This week’s special guest is Dr. David Warmflash. Dr. Warmflash is an astrobiologist and science writer. He received his M.D. from Tel Aviv University Sackler School of Medicine, and has done post doctoral work at Brandeis University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Johnson Space Center, where he was a NASA astrobiology training fellow. He has been involved in science outreach for more than a decade, including having collaborated with The Planetary Society on studying the effects of the space environment on small organisms.
As a prolific freelance science communicator, David has had numerous articles published, his most recent being “”Should the Moon be Quarantined?”” which appears in the current issue of Scientific American (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/should-the-moon-be-quarantined/).
You can find David on Twitter (@CosmicEvolution)
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How could you devise a message for intelligent creatures from another planet? They wouldn’t know any human language. Their ‘speech’ might be as different from ours as the eerie cries of whales or the twinkling lights of fireflies. Their cultural and scientific history would have followed its own path. Their minds might not even work like ours. Would the deep structure of language, its so called ‘universal grammar’ be the same for aliens as for us? A group of linguists and other scientists gathered on May 26 to discuss the challenging problems posed by devising a message that extraterrestrial beings could understand. There are growing hopes that such beings might be out there among the billions of habitable planets that we now think exist in our galaxy. The symposium, called ‘Language in the Cosmos’ was organized by METI International. It took place as part of the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference in Los Angeles. The Chair of the workshop was Dr. Sheri Wells-Jensen, a linguist from Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
What is METI International?
‘METI’ stands for messaging to extraterrestrial intelligence. METI International is an organization of scientists and scholars that aims to foster an entirely new approach in our search for alien civilizations. Since 1960, researchers have been looking for extraterrestrials by searching for possible messages they might send to us by radio or laser beams. They have sought the giant megastructures that advanced alien societies might build in space. METI International wants to move beyond this purely passive search strategy. They want to construct and transmit messages to the planets of relatively nearby stars, hoping for a response.
One of the organization’s central goals is to build an interdisciplinary community of scholars concerned with designing interstellar messages that can be understood by non-human minds. More generally, it works internationally to promote research in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and astrobiology, and to understand the evolution of intelligence here on Earth. The daylong symposium featured eleven presentations. It main theme was the role of linguistics in communication with extraterrestrial intelligence.
This article is the first in a two part series. It will focus on one of the most fundamental issues addressed at the conference. This is the question of whether the deep underlying structure of language would likely be the same for extraterrestrials as for us. Linguists understand the deep structure of language using the theory of ‘universal grammar’. The eminent Linguist Noam Chomsky developed this theory in the middle of the twentieth century.
Despite its name, Chomsky originally took his ‘universal grammar’ theory to imply that there are major, and maybe insuperable barriers to mutual understanding between humans and extraterrestrials. Let’s first consider why Chomsky’s theories seemed to make interstellar communication virtually hopeless. Then we’ll examine why Chomsky’s colleagues who presented at the symposium, and Chomsky himself, now think differently.
Before the second half of the twentieth century, linguists believed that the human mind was a blank slate, and that we learned language entirely by experience. These beliefs dated to the seventeenth century philosopher John Locke and were elaborated in the laboratories of behaviorist psychologists in the early twentieth century. Beginning in the 1950’s, Noam Chomsky challenged this view. He argued that learning a language couldn’t simply be a matter of learning to associate stimuli with responses. He saw that young children, even before the age of 5, can consistently produce and interpret original sentences that they had never heard before. He spoke of a “poverty of the stimulus”. Children couldn’t possibly be exposed to enough examples to learn the rules of language from scratch.
Chomsky posited instead that the human brain contained a “language organ”. This language organ was already pre-organized at birth for the basic rules of language, which he called “universal grammar”. It made human infants primed and ready to learn whatever language they were exposed to using only a limited number of examples. He proposed that the language organ arose in human evolution, maybe as recently of 50,000 years ago. Chomsky’s powerful arguments were accepted by other linguists. He came to be regarded as one of the great linguists and cognitive scientists of the twentieth century.
Universal grammar and ‘Martians’
Human beings speak more than 6000 different languages. Chomsky defined his “universal grammar” as “the system of principles, conditions, and rules that are elements or properties of all human languages”. He said it could be taken to express “the essence of human language”. But he wasn’t convinced that this ‘essence of human language’ was the essence of all theoretically possible languages. When Chomsky was asked by an interviewer from Omni Magazine in 1983 whether he thought that it would be possible for humans to learn an alien language, he replied:
“Not if their language violated the principles of our universal grammar, which, given the myriad ways that languages can be organized, strikes me as highly likely…The same structures that make it possible to learn a human language make it impossible for us to learn a language that violates the principles of universal grammar. If a Martian landed from outer space and spoke a language that violated universal grammar, we simply would not be able to learn that language the way that we learn a human language like English or Swahili. We should have to approach the alien’s language slowly and laboriously — the way that scientists study physics, where it takes generation after generation of labor to gain new understanding and to make significant progress. We’re designed by nature for English, Chinese, and every other possible human language. But we’re not designed to learn perfectly usable languages that violate universal grammar. These languages would simply not be within the range of our abilities.”
If intelligent, language-using life exists on another planet, Chomsky knew, it would necessarily have arisen by a different series of evolutionary changes than the uniquely improbable path that produced human beings. A different history of climate changes, geological events, asteroid and comet impacts, random genetic mutations, and other events would have produced a different set of life forms. These would have interacted with one another in a different ways over the history of life on the planet. The “Martian” language organ, with its different and unique history, could, Chomsky surmised, be entirely different from its human counterpart, making communication monumentally difficult, if not impossible.
Convergent evolution and alien minds
The tree of life
Why did Chomsky think that the human and ‘Martian‘ language organ would likely be fundamentally different? How come he and his colleagues now hold different views? To find out, we first need to explore some basic principles of evolutionary theory.
Originally formulated by the naturalist Charles Darwin in the nineteenth century, the theory of evolution is the central principle of modern biology. It is our best tool for predicting what life might be like on other planets. The theory maintains that living species evolved from previous species. It asserts that all life on Earth is descended from an initial Earthly life form that lived more than 3.8 billion years ago.
