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Guest Editorial

Six Degrees of SETI Separation
by H. Paul Shuch

How can one possibly associate the Space Shuttle with SETI? It's a long, convoluted path, so stay with me.

I'm sure every space enthusiast of appropriate age remembers exactly what he or she was doing when the Challenger shuttle exploded - it's one of those pivotal moments in history that's indelibly etched in our memory banks. Following that disaster, a panel of experts was convened to investigate. The person on the Rogers Commission who first figured out, and then demonstrated, the connection between low temperatures and O-ring deformation was CalTech professor Richard Feynman. That brilliant physicist and Nobel laureate (like many brilliant American physicists of his generation) had spent the years of World War II at Los Alamos, NM, developing the first atomic bomb. There he worked for Enrico Fermi, best known to the SETI community for the famous Fermi Paradox -- but I digress.

I remember reading, in a volume of Feynman's memoirs in the late 1980's, a passing reference to someone named Tukey, whom he had known in graduate school at Princeton. The name rang a bell, so I went back to a book given me by my uncle, the late Bayesian statistics authority Ward Edwards of USC, when I was in grad school. The title was Exploratory Data Analysis, and the author was John Tukey, a noted statistician at Princeton. The very same Tukey of whom Feynman wrote. (That book informed and inspired some of the analysis tricks I employed in my doctoral dissertation -- but I digress.)

It was Tukey, I later learned, who had developed the Fast Fourier Transform (FFT), the algorithm which has been, until recently, the primary signal analysis tool of observational SETI. I first learned about the FFT in a landmark textbook on the Fourier Transform, written by Ron Bracewell of Stanford. Bracewell was an Australian radio astronomer who co-authored the very first radio astronomy textbook, and later became very involved in SETI research -- but I digress.

One of the things that motivated Bracewell's interest in SETI, it turns out, was the seminal article Searching for Interstellar Communications, by Cocconi and Morrison. Phil Morrison, as I'm sure you know, went on to become the father of modern SETI science, and a mentor to many SETIzens, including me. He was also a veteran of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, and somewhere along the line had gotten to know Tukey. Interestingly, Morrison, Feynman, and quite a few other Los Alamos scientists went on to become staunch pacifists, and proponents of nuclear disarmament. (But I digress.)

I could go on (digressing), but I think you can see the pattern here. From Challenger to Feynman to Tukey to Bracewell to Morrison, it all points to SETI. It's a case of convergent influences, quite common to all intellectual pursuits, and I'm sure you've seen similar connections elsewhere. The point is, SETI is so highly interdisciplinary a field of study that you can get there from just about any conceivable starting point. And, from wherever you started, you arrived at this page for a reason. SETI science needs your skills and background, whatever they may be.

But, I digress.

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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