Humanity’s 3 Hopes For Finding Alien Life
“Although it’s just conjecture at this point, scientists speculate that life in the Universe is probably common, with the ingredients and opportunities for it to arise appearing practically everywhere. Life that thrives and sustains itself on a world, to the point where it can change its atmospheric and/or surface properties, may need to get lucky, and is likely more uncommon. Evolving to become complex, differentiated, multicellular creatures is likely even rarer. And as far as becoming what we would consider an intelligent, technologically advanced civilization, it could be so exceedingly remarkable that in all the Universe, it might just be us. Yet despite how different these outcomes are, we’re actively searching for all three types of life in very different ways. When the first sign of alien life finally is discovered, which one shall emerge victorious?
No matter which method pays dividends first, it will be among the greatest day in the history of life on Earth.”
There are three very different ways humanity is searching for alien life beyond Earth. We can directly search the various planets and moons in our Solar System for past or present biological signatures simply by sending decontaminated probes, and looking for the evidence in situ. We can indirectly look at distant worlds around other stars, searching for the characteristic changes to the atmosphere and surface that life would bring. And, most optimistically, we can search for intelligent signatures created, perhaps willfully, by a technologically advanced alien species.
These are our three hopes for finding alien life, and we’re actively pursuing all three. Which one, if any, do you think has the best chance of paying off?
Ask Ethan: How Close Could Two Alien Civilizations Get To One Another?
“What’s [the] closest two, independent intelligent civilizations could be, ignoring interstellar travel and assuming they develop in different star systems and follow roughly what we know as ‘life’? Globular clusters can have a high density of stars, but does too high a density rule out habitability? An astrophysicist in a dense cluster would have a much different view of the universe and the search for exoplanets.”
Okay, so you have a planet that has the right ingredients for life, and everything has worked out according to your wildest dreams. We’ve developed life, it’s thrived for billions of years, and now we’ve reached the point where we’ve got an intelligent, technologically advanced civilization, just like we do here on Earth. Let’s imagine we’ve got multiples, now, throughout the Universe. What’s the closest two independent ones could possibly be? Should we look in the same solar system? In a globular cluster? In the galactic center? In a spiral arm? In an open star cluster? Or should we just wait for another one to pass close by in interstellar space?
The science is open to all of these possibilities, but some of them are strongly disfavored based on the evidence we have. Come find out how close two alien civilizations could get to one another on this edition of Ask Ethan!
Star Trek: Discovery’s Greatest Science Moments Rethink What It Means To Be Alive
“While most of the famous aliens encountered by Federation crews have been humanoid — including Klingons, Vulcans, Romulans, Ferengi, and Cardassians — there have been notable exceptions. The vampire cloud of The Original Series, the crystalline entity of The Next Generation, the changelings of Deep Space 9 and many others have challenged our conventional notions of what intelligence or life might look like. Now that we’re in the late 2010s, science has advanced tremendously, and so has our imagination for what might be possible.”
It’s pretty easy to point to the new Star Trek series and criticize the science they’ve gotten wrong, oversimplified, misinterpreted, or simply ignored. That’s something, honestly, you could do for any science fiction series if you tried hard enough. But there are a few things about science that Star Trek gets right, and one in particular that it’s breaking new ground in: how life, and intelligent life in particular, might be vastly different from what we expect. Other depictions of intelligence in alien species have focused on two types almost exclusively: human-like, autonomous, chemical-based beings, and artificially intelligent robot-like beings. But what if there were organic pathways and mechanisms out there that went far beyond what we presently understand, where quantum entanglement across galactic scales dominated or even non-matter-based life forms existed? Sure, it sounds like pure fiction today, but being open to these possibilities is vital.
Until we know the full suite of what’s out there, we have to remember how much remains unknown to us, as Star Trek: Discovery does a wonderful job of reminding us.
Are Human Beings The Only Technologically Advanced Civilization In The Universe?