You can think of these relationships as like a tree with many branches. The base of the trunk of the tree represents the first life on Earth 3.8 billion years ago. The tip of each branch represents now, and a modern species. The diverging branches connecting each branch tip with the trunk represent the evolutionary history of each species. Each branch point in the tree is where two species diverged from a common ancestor.
Evolution, brains, and contingency
To understand Chomsky’s thinking, we’ll start with a familiar group of animals; the vertebrates, or animals with backbones. This group includes fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals, including humans.
We’ll compare the vertebrates with a less familiar, and distantly related group; the cephalopod molluscs. This group includes octopuses, squids, and cuttlefish. These two groups have been evolving along separate evolutionary paths-different branches of our tree-for more than 600 million years. I’ve chosen them because, as they’ve traveled along their separate branch of our evolutionary tree, each has evolved it own sort of complex brains and complex sense organs.
The brains of all vertebrates have the same basic plan. This is because they all evolved from a common ancestor that already had a brain with that basic plan. The octopus’s brain, by contrast, has an utterly different organization. This is because the common ancestor of cephalopods and vertebrates lies much further back in evolutionary time, on a lower branch of our tree. It probably had only the simplest of brains, if any at all.
With no common plan to inherit, the two kinds of brains evolved independently of one another. They are different because evolutionary change is contingent. That is, it involves varying combinations of influences, including chance. Those contingent influences were different along the path that produced cephalopod brains, than along the one that led to vertebrate brains.
Chomsky believed that many languages might be theoretically possible that violated the seemingly arbitrary constraints of human universal grammar. There didn’t seem to be anything that made our actual universal grammar something special. So, because of the contingent nature of evolution, Chomsky assumed that the ‘Martian’ language organ would arrive at one of these other possibilities, making it fundamentally different from its human counterpart.
This sort of evolution-based pessimism about the likelihood that humans and aliens could communicate is widespread. At the symposium, Dr. Gonzalo Munévar of Lawrence Technological University argued that intelligent creatures that evolved sensory systems and cognitive structures different from ours would not develop similar scientific theories or even similar mathematics.
Evolution, eyes, and convergence
Now lets consider another feature of the octopus and other cephalopods; their eyes. Surprisingly, the eyes of octopuses resemble those of vertebrates in intricate detail. This uncanny resemblance can’t be explained in the same way as the general resemblance of vertebrate brains to one another. It’s almost certainly not due to inheritance of the traits from a common ancestor. It’s true that some of the genes involved in the building of eyes are the same in most animals, appearing far down towards the trunk of our evolutionary tree. But, biologists are almost certain that the common ancestor of cephalopods and vertebrates was much too simple to have any eyes at all.
Biologists think eyes evolved separately more than forty times on Earth, each on its own branch of the evolutionary tree. There are many different kinds of eyes. Some are so strangely different from our own that even a science fiction writer would be surprised by them. So, if evolutionary change is contingent, why do octopus eyes bear a striking and detailed similarity to our own? The answer lies outside of evolutionary theory, with the laws of optics. Many large animals, like the octopus, need acute vision. There is only one good way, under the laws of optics, to make an eye that meets the needed requirements. Whenever such an eye is needed, evolution finds this same best solution. This phenomenon is called convergent evolution.
Life on another planet would have its own separate evolutionary tree, with the base of the trunk representing the appearance of life on that planet. Because of the contingency of evolutionary change, the pattern of branches might be quite different from our Earthly evolutionary tree. But because the laws of optics are the same everywhere in the universe, we can expect that large animals under similar conditions will evolve an eye that looks a lot like that of a vertebrate or a cephalopod. Convergent evolution is potentially a universal phenomenon.
Not just for humans anymore?
Taking apart the language organ
By the beginning of the twenty-first century, Chomsky and some of his colleagues started to look at the language organ and universal grammar in a new way. This new view made it seem like the properties of universal grammar were inevitable, much as the laws of optics made many features of the octopus’s eye inevitable.
In a 2002 review, Chomsky and his colleagues Marc Hauser and Tecumseh Fitch argued that the language organ can be decomposed into a number of distinct parts. The sensory-motor, or externalization, system is involved in the mechanics of expressing language through methods like vocal speech, writing, typing, or sign language. The conceptual-intentional system relates language to concepts.
The core of the system, the trio proposed, consists of what they called the narrow faculty of language. It is a system for applying the rules of language recursively, over and over, thereby allowing the construction of an almost endless range of meaningful utterances. Jeffrey Punske and Bridget Samuels similarly spoke of a ‘syntactic spine’ of all human languages. Syntax is the set of rules that govern the grammatical structure of sentences.
The inevitability of universal grammar
Chomsky and his colleagues made a careful analysis of what computations a nervous system might need to perform in order to make this recursion possible. As an abstract description of how the narrow faculty works, the researchers turned to a mathematical model called the Turing machine. The mathematician Alan Turing developed this model early in the twentieth century. This theoretical ‘machine’ led to the development of electronic computers.
Their analysis led to a striking and unexpected conclusion. In a book chapter currently in press, Watumull and Chomsky write that “Recent work demonstrating the simplicity and optimality of language increases the cogency of a conjecture that at one time would have been summarily dismissed as absurd: the basic principles of language are drawn from the domain of (virtual) conceptual necessity”. Jeffrey Watumull wrote that this strong minimalist thesis posits that “there exist constraints in the structure of the universe itself such that systems cannot but conform”. Our universal grammar is something special, and not just one among many theoretical possibilities.
Plato and the strong minimalist thesis
The constraints of mathematical and computational necessity shape the narrow faculty to be as it is, just like the laws of optics shape both the vertebrate and the octopus eye. ‘Martian’ languages, then, might follow the same universal grammar as human languages because there is only one best way to make the recursive core of the language organ.
Through the process of convergent evolution, nature would be compelled to find this one best way wherever and whenever in the universe that language evolves. Watumull supposed that the brain mechanisms of arithmetic might reflect a similarly inevitable convergence. That would mean that the basics of arithmetic would also be the same for humans and aliens. We must, Watumull and Chomsky wrote “rethink any presumptions that extraterrestrial intelligence or artificial intelligence would really be all that different from human intelligence”.
