Beyond “Fermi’s Paradox” VIII: What is the Zoo Hypothesis?

Local Group of galaxies, including the massive members M31 (Andromeda Galaxy) and Milky Way, as well as other nearby galaxies. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Antonio Ciccolella

Welcome back to our Fermi Paradox series, where we take a look at possible resolutions to Enrico Fermi’s famous question, “Where Is Everybody?” Today, we examine the possibility that we haven’t heard from aliens because a super-advanced civilization is deliberately avoiding us.

In 1950, Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi sat down to lunch with some of his colleagues at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he had worked five years prior as part of the Manhattan Project. According to various accounts, the conversation turned to aliens and the recent spate of UFOs. Into this, Fermi issued a statement that would go down in the annals of history: “Where is everybody?

This became the basis of the Fermi Paradox, which refers to the disparity between high probability estimates for the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) and the apparent lack of evidence. Since Fermi’s time, there have been several proposed resolutions to his question, which includes the Zoo Hypothesis, which states that aliens are keeping their distance to allow humans to evolve without interference.

Continue reading “Beyond “Fermi’s Paradox” VIII: What is the Zoo Hypothesis?”

Beyond “Fermi’s Paradox” VI: What is the Berserker Hypothesis?

Welcome back to our Fermi Paradox series, where we take a look at possible resolutions to Enrico Fermi’s famous question, “Where Is Everybody?” Today, we examine the possibility that the reason for the Great Silence is that all the aliens are dead!

In 1950, Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi sat down to lunch with some of his colleagues at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he had worked five years prior as part of the Manhattan Project. According to various accounts, the conversation turned to aliens and the recent spate of UFOs. Into this, Fermi issued a statement that would go down in the annals of history: “Where is everybody?

This became the basis of the Fermi Paradox, which refers to the disparity between high probability estimates for the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) and the apparent lack of evidence. Since Fermi’s time, there have been several proposed resolutions to his question, which includes the Berserker Hypothesis. This theory suggests we haven’t heard from any alien civilizations because they’ve been wiped out by killer robots!

Continue reading “Beyond “Fermi’s Paradox” VI: What is the Berserker Hypothesis?”

SETI Researchers Release Petabytes of Data in the Search For Aliens

Last week (Friday. Feb. 14th), the Breakthrough Listen Initiative released about 2 petabytes of optical and radio data that they have accumulated over the past four years. This is the second data release by the non-profit effort (as part of Breakthrough Initiatives) and the public is once again invited to search through the data for possible signs of extraterrestrial communications.

Continue reading “SETI Researchers Release Petabytes of Data in the Search For Aliens”

How Badly Will Humanity Freak Out if We Discover Alien Life?

The discovery of alien life is one of those things that everyone thinks about at some point. Hollywood has made their version of first contact very clear: huge alien vessels appear over Earth’s cities, panic ensues, and Will Smith saves the day with a Windows 3.1 virus. It’s lots of fun—and who knows?—it may end up being accurate. (Not the Windows 3.1 part.) But sci-fi books and movies aside, what do we really know about our attitude to the discovery of alien life?

We have an organization (SETI) dedicated to detecting the presence of alien civilizations, and we have a prominent scientist (Stephen Hawking) warning against advertising our own presence. Those represent the extremes—actively seeking out alien life vs. hiding from it—but what is the collective attitude towards the discovery of alien life? Scientists at Arizona State University (ASU) have studied that issue and detailed their results in a new study published in the journal Frontiers of Psychology.

The team of scientists tried to gauge people’s reactions to the discovery of alien life in three separate parts of their study. In the first case, they examined media reports of past announcements about the discovery of alien life, for example the announcement in 1996 that evidence of microbial life had been found in a Martian metorite.

Secondly, they asked a sample of over 500 people what their own reactions, and the reactions of the rest of humanity, would be to the hypothetical announcement of alien life.

Thirdly, the 500 people were split into two groups. Half were asked to read and respond to a real newspaper story announcing the discovery of fossilized Martian microbial life. The other half were asked to read and respond to a newspaper article announcing the creation of synthetic life by Craig Venter.

Martian meteorite ALH84001 was found in Antarctica in 1984 by a group of meteorite hunters from the US. Scientists who studied it suggested that it contained evidence of ancient Martian microbial life. Image: By Jstuby at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47556214

In all three cases the life was microbial in nature. Microbial life is the simplest life form, so it should be what we expect to find. This is certainly true in our own Solar System, since the existence of any other intelligent life has been ruled out here, while microbial life has not.

Also, in all three cases, the language of the respondents and the language in the media reports was analyzed for positive and negative words. A specialized piece of software called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) was used. It’s text-analysis software that scans written language and identifies instances of words that reflect positive affect, negative affect, reward, or risk. (You can try LIWC here for fun, if you like.)

Electron microscope images of the Martian meteorite ALH84001 showed chain-like structures that resembled living structures. Image: NASA

Analyzing Media Reports

The media reports used in the study were all from what the team considers reputable journalism outlets like The New York Times and Science Magazine. The reports were about things like unidentified signals from space that could have been alien in nature, fossilized microbial remains in meteorites, and the discovery of exoplanets in the habitable zones of other solar systems. There were 15 articles in total.

