Claudio Maccone, who was a co-author of the paper, so I might just as easily have chosen “Absolutely reliable, without any doubt”.
I gave the previously mentioned reporter the IAA SETI paper on the Rio Scale, and did the above exercise to rank the signal “1-insignificant”. Her first question surprised me: “Can you translate the interpretation of the values into French?” It seems obvious that if we want to use the Rio Scale worldwide, we have to translate the quiz and the scores into French, Chinese, Arabic, etc...
With the announcement of any candidate signal, some reports are published by SETI scientists. They are the source journalists should be referring to. But, this would be in an ideal world. We first need good articles in the international press with objective Rio Scores, to hope that the French press will refer to the Rio Scale.
The revision 1.2 is a good tool for those of us with scientific or technical backgrounds. But, we can hardly use it to explain to friends why we don't believe that we have received THE signal. A Rio 2.0 version is needed, to be used on social networks, between space geeks and maybe specialized journalists.
SETI is an interdisciplinary field of science. The help of linguists, psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists is requested to have the Rio Scale versions 3, 4, 5... understood and used by every earthling.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in editorials are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The SETI League, Inc., its Trustees, officers, Advisory Board, members, donors, or commercial sponsors.
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this page last updated 4 August 2018
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