This is the striking conclusion that Watumull, and in a complementary way, Punske and Samuels presented at the symposium. Universal grammar may actually be universal, after all. Watumull compared this thesis to a modern, computer age version of the beliefs of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, who maintained that mathematical and logical relationships are real things that exist in the world apart from us, and are merely discovered by the human mind. As a novel contribution to a difficult ages-old philosophical problem, these new ideas are sure to stir controversy. They illustrate the depth of new knowledge that awaits us as we reach out to other worlds and other minds.
Universal grammar and messages for aliens
What are the consequences of this new way of thinking about the structure of language for practical attempts to create interstellar messages? Watumull thinks the new thinking is a challenge to “the pessimistic relativism of those who think it overwhelmingly likely that terrestrial (i.e. human) intelligence and extraterrestrial intelligence would be (perhaps in principle) mutually unintelligible”. Punske and Samuels agree, and think that “math and physics likely represent the best bet for common concepts that could be used as a starting point”.
Watumull supposes that while the minds of aliens or artificial intelligences may be qualitatively similar to ours, they may differ quantitatively in having bigger memories, or the ability to think much faster than us. He is confident that an alien language would likely include nouns, verbs, and clauses. That means they could probably understand an artificial message containing such things. Such a message, he thinks, might also profitably include the structure and syntax of natural human languages, because this would likely be shared by alien languages.
Punske and Samuels seem more cautious. They note that “There are some linguists who don’t believe nouns and verbs are universal human language categories”. Still, they suspect that “alien languages would be built of discrete meaningful units that can combine into larger meaningful units”. Human speech consists of a linear sequence of words, but, Punske and Samuels note that “Some of the linearity imposed on human language may be due to the constraints of our vocal anatomy, and already starts to break down when we think about signed languages”.
Overall, the findings foster new hope that devising a message comprehensible to extraterrestrials is feasible. In the next installment, we will look at a new example of such a message. It was transmitted in 2017 towards a star 12 light years from our sun.
Mars is not exactly a friendly place for life as we know it. While temperatures at the equator can reach as high as a balmy 35 °C (95 °F) in the summer at midday, the average temperature on the surface is -63 °C (-82 °F), and can reach as low as -143 °C (-226 °F) during winter in the polar regions. Its atmospheric pressure is about one-half of one percent of Earth’s, and the surface is exposed to a considerable amount of radiation.
Until now, no one was certain if microorganisms could survive in this extreme environment. But thanks to a new study by a team of researchers from the Lomonosov Moscow State University (LMSU), we may now be able to place constraints on what kinds of conditions microorganisms can withstand. This study could therefore have significant implications in the hunt for life elsewhere in the Solar System, and maybe even beyond!
For the sake of their study, the research team hypothesized that temperature and pressure conditions would not be the mitigating factors, but rather radiation. As such, they conducted tests where microbial communities contained within simulated Martian regolith were then irradiated. The simulated regolith consisted of sedimentary rocks that contained permafrost, which were then subjected to low temperature and low pressure conditions.
As Vladimir S. Cheptsov, a post-graduate student at the Lomonosov MSU Department of Soil Biology and a co-author on the paper, explained in a LMSU press statement:
“We have studied the joint impact of a number of physical factors (gamma radiation, low pressure, low temperature) on the microbial communities within ancient Arctic permafrost. We also studied a unique nature-made object—the ancient permafrost that has not melted for about 2 million years. In a nutshell, we have conducted a simulation experiment that covered the conditions of cryo-conservation in Martian regolith. It is also important that in this paper, we studied the effect of high doses (100 kGy) of gamma radiation on prokaryotes’ vitality, while in previous studies no living prokaryotes were ever found after doses higher than 80 kGy.”
To simulate Martian conditions, the team used an original constant climate chamber, which maintained the low temperature and atmospheric pressure. They then exposed the microorganisms to varying levels of gamma radiation. What they found was that the microbial communities showed high resistance to the temperature and pressure conditions in the simulated Martian environment.
However, after they began irradiating the microbes, they noticed several differences between the irradiated sample and the control sample. Whereas the total count of prokaryotic cells and the number of metabolically active bacterial cells remained consistent with control levels, the number of irradiated bacteria decreased by two orders of magnitude while the number of metabolically active cells of archaea also decreased threefold.
The team also noticed that within the exposed sample of permafrost, there was a high biodiversity of bacteria, and this bacteria underwent a significant structural change after it was irradiated. For instance, populations of actinobacteria like Arthrobacter – a common genus found in soil – were not present in the control samples, but became predominant in the bacterial communities that were exposed.
In short, these results indicated that microorganisms on Mars are more survivable than previously thought. In addition to being able to survive the cold temperatures and low atmospheric pressure, they are also capable of surviving the kinds of radiation conditions that are common on the surface. As Cheptsov explained:
“The results of the study indicate the possibility of prolonged cryo-conservation of viable microorganisms in the Martian regolith. The intensity of ionizing radiation on the surface of Mars is 0.05-0.076 Gy/year and decreases with depth. Taking into account the intensity of radiation in the Mars regolith, the data obtained makes it possible to assume that hypothetical Mars ecosystems could be conserved in an anabiotic state in the surface layer of regolith (protected from UV rays) for at least 1.3 million years, at a depth of two meters for no less than 3.3 million years, and at a depth of five meters for at least 20 million years. The data obtained can also be applied to assess the possibility of detecting viable microorganisms on other objects of the solar system and within small bodies in outer space.”
This study was significant for multiple reasons. On the one hand, the authors were able to prove for the first time that prokaryote bacteria can survive radiation does in excess of 80 kGy – something which was previously thought to be impossible. They also demonstrated that despite its tough conditions, microorganisms could still be alive on Mars today, preserved in its permafrost and soil.
The study also demonstrates the importance of considering both extraterrestrial and cosmic factors when considering where and under what conditions living organisms can survive. Last, but not least, this study has done something no previous study has, which is define the limits of radiation resistance for microorganisms on Mars – specifically within regolith and at various depths.
This information will be invaluable for future missions to Mars and other locations in the Solar System, and perhaps even with the study of exoplanets. Knowing the kind of conditions in which life will thrive will help us to determine where to look for signs of it. And when preparing missions to other words, it will also let scientists know what locations to avoid so that contamination of indigenous ecosystems can be prevented.
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.”
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.
Are we alone in the universe? While we do not know yet, we have missions moving forward that may help answer that fundamental question.
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.”
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.