The authors of the study wanted to find out how people would react to the discovery of alien life, and to the discovery of potentially habitable exoplanets which might harbor life. In this artist’s illustration, exoplanets orbit a young, red dwarf star. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltec

Overall, the study showed that language in media reports about alien life was more positive than negative, and emphasized reward rather than risk. So people generally find the potential of alien life to be a positive thing and something to be looked forward to. However, this part of the study showed something else: People were more positively disposed towards news of alien life that was microbial than they were towards alien life that could be present on exoplanets, where, presumably, it might be more than merely microbial. So, microbes we can handle, but something more advanced and a little doubt starts to creep in.

Reactions to Hypothetical Announcements of Alien Life

This part of the study aimed to assess people’s beliefs regarding how both they as individuals—and humanity as a whole—might react to the discovery of alien microbial life. The same LIWC software was used to analyze the written responses of the 500 people in the sample group.

The results were similar to the first part of the study, at least for the individuals themselves. Positive affect was more predominant than negative aspect, and words reflecting reward were more predominant than words reflecting risk. This probably isn’t surprising, but the study did show something more interesting.

When participants were asked about how the rest of humanity would respond to the announcement of alien life, the response was different. While positive language still outweighed negative language, and reward still outweighed risk, the differences weren’t as pronounced as they were for individuals. So people seem to think that others won’t be looking forward to the discovery of alien life as much as they themselves do.

Actual Reactions to the Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life

This is hard to measure since we haven’t actually discovered any yet. But there have been times when we thought we might have.

In this part of the study, the group of 500 respondents was split into two groups of 250. The first was asked to read an actual 1996 New York Times article announcing the discovery of fossilized microbes in the Martian meteorite. The second group was asked to read a New York Times article from 2010 announcing the creation of life by Craig Venter. The goal was to find out if the positive bias towards the discovery of microbial life was specific to microbial life, or to scientific advancements overall.

Saturn’s moon Enceladus could harbor microbial life in the warm salty water thought to exist under its frozen surface. Respondents in the study seemed to like that possibility. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

This part of the study found the same emphasis on positive affect over negative affect, and reward over risk. This held true in both cases: the Martian microbial life article, and the artificially created life article. The type of article played a minor role in people’s responses. Results were slightly more positive towards the Martian life story than the artificial life story.

Overall, this study shows that people seem positively disposed towards the discovery of alien life. This is reflected in media coverage, people’s personal responses, and people’s expectations of how others would react.

This is really just the tip of the iceberg, though. As the authors say in their study, this is the first empirical attempt to understand any of this. And the study was only 500 people, all Americans.

How different the results might be in other countries and cultures is still an open question. Would populations whose attitudes are more strongly shaped by religion respond differently? Would the populations of countries that have been invaded and dominated by other countries be more nervous about alien life or habitable exoplanets? There’s only conjecture at this point.

Maybe we’re novelty-seekers and we thrive on new discoveries. Or maybe we’re truth-seekers, and that’s reflected in the study. Maybe some of the positivity reflects our fear of being alone. If Earth is the only life-supporting world, that’s a very lonely proposition. Not only that, but it’s an awesome responsibility: we better not screw it up!

Still, the results are encouraging for humanity. We seem, at least according to this first study, open to the discovery of alien life.

But that might change when the first alien ship casts its shadow over Los Angeles.

No, NASA (Still) Has Not Discovered Proof of Alien Life

It seems that every few months or so, breathless claims surface on the internet that NASA is about to make an Earth-shattering announcement about aliens … or UFOs … or killer asteroids … or some other sensational assertion. Or better yet, NASA is hiding these ‘facts’ from us.

The latest claims says that “NASA Is About to Announce the Discovery of Intelligent Alien Life,” and this one might be receiving more attention and credence than usual because the group making the claim is Anonymous, the notorious hacking and activist group.

However, before we get into their claim, for the record, this morning NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, tweeted, “Contrary to some reports, there’s no pending announcement from NASA regarding extraterrestrial life.”

Anonymous’ video has been viewed over a million times, and the video’s description claims, “Latest anonymous message in 2017 just arrived with a huge announcement about the Intelligent Alien Life. NASA says aliens are coming!”

The video is a rambling (over 12 minutes), rather incoherent collection of statements and quotes from various people and NASA websites. The main quote that is attributed to the alien life claim is from Zurbuchen, speaking at a House Science Committee hearing in April. The quote, taken a little out of context, is, “Taking into account all of the different activities and missions that are specifically searching for evidence of alien life, we are on the verge of making one of the most profound, unprecedented, discoveries in history.”

If you watch the House Science Committee hearing, Zurbuchen is talking about upcoming missions like the Mars 2020 rover and the Europa Clipper mission — both of which will look for sign of life and conditions suitable for life – as well as current missions like the Kepler telescope that has discovered and confirmed thousands of planets around other stars. Of course, Zurbuchen is talking about these missions in the most exciting way possible to make sure Congress is excited about these missions, too. But he certainly does not say that NASA has found alien life, or that they have evidence they will be revealing soon. He tweeted about that this morning, too.

Another quote in the video is a very old one from former NASA astronaut Dr. Brian O’Leary, who passed away in 2011. He was a planetary scientist who ended up leaving NASA in 1968 and never flew in space. I met O’Leary in the 1990’s and can confirm the statement on the Wikipedia page about him that he “increasingly explored unorthodox ideas.”

