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

Brian McConnell , Chuck Toporek
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

30 Mar 2001

"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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Product details

  • Hardcover: 417 pages
  • Publisher: O'Reilly Media; 1 edition (30 Mar 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0596000375
  • ISBN-13: 978-0596000370
  • Product Dimensions: 23 x 15.8 x 3.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,137,151 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Review

It certainly makes interesting reading for anybody interested in modern technology and the many different applications of computers. -- Gerhard R. Fischer, Charlotte County PC User Group, September. 2002

Superb Book. -- Paul Gilster, Triad Business News, July 19 2002

This fascinating book explores all the possible lines of approach to a challenge, upon whose outcome may one day depend the future of our own civilization. -- Sir Arthur C. Clarke, author of

This looks at the search for extraterrestrial
life as more than just a few eager scientists listening to
blips in the night. -- space.com, Jan 2002

From the Publisher

In Beyond Contact: A Guide to SETI and Communicating with Alien Civilizations, author Brian McConnell examines the science and technology behind the search for intelligent life in space, from the physics of inter-stellar laser and radio communication to information theory and linguistics. If you've ever wondered whether it really would be possible to communicate with other civilizations, you'll want to read this book.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best SETI book on the market (ever) 17 Dec 2002
Format:Hardcover
I bought this book, among many others on the same topic for reference for my MSc Thesis. This is the only out of the two dozen or so that I have read that really gives a good overview of SETI. It explains all the essential science in enough depth and clarity, that anyone can find it useful, whether they be a schoolboy or a professional scientist. Most books on SETI either come off as the raveings of a madman or are so high brow that they are virtually unintelligiable. This book is neither, whether for light christmas reading, or serious scientific investigation, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
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Amazon.com: 3.6 out of 5 stars  11 reviews
19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars can't take it seriously 14 April 2002
By Ronald W. Garrison - Published on Amazon.com
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. It's hard to escape the idea that we will only pick up radio from ET if he intentionally beams it at us, a doubtful proposition unless he's within 60 light years, as he has no way to know of OUR radio transmissions.
A final word about copy editing: I've yet to read a book with absolutely no errors, but at least they could get three-letter words like "its" right. There are other serious errors, such as missing words, the ubiquitous "different than," and other less glaring mistakes. If they can't do better than that, perhaps they should just record audio tapes.
All in all, about a third of the way through, I decided that other books must surely be able to better satisfy my curiosity on this subject.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A decent review of the basics, but more than a little dry 12 Mar 2002
By Chris from San Francisco - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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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. If you have any exposure to SETI prior to picking up the book, chances are that you won't learn very much (except possibly about optical SETI/CETI, which relies on the production and/or detection of laser light aimed at a specific star system, and which is grossly undertreated in the literature).
The third section ("Communicating with Other Worlds") treats the specifics of the author's ideas about what sort of message could be sent by us (or, by extension, might be received by us from others). The author makes an analogy between modular messages encoded in binary code and genes encoded by DNA, and sets up one potential system that might be used to send a complex message from star A to star B. This section is definitely the weakest in the book, for the following reasons.
(1) It treats at punishingly great length only one possible system of a presumably great many for communicating with alien intelligences, glossing over other approaches in favor of a detailed treatment of the author's pet approach. While I don't have a specific complaint with the approach described, I will say that as a working biologist, I found the author's biologically motivated analogies ("igenes," "binary DNA") strained and in some cases laughable. It probably makes the material "sexier" in the computer-science and SETI literature, but as a life scientist I mostly winced a lot.
(2) In part because of this, the author doesn't put his approach in any kind of context -- e.g., how else might we do it?
(3) It's way too long and inappropriately detailed: a great deal of theory of computation stuff that's not at all unique to SETI or the challenge of communicating with a non-human intelligence ends up in this section, and I don't think that benefits the reader more than just saying, "We'll send computer programs using the benefit of knowledge reaped from the maturing fields of cryptography and computer science and our impressive knowledge of the physical universe," and focusing more on reasons why any approach like this has shortcomings and might not work regardless of how clever you are.
All that having been said, this is an OK book. I wouldn't recommend that it be the only thing that you read about SETI, nor would I recommend that you read it cover-to-cover (unless you have troubles with insomnia), but if you're an avid reader of the SETI literature, it certainly can't hurt to pick this one up.
3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A highly technical book on interstellar communication 15 Jan 2002
By M. A Michaud - Published on Amazon.com
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.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Get's down to the skinny when it comes to communicating with aliens 20 Jun 2007
By ANON - Published on Amazon.com
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.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars We Are Not Alone..or Are We? 28 May 2001
By Todd Hawley - Published on Amazon.com
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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