Archives For aliens

Project Kronos, the short fake documentary by visual effects artist Hasraf ‘HaZ’ Dulull about first contact and the possible origins of interplanetary travel by humans in the relatively near future, recently got plenty of attention on the web. And it should have. It’s a well done piece of work, its premise is developed enough to keep you glued to the screen, and its pacing and storyline are open ended and somewhat disturbing enough to provoke a lot of speculation. As a piece of art, this is really, really good. But before anyone gets ideas about sending our artificially reanimated brains in spherical vessels to roam the cosmos in a dream-like state, I’m afraid that a skeptic will need to step in to do some fact checking on the science regardless of how well Project Kronos was put together. Considering that I’m in one of the key fields involved, it may as well be me, so let’s unpickle some flying cosmic brains and figure out whether you really want to analyze fuzzy dreams on your way to meet an alien intelligence trying to summon you to the stars.

Believe it or not, mapping the neurons responsible in remembering what someone saw could be done, and there’s been some success in trying to see what another person has seen by looking through his memories. With enough time and more accurate devices, it’s not implausible to get much better resolution, maybe even as good as some of the fuzzy images of the brain implanted into the Kronos probe. But then again, you’re spending hundreds of millions, if not billions to get to interstellar space. Don’t you want extremely powerful high resolution images taken with crystal clarity so scientists can study what the probe gleams on flyby? Don’t you want a sensor array to measure everything from the solar wind to atmosphere of the gas giants’ moons? The film’s very ambitious space agency basically decided to take a shortcut to nearly human equivalent AI with an actual human brain, then launched it into deep space bereft of the tools to make the probe a source of good data for planetary scientists, focusing instead of establishing first contact based on the idea that a human brain would handle aliens better than a recording. But would it?

One of the more disconcerting things for me in the documentary is the notion of the brain kept alive after the person using is has presumably died of natural causes. Now, as someone who’d happily donate his body to science after I’m done using it, on the one hand, I would welcome the opportunity of being essentially resurrected as a space probe. In fact, on the surface, it sounds like one of my wildest dreams come true. To be brought back to life in some form and launched to travel the stars for eons on end. The concept is poetic, really. But the reality? Not so much. It would be the most extreme kind of sensory deprivation you could imagine. Yes, you could travel the cosmos and see planets no one has even seen before, but for the vast majority of the trip, you’d be surrounded by silent blackness. No friends, no family, very little interaction from Earth, and most of said interaction would be one way. Your thoughts and memories would be decoded and played back like a movie, complete with images of the life you once lead. What you have to look forward to is eons of solitary confinement in a completely alien environment.

Of course this is presuming that your brain will still be usable after death. Unlike the machine, it will deteriorate. Over time its functions will degrade, memories would be difficult to keep, and the probe will grow less and less reliable. Add this to the isolation it will experience and any aliens in range of a Kronos orb will more than likely be trying to make contact with an entity suffering from mental illness and with rapidly deteriorating cognitive abilities. At this point, a recording would be much more preferable. Now, you might wonder if the brain in a Kronos probe would actually live in any real sense. After all, it is just being zapped with a little electricity and given some nutrients so it can function but it’s not really embodied anymore and kept in a dream-like state. The film is not really clear on this point, oscillating between the scientists treating the brain as a substrate, and indicating that it would be capable of an emotional response, meaning that it may be sort of alive in a conventional sense. Maybe this is why the Human 2.0 project meant to respond to the alien attempt at first contact uses a fleet of probes. Maybe they’ll keep each other sane.

Still, note that first contact happens after aliens hack a human brain in robot form. That’s a very disconcerting feat. It means that the extraterrestrial life form either managed to figure out binary protocols for our electronics and how they map to analog buzz produced by our neurons, or had a machine capable of doing that. More than likely, they’ve either done it before or developed an absolutely amazing grasp on how to decipher brain machine interfaces in other species. They’d have to basically torture the brain in Kronos to figure this out from scratch, not on purpose, but they would more or less have to wire into the orb and zap the brain to see what happens so the inference map for how it works could be built. Does sending a hundred more Kronos probes to the coordinates they provided seem like a good idea in this light? Certainly not to me. Seems a tad dangerous to put it mildly. Sure it’s first contact, but with what and why? I could imagine this encounter suddenly diverting trillions around the world into building a heavily armed space fleet just in case, should the memories of the Kronos brain give the aliens too much information.