The video goes on to talk about the well-known discoveries of the Kepler mission, saying “Twenty-five years ago, we didn’t know that planets existed beyond our solar system. Today we have confirmed the existence of over 3,400 exoplanets that orbit other suns, and we continue to make new discoveries.”

NASA’s Kepler space telescope was the first agency mission capable of detecting Earth-size planets. Credit: NASA/Wendy Stenzel

It also discusses other well-publicized discoveries such as finding the key ingredients for life on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, but offers no sources of facts when the Guy Fawkes look-alike says, “There are many who claim that unofficially, mankind has already made contact with aliens and not just little micro-organisms floating around inside a massive alien ocean, but advanced space-faring civilizations.”

All the claims in the video that “aliens are on the way” are nothing but speculation and the quotes from NASA officials and scientists are all in the public domain, easily found online, so there is nothing being “revealed’ here. I’ve talked to scientists from all around the world, and if NASA or any other space agency had found evidence of alien life, they’d be shouting it from the rooftops, not hiding it.

Are Fast Radio Bursts Evidence Of Alien Activity?

The extremely energetic events that we see out there in the Universe are usually caused by cataclysmic astrophysical events and activities of one sort or another. But what about Fast Radio Bursts? A pair of astrophysicists at Harvard say that the seldom seen phenomena could, maybe, possibly, be evidence of an advanced alien technology.

Fast radio bursts (FRBs) are short-lived radio pulses that last only a few milliseconds. It’s been assumed that they have some astrophysical cause. Fewer than 2 dozen of them have been detected since their discovery in 2007. They’re detected by our huge radio telescopes like the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, and the Parkes Observatory in Australia. They’re extremely energetic, and their source is a great distance from us.

The NSF’s Arecibo Observatory, which is located in Puerto Rico, is the world largest radio telescope. Arecibo detected 11 FRBs over the course of 2 months. Credit: NAIC

The two astrophysicists, Avi Loeb at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and Manasvi Lingam at Harvard University, decided to investigate the possibility that FRBs have an alien technological origin.

“Fast radio bursts are exceedingly bright given their short duration and origin at great distances, and we haven’t identified a possible natural source with any confidence. An artificial origin is worth contemplating and checking.” – Avi Loeb, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

I’ll Take ‘Alien Signals’ For $200 Alex

Loeb and Lingam began by calculating how much energy would be needed to send a signal that strong across such an enormous distance. They found that doing so with solar energy requires a solar array with an area twice the surface area of Earth. That would be enough energy, if the alien civilization was as close as we are to a star similar to our Sun.

Obviously, such a massive construction project is well beyond us. But however unlikely it sounds, it can’t be ruled out.

The pair also asked themselves questions about the viability of such a project. Would the heat and energy involved in such a solar array melt the structure itself? Their answer is that water-cooling would be sufficient to keep an array like this operating.

Their next question was, “Why build something like this in the first place?”

I’ll Take ‘Alien Spacecraft Propulsion Systems’ For $400 Alex”

The thinking behind their idea is based on an idea that we ourselves have had: Could we power a spacecraft by pushing on it with lasers? Or Microwaves? If we’ve thought of it, why wouldn’t other existing civilizations? If another civilization were doing it, what would the technology look like?

Their investigation shows that the engineering they’re talking about could power a spacecraft with a payload of a million tons. That would be about 20 times bigger than our largest cruise ship. According to Lingam, “That’s big enough to carry living passengers across interstellar or even intergalactic distances.”

If FRBs are indeed the result of an alien propulsion system, here’s how it would work: Earth is rotating and orbiting, which means the alien star and galaxy are moving relative to us. That’s why we would only see a brief flash. The beam sweeps across the sky and only hits us for a moment. The repeated appearance of the FRB could be a clue to its alien, technological origin.

The authors of the study outlining this thinking know that it’s speculative. But it’s their job to speculate within scientific constraints, which they have done. As they say in the conclusion of their paper, “Although the possibility that FRBs are produced by extragalactic civilizations is more speculative than an astrophysical origin, quantifying the requirements necessary for an artificial origin serves, at the very least, the important purpose of enabling astronomers to rule it out with future data.”

There are other interpretations when it comes to FRBs, of course. The others of another paper say that for at least one group of FRBs, known as FRB 121102, the source is likely astrophysical. According to them, FRBs likely come from “a young, highly magnetized, extragalactic neutron star.”

Lurking behind these papers are some intriguing questions that are also fun to ponder.

If the system required a solar array twice the size of Earth, where would the materials come from? If the system required water-cooling to avoid melting, where would all the water come from? It’s impossible to know, or to even begin speculating. But a civilization able to do something like this would have to be master engineers and resource exploiters. That goes without saying.

Why they might do it is another question. Probably the same reasons we would: curiosity and exploration, or maybe to escape a dying world.

Either that or they ran out of beer.

We’re Not Saying It’s Aliens Because It’s Not Aliens. But Check Out These UFO Data Visualizations

The number of UFO sightings per year, Credit: Sam Monfort

When it comes to conspiracy theories and modern preoccupations, few things are more popular than unidentified flying objects (UFOs) and alien abductions. For over half a century, there have been rumors, reports, and urban legends about aliens coming to Earth, dabbling with our genetics, and conducting weird (and often invasive) experiments on our citizens.

