an astronomer’s big claims about gliese 581g
Looks like we have to hold off on all those colonization plans for Gliese 581g for now. According to Australian alien hunter Ragbir Bhathal, it may be home to intelligent alien creatures that may be trying to reach us with laser light shows, and I’m guessing it might make for a rather awkward first contact if we just sent spacecraft to land on their home world without some sort of prior consent. But that said, I wouldn’t recommend to throw a whole lot of resources into trying to establish diplomatic relations with the Gliesians, and not only because a political alliance between alien species is mind-bogglingly complex, but because Bhathal’s claim is lacking the kind of solid backing we saw with the Wow! Signal, and the rest of SETI is warning the media to take this with a hefty grain of salt. You see, the claim is that Bhathal saw strange light pulses coming from Gliese 581 two years ago and is only reporting this fact after 581g was discovered while withholding exact coordinates of the pulse he actually saw, making it impossible to verify his claims with SETI’s arrays of detection tools.
On the surface, Bhathal’s claim isn’t far-fetched at all. For a moment, let’s assume that Gliese 581 is home to intelligent life, one that understands the basics of astronomy and interested in communicating with any alien species out there. Just as we have the technology to detect their world, they would be close enough to detect ours, and with enough expertise, deduce that we’re a fairly good candidate planet for life. They would try to find close matches to their homes first, but if they do conclude that yellow suns are stable long enough for biology to appear and evolve into something interesting, they may widen their search. Our planet transiting the Sun is going to give our hypothetical Gliesians chills if they understand spectroscopy. Their readings would indicate high oxygen levels and a lot of water on the planet’s surface, tell-tale signs of an active, diverse ecosystem. At their equivalents to scientific conventions, Gliesian scientists will be talking about what a promising world the nearby yellow sun has in its orbit and speculate on the potential for intelligent life. Maybe, they’ll even detect a stream of incomprehensible radio buzz coming from our planet and decide to say hello.
Just to make sure we notice them, the Gliesians could assemble a powerful laser, aim it at Earth and send a few test pulses. After all,on a cosmic scale our worlds aren’t even next door to each other, but within an arm’s reach. They’d be crazy not to try it if they thought anything like we do. And since Gliese 581g is in the Southern constellation Libra, someone in Australia could certainly detect their laser pulse. But would he proceed to sit on it for two years, waiting until Gliese 581g is detected, then refusing to give the coordinates of the pulse for a verification by other SETI astronomers? Would he go to a tabloid instead of calling his colleagues? Now, I can see how Bhathal would want to take his time, line up his coordinates, and double check his data against this newly discovered and very promising world to see if it’s plausible he discovered some talkative Gliesians with a really big laser, but then why not just make an announcement (if he’s so paranoid about getting the credit in the matter), then handing over his results to his colleagues? Something here doesn’t add up to put it mildly. It seems very counter-productive to simply claim first contact in the media and the media alone.
Of course there is a relatively easy way to settle this scientifically. We could observe Gliese 581g for signs of radio communication and laser signals, while sending our own laser bursts on a regular basis to see if there is an intelligent civilization that picks up on the pattern. If we see a repeat, we’ll know for sure. But this idea is going to require a commitment from two civilizations rather than sporadic what-if and why-not one-off signals and publicity stunts like we’ve been doing for the last few decades, and who knows what political life on 581g is like and whether they have the funds or the intent to really devote a lot of time and effort into talking to aliens about which they know nothing. Even worse, they might’ve heard our radio broadcasts, know that an intelligent species lives on Earth, and choose to perpetuate Fermi’s paradox due to their uncertainly about us. Either way, Bhathal’s claim, even if it’s plausible, and even if it’s somehow true, doesn’t bring us that much closer to definitive proof of intelligent aliens in our stellar vicinity.
update 10.15.2010: turns out there’s a good reason the story about Dr. Bhathal’s claim of lasers coming from the newly discovered Gliese 581g won’t add up. In an e-mail exchange with the astronomer, I learned that the article in the Daily Mail was made up and mixed vague descriptions and quotes from old interviews. Thanks to reader Mark Louis for prompting me to take a closer look at the story and convince me that I really should’ve just contacted Dr. Bhathal when the story broke, and my apologies for helping to propagate the Mail’s tall tales of alien contact. That said, the post’s look at the plausibility of talking to nearby aliens should be correct to the best of my knowledge and should be taken solely as a hypothetical exercise.