But all this aside, I can understand what Project Kronos was trying to show. Humans, as we are today, are more or less marooned on Earth. We’re not ready to live in deep space until we start to change ourselves through genetic engineering and significant augmentation, until we defeat aging as we know it and learn how to encase our bodies in materials that will keep us save from radiation and let us stand on other worlds without worrying about toxic chemicals, radiation, and the bone, joint, and muscle damage from changing gravities. The odds of us being brains in tiny orbs floating through the vastness of space are non-zero, especially if bean counters have their way with the future of space travel, but it’s not the best way to explore the final frontier. No, the best way forward for us is roaming space stations, vast interstellar ships, and cyborg bodies. It’s our need to be social, our embodiment, and our sense of community and adventure that define us, and if we want to boldly go into interstellar space, we need to carry them with us. That and a lot of weapons in case random aliens start giving us trouble by trying to hack into our brains…

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ancient aliens

Now, I’ve written a great deal about the ancient astronaut hypothesis, the idea that alien beings had profound influence on our evolution and civilization. Usually, when I did, I talked about a lack of a smoking gun for extraterrestrial meddling in our genome or our politics, and pointed out just how rare it would be for an advanced alien species with a passion for exploration to evolve close to the same time period as us, detect our planet, cross light years to get here, and have interest in doing anything on Earth to cover the scientific basics. But what about another line of evidence from ancient astronaut believers? According to them pictures of weird beings and stories of all sorts of bizarre creatures, monsters, and mysterious chariots in the sky must point to visitations, an assertion countered by skeptics with alternative explanations that usually have to do with the religious art commonly produced by the civilizations in question or pointing out the believers’ all too tenuous grasp of the historical facts and games of confirmation bias.

However, there’s another idea that seems to be missing. Our ancestors wrote fiction and were every bit as creative as we are. In fact, we have records of jokes that date to nearly 4,000 years ago and epic sagas that are more than a thousand years old. Fun fact, the oldest known joke in human history is a fart joke. The second? A joke about women wearing nothing but fishnets for the visual benefit of a pharaoh. The oldest European joke? A bait and switch riddle that seemed to be describing a penis. Yes, humanity hasn’t changed all that much when it comes to humor, I know. And that’s precisely the point. We shouldn’t take everything we see from the past literally like ancient astronaut believers, although we sometimes do. The legend of King Arthur written in Perceval has inspired many true believers today to argue that there’s a real Holy Grail, just see the book on which the DaVinci Code was based: Holy Blood, Hold Grail. Despite being written as an epic fictional tale with colorful characters and fictional creatures, people take parts of it to be factual or based on fact simply because they mention other mostly or semi-fictional works.

So when an ancient astronaut theorist invokes ancient texts, why not ask how he or she knows if the text was meant to be taken seriously? Were the flying creatures on flaming chariots part of a religious tract meant to guide worshipers of ancient gods or was it entertaining fiction for those who ruled our first empires? How many of the soap operas meant to describe the life of the gods in ancient mythology was canon and how much were creative add-ons? When we read ancient texts on religious matters, are we confusing their versions of Bibles with their versions of the Left Behind books? We know our ancestors were creative enough to dream up gods and monsters, and mastermind engineering projects that would take decades to complete. We know there were great epics with highly fictionalized tales of past wars and natural disasters, and we know there were countless books lost as ancient libraries were burnt down by illiterate conquerors or rabid zealots. So why do ancient astronaut theorists insist on treating every artifact from the past as a record of a historical fact rather than even pretend to allow for works for art and fiction?

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pandora

Another day, another study identifying more potentially habitable worlds in the Kepler data, this time by professional astronomers and volunteers called the Planet Hunters who discussed their planet detections on a specialized message board system called Talk. What they found was that more gas giants orbited stars in their habitable zones than initially thought, giving real evidence for the hypothesis that while alien Earths could be somewhat rare, moons orbiting alien Jupiters and Saturns may be a fairly common habitat for extraterrestrial life. Trouble is that we can’t see these moons or detect the wobble of the planets they orbit, so we don’t know how many of them there are, how big they are on average, and their likely composition. However, we do have very good reasons to assume that they could be there since gas giants in our own solar system are swarmed by moons of all shapes and sizes, and some are very possible hosts to life.