Whenever I do a new livestream on Instagram (hint hint, @universetoday on Instagram), it’s generally with an audience that doesn’t have a lot of experience with my work here on Universe Today or YouTube.
They’re enthusiastic about space, but they haven’t been exposed to a lot of the modern ideas about astrobiology and the search for extraterrestrials. They have, however, seen a lot of TV and movies.
And so, the most common question I get, by a long shot is, “do you believe in aliens?”
That’s actually a more complicated question. On the one hand, the question could be: do I believe that aliens are visiting Earth, creating crop circles, infiltrating our government, and experimenting on human/alien hybrids for the eventual overthrow of human civilization?
The answer to that question, is no.
I believe in UFOs, in that, I believe there are unidentified objects flying in the air, which haven’t gotten a definitive categorization. And when they do get an explanation, it’s weather balloons, or Venus, or airplanes, or fireworks, or drones, or a hoax.
It’s never aliens.
Because if it was aliens, we would have some kind of evidence. There would be something, anything, that gave definitive proof that aliens were here.
What I’m talking about is some kind of monument, or machine, or vehicle, or factory. Something that’s been around here on Earth for as long as human history, and has no explanation for how it could have been created.
UFO researchers point to things like the pyramids, or the statues on Easter Island, or the Nazca lines, when there’s plenty of evidence these things could be created by humans and their tools of the age. Even when the hoaxers who created crop circles with a plank on a rope and a little planning tried to explain how they did it, people didn’t really believe them.
I want to show you a series of amazing visualizations created by Sam Monfort, a data researcher in the Human Factors and Applied Cognition program at George Mason University. Sam pulled in data from the National UFO Reporting Center or NUFORC which has been collecting reports all the way back to 1905.
Since its inception, NUFORC has received almost 105,000 UFO reports. And sighting are at an all time high.
But what’s really fascinating is how the trends of what people see have changed over time. A century ago, the vast majority of UFOs were spheres or cigar shaped. But then saucers showed up in the 20s, and that’s all anyone saw.
Cigars have dropped down to almost nothing, while lights in the sky have grown in prominence to become almost 50% of the UFOs that people see these days.
Clearly spaceship design took a turn away from cigars, to saucers to glowing lights. Oh, fickle aliens spacecraft designers, following the latest fashions.
The timing is interesting too. There’s a rise in sightings around July 4th in the US every year. Fireworks maybe?
The other piece of data that’s pretty interesting is that people in the US are 300 times more likely to report a UFO sighting than any other country in the world. My own Canada is number 2.
Here’s the thing. A huge percentage of the population is now carrying around their own personal tricorder, which will record audio, video and take amazing pictures, even in a dimly lit alien spaceship. And yet, there still hasn’t been any definitive, scientifically proven evidence for aliens.
Google is watching everywhere I go, and reminds me that I visited Home Depot last week, but you think the occasional trip to an orbital research facility would get picked up.
I feel pretty confident when I say, there’s no evidence that aliens are visiting Earth.
But the deeper question is a little more unsettling. Do I believe there are aliens in the Universe?
The Universe is huge. The very edge of the Universe we can see is known as the observable Universe. The first light in the Universe has been traveling through space for 13.8 billion years to reach our eyes. And because of the expansion of the Universe, those regions are now more than 46 billion light years away from us.
That’s just the observable Universe. The actual physical Universe is much larger. Hundreds of billions, trillions, quadrillions or more light years across. Maybe it’s even infinite.
Forever is a long way.
And we know that the Universe is old. It’s been around for 13.8 billion years. Our Milky Way has been around for almost that entire period. The Solar System showed up a relatively recent 4.5 billion years ago. We’re late to a party that’s been raging for almost 10 billion years already.
Fossil evidence tells us that life formed here on Earth pretty much as quickly as it was possible to do so. Just a few hundred million years after the Earth formed, and it wasn’t entirely a ball of molten rock, life popped up and started evolving.
Multiply the Universe’s age by its size and you get a place that really should be teeming with life, and yet we don’t see any evidence of aliens. Not in cigars nor saucers.
This is of course, the Fermi Paradox, and we’ve talked about this several times in the past. We can’t seem to find evidence of aliens, or their robotic spacecraft which should be busily colonizing the Milky Way turning every planet they reach into more robots.
The Fermi Paradox has been the source of arguments and existential terror for many.
In fact, if the Fermi Paradox doesn’t bother you in an existential way, then I don’t think you’ve thought about the Fermi Paradox enough.
Are there aliens? There might be single-celled, simple organisms across the Universe. But more complex animals like we have here on Earth might be incredibly uncommon.
This is the idea of the Rare Earth hypothesis, which was put forward in the year 2000 in a book by paleontologist Peter Ward and astrobiologist Donald Brownlee. If you have any interest in this subject, I highly recommend you give it a read.
In Rare Earth, Ward and Brownlee argue that Earth was lucky in many factors that we never really thought about before.
The Earth is the right distance from the center of the Milky Way so we’re not bombarded by radiation, but not too far so that we’re in the outskirts, with no heavy elements.
We orbit the right kind of star, and the right configuration of other planets in the Solar System. No big bully super-Jupiters that caused havoc with our planet or kicked us out of the Solar System entirely.
The orbit of the Earth has been stable for a long time, following a roughly circular orbit around the Sun. Our planet is the right size and density for life to survive and thrive. With plate tectonics, which help recycle our rocks and atmospheric gasses, so we don’t become a hellworld like Venus.
With a single large Moon that helped regulate our tides and provided an environment where some lifeforms could have been forced to find a better way.
And then some kind of secret sauce that helped give Earth life the kick it needed to go from simple to complex lifeforms.
Maybe there’s life everywhere, but we’ll never find anything more complex than bacteria. Or maybe we’ll never find anything anywhere. Ever.
I understand why the search for UFOs is so fascinating for people, and why many think that’s a reasonable default answer for seeing glowing lights in the sky. But for me, I want to know for sure that we’re not alone, that there are other aliens lifeforms and maybe even civilizations out there among the stars.
I don’t believe UFOs are aliens, and I’m not entirely convinced there’s anyone else in the entire Universe.
And that’s why I think we should dedicate ourselves to finding out the answer. Listen to stars for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations, search planets for the chemical signatures of alien life. Scour our own Solar System for anything. Under the rocks on Mars or under the oceans of Europa.