“There may never have been another intelligent, technologically advanced alien species in the entire history of the Universe. When you take into account that there may be 400 billion stars in the Milky Way, up to three potentially habitable worlds in many of these star systems, and some two trillion galaxies in the entire Universe, it seems like intelligent life is an inevitability. But our intuition can often lead us astray; what we feel is no substitute for science. The magnitude of the unknowns that abiogenesis, evolution, long-term habitability and other factors bring into the equation throws many of our assumptions about life into doubt. It’s true that there are an astronomical number of possibilities for intelligent, technologically advanced lifeforms, but the huge uncertainties make it a very real possibility that humans are the only spacefaring aliens our Universe has ever known.”
Given the huge number of stars, planets, and chances at life that the galaxy and the Universe has given us, it seems paradoxical that we haven’t yet encountered any form of alien intelligence or even life. The discoveries make in the field of exoplanet studies, particularly by the Kepler mission, make this an even bigger problem than we anticipated: more than 10^22 planets with Earth-like conditions are expected to exist in our Universe. But having so many chances, even with an astronomically large number like that, doesn’t necessarily mean we aren’t alone. The origin of life, the sustainability and development of complex, intelligent life, and the odds of technological success and ambition of a species that makes it are complete unknowns. We might enjoy thinking about these questions and exploring the Universe to hunt for answers, but the fact is that we don’t know.
Until we find out, it’s worth looking at all that’s possible, but we have to remain grounded. The truth may be out there, but we don’t have the solution yet.
Five reasons why the signals from Stephen Hawking’s Breakthrough Initiative aren’t aliens
“In 2012, a series of nine bursts were observed by both the Very Large Array and Arecibo, four of which were seen simultaneously. For the first time, this allowed us to pinpoint the location of a FRB’s source: a dwarf galaxy 3 billion light years away. Last month’s reinvestigation discovered a series of 15 repeating FRBs from the same source, each lasting under 300 microseconds. Is it advanced, powerful aliens? There are five reasons why that’s likely untrue.”
Whenever we detect a signal that we can’t immediately explain, it’s a very human trait to ascribe our greatest hopes (or fears) to it. In the case of a peculiar radio signal originating from deep space, that means the wildest speculations will involve intelligent aliens. But as much as many of us would hope that such a thing would be true, the physical properties of these fast radio bursts, even though they’re repeating, tell us otherwise. With an estimated 10,000 of them occurring on a daily basis, and with power some 10^19 times as great as the strongest radio signal ever generated by humanity, and with known astrophysical sources that can naturally generate signals of this magnitude and frequency, it’s completely unreasonable to think this has anything to do with aliens. Still, the science alone is interesting enough to warrant not only investigation, but a remarkable sense of wonder.
Here are the five top reasons why we can be very certain that the signals from Stephen Hawking’s Breakthrough Initiative aren’t aliens!
Afraid Of Aliens? The Science Doesn’t Back You Up
“The possible benefits to humanity of making contact are immeasurable. It would be like receiving a great galactic teacher, advanced thousands of years beyond our own scientific and technological capabilities. It would be the ultimate cultural exchange ever experienced on Earth. But the fears we have, that consume us, that lead to us eschewing the greatest cosmic achievement humanity’s ever dreamed of? They’re simply not based in science, logic, or reason. Thankfully, our fears don’t have to control our destinies. We can choose to use our minds instead.”
One of the questions that’s fascinated humanity since we first began looking up at the night sky is whether or not we’re alone in the Universe. Although we now know of other stars, other planets, and potentially inhabited worlds, we have yet to make contact with another intelligent species. Despite our curiosity, a great many people live in fear that if we did begin communicating with extraterrestrials, it would serve only to announce our presence to a potentially hostile (and more advanced) civilization. No one wants humanity wiped out, of course, but no one wants to bury our heads in the sand and to cease the search for one of the ultimate truths about our Universe. If you take a detailed, logical look at the problem, three possibilities for aliens emerge: they’re uninterested in us, they’re interested and benign, or they’re interested and malevolent. But even if they’re malevolent, they likely pose no danger to us, which you only learn if you put your fears aside and view the situation rationally.