So one would think that a moon big enough to hold on to an atmosphere that’s not too dense or composed mainly of greenhouse gases in an alien star’s habitable zone would have liquid water in significant quantities. Even better, it would feel the gravitational tides of a gas giant that would in effect knead its interior, promoting volcanism, circulating rich organic matter that could either kick start living things or fuel them. Think of Io but more subdued and covered with oceans and small continents, or Titan without the mind-numbing cold. It could be a perfect habitat, and given billions of years, maybe even evolve intelligent life. But there’s a potential problem here. Typical solar system formation models dictate that rocky worlds form closer to a star than gas giants, so to be in the habitable zone of the vast majority of stars out there, alien Jupiters had to drift into these orbits, pushing out rocky worlds and reshuffling their siblings. What would that do to their moons? Would they be collateral damage in the upheaval of the solar system?

Ideally, the immense gravity of these gas giants would push planets aside as they spiral into the habitable zone and their clutches of icy rocks would slowly thaw to host oceans and fertile land for life to start taking hold. But again, the only way we’ll know this is if we build bigger and more powerful telescopes to detect their presence and hopefully one day resolve them as pixels for a quick spectrographic sniff of their atmospheres. Maybe, just maybe, decades from now, a future astronomer and a crew of enthusiastic volunteers will be looking through a data set collected by the latest planet hunting telescope and find a little bluish pixel next to a gas giant, or readings of a gas pointing to a stable biosphere, like oxygen from a recently discovered alien moon. It won’t be Earth 2.0, but it will be just as important, and we’ll be able to look up at the night sky knowing that we’re not alone because somewhere, a weird world with a killer view of a turbulent gas giant is home to something that can look back at Earth, even if it won’t wonder about us…

See: Wang, J., et al. (2013). Planet Hunters. V. A Confirmed Jupiter-Size Planet in the Habitable Zone and 42 Planet Candidates from the Kepler Archive Data arXiv: 1301.0644v1

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alien bacteria

One of the topics that’s been prominently featured on Weird Things has been panspermia, the hypothesis that life can originate somewhere in the galaxy and spread though asteroid or comet impacts, or even forward contamination by alien spacecraft. We know that amino acids can form all on their own when certain molecules are irradiated, that some creatures can easily survive a trip though space, and there’s evidence that molecules crucial for life here may have a strong link with primordial impacts. Now, true, the theory has been abused by those who either do not understand what it actually entails, or by those who just refuse to keep up with the science and spend most of their time accusing some secret anti-panspermia cabal trying to keep them down, but overall, it’s quite sound which is why it’s still being kept in mind by astrobiologists. Or so you would think unless you go by a Scientific American blog post which says the following…

In some ways the motivation for proposing this kind of cosmic panspermia is a little dated. It comes from a time when we felt that the origin of life of on Earth was such a mystery, and such an unlikely event, that it was convenient to outsource it. Although this didn’t actually solve the real question of life’s origins, it meant that a specific origin ‘event’ could be extremely rare among the 200 billion stars of the Milky Way yet life would still show up in other places.

These days I think our discoveries about the remarkable abundance and diversity of so-called pre-biotic chemistry […] in every nook and cranny of our solar system, and even in the proto-stellar nebula of other stars and the wilds of interstellar space – swings the pendulum back to Earth. Nature seems adept at making all the pieces for life, apparently raising the odds of local bio-genesis.

How are these two thoughts connected again? I’m not exactly sure how life being very adaptable would mean that it raises the odds of Earth being its origin because we’re talking about evolution rather than abiogenesis. Caleb Scharf, the scientist who wrote the post, seems to be making the same kind of mistake many creationists do when trying to ridicule evolutionary theory by asking how life would’ve come from non-life and nothing that evolution fails to answer this question. So it’s little wonder that whatever life gets here or starts here would fill every available nook, cranny, and environmental niche since natural selection would favor their reproduction. But whether the origin of these species is on Earth or in space is more or less a toss-up if we’re considering just how well they adapted to their current environments.