And while opinions on what drives this popular phenomenon tend to differ (some say hysteria, others that it is media-driven), a few things are clear. For one, sightings appear to take place far more in the United States than anywhere else in the world. And in recent years, these sightings have been on the rise!

Such are the conclusions of a series of visualizations based on the National UFO Reporting Center (NUFORC). Established in 1974 (and located in Davenport, Washington), the National UFO Reporting Center is “dedicated to the collection and dissemination of objective UFO data”. Since that time, they have been monitoring UFO sightings worldwide and have maintained careful logs about the 104,947 sightings that have taken place since 1905.

The geographic distribution of UFO sightings. Credit: sammonfort3

Using this data, Sam Monfort – a Doctoral Candidate from the department of Human Factors & Applied Cognition at George Mason University – produced a series of visuals that illustrate the history of UFO sightings. And based on the visualized trends, some rather interesting conclusions can be drawn. The most obvious is that the geographical distribution of sightings is hardly even. For starters, reports in the USA were equal to about 2500 sightings per 10 million people.

This is almost 300 times higher than the global average. Based on individual states, the concentration of sightings was also quite interesting. Apparently, more sightings happen (per 10 million people) in the West and Northwest, with the highest numbers coming from Washington and Montana. Oregon, Idaho, Arizona and New Mexico also made strong showings, while the Great Lakes and Midwestern states were all consistent with the national median.

On the opposite coast, Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire all had a good number of sightings per capita, though the state of New York even as New York was beneath the national median. Texas actually ranked the lowest, and was followed by the Southern states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. But as Monfort told Universe Today via email, this may be slightly skewed because of who is collecting the information:

“[I]t’s worth mentioning that the NUFORC is an American agency (“N” stands for “National”). They make an effort to record international sightings (phone banks staffed 24/7), but I’d guess that sightings in the USA are still over-represented. Honestly, I’d bet that the NUFORC being based in Seattle is the main reason we see so many more sightings in the States. A more thorough analysis might cross-reference sightings from other agencies, like MUFON.”

The geographic breakdown of annual UFO sightings (per 10 million people) in the US. Credit: sammonfort3

Canadians did not do much better, coming at second place after the United States with 1000 sightings per 10 million people. And according to a recent article by Allan Maki of The Globe and Mail, its becoming more common – with a record 1982 sightings reported in 2012. He also suggests that this could be due to a combination of growing interest in the subject and reduced stigma.

Iceland, the UK, Australia, the Virgin Islands and Cyprus all ranked a distant third, with between 250 and 500 sightings per 100 million people per year. New Zealand, Mexico, Israel and the Gulf States also produced considerable returns, as did the United Kingdom, Ireland, Portugal, Belgium, Danemark, Finland, Sweden and Norway.

From this distribution, one might make the generalization that more developed nations are more likely to report UFOs (i.e. better record-keeping and all that). And this is a possibility which Monfort explored. In another visualization, he cross-referenced the number of sightings in a respective country with amount of internet access it has (per 100 people), and a limited correlation was shown.

Nations like Israel and the Gulf States have a higher number of sightings than neighboring countries like Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, while South Africa has more reported sightings than several North African and Sub-Saharan African nations surveyed. However, fast-developing nations like Russia, China and India showed a lower than average level of sightings, while Guyana and Suriname showed a higher than average level.

The number of UFO sightings per year, subdivided based on the type of object reported. Credit: sammonfort3

France, Italy and the Czech Republic also lagged behind many of their European counterparts, and Germany and Spain were only slightly higher than the average. So much like distribution by state within the US, internet access does not seem to be a consistent determining factor. Another interesting visualization was the one which broke down the sightings per decade based on the nature of the sighting.

As you can see from the table above, when UFO sightings first began in the early 20th century, they reportedly took the form of either a sphere or a cigar-shaped object. This differs from the 1920s, when “flying saucers” began to appear, and remained the dominant trend throughout World War II and the Cold War era. And ever since the 1990s – what Monfort refers to as “post-internet” era – the most common UFO sightings took the form of bright lights.

“If I had to guess, I’d say it was a combination of factors,” said Monfort. “Like I mentioned in the blog, it seems a lot more plausible that someone would see strange lights in the sky than a flying object with a concrete shape (like a saucer). Seeing a shape implies that the object is pretty close to you, “and if it’s that close why didn’t you take a video of it?”

As for other factors, Monfort considers the possibility of fireworks and (as one comment on his blog suggested) Chinese lanterns. “Those are the little paper balloons you light a candle in and let fly. Some of the bright light sightings could be those, especially since I’d bet most Chinese lanterns are released in groups, with several people going out in groups to release them together. (Often people report formations of lights.)”

Naturally, the data does not support any ironclad conclusions, and plenty can be said about its reliability and methodology. After all, while UFO sightings are documented, they are famous for being routinely debunked. Nevertheless, visuals like these are interesting in illustrated the patterns of sightings, and can allow for some insightful speculation as to why they take place.

Further Reading: Visualize This

Shouldn’t We Fix the Earth First?

I seem like a pretty calm and collected guy, but if you want to see me go on an epic rant, all you have to do is ask me some variation on the question: “why should we bother exploring space when we’ve got problems to fix here on Earth.”

I see this question all the time. All the time, in forums, comments on videos, and from people in audiences.