If it does turn out that we’re alone? What then? Do we have a greater responsibility to take care of ourselves and our planet, to make sure the candlelight of life and intelligence doesn’t flicker out?
Now you know how I feel about aliens, what about you? Do you think we’re being visited on a regular basis? Do you think there are aliens out there, somewhere, waiting to be discovered? Or do you think we’re all alone in the Universe. I’d like to know your thoughts.
In our next episode, we’re going to talk about one of the biggest current mysteries in astronomy: Fast Radio Bursts. They were only recently discovered, and they’re a total mystery. No answers next time, only questions.
What would we do if aliens actually visited us here on Earth? How prepared are our governments to deal with them? It turns out, there are some specific plans and preparations, and I detail them in this video.
Scientists have found evidence that life existed on Earth much earlier than previously thought and they say this discovery has implications for life springing up on other planets, particularly Mars.
Fossils of microscopic bacteria were discovered in Quebec, Canada in the Nuvvuagittuq Supracrustal Belt, a formation which contains some of the oldest sedimentary rocks in the world. Scientists estimate the fossils are at least 3.7 billion years old, and could be as old as 4.28 billion years. This is hundreds of millions of years older than previously found specimens.
“The most exciting thing about this discovery is that we know life managed to get a grip and start on Earth at such an early time in Earth’s evolution, which gives us exciting questions as to whether we are alone in the solar system or in the universe,” said PhD student Matthew Dodd from University College London (UCL), who is the first author on a new paper about the finding in the journal Nature. “If life happened so quickly on Earth then could we expect it to be a simple process and start on other planets, or was Earth really just a special case?”
The tiny fossils are the remains of microorganisms that are smaller than the width of a human hair. The Nuvvuagittuq rocks are thought to have formed in an iron-rich deep-sea hydrothermal vent system that provided a habitat for Earth’s first life forms. These rocks are mostly composed of silica and hematite.
“Our discovery supports the idea that life emerged from hot, seafloor vents shortly after planet Earth formed,” Dodd said in a press release. “This speedy appearance of life on Earth fits with other evidence of recently discovered 3,700 million year old sedimentary mounds that were shaped by microorganisms.”
Prior to this discovery, the oldest microfossils reported were found in Western Australia and were dated at 3.4 billion years old, leading scientists to speculate that life probably started around 3.7 billion years ago. But the new finding suggests that life existed as early as 4.5 billion years ago, just 100 million years after Earth formed.
“The microfossils we discovered are about 300 million years older than the previously thought oldest microfossils,” said Dr. Dominic Papineau, a professor of geochemistry and astrobiology at UCL, “so they are within a few hundred million years from within the accretion of the solar system and the planet Earth and the Sun and the Moon and so on.”
Papineau said the structures in the rocks that contained the fossils were spheroids, and since they are made of hematite, they are reminiscent of the discovery in 2004 by the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity of beds of rounded hematite concretions, that MER scientists called “blueberries.” These rounded concretions formed on Earth when significant volumes of groundwater flowed through permeable rock, and chemical reactions triggered minerals to precipitate and start forming a layered, spherical ball.
The concretions may bear on the search for evidence of past life on Mars because bacteria on Earth can make concretions form more quickly, according to previous research.
“The origin of this structure is not fully understood even on Earth where we find them,” Papineau said. “We don’t know really how organic matter can potentially be involved in making these structures.”
Both the MER rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, as well as the Curiosity rover have all found evidence of past water on Mars. In addition, Curiosity has identified traces of elements like carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, and more — the basic building blocks of life. It also found sulfur compounds in different chemical forms, a possible energy source for microbes. If Mars really was warmer and wetter in the past, as the evidence seems to point, Mars would have been the perfect spot for living organisms.
While the finding of ancient fossils on Earth doesn’t necessarily mean there is past or present life on Mars, in conjunction with the Curiosity rover finding of the raw ingredients for life, it is enticing to know that the environment on early Mars was likely very similar to early Earth, where life did spring up.
You can see details and hear the researchers talk about their findings in the video below:
Scientist Carl Sagan said many times that “we are star stuff,” from the nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, and the iron in our blood.
It is well known that most of the essential elements of life are truly made in the stars. Called the “CHNOPS elements” – carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorous, and sulfur – these are the building blocks of all life on Earth. Astronomers have now measured of all of the CHNOPS elements in 150,000 stars across the Milky Way, the first time such a large number of stars have been analyzed for these elements.
“For the first time, we can now study the distribution of elements across our Galaxy,” says Sten Hasselquist of New Mexico State University. “The elements we measure include the atoms that make up 97% of the mass of the human body.”
Astronomers with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey made their observations with the APOGEE (Apache Point Observatory Galactic Evolution Experiment) spectrograph on the 2.5m Sloan Foundation Telescope at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico. This instrument looks in the near-infrared to reveal signatures of different elements in the atmospheres of stars.
While the observations were used to create a new catalog that is helping astronomers gain a new understanding of the history and structure of our galaxy, the findings also “demonstrates a clear human connection to the skies,” said the team.
While humans are 65% oxygen by mass, oxygen makes up less than 1% of the mass of all of elements in space. Stars are mostly hydrogen, but small amounts of heavier elements such as oxygen can be detected in the spectra of stars. With these new results, APOGEE has found more of these heavier elements in the inner part of the galaxy. Stars in the inner galaxy are also older, so this means more of the elements of life were synthesized earlier in the inner parts of the galaxy than in the outer parts.
So what does that mean for those of us out on the outer edges of one of the Milky Way’s spiral arms, about 25,000 light-years from the center of the galaxy?
“I think it’s hard to say what the specific implications are for when life could arise,” said team member Jon Holtzman, also from New Mexico State, in an email to Universe Today. “We measure typical abundance of CHNOPS elements at different locations, but it’s not so easy to determine at any given location the time history of the CHNOPS abundances, because it’s hard to measure ages of stars. On top of that, we don’t know what the minimum amount of CHNOPS would need to be for life to arise, especially since we don’t really know how that happens in any detail!”
Holtzman added it is likely that, if there is a minimum required abundance, that minimum was probably reached earlier in the inner parts of the Galaxy than where we are.
The team also said that while it’s fun to speculate how the composition of the inner Milky Way Galaxy might impact how life might arise, the SDSS scientists are much better at understanding the formation of stars in our Galaxy.