Yes, we could say that it’s more likely that life originated on Earth because space is vast and the odds of enough comets and asteroids hitting the planet at just the right conditions for life to take hold are astronomical, literally, so it makes sense to look for an explanation that makes life more likely to arise here. That explanation may not be right, but we don’t have a complete picture of how it came to be and so we’re still trying to find viable ideas that seem to fit the evidence we’ve observed so far. But an important part of the process is not to discard hypotheses without any evidence that they simply don’t fit with the observations, something that Scharf does with an odd certainty about the habitability of promising places in the solar system by hearty microorganisms that should dominate the universe based on the way natural selection works.

But the problem, and the potential paradox, is that if evolved galactic panspermia is real it’ll be capable of living just about everywhere. There should be [organisms] on the Moon, Mars, Europa, Ganymede, Titan, Enceladus, minor planets and cometary nuclei. Every icy nook and cranny in our solar system should be a veritable paradise for these ultra-tough life forms, honed by natural selection to make the most of [the] appalling conditions. So if galactic panspermia exists why haven’t we noticed it yet?

He then goes on to answer his own question by saying that we probably haven’t looked all that hard in all these places, don’t know for what we’re really looking, or possibly both, and ponders would it would mean if we kept searching and found nothing. You can tell that he’s really pushing for the Earth-centric explanation and again, as elaborated above, I can see why, but his primary reason for pushing it seems to be based on a very strange confusion between abiogenesis and natural selection with no facts to back it up. The argument seems to be: we know more extreme organisms on Earth, natural selection seems to be doing it’s job, we haven’t explored all of the promising candidates for life in our solar system in sufficient detail and we don’t really know what we’re trying to find and how we’ll know we found it, therefore, life arose on Earth. Doesn’t seem like a scientific train of thought to me, especially with all the evidence that there was at least an important role being played by organic matter or microorganisms from space…

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ufo city

Please pardon the lack of posts. Things have been rather hectic on and off and the news from the usual sources have been rather slow, reporting on experiments and ideas which I’ve written about before in their previous incarnations, or ones that seem to be of little interest to virtually anyone outside the field in question. But I did come across something from Ray Villard that gave me a good idea for a post. Basically, Ray explores the question of whether UFO sightings were culprits in accidents and finds that cases of mistaken identity can certainly cause you to crash a car or make a military pilot do something risky with his jet, but overall, you don’t have to worry if an alien spacecraft will run you off the road or out of the sky. This is all old news of course, but the incident mentioned in his opening paragraphs regarding a pilot who crashed his plane in a spirited pursuit of a UFO likely to have been a weather balloon, is noteworthy because it lets me try and address a very common and often hard to counter claim made by many ufologists.

A while ago, a small group of former high ranking Air Force officers claimed that UFOs regularly showed up during nuclear tests, occasionally disabling the warheads, something a lot of ardent conspiracy theorists and ufologists took as concrete proof of a long-standing idea that nuclear weapons attracted the aliens who come to Earth. Having military personnel talk about having no idea whet was in the sky above them or recalling chasing down bizarre objects which they could not identify and which their commanders seemed very reluctant to discuss, if they discussed the objects at all, sounds like a slam dunk to a UFO believer. If anyone would know what was in the skies, it should be the Air Force and if it doesn’t know, it must be an alien, right? There’s no way that crazy people are flying bombers and interceptors, and operating radar stations on such a massive scale that hundreds of honorably discharged specialists and career officers will come forward to talk about their UFOs sightings. And they’re right. There aren’t. But the issue is not a question of whether someone not entirely sane servers in the military. It’s military secrecy.

The defense establishment has a lot of secrets and these secrets are stratified. If you have top secret clearance while your colleague has a secret one, you know things he or she doesn’t and you’re not allowed to say anything about a top secret level project without those with the same exact clearance as you. This is important because clearances can also be project specific which means that two officers with top secret clearance may actually not be cleared to know about an extremely important project, or only one of them may be involved with it but is not allowed to say anything about his work to his counterpart. Getting pretty tangled isn’t it? Usually, this happens to minimize the potential leaks because the fewer people know about a critical project which has to stay in the shadows, the fewer people can spill any details and if they do, it’s easier to track down who talked and to whom. And during the cold war, the golden days of UFO sightings, very classified, compartmentalized work was constantly happening at military bases.