I think the question is ridiculous on many levels, and I’ve got a bunch of reasons why, but allow me to explain them here.

Before I do, however, I want you to understand that I believe that we human beings are indeed messing up the environment. We’re wiping out species faster than any natural disaster in the history of planet Earth. We’re performing a dangerous experiment on the climate of the planet, increasing temperatures worldwide, with devastating consequences, for both ecosystems and human civilization.

Credit: USFS Gila National Forest (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Credit: USFS Gila National Forest (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Unless we get this under control, and there’s no reason to believe we will, we’re going to raise temperatures to levels unseen in millions of years.

There are islands of plastic garbage in the oceans, collected into huge toxic rafts by the currents. Colonies of bees are dying through pesticides and habitat loss.

We’re even polluting the space around the Earth with debris that might tear apart future space missions.

I believe the science, and the science says we’re making a mess.

The first thing is that this whole question is a false dilemma fallacy. Why do we have to choose between space exploration and saving the planet? Why can’t we do both?

NASA’s Orion spacecraft. Credit: NASA
NASA’s Orion spacecraft. Credit: NASA

The world spent nearly $750 billion on cigarettes in 2014. NASA’s total budget is less than $20 billion, and Elon Musk thinks he can start sending colonists to Mars for less than $10 billion.

How about the whole world stops smoking, and we spend $20 billion on colonizing Mars and the other $730 billion on renewable fuels and cleaning up our negative impact on the environment, reducing poverty and giving people access to clean water?

Americans spend $27 billion on takeout pizza. Don’t get me wrong, pizza’s great, but I’d be willing to forego pizza if it meant a vibrant and healthy industry of space exploration.

Gambling, lawn care, hood ornaments, weapons of war. Humans spend a lot of money on a lot of things that could be redirected towards both space exploration and reducing our environmental impact.

Number two, it might turn out that space exploration is the best way to save the Earth. I totally agree with Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos when he says that we already know that Earth is the best place in the Solar System. Let’s keep it that way.

Mars might be a fascinating place to visit and an adventure to colonize, but I want to swim in rivers, climb mountains, walk in forests, watch birds, sail in the ocean.

But the way we’re using up the natural environment will take away from all that. As Bezos says, we should move all the heavy industry off Earth and up into space. Use solar collectors to gather power, mine asteroids for their raw materials. Keep Earth as pristine as possible.

Asteroid mining concept. Credit: NASA/Denise Watt
Asteroid mining concept. Credit: NASA/Denise Watt

We won’t know how to do that unless we actually go into space and learn how to survive and run that industry, from space.

Number three, it might be that we’ve already crossed the point of no return. There’s a great science fiction story by Spider Robinson called “In the Olden Days”. It’s about how modern society turned its back on technology, and lost the ability to ever recover.

Humanity used up the entire technology ladder that nature put in front of us; the chunks of iron just sitting on the ground, the oil bubbling out of the Earth, the coal that was easily accessible. Now it takes an offshore drilling rig to get at the oil.

These resources took the Earth millions and even billions of years to accumulate for us to use, and transcend. When the cockroaches evolve intelligence and opposable thumbs, they won’t have those easily accessible resources to jumpstart their own space exploration program.

Number four, as Elon Musk says, we have to protect the cradle of consciousness. Until we find proof otherwise, we have to assume that the Earth is the only place in the Universe that evolved intelligent life.

And until the alien overlords show up and say, “don’t worry humans, we’ve got this,” we have to assume that the responsibility for seeding the life with intelligence rests on us. And we’re one asteroid strike or nuclear apocalypse away from snuffing that out.

I don’t entirely agree that Mars is the best place to do it, but we should at least have another party going on somewhere.

NASA astronaut Ed White during a spacewalk June 3, 1965. In his hand, the Gemini 4 astronaut carries a Hand Held Self Maneuvering Unit (HHSMU) to help him maneuver in microgravity. Credit: NASA
NASA astronaut Ed White during a spacewalk June 3, 1965. In his hand, the Gemini 4 astronaut carries a Hand Held Self Maneuvering Unit (HHSMU) to help him maneuver in microgravity. Credit: NASA

And number five, it’ll be fun. Humans need adventure. We need great challenges to push us to become the best versions of ourselves. We climb mountains because they’re there.

Ask anyone who’s built their own house or tried their hand at homesteading. It’s a tremendous amount of work, but it’s also rewarding in ways that buying stuff just isn’t.

The next time someone uses that argument on you, I hope this gives you some ammunition.

Phew, now I’ll get off my soapbox. Next week, I’m sure we’ll return to poop jokes, obscure science fiction references with a smattering of space science.

Going Viral: Why Alien Signals Get Everyone Excited

So, that ‘strong’ signal from aliens everyone was so excited about this week? Turns out, it was probably something from Earth, maybe a satellite passing overhead or another object of “terrestrial origin,” the Russian researchers have concluded.

Yeah. Dang.

“This supports our initial assumption that the signal was made by human intelligence, not extraterrestrial intelligence,” said Doug Vakoch, President of METI International (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence), a group doing follow-up observations of the star system HD 164595, where the signal was thought to maybe, perhaps originate.

When the news broke of the possible alien signal, SETI scientists were quick to temper the excitement with measured skepticism, saying more often than not, these signals end up being “natural radio transients” (stellar flare, active galactic nucleus, microlensing of a background source, etc.) or interference of a terrestrial nature (a passing satellite or a microwave oven, for example.)