“These data will be useful to make progress on understanding Galactic evolution,” said team member Jon Bird of Vanderbilt University, “as more and more detailed simulations of the formation of our galaxy are being made, requiring more complex data for comparison.”
“It’s a great human interest story that we are now able to map the abundance of all of the major elements found in the human body across hundreds of thousands of stars in our Milky Way,” said Jennifer Johnson of The Ohio State University. “This allows us to place constraints on when and where in our galaxy life had the required elements to evolve, a sort ‘temporal Galactic habitable zone’”.
The catalog is available at the SDSS website, so take a look for yourself at the chemical abundances in our portion of the galaxy.
“We are interested in that material because it is a time capsule from the earliest stages of solar system formation,” said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona, Tucson, in an interview with Universe Today beside the completed spacecraft inside the Payloads Hazardous Servicing Facility, or PHSF, clean room processing facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
With virtually all prelaunch processing complete, leading members of the science, engineering and launch team including Lauretta met with several members of the media, including Universe Today, inside the clean room for a last and exclusive up-close look and briefing with the one-of-its-kind $800 million Asteroid sampling probe last week.
OSIRIS-REx goal is to fly on a roundtrip seven-year journey to the near-Earth asteroid target named Bennu and back. 101955 Bennu is a near Earth asteroid and was selected specifically because it is a carbon-rich asteroid.
While orbiting Bennu it will move in close and snatch pristine soil samples containing organic materials from the surface using the TAGSAM collection dish, and bring them back to Earth for study by researchers using all of the most sophisticated science instruments available to humankind.
“The primary objective of the OSIRIS-Rex mission is to bring back pristine material from the surface of the carbonaceous asteroid Bennu, OSIRIS-Rex Principal Investigator Dante Lauretta told Universe Today in the PHSF, as the probe was undergoing final preparation for shipment to the launch pad.
“It records the very first material that formed from the earliest stages of solar system formation. And we are really interested in the evolution of carbon during that phase. Particularly the key prebiotic molecules like amino acids, nucleic acids, phosphates and sugars that build up. These are basically the biomolecules for all of life.”
OSIRIS-REx will gather rocks and soil and bring at least a 60-gram (2.1-ounce) sample back to Earth in 2023. It has the capacity to scoop up to about 1 kg or more.
The mission will help scientists investigate how planets formed and how life began. It will also improve our understanding of asteroids that could impact Earth by measuring the Yarkovsky effect.
I asked Lauretta to explain in more detail why was Bennu selected as the target to answer fundamental questions related to the origin of life?
“We selected asteroid Bennu as the target for this mission because we feel it has the best chance of containing those pristine organic compounds from the early stage of solar system formation,” Lauretta told me.
“And that information is based on our ground based spectral characterization using telescopes here on Earth. Also, space based assets like the Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope.”
What is known about the presence of nitrogen containing compounds like amino acids and other elements on Bennu that are the building blocks of life?
“When we look at the compounds that make up these organic materials in these primitive asteroidal materials, we see a lot of carbon,” Lauretta explained.
“But we also see nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, sulfur and phosphorous. We call those the CHONPS. Those are the six elements we really focus on when we look at astrobiology and prebiotic chemistry and how those got into the origin of life.”
The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft was built for NASA by prime contractor Lockheed Martin at their facility near Denver, Colorado and flown to the Kennedy Space Center on May 20.
For the past three months it has undergone final integration, processing and testing inside the PHSF under extremely strict contamination control protocols to prevent contamination by particle, aerosols and most importantly organic residues like amino acids that could confuse researchers seeking to discover those very materials in the regolith samples gathered for return to Earth.
The PHFS clean room was most recently used to process the Orbital ATK Cygnus space station resupply vehicles. It has also processed NASA interplanetary probes such as the Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory and MAVEN Mars orbiter missions.
The spacecraft will reach Bennu in 2018. Once within three miles (5 km) of the asteroid, the spacecraft will begin at least six months of comprehensive surface mapping of the carbonaceous asteroid, according to Heather Enos, deputy principal investigator, in an interview with Universe Today.
“We will then move the spacecraft to within about a half kilometer or so to collect further data,” Enos elaborated.
It will map the chemistry and mineralogy of the primitive carbonaceous asteroid. The team will initially select about 10 target areas for further scrutiny as the sampling target. This will be whittled down to two, a primary and backup, Enos told me.
After analyzing the data returned, the science team then will select a site where the spacecraft’s robotic sampling arm will grab a sample of regolith and rocks. The regolith may record the earliest history of our solar system.
Engineers will command the spacecraft to gradually move on closer to the chosen sample site, and then extend the arm to snatch the pristine samples the TAGSAM sample return arm.
PI Lauretta will make the final decision on when and which site to grab the sample from.
“As the Principal Investigator for the mission I have responsibility for all of the key decisions during our operations,” Lauretta replied. “So we will be deciding on where we want to target our high resolution investigations for sample site evaluation. And ultimately what is the one location we want to send the spacecraft down to the surface of the asteroid to and collect that sample.”
“And then we have to decide like if we collected enough sample and are we ready to stow it in the sample return capsule. Or are we going to use one of our 2 contingency bottles of gas to go for a second attempt.”
“The primary objective is one successful sampling event. So when we collect 60 grams or 2 ounces of sample then we are done!”
“In the event that we decide to collect more, it will be intermixed with anything we collected on the first attempt.”
The priceless sample will then be stowed in the on board sample return capsule for the long journey back to Earth.
Bennu is an unchanged remnant from the collapse of the solar nebula and birth of our solar system some 4.5 billion years ago, little altered over time.
Bennu is a near-Earth asteroid and was selected for the sample return mission because it could hold clues to the origin of the solar system and host organic molecules that may have seeded life on Earth.
OSIRIS-REx will return the largest sample from space since the American and Soviet Union’s moon landing missions of the 1970s.
Watch this USLaunchReport video shot during media visit inside the PHSF on Aug. 20, 2016:
Video caption: Our first introduction to the OSIRIS-REx asteroid bound mission in search of the origins of life, from inside the Payloads Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on Aug. 20, 2016. Credit: USLaunchReport
OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program, following New Horizons to Pluto and Juno to Jupiter, which also launched on Atlas V rockets.
