Sarah Parcak has been called a new Indiana Jones. Associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Parcak pioneered the use of satellite imagery to discover ruins, tombs, and more. Her field, “space archaeology,” sounds like an oxymoron, but the technique is downright effective.
The Smithsonian awarded her their 2016 American Ingenuity Award and reported that “she and her team have expanded the civilization’s [Egypt’s] known scope, spotting more than 3,000 ancient settlements, more than a dozen pyramids and over a thousand lost tombs, and uncovered the city grid of Tanis, of Raiders of the Lost Ark fame.”
She’s looking for one thing — design. Parcak begins with research. She looks at maps, ancient and modern, and of every kind, of the area. Then she examines satellite imagery from DigitalGlobe.
“Any discovery in remote sensing rests on hundreds of hours of deep, deep study. Before looking at satellite imagery of a cemetery or a pyramid field, you have to already understand why something should be there,” Parcak told Smithsonian.
The Alabama News Center describes her methods once she’s looking at satellite data:
Once the images are processed, the infrared satellite technology allows Parcak and her team to see what the naked eye cannot: chemical changes in the landscape caused by building materials and the activities of those who once inhabited the land.
Parcak is looking for complex and specified information — and the approach is paying off. She has documented looting following the Arab Spring, and a site in Newfoundland that may have been the second North American Viking settlement.
And what is CSI?
In the context of science and information theory, something is complex if it is unlikely. It is specified if it matches an independent pattern. The information inherent in such an object is called complex and specified information, or “CSI.” From experience, we recognize that finding complexity and specification together is a hallmark indicator of design.
Okay, but how is the information say, in DNA, similar to signs by which Parcak recognizes ancient ruins? And how are research methods similar?
We detect design as a normal part of everyday life, but intelligent design proponents, and those like Parcak, have special ways of rooting out specified complexity. Parcak examines maps and data to see if a certain area contains specified information; Scott Minnich does genetic knockout tests on the bacterial flagellum, and Douglas Axe examines the likelihood of random sequences of amino acids producing functional proteins.
For as humans, design detection is second nature (see Dr. Axe’s recent book Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed). Scientists like Parcak, Axe, or Minnich, however, bring to the task focused skills in a particular area of expertise. But here’s a chance to take your design detection to the next level: join Parcak. She’s starting what she calls GlobalXplorer, a site where the public can assist with space archaeology by examining data online.
There’s too much area to cover, and she needs help. Participants will receive basic information and training on how to look for ancient ruins. I might participate.
Parcak has been named in Foreign Policy‘s list of “100 Leading Global Thinkers,” meaning that she’s onto something pretty big, riding a wave of the future: design research. I wonder where design detection applied to biological and cosmic origins will take us in the years to come.
Photo: Sarah Parcak, via University of Alabama at Birmingham.