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No, NASA is Not Predicting We’ll be Destroyed by Aliens

Movie poster from 'Aliens Attack," via getfilm.co.uk

There were some interesting, if not shocking headlines this week regarding a study supposedly put out by NASA, with the articles saying that aliens might come and destroy Earth because of our global warming problems. Headlines such as:

Aliens Could Attack Earth to End Global Warming, NASA Frets (Fox News)

Global Warming Could Provoke Alien Attack: NASA (International Business Times)

NASA: Aliens might destroy us because of our gases, (CNET)

and this one, which started the whole thing:

Aliens may destroy humanity to protect other civilizations, say scientists (The Guardian — The subheadline for this article originally said it was a NASA report, but has since been amended)

While the report is real, and one of the authors was a NASA intern, NASA in no way sponsored or endorsed the article, which was basically an enjoyable thought-experiment, and was titled: “Would Contact with Extraterrestrials Benefit or Harm Humanity? A Scenario Analysis.”

(Available as pdf here.)

By comparing the title of the paper to the splashy headlines, as you can imagine, most of the news articles don’t accurately describe the paper’s content and conclusions — over-blowing just a tad the part about alien invasions — and the headlines portray NASA as being behind the paper and the research. But NASA didn’t really have a thing to do with the very speculative, if not fun paper.

After receiving some razzing from Keith Cowing at NASAWatch about how NASA just quietly allows the tabloids to determine the space agency’s public image, NASA used their social media presence to try and rectify the misconceptions. This morning @NASA twittered: Yes, @drudge & @guardiannews are mistaken about an “alien” report. It’s not NASA research. Ask the report’s author http://go.nasa.gov/nRI8Lf

Here’s the abstract from the paper: “While humanity has not yet observed any extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI), contact with ETI remains possible. Contact could occur through a broad range of scenarios that have varying consequences for humanity. However, many discussions of this question assume that contact will follow a particular scenario that derives from the hopes and fears of the author. In this paper, we analyze a broad range of contact scenarios in terms of whether contact with ETI would benefit or harm humanity. This type of broad analysis can help us prepare for actual contact with ETI even if the details of contact do not fully resemble any specific scenario.”

The paper was written by Seth Baum, Jacob Haqq-Misra, and Shawn Domagal-Goldman. Domagal-Goldman is a post-doc student working at NASA. Probably flustered, bewildered and a bit embarrassed, he wrote on NASA’s PaleBlue blog today to try and explain how this all got out of hand:

“So here’s the thing. This isn’t a “NASA report.” It’s not work funded by NASA, nor is it work supported by NASA in other ways. It was just a fun paper written by a few friends, one of whom happens to have a NASA affiliation.

A while ago, a couple good friends of mine (Seth Baum and Jacob Haqq-Misra) approached me about a paper they were writing, and asked if I wanted to join them on it. The paper was a review of all the different proposed situations for contact with an alien civilization. I didn’t think this was particularly important. After all, I consider the likelihood of contact with an alien civilization to be low. It certainly wasn’t urgent, as I don’t expect this to happen anytime soon. But… it sounded like fun and I decided to join in on it. So we wrote the paper, but I have to admit that Seth and Jacob put in the vast majority of the work on it. One of the scenarios we considered in the review was the possibility that an alien civilization would contact us because they were concerned about the exponential growth of our civilization, as evidenced by climate change. This isn’t an entirely new idea; remember, this was a review effort. Indeed, Keanu Reaves recently played a similar alien in the movie “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” There were lots of other ideas we reviewed, but this was probably the most provocative.

Well, the paper came out a couple months ago. Today, for some reason, The Guardian picked it up, publishing an article about it with the following title: “Aliens may destroy humanity to protect other civilizations, say scientist: Rising greenhouse emissions may tip off aliens that we are a rapidly expanding threat, warns a report for NASA.” That then was picked up by The Drudge Report, with this headline:

“NASA REPORT: Aliens may destroy humanity to protect other civilizations…”

UH OH. Now that is a bit problematic.

So here’s the deal, folks. Yes, I work at NASA. It’s also true that I work at NASA Headquarters. But I am not a civil servant… just a lowly postdoc. More importantly, this paper has nothing to do with my work there. I wasn’t funded for it, nor did I spend any of my time at work or any resources provided to me by NASA to participate in this effort. There are at least a hundred more important and urgent things to be done on any given work day than speculate on the different scenarios for contact with alien civilizations… However, in my free time (what precious little I have), I didn’t mind working on stuff like this every once in a while. Why? Well, because I’m a geek and stuff like this is fun to think about. Unfortunately, there is not enough time for fun. Indeed, I felt guilty at times because this has led to a lack of effort on my part in my interactions with Seth and Jacob. Beyond adding some comments here or there, I did very little for the paper.