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is responsible for overall mission management.
OSIRIS-REx complements NASA’s Asteroid Initiative – including the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) which is a robotic spacecraft mission aimed at capturing a surface boulder from a different near-Earth asteroid and moving it into a stable lunar orbit for eventual up close sample collection by astronauts launched in NASA’s new Orion spacecraft. Orion will launch atop NASA’s new SLS heavy lift booster concurrently under development.
Watch for Ken’s continuing OSIRIS-REx mission and launch reporting from on site at the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Ait Force Station, FL.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
NASA Astrobiologist Dr. Chris McKay organized an August 2014 workshop to discuss the future of a permanent moon base, and the ultimate goal of establishing a human settlement on Mars. The resultant nine papers have been recently published in a special issue of the journal New Space.
We’ve had an abundance of news stories for the past few months, and not enough time to get to them all. So we are now using a tool called Trello to submit and vote on stories we would like to see covered each week, and then Fraser will be selecting the stories from there. Here is the link to the Trello WSH page (http://bit.ly/WSHVote), which you can see without logging in. If you’d like to vote, just create a login and help us decide what to cover!
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In our galaxy, there may be, at least, tens of billions of habitable planets, with conditions suitable for liquid water on their surfaces. There may be habitable moons as well. On an unknown number of those worlds, life may have arisen. On an unknown fraction of life-bearing worlds, life may have evolved into complex multicellular, sexually reproducing forms.
The purposes of the newly created METI (Messaging to ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) International include fostering multidisciplinary research in the design and transmission of interstellar messages, and building a global community of scholars from the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, and arts concerned with the origin, distribution, and future of life in the universe.
On May 18 the organization sponsored a workshop which included presentations by biologists, psychologists, cognitive scientists, and linguists. This is the third and final installment of a series of articles about the workshop.
In previous installments, we’ve discussed some ideas about the evolution of intelligence that were featured at the workshop. Here we’ll see whether our Earthly experience can provide us with any clues about how we might communicate with aliens.
Many of the animals that we are most familiar with from daily life, like humans, cats, dogs, birds, fishes, and frogs are vertebrates, or animals with backbones. They are all descended from a common ancestor and share a nervous system organized according to the same basic plan.
Molluscs are another major group of animals that have been evolving separately from vertebrates for more than 600 million years. Although most molluscs, like slugs, snails, and shellfish, have fairly simple nervous systems, one group; the cephalopods, have evolved a much more sophisticated one.
Cephalopods include octopuses, squids, and cuttlefishes. They show cognitive and perceptual abilities rivaling those of our close vertebrate kin. Since this nervous system has a different evolutionary history than of the vertebrates, it is organized in a way completely different from our own. It can give us a glimpse of the similarities and differences we might expect between aliens and ourselves.
David Gire, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington, and researcher Dominic Sivitilli gave a presentation on cephalopods at the Puerto Rico workshop. Although these animals have a sophisticated brain, their nervous systems are much more decentralized than that of familiar animals. In the octopus, sensing and moving are controlled locally in the arms, which together contain as many nerve cells, or neurons, as the brain.
The animal’s eight arms are extraordinarily sensitive. Each containing hundreds of suckers, with thousands of sensory receptors on each one. By comparison, the human finger has only 241 sensory receptors per square centimeter. Many of these receptors sense chemicals, corresponding roughly to our senses of taste and smell. Much of this sensory information is processed locally in the arms. When an arm is severed from an octopus’s body, it continues to show simple behaviors on its own, and can even avoid threats. The octopus’s brain simply acts to coordinate the behaviors of its arms.
Cephalopods have acute vision. Although their eyes evolved separately from those of vertebrates, they nonetheless bear an eerie resemblance. They have a unique ability to change the pattern and color of their skin using pigment cells that are under direct control of their nervous systems. This provides them with the most sophisticated camouflage system of any animal on Earth, and is also used for social signaling.
Despite the sophisticated cognitive abilities it exhibits in the lab, the octopus is largely solitary.
Cephalopod groups exchange useful information by observing one another, but otherwise exhibit only limited social cooperation. Many current theories of the evolution of sophisticated intelligence, like Miller’s sapiosexual hypothesis, which was featured in the second installment, assume that social cooperation and competition play a central role in the evolution of complicated brains. Since cephalopods have evolved much more impressive cognitive abilities than other molluscs, their limited social behavior is surprising.
Maybe the limited social behavior of cephalopods really does set limits on their intelligence. However, Gire and Sivitilli speculate that perhaps “an intelligence capable of technological development could exist with minimum social acuity”, and the cephalopod ability to socially share information is enough. The individuals of such an alien collective, they suppose, might possess no sense of self or other.
Besides Gire and Sivitilli, Anna Dornhaus, whose ideas were featured in the first installment, also thinks that alien creatures might function together as a collective mind. Social insects, in some respects, actually do. She doubts, though, that such an entities could evolve human-like technological intelligence without something like Miller’s sapiosexuality to trigger a runaway explosion of intelligence.
But if non-sapiosexual alien technological civilizations do exist, we might find them impossible to comprehend. Given this possible gulf of incomprehension about social structure, Gire and Stivitilli suppose that the most we might aspire to accomplish in terms of interstellar communication is an exchange of mutually useful and comprehensible astronomical information.
Workshop presenter Alfred Kracher, a retired staff scientist at the Ames Laboratory of the University of Iowa, supposes that “the mental giants of the Milky Way are probably artificially intelligent machines… It would be interesting to find evidence of them, if they exist”, he writes, “but then what?” Kracher supposes that if they have emancipated themselves and evolved away from their makers, “they will have nothing in common with organic life forms, human or extraterrestrial. There is no chance of mutual understanding”. We will be able to understand aliens, he maintains, only if “it turns out that the evolution of extraterrestrial life forms is highly convergent with our own”.
Peter Todd, a professor of psychology from Indiana University, holds out hope that such convergence may actually occur. Earthly animals must solve a variety of basic problems that are presented by the physical and biological world that they inhabit.
They must effectively navigate through a world of surfaces, barriers and objects, finding food and shelter, and avoiding predators, parasites, toxins. Extraterrestrial organisms, if they evolve in an Earth-like environment, would face a generally similar set of problems. They may well arrive at similar solutions, just as the octopus evolved eyes similar to ours.