Former military pilots, specialists, and officers talking about UFOs isn’t crazy or poorly trained, they simply didn’t know what they saw or why because they weren’t allowed to know. Spy plane prototypes flying overhead, highly experimental detectors and weapons systems flew across an impressive swath of the country in total secrecy and whoever detected them with no clue what a bizarre objects like that was doing in the air, was unlikely to have the clearances to find out what they actually were. And the same trend continues today, so even as the number of clearances grows, there are still few people who can accurately connect the dots on today’s black projects, ones likely to involve very oddly shaped robotic craft that have been mistaken for UFOs by the public when being trucked from base to base, even when they were already known to exist and had their own Wikipedia pages for years. Just imagine what’s happening behind closed doors at the infamous Area 51 base, the birthplace of the world’s most advanced military jets. How many experimental planes are flying in the skies today and how many are so secret that only a room full of people are allowed to know about them? How many have been spotted as UFOs?

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habitable world

According to results from Kepler, there’s another habitable planet just 49 light years away. Well, mostly habitable by something. Gliese 163c is on the higher end of the super-earth label, coming in at between 1.8 and 2.4 times the size of Earth and almost 7 times its mass, and orbiting a red dwarf star once every 26 days. It’s hot, about 60° C hot according to a baseline estimate, but it’s not too hot for a lot of living things. All sorts of extremophiles live in much hotter temperatures on our own world, considering boiling hot caves and toxic vents a cozy home. This is why the press releases from the discoverers of the solar system focused on the potential for microbial or rather simple animal life on Gliese 163c, pointing out that on Earth, no plants or animals can survive for extended periods of time when temperatures soar past 50° C, which would be a cool day on the alien world in question. However, with all due caution, we should consider that what seems to be extreme to us isn’t all that extreme to many other lifeforms and complex life that had billions and billions of years to evolve in very hot conditions could certainly find a way to thrive.

Even more importantly, we don’t know the composition of Gliese 163c’s air, and that could be a critical factor in deciding how habitable we deem it. If its atmosphere is primarily filled with water vapor or has huge concentrations of greenhouse gases, it may as well be another Venus and a hellish place for even the most primitive life. But on the other hand, only small quantities of any greenhouse gases would mean that the planet doesn’t retain very much heat. Water would be a great heat sink as well, and considering that it’s almost certainly tidally locked, the movement of air between the day side and the night side could bring down the overall global temperature and open up some very cool and cozy environments for complex, multicellular life. And as always, if you go deep enough into an ocean, there are bound to be places for life to find a niche, even if the planet is drifting though interstellar space with no sun to warm it. A few hundred meters under the seas of Gliese 163c it could be nice and cool for large aquatic animals to roam in search of food and a mate, though they might have to avoid choppy seas around any equatorial storms fueled by constant evaporation on the day side.

Ideally, the center of the planet’s day side would be a bone dry, perpetual desert constantly in the blinding gaze of its parent star. With no water to evaporate, no cycles of cooling and heating because there would be no night, and nothing but barren rocks, the worst its sun can do is kick up massive dust storms around the equator. That would leave seas, lakes, or even oceans free of constant monsoons. Of course this is pure speculation, but the possibilities are there and we now have a nearby target to better investigate for signs of biology. Next, we can sample its air to better figure out its real average temperature, and try to take a snapshot of what it actually looks like. Its doubtful that we could make out seas or continents with what would most likely be a tiny fraction of a pixel on the screen, but the reflectivity of its clouds or lack thereof could tell us a bit about Gliese 163c’s composition. And that’s the exciting part of astronomy. Every peek we take, every survey we conduct has the potential to show us something new or overturn our notions of what can happen in the cosmos. After all, the world’s top experts thought that the universe was static and infinite until one of them took another look and made a few measurements…

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kiwis by beat aliens

Since you’re reading a science blog, you’re more than likely aware of Carl Sagan’s touching monologue about the pale blue dot that is Earth. If you haven’t heart it yet, I highly recommend clicking the link and then reading the comic above before you continue. No, seriously, check it out first or you might be doing yourself a little emotional disservice. Don’t worry, the blog will be here when you come back, promise.