But I do admit to making a horrible mistake. It was an honest one, and a naive one… but it was a mistake nonetheless. I should not have listed my affiliation as “NASA Headquarters.” I did so because that is my current academic affiliation. But when I did so I did not realize the full implications that has. I’m deeply sorry for that, but it was a mistake born out of carelessness and inexperience and nothing more. I will do what I can to rectify this, including distributing this post to the Guardian, Drudge, and NASA Watch. Please help me spread this post to the other places you may see the article inaccurately attributed to NASA.

One last thing: I stand by the analysis in the paper. Is such a scenario likely? I don’t think so. But it’s one of a myriad of possible (albeit unlikely) scenarios, and the point of the paper was to review them. But remember – and this is key – it’s me standing for the paper… not the full weight of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. For anything I have done to mis-convey that to those covering this story, to the public, or to the fine employees of NASA, I apologize.”

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Keith Cowing August 19, 2011, 5:50 PM

    Yes, I like to razz NASA ….

  • Keith Cowing August 19, 2011, 5:50 PM

    Yes, I like to razz NASA ….

  • John Pasco August 19, 2011, 9:03 PM

    Thanks for posting this story, and particularly for linking back to the original sources. That is good journalism and I am surprised at the Guardian, which is one of the better UK papers. Given that they have, quite rightly, been attacking the Murdoch empire for its lack of journalistic integrity, this is a “egg on face” moment.

    • HeadAroundU August 20, 2011, 2:26 AM

      That’s one way of looking at it. We don’t need any advertisement for the stupid sites that make stupid shit like that. Waste of time. I’m surprised that there is not 75 replies.

  • Mike Petersen August 19, 2011, 9:04 PM

    I like this guy. He took personal responsibility. Refreshing…no excuses. I’d hire this guy in a NY minute.

  • Anonymous August 20, 2011, 12:26 AM

    It is good that Domagal-Goldman gave this retraction. However, this sort of thing is not entirely responsible given the prospects are so extremely remote. I doubt that SETI is going to turn up with any signal, and the probabilities of space aliens actually making it to Earth are that improbability squared. It was rather embarrassing last year when Stephen Hawking made statements of this sort. People, and in particular Americans, are a socially paranoid people. People are besotted with a huge excess baggage of worries and fears, and believe all sort of bunkum that that is becoming an enfeeblement of this society. All of the gibberish over the comet Elenin is case in point.

    LC

  • Anonymous August 20, 2011, 3:26 AM

    Aliens attacking Earth? What nonsense.

    It’s been a little while since we addressed this topic. Here is a slightly edited posting I made over at the Atlantic that covers why this is not likely:

    SETI’s search for artificial signals is largely a futile exercise. Here are a few of the reasons why:

    1. Radiowave communications degrade into static ~2 light years from Earth. Only a powerful directed signal could reach even the closest star system Alpha Centauri.

    2. There is a natural tenancy for technology to become more energy efficient. Our TV and radio signals today run at a far lower output then they did decades ago. We have learned to communicate more efficiently.

    3. New, closed circuit communication technologies will continue to gain market prominence.

    4. Possible scarcity of HEI. Active HEI (human equivalent intelligence) are likely to be exceedingly rare. Using an extrapolation of Keplar findings we can surmise that terrestrial planets are relatively common, particularly around G-type stars like our sun and also around smaller red dwarf stars. Given that life arose quickly in Earth’s history (possibly over ~4 billion years ago) it is reasonable to surmise that biological life in some fashion is very likely under favourable conditions; given the proper primordial gestation period.

    The likelihood of more advanced organisms quickly diminishes with complexity. Earth had a long grace period for the development of biological life. A number of factors have worked in our favour. A stable dwarf star and a circular equatorial orbit is one factor. A dynamic metallic-rich core that shields us from cosmic radiation also contributes to a hospitable planet. In addition, our rotational period is conducive to temperature moderation. Our orbit has keep pace with the sun’s gradual rising temperature thanks to the outward tug of Jupiter. Finally, our cosmic neighbourhood has been relatively quiet with few impactors, supernovas, and the like. Despite this, complex multicellular life took 3 billion years to develop. Homo Sapiens are barely a blip on the geological timeline. Thus, Earth has developed HEI after 90% of its habitable history had already passed.