In evolution here on Earth, Todd notes, brain systems originally evolved to solve these basic physical and biological problems appear to have been re-purposed to solve new and more difficult problems, as some animals evolved to solve the problems of living and finding mates as members of societies, and then as one particular ape species went on to evolve conceptual reasoning and language. For example, disgust at bad food, useful for avoiding disease, may have been become the foundation for sexual disgust to avoid bad mates, moral disgust to avoid bad clan mates, and intellectual disgust to avoid dubious ideas.
If alien brains evolved solutions similar to the ones our brains did for negotiating the physical and biological world, they they might also have been re-purposed in similar ways. Alien minds might not be wholly different from ours, and thus hope exists for a degree of mutual understanding.
In the early 1970’s the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft were launched on the first exploratory missions to the planet Jupiter and beyond. When their missions were completed, these two probes became the first objects made by humans to escape the sun’s gravitational pull and hurtle into interstellar space.
Because of the remote possibility that the spacecraft might someday be found by extraterrestrials, a team of scientists and scholars lead by Carl Sagan emplaced a message on the vehicle, etched on a metal plaque. The message consisted, in part, of a line drawing of a man and a woman. Later, the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft carried a message that consisted, in part, of a series of 116 digital images encoded on a phonographic record.
The assumption that aliens would see and understand images seems reasonable, since the octopus evolved an eye so similar to our own. And that’s not all. The evolutionary biologists Luitfried Von Salvini-Plawen and Ernst Mayr showed that eyes, of various sorts, have evolved forty separate times on Earth, and vision is typically a dominant sense for large, land dwelling animals. Still, there are animals that function without it, and our earliest mammalian ancestors were nocturnal. Could it be that there are aliens that lack vision, and could not understand a message based on images?
In his short story, The Country of the Blind, the great science fiction writer H. G. Wells imagined an isolated mountain village whose inhabitants had been blind for fifteen generations after a disease destroyed their vision.
A lost mountain climber, finding the village, imagines that with his power of vision, he can easily become their king. But the villagers have adapted thoroughly to a life based on touch, hearing, and smell. Instead of being impressed by their visitor’s claim that he can ‘see’, they find it incomprehensible. They begin to believe he is insane. And when they seek to ‘cure’ him by removing two strange globular growths from the front of his head, he flees.
Could their really be an alien country of the blind whose inhabitants function without vision? Workshop presenter Dr. Sheri Wells-Jensen, an associate professor of Linguistics at Bowling Green State University, doesn’t need to imagine the country of the blind, because, in a sense, she lives there. She is blind, and believes that creatures without vision could achieve a level of technology sufficient to send interstellar messages. “Sighted people”, she writes, “tend to overestimate the amount and quality of information gathered by vision alone”.
Bats and dolphins image their dimly lit environments with a kind of naturally occurring sonar called echolocation. Blind human beings can also learn to echolocate, using tongue clicks or claps as emitted signals and analyzing the returning echoes by hearing. Some can do so well enough to ride a bicycle at a moderate pace through an unfamiliar neighborhood. A human can develop the touch sensitivity needed to read braille in four months. A blind marine biologist can proficiently distinguish the species of mollusc shells by touch.
Wells-Jensen posits a hypothetical civilization which she calls the Krikkits, who lack vision but possess sensory abilities otherwise similar to those of human beings. Could such beings build a technological society? Drawing on her knowledge of the blind community and a series of experiments, she thinks they could.
Finding food would present few special difficulties, since blind naturalists can identify many plant species by touch. Agriculture could be conducted as modern blind gardeners do it, by marking crops using stakes and piles of rock, and harvesting by feel. The combination of a stick used as a cane to probe the path ahead and echolocation make traveling by foot effective and safe. A loadstone compass would further aid navigational abilities. The Krikkits might use snares rather than spears or arrows to trap animals, making tools by touch.
Mathematics is vital to building a technological society. For most human beings, with our limited memory, a paper and pencil or a blackboard are essential for doing math. Krikkits would need to find other such aids, such as tactual symbols on clay tablets, abacus-like devices, or patterns sewn on hides or fabric.
Successful blind mathematicians often have prodigious memories, and can perform complex calculations in their heads. One of history’s greatest mathematicians, Leonard Euler, was blind for the last 17 years of his life, but remained mathematically productive through the use of his memory.
The obstacles to a blind society developing technology may not be insurmountable. Blind people are capable of handling fire and even working with molten glass. Krikkits might therefore use fire for cooking, warmth, to bake clay vessels, and smelt metal ores. Initially there only astronomical knowledge would be of the sun as a source of heat. Experiments with loadstones and metals would lead to a knowledge of electricity.
Eventually, the Krikkits might imitate their sonar with radio waves, inventing radar. If their planet possessed a moon or moons, radar reflections from them might provide their first knowledge of astronomical objects other than their sun. Radar would also enable them to learn for the first time that their planet is round.
The Krikkits might learn to detect other forms of radiation like X-rays and ‘light’. The ability to detect this second mysterious form of radiation might allow them to discover the existence of the stars and develop an interest in interstellar communication.
What sorts of messages might they send or understand? Well-Jensen believes that line drawings, like the drawing of the man and the woman on the Pioneer plaque, and other such pictorial representations might be an impenetrable mystery to them. On the other hand, she speculates that Krikkits might represent large data sets through sound, and that their counterpart to charts and graphs might be equally incomprehensible to us.
Images might pose a challenge for the Krikkits, but perhaps, Wells-Jensen concedes, not an impossible one. There is evidence that bats image their world using echolocation. Kikkits might be likely to evolve similar abilities, though Wells-Jensen believes they would not be essential for making tools or handling objects.
Perhaps humans and Krikkits could find common ground by transmitting instructions for three dimensional printed objects that could be explored tactually. Wells-Jensen thinks they might also understand mathematical or logical languages proposed for interstellar communication.
The diversity of cognition and perception that we find here on Earth teaches us that if extraterrestrial intelligence exists, it is likely to be much more alien than much of science fiction has prepared us to expect. In our attempt to communicate with aliens, the gulf of mutual incomprehension may yawn as wide as the gulf of interstellar space. Yet this is a gulf we must somehow cross, if we wish ever to become citizens of the galaxy.