But still, people were excited and the news went viral. Crazy viral.

“Being no stranger to how the media can hype SETI stories, I can sympathize with those at the center of the latest dustup,” said astronomer and SETI researcher Jason Wright from Penn State University. “It’s understandable that many content outlets, seeking ‘clickbait’ headlines, would spin this particular story in the most intriguing, exciting way, and once that happens a ‘bidding war’ of hype can make the story spin out of control.”

But is it all about clickbait? Since I’m part of the media (and admittedly was initially very excited about this story,) I’d like to think that the excitement and viral-tendencies of news about possible alien signals say more about humanity’s fervent hope that we aren’t alone in the cosmos, rather than who can get the most pageviews.

And I do know that researchers who dedicate their careers to the search for alien signals and Earth-like planets aren’t doing so just so they can keep telling us to not get excited. They, too, are hoping for that chance, that very remote possibility, that we’ve got company in our big and magnificent Universe.

“You can’t always be cynical,” said SETI senior astronomer Seth Shostak. “If a signal is looking promising, we are going to check it out.”

And that’s the thing, say the researchers. They get signals like this all the time.

“This is the sort of thing SETI researchers do all the time, because by the nature of the search, radio SETI experiments come across strong signals all the time,” Vakoch said via email. “At the end of the day, these need to be confirmed as coming from distant locations in space, and if we can’t, we need to consider them spurious. The unusual feature of HD 164595 is that this process of checking is being followed by the media.”

And while scientists were surprised (and maybe annoyed) at the amount of attention the ‘alien signal’ news got this week, there is an upside.

“The silver living here is that those who read the more responsible stories carefully will learn a lot about how SETI works,” Wright told Universe Today, “that communication SETI researchers see “one-off” signals all the time from both astronomical and terrestrial sources, in addition to perhaps the occasional instrumental glitch. Searches using arrays (like the ATA) have an automatic check against many of these, but in any event no one will be popping the champaign until a signal repeats enough for an independent telescope and instrument to detect it, and its intelligent origin is clear.”

“The public is getting an inside view of the usual process of following up interesting SETI candidates,” said Vakoch. “This helps the public understand the standard process of doing SETI: we find interesting signals, and then we see if we can verify them. If not, we move on.”

Vakoch and Wright said that the confirmation process, however, involves a lot of steps, and it’s not always easy or quick to follow-up. So, most of the time, determining the source of the signal takes time.

“Unlike Hollywood movies, where you get a quick “yes or no” about a possible signal from aliens,” Vakoch explained, “the real SETI confirmation process takes some time. It’s easy to think that all we need to do is get on the phone with an astronomer at another location, and we’re all set. But even when colleagues at other facilities are willing to observe, they may face technical limitations.”

The Allen Telescope Array (ATA).  Credit: Seth Shostak / SETI Institute
The Allen Telescope Array (ATA). Credit: Seth Shostak / SETI Institute

Typical radio SETI searches look for narrowband signals, and most observatories aren’t set up to detect such signals on short notice. And even though radio observatories can make observations even when it’s cloudy, there can be other types of local interference at certain radio frequencies.

“If you need to do a real-time follow-up of a promising SETI signal, you might face significant roadblocks to a ready confirmation – even if the signal is really there,” Vakoch said.

Another upside of the recent media attention is that SETI researchers can let everyone know they aren’t getting much funding for this type of research, and the search could really use a lot more eyes and ears on the Universe, as Jill Tartar tweeted:

“It’s all the more evident that we need to replicate these innovative optical SETI systems over and over,”Vakoch said, “so we can have a global network of modest-sized observatories ready for follow-up of promising SETI signals. Developing such a network is one of METI International’s top priorities as an organization.”

(You can support SETI here and find out more about METI and optical SETI here.)

Wright said while the public interest in SETI is great, sometimes the media (or the tin foil hat crowd or conspiracy theorists) can blow things out of proportion.

“This can make it hard for anyone doing SETI to talk about their work, because any mention of ‘strange’ or ‘candidate’ signals has the potential to enter that echo chamber,” he said.

Which can go viral.

But if anyone is worried that SETI researchers are keeping secrets or not telling the whole story, I can personally vouch that during this week, absolutely every SETI researcher I contacted answered all my questions in an extremely timely manner (and provided even more information than I was expecting) plus, other researchers contacted me, asking to be able to explain the signal and the process of how SETI works.

“Nothing would make us more excited than to verify it,” said Bill Diamond, president and CEO of SETI, “But we have to observe it and look at the data.”

Further reading:

Statement from Russian researchers about followup observations revealing the signal to be ‘terrestrial in origin’

TASS news story about signal

“Let’s Be Careful About This SETI Signal” by Franck Marchis

“No, we almost certainly did not detect an alien signal from a nearby star” by Phil Plait

SETI is Hopeful Yet Skeptical that Russians Found Aliens by Dean Takahashi

“That Alien Signal? Observations Are Coming Up Empty” by Nadia Drake

Why Haven’t We Found Any Aliens Yet?

Many years ago, Carl Sagan predicted there could be as many as 10,000 advanced extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy.