    Radio communications have been detectable within 1 light year for about ~60 years. That’s a staggering 130,400,000 to 1 chance of detecting a radio signal from Earth during its history! Planets with simple celled organisms such as Eukaryotes may be quite common, but rich biospheres are likely more or less rare.

    Using the best extrapolations available today, we should be able to find an Earth analog within 50-150 light years radius. This value may change over the next few years as Keplar and other telescopes narrow down the variables. Rogue planets are another factor still, as it has been theorized that some of these dark worlds could maintain habitable conditions for upwards of a billion years after orbital ejection. Still, the challenges these worlds provide will make them unlikely candidates for exploring potential biospheres.

    In summary, researchers postulate that as the complexity of the biosphere increases, the relative scarcity of these worlds also increases. Active HEI’s may be as common as 1 per galaxy to 1 per local cluster. These are not very encouraging odds.

    5. Type of intelligences, technological utilization, and intellectual differences. Our closest equivalent intelligences may be a race of cetaceans – a dolphin planet if you will. Without dexterous appendages, such creatures will never reach the stone age. Or perhaps we could be dealing with HEI’s that do not communicate in a manner we are familiar with; or are simply uninterested in the same grand questions.

    6. Lack of interstellar presence. The final decisive reason may be the most obvious. No one really knows we are here. A species of sufficient technological prowess could detect Earth from anywhere in the galaxy, a spectrographic analysis of our atmosphere would indicate the presence of a chemically imbalanced atmosphere (thus carbon-based life). However, a spectrographic analysis indicating the presence of an industrial society would only be available to the nearest star system within ~100 light years. If there are other HEI’s, it could take up to ~70,000 years to detect us. This is assuming they are looking at all and they are not behind the galactic bulge, and that they exist. By the time we are detectable, our civilization could be over.

    In summary, the distances are so great, the expanse of time so large, and the likelihood of active HEI’s so low, that the search for intentional, directed messages is probably futile. Is it worth a couple million? I would say yes. The ATA does good science outside of SETI.

    As for SETI itself, my favorite analogy is this: It’s a bit like being the new kid on the block, and waiting for some sweet young girl to throw rocks at your window, hoping there is a young boy inside.

    Don’t hold your breath.

    As for alien lifeforms undertaking the journey to Earth? Not very likely. The resources required would be vast, the returns minimal (you can find raw elements free of Earth’s gravity well everywhere) and they simply wouldn’t likely know an industrial civilization exists here.

    They aren’t keeping NASA interns busy enough….

    • Anonymous August 20, 2011, 12:53 PM

      I though I would expand on a few points. Interstellar space is filled with charged particles. An electromagnetic wave traveling through interstellar space interacts with them and causes them to oscillate with the wave. This results in two things. The oscillating charged particle re-emits that energy in a form that is scattered or off direction from the initial EM wave. Also if that charged particle has some thermal interaction with its environment some of that energy is lost as heat. We are familiar with the 1/r^2 law for the power loss of radiation or photon irradiance. However, this additional part causes the power loss to be

      P = P_0 e^{-?r}/r^2

      Where that exponential drop off is a major killer. It is then unlikely any signal sent by human into space has any appreciable signal to noise ratio beyond 5 to 10 light years. This physics is related to something called Debye screening or the related Debye length. So our signals radiated into space with megawatt power are too feeble to reach very far into space.

      I have been fighting this for some time. The interaction between Earth and Jupiter is such that the average orbital radius of the Earth is nudged outwards by a few meters a year. This means the when life started on Earth the orbital radius was about .83AU. The sun was not as radiant, but this closer orbital radius compensated for that. The reduced solar irradiance means Earth would have been 3 billion years ago a complete ice ball without this nudging. This process continues now and will compensate for the solar increase in energy output for another 2 billion years. So complex life on Earth may have another 1 billion years or so left and it may not be for another 2-1/2 billion years before temperatures become too hot for life. There are of course some other problems life will have to endure. One is the shrinking oceans, where at some point there will no longer be a continuous body of water. Before then (about 700 million years) the American plate will move to subduct the Pacific plate and eventually will crash into the Asian continental plate. This will around 300 million years from now form a super-continent (Pangea remade!) that will present harsh conditions of mega-deserts across most of the Earth’s land surface. That super continent will probably then break up and make conditions less harsh for life, between 400 to 700 million years, and before the oceans shrink to less than 50% of the Earth’s surface.