So here’s a thought of the day for you. While we’re quietly here on Earth, alien empires may be rising and falling on planets we don’t even know exist, places so distant, we may never have the telescopes needed to detect them. Grand dramas of existence may unfold a million trillion miles away while we’re stuck punching keys in our cubicles, working on a new TPS report that we know won’t be read. And just the idea that this is what could be happening around us should be enough motivation to reach for the stars, explore as much of the universe as we can, and keep inventing and discovering so we may one day come to another world orbiting an alien sun and walk in the footsteps of alien giants, or learn what happened to a species gone missing. That seems like a much better and more productive future than our daily rat race, doesn’t it?

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One of the most bizarre things about computers is that the notion of computing is a mathematical construct in its purest form. This sort of thing drives philosopher John Searle up a wall mostly because it makes trying to define the boundaries of what intelligence and cognition are in living and nonliving things exceedingly difficult, but the fact is that as long as you can encode something as 0s and 1s, and create logic gates which are then used in the basic logical operations that work with data, you’ve got the basics of a computer. And that’s how a trio of researchers built a computer using soldier crabs. Yes, you read that right, actual moving, hard shelled crabs that usually live in the tropics and like to swarm together. By having them move in a specially designed maze, the researchers created rudimentary OR and AND gates which form the basis of CPUs. Great, so if by some odd fluke 2012 does destroy civilization, we can still surf the web and check our e-mail. We’ll just need soldier crabs. Lots and lots and lots of solider crabs. I’m thinking about 150 quadrillion ought to do it…

But here’s the serious question. if computing is basically substrate independent, doesn’t it mean that calling human brains computers and likening our personalities to emergent properties of what is basically software, as so many Kurzwelian transhumanists do, is not all that far from the mark? After all, the brain takes in bits of data and performs computations with it to make a decision about what to do next, right? And there are quite a few asynchronous processes going on in the background as well, moving data around to make sure we have some awareness of our environment while going about our daily tasks. We could even liken the movement of signals within the brain to currents flowing through logic gates. How is our brain not like a computer, just in a squishy organic form? Well, going by this this premise we could concede that the brain is a computer, but we would then also have to accept that anything that can interact with its environment and store information must be a computer too. After a certain limit, the definition of a computer would become so broad as to encompass a great deal of the universe and turn into something functionally meaningless for all intents and purposes.

So what would be a better way to define the solider crab computer then? Well, we could say that researchers used soldier crabs to perform some very basic computations and show that in a computer, all that will matter is the ability to encode and decode data. How this data is moved around or what encodes it is up to the actual designer and can differ widely, something already well known in computer science. The only reason why this experiment got some media attention is because it sounds like the kind of odd, whacky science that a pop sci news source loves to cover for its novelty factor. And if the press really wanted to make things interesting, they would’ve looked past the oddball premise and noted that this is one of the reasons why it would be difficult to try and communicate with alien civilizations via active SETI because their computers are highly unlikely to be anything like ours and for all we know, they may well herd bacteria or special molecules through a logic gate encoding base-3 data. To them, our 1s and 0s would be little more than garbage data collected from random phenomena in deep space, and summarily discarded. All of our attempts to distinguish ourselves in a binary format would be for naught, just as their attempts to send back something in base-n would also be lost to our automated systems, interpreted as white, garbled noise passing through space, if it’s interpreted at all.

Maybe that’s another possible solution to the Fermi Paradox? Could it be that intelligent aliens are abundant through the galaxy if not the universe and even live close enough to each other to try communication (though I think it’s rather unlikely based on evolutionary theory’s implications for astrobiology), but wouldn’t you know it, they simply can’t understand each other. Even the story of the mythical Tower of Babel just wouldn’t cover how profound the miscommunication is because even after being punished for attempting to literally touch the sky through sheer ingenuity and cutting-edge engineering, the workers could at least understand that their fellow builders were trying to say something. If they were alien species on different worlds, they wouldn’t even realize that someone was talking to them. Or even talking for that matter. This means that active SETI is unlikely to be successful, especially if it follows the advice of those who say that we need to restrict communication to binary signals only, and that we must be mindful that a burst of data into outer space is akin to walking into a cave in the middle of a vast desert and whistling a few notes. Maybe someone or something will hear it, but don’t get all that hopeful about some creature whistling back because that creature might not even have ears…