After nearly 60 years of searching without success, a growing list of scientists believe life on Earth only came about because of a lucky series of evolutionary accidents, a long list of improbable events that just happened to come together at the right time and will never be repeated.

Is it possible they are right and we are all there is?

Highly unlikely.

Earth is a typical rocky planet, in an average solar system, nestled in the spiral arm of an ordinary galaxy. All the events and elements that came together to build our world could happen almost everywhere throughout the galaxy and there should be nothing unusual about the evolution of life on this planet or any others.

In a galaxy of hundreds of billions of stars, the law of averages dictates that intelligent life must exist somewhere.

So, why haven’t we found it yet?

There could be many reasons.

Planets everywhere. So where are the aliens? Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
Planets everywhere. So where are the aliens? Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Looking for a radio signal in a galaxy of over 400 billion worlds across 100,000 light years and billions of radio frequencies makes the proverbial needle in a haystack sound easy. Imagine you are driving home, your spouse in one car and you in the other. There’s a thick fog making visual confirmation impossible and no cell phone reception. Luckily, a week ago you had a 250 channel CB installed in both cars. Unfortunately, you forgot to agree on a broadcast channel. To chat, the two CBs would have to be on at the same time and you’d need to independently search every channel, listen, broadcast, then move to the next, hoping to get lucky enough to land on the same channel.

What are the odds that would happen? Not very good. Multiply this scenario one hundred billion times and you have some idea of the challenges facing SETI. To add to that, advanced civilizations probably only stay radio active for a relatively short time in their development as they develop more sophisticated technology. Searching the radio spectrum would require looking at one frequency 24/7 for years to be sure you weren’t missing something and telescope time is far too expensive for that. While you were sitting on that single frequency, 20 extraterrestrial signals could have come in on other channels and you’d never know it.

The Fermi Paradox is used by many skeptics as the holy grail when trying to prove there is nobody out there. Fermi theorized that a galaxy with so much potential for life must be full of extraterrestrials. He noted that since the majority of stars are considerably older than our sun, extraterrestrials could be millions of years more advanced than us. Fermi calculated that even at sub light speed one of those civilizations should have colonized the galaxy by now and we would have seen evidence of it.

There is however a problem with that logic.

In 50,000 years, humans will probably look a little different than people do now. In 10 million years, considerably different. Imagine a civilization completely different from us from the start and 10 million years more advanced. We might not even be able to recognize them as life forms, let alone see any evidence of their existence.

Arthur C. Clarke once said advanced extraterrestrials would probably be indistinguishable to us from magic. Their communications would be like listening for an answer to drumbeats and getting only silence while the ether around you is filled with more information in a second than one could utter in a lifetime. There could be the alien equivalent of the super bowl going on a few light years away and we would probably not even have a clue.

The distances in our galaxy are incredibly vast. Current spacecraft travel about 20 times faster than the speed of a bullet. While that sounds fast, at that speed it would take a spacecraft 75,000 years to travel to our nearest star only 4 light years away. Light years are a measure of distance so if we could speed that ship up to 186,000 miles per second (300,000 km/second), it would take 4 years to reach that same star.

The Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico was the site of NASA's High Resolution Microwave Survey, a search for extraterrestrial radio messages.  Credit: Unites States National Science Foundation
The Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico was the site of NASA’s High Resolution Microwave Survey, a search for extraterrestrial radio messages. Credit: Unites States National Science Foundation

Looking at a star 1,000 light years away is like being in a time machine. You are not seeing it as it is now, but one thousand years ago. Our galaxy is about 100,000 light years across with over 200 billion stars. Current theory suggests there may be as many as one billion earth-like planets in our galaxy. If just one tenth of those had some kind of life, that would leave us with about 100 million worlds harboring one celled creatures or better.

If just the tiniest fraction of them, (one one hundred thousandth) managed to spawn an advanced race of beings, there could be as many as 1,000 extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy. Regardless of whether you consider that a lot or a little, that would mean one technically advanced alien society exists for every hundred million stars. Our nearest extraterrestrial neighbor might be very, very far away. In the movies, the speculative fiction of warp speed, hyper drive and worm holes enable spaceships to travel faster than the speed of light and breach those distances fairly easily. But if the physics of this turn out to be impossible, then even the nearest alien civilizations may find interstellar travel very difficult and quite undesirable.

Another reason extraterrestrials may have made themselves scarce could be that the galaxy is jam packed with all sorts of weird beings and wondrous destinations. In this scenario why would advanced forms of life want to come here? There are probably so many more interesting places to visit. It would be like hunting for an exotic bird and not even giving the ant hill below your feet a second look.

Stephen Hawking has said, “I believe extraterrestrial life is quite common in the universe, although intelligent life less so. Some say it has yet to appear on Earth.”

Many think once a civilization achieves radio, it has a short window of but a few hundred years before it starts to integrate artificial intelligence into its own biology. Machines do everything so much easier, with far less risk and are immortal. It is entirely possible any aliens we hear from will have morphed into something more machine like than biological.

