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

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

19 Aug , 2011 by

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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.”

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Keith Cowing
Guest
August 19, 2011 5:50 PM

Yes, I like to razz NASA ….

Keith Cowing
Guest
August 19, 2011 5:50 PM

Yes, I like to razz NASA ….

John Pasco
Guest
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
Guest
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
Guest
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.

Lawrence B. Crowell
Member
Lawrence B. Crowell
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
Guest
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… Read more »
Lawrence B. Crowell
Member
Lawrence B. Crowell
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… Read more »
HeadAroundU
Guest
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. grin

Lawrence B. Crowell
Member
Lawrence B. Crowell
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
Guest
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.

Lawrence B. Crowell
Member
Lawrence B. Crowell
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
Guest
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? grin 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. smile And maybe hopping is just starting in the universe. grin

Anonymous
Guest
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… Read more »
Alec Sevins
Guest
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
Guest
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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