See: Gunji, Y., et al. (2012). Robust soldier crab ball gate Complex Systems 20 (2011) 2 arXiv: 1204.1749v1

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galaxy in hands

Individual humans aren’t much of an impact on nature by themselves. Considering the sheer size of the Earth and our finite life spans, one would think we have very little effect on our world. But there are a lot of us and in the last thousand years, we’ve dammed or diverted many major rivers, built artificial islands, pumped billions of tons of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, lit up the the night skies with our networks of cities, put a smattering of objects in orbit, and managed to connect the world with fiber optic cables stretching across the ocean floor for thousands of miles. We’re slowly but surely changing the world, and if we were gone tomorrow by some bizarre happenstance, it would take nature centuries to truly erase the mark we left so far. That’s why some scientists started calling the modern age the Anthrophocene, to reflect on how we changed our planet while developing a fully fledged civilization. And space writer Ray Villard ponders whether we could know if a similar temporal designation may apply to the universe itself after reading a paper by a theoretical physicist speculating on whether any species grow powerful enough to alter entire galaxies, doing what humans do on a scale many orders of magnitude greater and involving entire solar systems instead of cities or islands.

Here’s the question. If a species old enough amasses enough technological prowess, would it one day have to manipulate stellar structures big enough for another sufficiently advanced species to notice? This idea is a cornerstone of the Kardashev Scale by which such powerful creatures would register at Level 3 while we are barely even on the chart. For the time being, let’s leave aside the questions of how likely it would be for aliens to evolve the intelligence necessary to build massive interstellar spacecraft and continue to survive and thrive for millions of years as they roam the stars. Maybe they’re just really lucky and have such a passionate vision, they banded together and made it their duty to reach beyond their own solar system. But how far would such a species reach? After all, a galaxy the size of the Milky Way is vast, and to modify it on a noticeable scale would require that the aliens in question manipulate tens of billions of stars. They’ll need trillions of intelligent robots doing their bidding across thousands of light years and executing complex orbital maneuvers that would sync their efforts to a sequence of events planned to last millennia. And they would need to somehow collect all the energy they would generate in this elaborate process. How would they even try to go about that?

Well, if we get very creative for a second and think back to a paper arguing that powerful aliens could draw a lot of energy from stellar mass artificial black holes, we could extrapolate further and make the leap to dark matter being the unseen influence of extremely advanced technology which keeps galaxies rotating around a central supermassive black hole which is periodically fed for a power boost, an artificial quasar of sorts. Most of the energy wouldn’t be generated by the accretion disk in the galactic core, however, it would come from the quickened rotation of the galaxy. So imagine the Milky Way or Andromeda as giant turbines being ran by some insanely powerful alien civilization which channels the enormous currents generated in the process to power warp gates and supply its sprawling empire, an empire so huge we may never be able to detect it. Is this an idea we could actually use in SETI? Probably not, not only because such a phenomenon happening would be so extremely unlikely as to be practically impossible, but because we haven’t a clue as to how this would work and find any support for a species capable of manipulating an entire galaxy as their power grid. How would an astronomer find something we can’t even really conceive of beyond wild, random speculation?

Kardashev Level 3 entities should technically be some of the easiest alien civilizations to notice because an entire galaxy could give us clues to their existence and we can survey a whole lot of galaxies. But their means of altering these cosmic objects would have to be so far beyond us, we may well have seen a myriad of such powerful and technologically advanced aliens in public Hubble image galleries and don’t know it. Maybe we’ll never for sure know if these creatures exist or not. Though it may be fun to think about how exactly they would pull off the feats we usually tend to attribute to them. Who knows, maybe it would inspire us to start a mega-engineering project of our own to see how far we can advance our own technology in the process?

