FEAR #5: The Hunt for E.T.

The internet is a smorgasbord of fearmongering. Climate change, Ebola, gluten intolerance, skipping leg day… what should we really be afraid of? And to what extent? This edition of FEAR looks at where our quest to end our crushing loneliness will lead us.

At the time of writing there is no substantive evidence to suggest the existence of extra-terrestrial life, unless of course there is the mother of all conspiracies going on (Wake up sheeple!!!!!1). Many people are attracted by such theories, even omnigeezer Danny Dyer has got in on the act, but if you’re one of them Stephen Hawking thinks you should shut up:

“If the government is covering up knowledge of aliens, they are doing a better job of it than they do at anything else.”

SETI TELESCOPE

They’re listening to Uranus.

So if the aliens aren’t already here, do they exist at all? Given the vastness of the universe and the seeming universality of physics and chemistry it isn’t much of a stretch to suggest there is probably some biology out there too. The question is how much biology is “some” biology? If we ignore the majority of the universe (sorry guys), which is expanding away from us so fast that it is unlikely that we’ll ever reach it, and focus on the Milky Way then we still have somewhere around 100-400 billion stars to work with. Restricting the estimate to sun-like stars with habitable planets only limits us to a minimum of 1.5 billion habitable planets. From there we can only speculate on the probability of life evolving on these planets, but even if the odds are millions to one we would still expect a few thousand instances of life in the galaxy. This paradoxical combination of seemingly favourable odds and the total dearth of evidence is known as the Fermi paradox.

CURIOSITY

A very expensive selfie.

In order to resolve this paradox, humanity has gone hunting for life in the cosmos. The search has formed into two main branches, one is the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI), which involves listening in on the universe via massive radio telescopes, and the other is NASA digging around in the dirt on Mars with rovers like Curiosity (it’s probably more complex than that).

On the face of it, the discovery of fossilised prokaryotes on Mars may not seem as significant as the discovery of a radio message from a civilisation of super-beings, but if it were to be successful it would have massive implications for humanity. For starters it would show that life was not a rare fluke, comforting if you’re worried about being all alone in the universe, but terrifying when you think a bit harder. If simple life is common, either we’re the lucky first ones to develop intelligence (not impossible but highly unlikely given the age of the Earth) or there is something killing everything off before it develops into a highly intelligent civilisation. This theory is known as “The Great Filter” and it is to civilisation what Dutch sailors were to the Dodo. There are many candidates for a Great Filter, including the initial evolution of life, development of eukaryotic life and development of intelligence a.k.a. stuff we’ve already done. What’s scary is the possibility that The Great Filter lies ahead of us and our day of reckoning may be nigh! Or maybe it isn’t, no one really knows.

Stepping back from the doom mongering for a moment, let’s think about the other contact scenario, a message received by SETI. Firstly, consider that we have only been transmitting and listening to radio signals for around 100 years, which is small in comparison with the lifetime of the universe, stars, planets and even our species. Secondly, the focus of radio observations is skewed towards detection of signals from “intelligent” life. Given the time scales and the bias of the system we can’t really expect to intercept messages from anything other than some kind of super-being.

pond scum

Idiots.

Historically, when a more technologically advanced civilisation comes into contact with a less technologically advanced one it doesn’t end amicably (just ask people living the Americas in 1491). However, debating whether they will be warmongers or pacifists is anthropocentric, their history and culture will not necessarily be a reflection of ours. The fact is that until we detect any signals the nature of any intelligent life in the universe besides our own is unknowable and there is the distinct possibility that their advances will be incomprehensible to us. In this situation they may look upon our “intelligence” in the same way that we look upon pond scum, it exists but we don’t feel any affinity for it and certainly don’t factor it into our decision making processes. It’s unsettling to think that we could be steamrollered without even knowing what’s coming and without them even considering if our existence is worth saving (hopefully we’d appreciate the irony given our treatment of other species here on Earth).

LIGHTYEAR EXPLANATION

Lonely, but safe. Taken from here.