      I like to point out that the success of the human species is not because we are some evolutionary perfection. In some ways it is just the opposite. The most functional animal life forms on Earth are insects. They will persist for probably another billion years or more in a wide variety of evolutionary forms. Our species is the perfect dysfunctional life form. We lack physical traits that have much survival advantage. However, with Homo habilus or some Australopithecus precursor the brain evolved to a size sufficient for these evolutionary precursors to abstract certain problems. This might have just started with the ability to fight off predators by throwing rocks at them and so forth. So our species evolutionary, and then much more recent cultural, history has been framed largely by our ability to exploit our environment in unique and more extensive ways due to the development of the brain. This means our species exists in this highly unstable basis, which is quite the opposite of most insects which are highly stable. This then paints a picture for our species’ future that is very short. Even under the most optimistic perspective our tenure on this planet is likely to be up in a few 10s of thousands of years, which is a blip on the times scales of geology and evolution.

      LC

    • HeadAroundU August 21, 2011, 2:05 AM

      You guys are depressive. 1 per local cluster my ass. Terribly ineffective. Think about 1% of planets in a habitable zone with 1% of them with intelligent species. That’s like 20 000 000 currently active intelligent life just in our galaxy.

      LC, you compare insects with humans, don’t do it. :D

      • Anonymous August 21, 2011, 3:36 AM

        I did some analysis on orbital dynamics and a Bayesian estimate of how many planets similar to Earth there might exist. This was based on extrasolar planetary data, perturbation of a putative 1AU small planet. I estimate there might only be a few hundred planets at all like Earth in the entire galaxy.

        If there were 2×10^6 ETI in our galaxy, then given our galaxy has 10^5 ly radius, the volume of space which contains stars is around 3.14×10^{14}ly^3. This means there is an ETI density of 6.37×10^{-9}ETI/ly^3. So there should be an ETI within about 500ly. This is something I rather doubt.

        LC

        • HeadAroundU August 21, 2011, 11:15 PM

          And isn’t it amazing that out of a few hundred planets at least one has a life. Extrasolar planetary data are limited.

          I could do this “1%” 2 more times and that would still make it 2000 ETI. I believe that the number is bigger than 1.

          Interesting scenario would be if only several ETI were born and they would spread to earth-like planets. But I guess they could live anywhere, moving planets…etc This universe should already have a star jumping ETI, who knows if our galaxy too.

          • Anonymous August 21, 2011, 11:37 PM

            The known data was used to define a Bayesian prior, which gives a pretty good estimate of things. This is how drug trials are properly used to assess effectiveness.

            If there were ETI hopping around the galaxy we are then faced with the question Fermi asked, “Where are they?’

            LC

          • HeadAroundU August 22, 2011, 5:43 AM

            Might be good, but I think that we need more planets confirmed. Or even prove that a star doesn’t have more planets.

            And aren’t we faced anyway? :D Maybe there’s not a lot of it. They live happily several billion years on a planet and then they hop, the universe is not that old. :) And maybe hopping is just starting in the universe. :D

          • Anonymous August 22, 2011, 2:51 PM

            You are probably quite right that there are many habitable planets with life (see original posting). However the odds of running across complex life and HEI become extraordinarily low given a Bayesian estimate. No doubt, we need to refine the data set with more planets and hopefully, some confirmed biologically active planets. However given what we know right now, there is no reason to surmise that the galaxy is active with HEI, everything points to the opposite conclusion.

            I seem to be the perpetual downer. Believe me, I wish that things were different. That a Mars colony made sense. That warp drive was possible. That an ever-loving deity was watching over me. That western civilization wasn’t showing signs of economic malaise and intellectual decline. That human civilization was on course for eternal technological and social progression. That the sky is full of nearby, friendly little green men.

            Somewhere, somehow, reality must intercede.

  • Alec Sevins August 21, 2011, 1:18 AM

    Aliens should just abduct (and never return) all far-right nature-hating Republicans, along with various groups who over-breed. That would be a big start to solving Earth’s environmental problems, and that’s no joke.

    • Anonymous August 21, 2011, 3:33 AM

      In the unlikely event that they would care about Earth enough to abduct far-right nature-hating Republicans, it seems like a terribly inefficient use of power to save us from ourselves, and I imagine there would have to be a better way.

      I think if you took away all of the far-right nature-hating Republicans on Earth, it wouldn’t change anything. People are still people. You’ll still have someone to blame for all of the problems we face.

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