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Say that somewhere out there is a species of space-faring aliens which have relativistic rockets or warp drive technology that lets it travel between solar systems. Considering the sheer size of the universe, it’s probably a good bet that at least one exists. And as these aliens are tooling around, their spacecraft will likely leave what we could call a wake in the fabric of space and time, a wake that we could observe under the right conditions, when the stars align. This is the main gist of an arXiv paper which considers that despite the possibilities of a successful detection of an alien craft’s fly-by being almost nil, we could still try just in case we do get lucky. To start a long term survey, we just need to find star pairs close to each other and aligned with the Earth at about the right angle to give us a good view of the space between them. Then we just look and wait for something to show up, ideally a smear of light magnified by the relativistic wake of the spacecraft we’re trying to detect. It’s a neat idea and the authors readily acknowledge that we may just be too far away to notice alien travelers, or be in a region of space where there are no civilizations capable of interstellar travel, which keeps them grounded when discussing such a lofty SETI approach. But there is one thing they may want to explore a little further…

When we last discussed the Icarus project, did you notice the sheer size of the probe being considered? Go and have a look at that monstrosity and note that the Empire Stare Building does not look all that much bigger by comparison. That’s not because Icarus’ designers have a thing for really large spacecraft, it’s because this craft will have to carry so much fuel and have giant engines to accelerate. Any future interstellar craft designed to support humans, would be even bigger than Icarus to carry all the essentials across trillions and trillions of miles. Let’s say that at some point, we’ll actually decide to build a ship able to ferry humans between the Sun and Alpha Centauri at relativistic speeds, and equip it with a brand new, state of the art artificial black hole engine which should get us up to relativistic speeds very, nicely, shaving the travel time down to only a couple of years instead of several millennia. We’d need to build something much like the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai to house all the things necessary to comfortably support and house our crew, then get another pair of similar structures and devote them to being engines and fuel tanks, and at least another one to function as a backup tank and to securely house all the shuttle craft that will let the crew go down to the surface of their target world because that giant assembly is simply never going to be able to land. It’s far too huge and heavy. And keep in mind that these estimates are probably erring on the small side, relying on a radical propulsion system.

Now, our imaginary spaceship which we’ll call something inspiring, say, The Really, Really Huge, would have an approximate mass of 2 million tons empty and without the micro black hole suspended between the giant engines armed with nuclear lasers and fuel. The black hole would add at least another million tons and all of its fuel, all the relevant supplies, and supporting spacecraft would bring the total mass of our interstellar craft to something in the neighborhood of 4 million tons. Depending on its configuration, it could be close to 1,000 or so meters long which is just about two thirds of a mile, and about a quarter of a mile across. Sounds huge and very, very expensive, doesn’t it? And this baby goes from zero to ~0.5c in just 6.3 months! How could alien astronomers not notice something like that screaming through the voids of space, warping the photons from the sunlight behind it and leaving a high speed smear in the spectrum of our sun on its way out? Well, for the size and speed of this thing, you have to remember that its traveling through space and as such is tiny if we’re going to compare it to the kind of objects telescopes can actually resolve. We have trouble imaging gas giants in other solar systems, gas giants which are 50,000 times bigger than our hypothetical ship. Sure, its wake is going to affect how the spectrum of a star looks but the warping would be so tiny that it may not even be visible as an artifact of the imaging process, the tiniest fraction of a pixel across, smaller than an exomoon.

And that’s the real gotcha in an otherwise interesting plan. Even if you’re lucky enough to catch an alien ship in the middle of crossing between two nearby solar systems and snap that one in a quadrillion shot, how exactly do you prove that this microscopic smudge in the spectrum is the trail of an extraterrestrial spacecraft? What says it wasn’t dust in the air or atmospheric fluctuations at the time of the shot? Even if you take a picture with an orbital telescope to avoid having a stray air particle from blotting out a snapshot of a relativistic craft, there’s still the potential of a microscopic speck of space debris or a wandering electron to mess with the shot. If the alien species in question build a ship the size of Mercury and flies past our solar system, we’d probably have some chance of catching their relativistic wake by happenstance. Otherwise, the ship will be just too small for a proper identification, if would even register in the image in the first place. Likewise, if we set our sights on a few dozen nearby stars floating close to each other, we wouldn’t necessarily boost our odds of seeing aliens traverse between them since we have no guarantee that they would evolve and thrive in those systems, just a vague estimate of probability that a planet supporting life in general may exist there. It seems that if we’ll ever catch ET mid-flight, it would’ve had to buzz our telescopes on its way to planets unknown…

See: Garcia-Escartin, J.C., et al. (2012). Scouting the spectrum for interstellar travelers arXiv: 1203.3980v1

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