In a recent study submitted to the Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, a pair of researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) examine the likelihood of extraterrestrial intelligent civilizations intercepting outward transmissions from NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) that are aimed at five deep space spacecraft: Voyager 1, Voyager 2, Pioneer 10, Pioneer 11, and New Horizons. Members of the public are free to track such transmissions at DSN Now, which displays real-time data of outgoing and incoming transmissions to all spacecraft at various times.Continue reading “NASA Uses Powerful Transmitters to Talk to Deep Space Spacecraft. Will Other Civilizations Receive Those Signals?”
It has been over sixty years since Dr. Frank Drake (father of the Drake Equation) and his colleagues mounted the first Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) survey. This was known as Project Ozma, which relied on the “Big Ear” radio telescope at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Greenbank, West Virginia, to look for signs of radio transmissions in Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani. Despite the many surveys conducted since then, no definitive evidence of technological activity (i.e., “technosignatures”) has been found.
This naturally raises the all-important question: are we going about the business of SETI wrong? Instead of looking for technosignatures within our galaxy, as all previous SETI surveys have done, should we look for activity beyond our galaxy (from possible Type II and Type III civilizations)? This premise was explored in a recent paper led by researchers from the National Chung Hsing University in Taiwan. Using data from the largest SETI project to date, Breakthrough Listen, the team looked for potential radio technosignatures from extragalactic sources.Continue reading “How Many Intergalactic Radio Stations Are Out There?”
Researchers at Penn State University have studied a new technique that could use a star’s ability to focus and magnify communications which could be passing through our own solar system, and has been accepted for publication in The Astronomical Journal and was part of a graduate course at Penn State covering the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI. The study describes our Sun as potentially acting as a kind of node as part of an interstellar communication network involving probes or relays near our Sun, acting like cellular telephone towers in space.Continue reading “Snooping on Alien Messages Passing Through the Solar System”
How will humanity meet its end?
That’s only a depressing question if you think that humanity will go on forever. Alas, nothing lasts forever, and if something could last forever, it probably wouldn’t be our struggling primate species.
But we’ll likely be around for a while yet, pondering things as we do. One of the things we love to ponder is: why don’t we hear from any other alien civilizations?Continue reading “Maybe We Don’t Hear From Aliens Because They Choose To Go Silent”
If there are so many galaxies, stars, and planets, where are all the aliens, and why haven’t we heard from them? Those are the simple questions at the heart of the Fermi Paradox. In a new paper, a pair of researchers ask the next obvious question: how long will we have to survive to hear from another alien civilization?
Their answer? 400,000 years.Continue reading “Humanity Will Need to Survive About 400,000 Years if We Want any Chance of Hearing From an Alien Civilization”
Are we alone in the Universe? Could there be countless sentient life forms out there just waiting to be found? Will we meet them someday and be able to exchange knowledge? Will we even recognize them as intelligent life forms if/when we meet them, and them us? When it comes to astrobiology, the search for life in the Universe, we don’t know what to expect. Hence why all the speculation and theoretical studies into these questions are so rich and varied!
One such study was conducted by famed Soviet and Russian astrophysicist and radio astronomer Nikolai Kardashev (1932 – 2019). While considering an important question related to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) in 1964, Kardashev proposed a classification scheme for ranking a civilization’s development. This would come to be known as the Kardashev Scale, which remains one of the most influential concepts in SETI to this day.Continue reading “What is the Kardashev Scale?”
Seventy years ago, Italian-American nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi asked his colleagues a question during a lunchtime conversation. If life is common in our Universe, why can’t we see any evidence of its activity out there (aka. “where is everybody?”) Seventy years later, this question has launched just as many proposed resolutions as to how extraterrestrial intelligence (ETIs) could be common, yet go unnoticed by our instruments.
Some possibilities that have been considered are that humanity might be alone in the Universe, early to the party, or is not in a position to notice any yet. But in a recent study, Robin Hanson (creator of the Great Filter) and an interdisciplinary team offer a new model for determining when the aliens will get here. According to their study, humanity is early to the Universe and will meet others in 200 million to 2 billion years from now.Continue reading “If Aliens Are Out There, We’ll Meet Them in a Few Hundred Million Years”
In the Fall of 2017, the first known interstellar object passed through the Solar System, triggering a revolution in astronomy. Because of the amonolous nature of the object, astronomers from all over the world were at a loss to explain what it was. Neither comet, nor asteroid, nor any other conventional object appeared to fit the bill, leading to all kinds of “exotic” explanations.
