Archives For aliens

ufo vector

Different people who want Hillary Clinton to win the presidency in 2016 want her to win for many different reasons. Some believe that a female president is long overdue. Others, believe that of all the presidential contenders, she is the most electable. Yet others dislike her greatly, but with some complicated political calculus arrived at the conclusion that her ability to nominate four of the future Supreme Court justices makes her the only choice that won’t plunge the country into despotic arch-conservatism. But others still couldn’t care less about any of that because such, can we say, earthly, concerns are trivial to them. You see, to them, the most important part of a potential second Clinton administration is that they’ll finally get access to all the top secret files detailing our ongoing contact with alien civilizations. You know, after the last great reveal of our apparent alien alliances failed to materialize in 2012 as predicted, I started losing hope that an alien that’s been taken to our leaders will address the world, but hot damn! Another chance!

As said many times before and will say again, there’s absolutely nothing in the laws of biology that prevents an alien species on another planet from becoming intelligent, building spacecraft when their civilization is advanced enough, and exploring the cosmos, eventually making it to a little blue planet around an otherwise unremarkable yellow sun in the galactic suburbs. In fact, if we run the numbers, it’s almost a certainty. But the odds of this happening with a species close enough to detect us over the last century or so are astronomical. Think of meeting aliens a little like winning the lottery. Someone is going to hit that jackpot, but the chances of it being you just as you really need the money are basically nonexistent. Still, our dedicated ufologists are totally and irreversibly convinced that aliens are among us, whether we’re secretly waging war with an extraterrestrial army on the dark side of the moon, exploring their artifacts on and around Mars, meeting in secret with their representatives, or some combination of the above, and nothing will possibly change their minds, nor will any disclosure be adequate enough.

Again, the government could tell the ufologists everything it knows and even admit to every top secret drone and stealth aircraft test it may have chosen to cover up as a UFO, which would be fascinating for aviation buffs and historians. But that’s not the narrative that ufologists on whose behalf organizations like the Paradigm Research Group advocates, want to hear. Nothing short of the plot of Stargate SG-1 or Doctor Who turning out to be a documentary will do. For them, speculative astrobiology has reinforced a faith instead of acting as a fact check and they’re just hoping for a confirmation that an alien empire doing business with humans in every government report with enough reactions, like Evangelical Christians patiently await The Rapture and take every war or earthquake as a sign of the impending end of time. Although I would argue that the former is much more plausible than the latter in the grand scheme of things, either is so unlikely that it’s probably a bad idea to base our lives on either belief. If you really want to find alien life and get full disclosure about alien contact, I’d point you to SETI rather than any politician…

radio telescope

Well, as you were warned, Weird Things is back in action, coming to you from Los Angeles with the latest in high tech, astrobiology, strange, bleeding edge science, and skepticism, and I can’t think of a better way to return than with tackling an alien contact story that spread across much of the web like wildfire, appearing in everything from IBI, university blogs, Forbes, and featured by the usual suspects like New Scientist. According to this story, fast radio bursts, or FRBs, are not actually the bizarre, millisecond-length death cries of distant exotic neutron stars collapsing into black holes, as one of the front-running hypotheses states, but may be aliens trying to ping our radio telescopes to see if we’re out there and listening. Think of them as a Wow! Signal on repeat, something not giving us much to work with, but ultimately fascinating by the possibilities they offer, in one of which, SETI’s Seth Shostack sees the work of his alien colleagues…

These fast radio bursts could conceivably be ‘wake up calls’ from other societies, trying to prompt a response from any intelligent life that’s outfitted with radio technology.

But what exactly makes these FRBs so special that someone would even consider them as the work of an intelligent mind? It all comes down to a number called a dispersion measure in radio astronomy, the density of free electrons affected by the signal on its way to our receivers. This might not tell you exactly how far away a radio source is, you’ll have to do some work to adjust your measurements for what’s known to exist in the direction from which you’re getting a signal to do that, but it does tell you something about the distance and power of the object. And when one cluster of FRBs was recently observed in real time, this measurement consistently came in as some multiple of 187.5 which, according to the experts, has a 1 in 2,000 chance of occurring naturally. This is not a wandering, random signal we happened to pick up. There is a very clear and distinct pattern.

Of course all this doesn’t mean that we have a slam dunk case of alien contact because we’ve already gotten some very steady, regular pulses the distance and location of which we did pin down to fixed points in space, unlike FRBs. We also wondered if these were otherworldly minds trying to see if there was anyone out there because the pings were so regular, predictable, and clear, also unlike these FRBs. Now, when we get such regular signals, we know it’s a neutron star with a powerful magnetic field pointing at us, not a distant alien civilization saying hello. A pattern in a signal doesn’t necessarily mean intelligence, even if the pattern is odd. All that was determined so far is that some pattern exists with significant certainty. What’s actually causing this signal is still a mystery, and the best we can do for now to identify a culprit is to say that the FRBs are most likely coming from our own galaxy. So how did we go from basic signal analysis to a deluge of announcements about the possibility of first contact with extraterrestrials?

You see, when the researchers were speculating about what causes FRBs, they spent the vast majority of their time talking about the relationship between the bursts, the pattern they found in the distribution measure, and the Earth’s integer second, a number used for syncing devices to keep very precise track of time. In fact, the explanation they consider most likely involves some sort of a ping between cell towers bouncing around high in the atmosphere, confusing delicate equipment, and the scatter plot of distribution measures show that the signal coming from deep space would either be on the move, or going through a very irregular cloud of gas and dust. So just for the sake of completeness, they add the the following thought…

A more likely option could be a galactic source producing quantized chirped signals, but this seems most surprising. If both of these options could be excluded, only an artificial source (human or non-human) must be considered, particularly since most bursts have been observed in only one location (Parkes radio telescope). A re-assessment of man-made phenomena, such as perytons, would then be required.

They then go on to say that the strong relationship between the detected FRBs and a common timekeeping standard we use in precision equipment pretty much “clinches” the case for a very straightforward explanation that we’re detecting our own electronic noise. So out of a four page paper talking about how likely it is the FRBs are noise form our devices trying to stay in sync to provide us with reliable communication channels, a single speculative mention of “non-human” sources from space which is dismissed in light of the collected evidence turned a summation of some purely technical analysis of radio noise into “we’re being called by aliens!” splattered on a thousand news sites and pop sci blogs. Did no one read the paper? Looking at some dates, it’s possible to find to at least one of the big culprits of this very inventive take on this research.

Bet you won’t act too shocked when I point the finger to the Daily Mail since they’ve done the same sort of thing before, claiming that an astronomer detected signals he didn’t detect from a planet which never actually observed, and it appears they did it again, to be copied by as many other sources as possible to get the traffic. Considering that their journalistic standards are not so much lax as they are completely non-existent, they’re not going to be above warping what a scientific paper says to manufacture news where there really aren’t any. They’re technically not lying as such; the researchers did say that we could consider a non-human artificial sources of the signals they detected. It’s just that the Mail and those rushing to run with the same story in editorial haste just so happened to omit that the researchers followed this thought up with “but seriously, no, don’t, it’s pretty much certainly our own noise” to draw in a few million clicks…

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…

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?

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

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…

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?

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…

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?

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