There’s so much to potentially gain and so little to use, yet some of our greatest minds succumb to fear on this topic. Come take a look for yourself and see what you think!
Voyager’s ‘Cosmic Map’ Of Earth’s Location Is Hopelessly Wrong
“Most neutron stars don’t appear as pulsars to us, simply because their “pulses” aren’t lined up with planet Earth. But over time, pulsars can newly appear or disappear, which we’ve actually seen happen since the Voyager probes were launched. As objects rotate and orbit in space, their relative orientations change, so the pulsars that are pointing at us today won’t be pointing at us millions of years in the future. Additionally, pulsars that aren’t pointing at us today will be pointing at us in millions of years. Compound that with the fact that neutron stars adjust their rotation periods over time (via starquakes and pulsar speedup), and it’s clear that both the periods and orientations of these pulsars change dramatically over millions of years. By the time any alien picks up our pulsar map, it will be woefully out-of-date.”
When the Voyager and Pioneer spacecraft were launched, they contained a message emblazoned on them: a map of 14 pulsars, showing the location of Earth relative to them. This was a brilliant idea: showcase bright, unique identifiers, complete with their observed periods and distances from our world, and people would be able to find Earth. If we wanted to be found, it was the best idea 1977 had to offer. But 40 years later, the idea is fundamentally flawed. There are up to a billion pulsars in the Milky Way, their periods change long-term, and their orientations are variable over time, meaning they won’t be pointing at Earth in the future. If we wanted to be detected, we’d be much better off sending the same information we use to detect exoplanetary systems today!
Although it was a very clever idea presented just 10 years after the discovery of pulsars, we now know that Voyager’s cosmic map to find Earth will be hopelessly wrong by the time an alien civilization finds it.
Eight Other Worlds In Our Solar System Might Have Life Beyond Earth
“5.) Venus. Venus is hell, literally. At a constant surface temperature of some 900 degrees Fahrenheit, no human-made lander has ever survived more than a couple of hours while touched down on our nearest neighboring planet. But the reason Venus is so hot is because of it’s thick, carbon-dioxide rich atmosphere laden with heat-trapping clouds of sulphuric acid. This renders the surface of Venus thoroughly inhospitable, but the surface isn’t the only place to look for life. In fact, speculation is rampant that perhaps something interesting is happening some 60 miles up! Above the cloud-tops of Venus, the environment is surprisingly Earth-like: similar temperatures, pressures, and less corrosive material. It’s conceivable that with its own unique chemical history, that environment is filled with carbon-based airborne life, something that a mission to Venus’ upper atmosphere could easily sniff out.”
The Earth, to the best of our knowledge, is the only inhabited world we have. The ingredients for life may be everywhere, from asteroids to nebulae to exoplanets and more, but so far, only Earth is confirmed to have life. While Earth-like planets around Sun-like stars at the right distance for liquid water on their surface might seem like the best place to look for life, we don’t necessarily need to go that far. Right here in our own cosmic backyard, our own solar system boasts eight potential candidates for worlds with life on them today. Some of them are planets, like Mars and Venus; others are moons, like Europa and Titan; even asteroids like Ceres or Kuiper belt objects like Pluto get in on the action. The life that might be present might not look like most of life on Earth, but unless we look at the likely locations of biological activity in situ, we simply won’t know for certain.
Come find out all eight possible locations, and see if you can come up with a better possibility than any of these!
Unexplained Fast Radio Bursts Could be a Sign of Alien Civilisation
These Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) were found 10 years ago back in 2007 and while they only last for a fraction of a second they seem to be coming from very far away and are about a billion times brighter than anything we have seen in our own galaxy. They also form some sort of strange pattern and have come from one specific which leads some people to believe that they might be messages left by aliens.
Scientists managed to pinpoint the location of what they think was the first FRB and based on the age of the galaxy suggested that it didn’t come from early star activity but instead an explosive event like the collision of two neutron stars. An event that couldn’t repeat in the same place.
The truth is, we have no idea what these could be.