A particularly exotic explanation was offered by Harvard Professor Avi Loeb and his former postdoc (Dr. Shmuel Bialy), who hypothesized that ‘Oumuamua could have been an extraterrestrial lightsail. Whereas most rebuttal papers questioned the evidence presented, a new study by astrophysicist and UCLA emeritus professor Ben Zuckerman questioned something else: why would an extraterrestrial civilization want to send a probe our way?Continue reading “Oumuamua Isn’t an Alien Probe, Because Aliens can Learn Everything They Need About us With Telescopes”
Recently at UT, author Matt Williams has been writing a series called “Beyond Fermi’s Paradox”, which takes a look at possible resolutions to one of the most famous questions in science: “Where is everybody?” As Matt discusses, there are multiple hypothetical solutions, but there may eventually come a day when we can definitively answer it.
Consideration of that day opens up a whole host of new questions, not the least of which is what will an intelligent civilization we find be like? Carl Sagan popularized the notion that it is very unlikely that any extraterrestrial civilization would be equivalent to ours in terms of technological progress. What he did not address was the relative age of the civilization and what that might mean in terms of their interest in communicating with us. Now a team of astronomers have come up with an answer to that question using one of the most underappreciated mathematical tools: statistics. Their model provides a simple answer: any intelligent civilization is likely older than us, and potentially much older.Continue reading “The First Civilization We Contact Will Have Been Around Much Longer Than Humanity”
Is it likely that human level intelligence and technological civilization has evolved on other worlds? If so, what kinds of sensory and cognitive systems might extraterrestrials have? This was the subject of the workshop ‘The Intelligence of SETI: Cognition and Communication in Extraterrestrial Intelligence’ held in Puerto Rico on May 18, 2016. The conference was sponsored by the newly founded METI International (Messaging to ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence). 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.
At present, the only clues we have to the nature of extraterrestrial minds and perception are those that can be garnered by a careful study of the evolution of mind and perception here on Earth. The workshop included nine speakers from universities in the United States and Sweden, specializing in biology, psychology, cognitive science, and linguistics. It had sessions on the evolution of cognition and the likely communicative and cognitive abilities of extraterrestrials.
Doug Vakoch, a psychologist and the founder and president of METI International, notes that astronomers and physicists properly concern themselves largely with the technologies needed to detect alien intelligence. However, finding and successfully communicating with aliens may require attention to the evolution and possible nature of alien intelligence. “The exciting thing about this workshop”, Vakoch writes, “is that the speakers are giving concrete guidelines about how to apply insights from basic research in biology and linguistics to constructing interstellar messages”. In this, the first installment dealing with the conference, we’ll focus on the question of whether the evolution of technological societies on other planets is likely to be common, or rare.
We now know that most stars have planets, and rocky planets similar to or somewhat larger than the Earth or Venus are commonplace. Within this abundant class of worlds, there are likely to be tens of billions with conditions suitable for sustaining liquid water on their surfaces in our galaxy. We don’t yet know how likely it is that life will arise on such worlds. But suppose, as many scientists suspect, that simple life is abundant. How likely is it that alien civilizations will appear; civilizations with which we could communicate and exchange ideas, and which could make their presence known to us by signaling into space? This was a central question explored at the conference.
In addressing such questions, scientists have two main sets of clues to draw on. The first comes from the study of the enormous diversity of behavior and nervous and sensory systems of the animal species that inhabit our Earth; an endeavor that has been called cognitive ecology. The second set of clues come from modern biology’s central principle; the theory of evolution. Evolutionary theory can provide scientific explanations of how and why various senses and cognitive systems have come to exist here on Earth, and can guide our expectations about what might exist elsewhere.
The basics of the electrochemical signalling that make animal nervous systems possible have deep evolutionary roots. Even plants and bacteria have electrochemical signalling systems that share some basic features with those in our brains. Conference presenter Dr. Anna Dornhaus studies how social insects make decisions collectively as an associate professor at the University of Arizona. She defines cognitive ability as the ability to solve problems with a nervous system, and sometimes also by social cooperation. An animal is more ‘intelligent’ if its problem solving abilities are more generalized. Defined this way, intelligence is widespread among animals. Skills traditionally thought to be the sole province of primates (monkeys and apes, including human beings) have now been shown to be surprisingly common.
For example, cognitive skills like social learning and teaching, generalizing from examples, using tools, recognizing individuals of one’s species, making plans, and understanding spatial relationships have all been shown to exist in arthropods (an animal group consisting of insects, spiders, and crustaceans). The evidence shows the surprising power of the diminutive brains of insects, and indicates that we know little of the relationship between brain size and cognitive ability.
But different animals often have different sets of cognitive skills, and if a species is good at one cognitive skill, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be good at others. Human beings are special, not because we have some specific cognitive ability that other animals lack, but because we possess a wide range of cognitive abilities that are more exaggerated and highly developed than in other animals.