The Allen Telescope Array (ATA) is a “Large Number of Small Dishes” (LNSD) array designed to be highly effective for simultaneous surveys undertaken for SETI projects (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) at centimeter wavelengths. Credit: Seth Shostak / SETI Institute
The Allen Telescope Array (ATA) is a “Large Number of Small Dishes” (LNSD) array designed to be highly effective for simultaneous surveys undertaken for SETI projects (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) at centimeter wavelengths. Credit: Seth Shostak / SETI Institute

There has been a push lately for SETI to expand its operations from just passively listening, to actively broadcasting messages into the cosmos. One of the smartest men on the planet, Stephen Hawking, doesn’t think that’s a good idea. He believes that our messages might attract unwanted attention from unsavory creatures looking to blast us back into the stone age. He uses what happened to the Native Americans when they first encountered Columbus as an example. Alien races may have had to endure the same aggressive survival of the fittest culture. If they are at least as smart as Stephen Hawking, then everyone out there could be listening and nobody is broadcasting for fear of attracting the equivalent of Darth Vader and the Evil Empire to their shores.

Or, maybe there is a signal on its way right now, having traveled thousand of years, arriving next week, month or year.
Many scientists like Paul Davies, think SETI needs to start thinking more out of the box in its search methods. He advocates analyzing places in our own solar system like the moon, planets, asteroids and the Earth for evidence that aliens have passed this way. We should also be open to the possibility that we have already received a message from the stars and don’t recognize it because it arrived by something other than radio. Physist Vladimir Charbak thinks that life may have been spread throughout the galaxy by intelligent design and there may actually be evidence of this within our own DNA just waiting to be discovered.

Another reason we have yet to detect alien life could be there is nothing out there to find. Or to put it another way, we are the only game in town. To best answer that question, ask yourself, does this seem logical? There is a very good chance that one or more worlds just in our own solar system harbor some form of life. In a galaxy with as many as one billion or more potentially habitable planets, one could almost guarantee many of them will host life. There may potentially be hundreds of millions of worlds with living things on them. Does it make sense that in all that habitable real estate we are the only race to evolve into an intelligent species?

Extraterrestrials in the 1979 movie "Close Encounters of the Third King." Credit: Columbia Pictures / Alien Wiki
Extraterrestrials in the 1979 movie “Close Encounters of the Third King.” Credit: Columbia Pictures / Alien Wiki

We humans tend to think of things with a distinctly anthropomorphic spin. Notions like, life needs water, oxygen and is based on carbon. Or, an advanced alien race would use radio and their signals should repeat. In popular culture, extraterrestrials portrayed in movies look remotely like us. This is done so we can recognize emotions and that fills movie theaters. I can remember aliens portrayed in the classic science fiction television show, “The Outer Limits” as energy balls, dust motes and tumbleweeds. They weren’t the most popular episodes, but the reality is that those portrayals are probably closer to the truth than ET and his heart lamp. Extraterrestrials will probably be as different from us as we are from a blade of grass and their motivations a complete mystery. It is very possible that the reason we haven’t found them yet is one that completely eludes our understanding at this point.

So where does that leave us?

Time and patience.

If you compare the 4.5 billion year old earth to a 24 hour clock, mankind doesn’t appear until a little over a minute before midnight. Take the almost sixty years we have been looking for extraterrestrials and project that on the same clock, it probably represents only about 20 or 30 seconds worth of searching for intelligent beings who may have been around millions and perhaps billions of years longer than we have. Our passage through time is just a tiny almost imperceptible blip when compared to the evolution of our galaxy.

Lasers like this one, at the VLT in Paranal, help counteract the blurring effect of the atmosphere. Powerful arrays of much larger lasers could hide our presence from aliens. (ESO/Y. Beletsky)
Lasers like this one, at the VLT in Paranal, help counteract the blurring effect of the atmosphere. Powerful arrays of much larger lasers could hide our presence from aliens. (ESO/Y. Beletsky)

New, very powerful listening devices will be coming into operation soon as well as sophisticated instruments that will be able to analyze exoplanets atmospheres to look for hints of life. SETI will expand into new areas and scientists will be able to devote a lot more telescope time to the search as the newly funded (100MM) Project Breakthough Listen kicks into high gear. It will cover 10 times more of the sky and the entire 1-10GHz radio spectrum. There will be more powerful optical and infrared searches and it is estimated the project will generate in a day as much data as SETI produced in an entire year. Recently, Project Breakthrough Starshot was announced as well. Seeded by another 100MM by Russian Billionaire, Yuri Milner, this ambitious project seeks to send a tiny light propelled robotic spacecraft to our nearest star system, Alpha Centauri. Stephen Hawking thinks this can be accomplished within the next generation and that new technology would allow a journey of only 20 years.

SETI scientist Nathalie Cabrol thinks its also time for a new approach to SETI’s search, a reboot if you will. She feels that “SETI’s vision has been constrained by whether ET has technology that resembles or thinks like us. She feels that the search, so far, has in essence been a search for ourselves. Electromagnetic fingerprints of radio transmitions carry a strong like us assumption”. She proposes involving a lot more disciplines in a redesign of the search. Astrobiology, life sciences, geoscience, cognitive science and mathematics among others. Her plan is to invite the research community to help craft a new scientific roadmap for SETI that very well may redefine the meaning of life and the cosmic search for new forms of it.

Some experts say we won’t see evidence of extraterrestrials for another 1500 years. That’s the time it will take for our TV and radio signals to have reached enough stars and have the best chance to be discovered.

In my opinion, I think highly advanced extraterrestrial societies already know we’re here and in about 10-15 years we’ll start getting some of the answers we’ve been looking for.