Although the Earth, as a planet, has existed for 4.6 billion years, complex animals with hard body parts don’t appear in the fossil record until 600 million years ago, and complex life didn’t appear on land until about 400 million years ago. Looking across the animal kingdom as a whole, three groups of animals, following separate evolutionary paths, have evolved especially complex nervous systems and behaviors. We’ve already mentioned arthropods, and the sophisticated behaviors mediated by their diminutive yet powerful brains.
Molluscs, a group of animals that includes slugs and shellfish, have also produced a group of brainy animals; the cephalopods. The cephalopods include octopuses, squids, and cuttlefish. The octopus has the most complex nervous system of any animal without a backbone. As the product of a different evolutionary path, the octopus’s sophisticated brain has a plan of organization that is completely alien to that of more familiar animals with backbones.
The third group to have produced sophisticated brains are the vertebrates; animals with backbones. They include fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals, including human beings. Although all vertebrate brains bear a family resemblance, complex brains have evolved from simpler brains many separate times along different paths of vertebrate evolution, and each such brain has its own unique characteristics.
Along one path, birds have evolved a sophisticated forebrain, and with it, a flexible and creative capacity to make and use tools, an ability to classify and categorize objects, and even a rudimentary understanding of numbers. Following a different path, and based on a different plan of forebrain organization, mammals have also evolved sophisticated intelligence. Three groups of mammals; elephants, cetaceans (a group of aquatic mammals including dophins, porpoises, and whales), and primates (monkeys and apes, including human beings) have evolved the most complex brains on Earth.
Given the evidence that intelligent problem solving skills of various sorts have evolved many times over, along many different evolutionary pathways, in an amazing range of animal groups, one might suspect that Dornhaus believes that human-style cognitive abilities and civilizations are widespread in the universe. In fact, she doesn’t. She thinks that humans with their exaggerated cognitive abilities and unique ability to use language to express complex and novel sorts of information are a quirky and unusual fluke of evolution, and might, for all we know, be wildly improbable. Her argument that alien civilizations probably aren’t widespread resembles one stated by the imminent and influential American evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr in his 1988 book Towards a New Philosophy of Biology.
There are currently more than 10 million different species of animals on Earth. All but one have failed to evolve the human level of intelligence. This makes the chance of evolving human intelligence less than one in 10 million. Over the last six hundred million years since complex life has appeared on Earth, there have been tens of million different animal species, each existing for roughly 1-10 million years. But, so far as we know, only one of them, Homo sapiens, ever produced a technological society. The human lineage diverged from that of other great ape species about 8 million years ago, but we don’t see evidence of distinctly human innovation until about 50,000 years ago, which is, perhaps, another indication of its rarity.
Despite the apparent improbability of human level intelligence evolving in any one lineage, Earth, as a whole, with its vast array of evolutionary lineages, has nonetheless produced a technological civilization. But that still doesn’t tell us very much. For the present, Earth is the only habitable planet that we know much of anything about. And, since Earth produced us, we are working with a biased sample. So we can’t be at all confident that the presence of human civilization on Earth implies that similar civilizations are likely to occur elsewhere.
For all we know, the quirky set of events that produced human beings might be so wildly improbable that human civilization is unique in a hundred billion galaxies. But, we don’t know for sure that alien civilizations are wildly improbable either. Dornhaus freely concedes that neither she nor anybody has a good idea of just how improbable human intelligence might be, since the evolution of intelligence is still so poorly understood.
Most current evolutionary thinking, following in the footsteps of Mayr and others, holds that human civilization was not the inevitable product of a long-term evolutionary trend, but rather the quirky consequence of a particular and improbable set of evolutionary events. What sort of events might those have been, and just how improbable were they? Dornhaus supports a popular theory proposed by Dr. Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist who is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of New Mexico and who also spoke at the METI institute workshop.
In our next installment we’ll explore Miller’s theories in a bit more detail, and see why the abundance of extraterrestrial civilizations might depend on whether or not aliens think big brains are sexy.
For further reading:
Baluska, F. and Mancuso, S. (2009) Deep evolutionary origins of neurobiology. Communicative and Integrative Biology, 2:1, 60-65.
Chittka, L. and Niven, J. (2009) Are bigger brains better?, Current Biology. 19:21 p. R995-R1008.
Margonelli, L. (2014) Collective mind in the mound: How do termites build their huge structures. National Geographic.
Mayr, E. (1988) The probability of extraterrestrial intelligent life. In Towards a New Philosophy of Biology, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
Patton, P. E. (2015) Who speaks for Earth? The controversy over interstellar messaging. Universe Today.
P. Patton (2014) Communicating across the cosmos, Part 1: Shouting into the darkness, Part 2: Petabytes from the Stars, Part 3: Bridging the Vast Gulf, Part 4: Quest for a Rosetta Stone, Universe Today.
Tonn, S. (2015) Termites are teaching architects to design super-efficient skyscrapers. Wired Magazine.