Thankfully we may have one saving grace, the vast distances involved. This offers us the time to deal with whatever message we receive in a considered manner because it will have taken years to traverse interstellar space. There are already preparations underway, the SETI post detection subcommittee was set up “to prepare, reflect on, manage, advise, and consult in preparation for and upon the discovery of a putative signal of extraterrestrial intelligent (ETI) origin.” and the widely adopted SETI post detection protocol encourages information sharing and international consultations on a response, including informing the Secretary General of the UN.

While it would be nice if a message from extra-terrestrials united us in our common humanity, it would take a fair slice of naïvety to expect things to actually go down like that. It’s likely that the post detection protocol will be broken quickly, it’s not even legally binding (we covered how space law sucks here) and when it comes to it governments may not trust academics or other nations with the information in the message. This will likely breed mistrust.

When the message does get out, the public reaction will vary largely between (and indeed within) cultures, no doubt some would embrace it, but you only need to look at B.o.B.’s flat earth rant to know that the cynicism will be off the charts. Furthermore, it’s highly likely that vested interests (read: religious groups and politicians) would do their best to play up this cynicism, perhaps under the pretence of preventing alien cultural influences on Earth. Under these circumstances we must be aware that SETI detection facilities may become the focal point of attacks by groups with whom intelligent life elsewhere in the universe runs contrary to their world-view. All this before we’ve even discussed sending a response.

So should we respond? Well, we are already broadcasting our location and culture with radio and television broadcasts. However, these will be difficult to detect unless someone had an antenna the size of Manhattan within 100 light years of us, so direct response would require a much more powerful signal. While speculative messages have been sent, many have urged caution, arguing that we’re the new, stupid kids on the scene and our lust for knowledge may be our undoing. We would be entering a long term, long distance relationship with an unknown entity that could potentially expose us to things beyond our conception. Besides, the time between messages could easily be thousands of years, so we will be submitting future generations to unknown consequences of our actions. Basically, first impressions count and the price of a fuck up will be paid by our descendants, sound familiar?

Given what’s riding on this, the UN is the obvious choice to make a decision over how to proceed because it’s the closest approximation of fair international representation we have. However, I’m inclined to agree with the more realistic assessment from Michael Michaud who said:

“We cannot assume that SETI is immune from the ancient motivations of egoism, power, and greed.”

There is little that can be done to prevent rich and powerful groups from sending their own unrepresentative messages. I’m talking about this guy:

TOM CRUISE

“Hi Xenu! We’re 6-feet tall… all of us” – Tom Cruise (probably)

This may lead to a situation in which multiple contradictory messages are sent, which would only hinder the establishment of meaningful communication.

As always, assuming we’re not already doomed, the fate of humanity may be in the hands of a small unrepresentative elite and a fuck up may throw us out of the frying pan and into one hell of a fire. It’s enough to make you glad we’ve not found anything yet.

JW

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5 thoughts on “FEAR #5: The Hunt for E.T.

  1. ‘Crushing loneliness’ thats a bit theatrical most of the planet is just getting on with living. Some struggling for existence, others lapping up luxury. Prof Brian Cox thinks its unlikely there is any intelligent life in our galaxy.
    Its just an interesting game for the astronomical geeks who are artists at ignoring the real problems on the ground.

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    • Yeah that was a joke and as always with this topic there’s a bit of the hypothetical involved. What I would say is that Brian Cox is hardly the authority on this, he denies it:

      “There is only one advanced technological civilisation in this galaxy and there has only ever been one – and that’s us. We are unique.” (The Mail, Oct 2014)

      Then his views shift:

      “it wouldn’t be horrendously surprising if it turned out there was an advanced alien civilisation” (BBC Radio 6 Nov. 2015)

      It largely depends on what he’s trying to plug, his nature show or his space show. As I said in the article, no-one knows for sure what “The Great Filter” is or even if there is one. Plus, to pass astronomers off as “ignoring the real problems” is to ignore the many times humanity has benefited from blue sky research.

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      • Well I’m just a layman but I found his ‘Are We Alone ‘quite convincing.
        He went through all the well known pointers ; Drake equation Fermi’s paradox ect.
        There are two urgent problems which if not attended to with application and finance may well fragment civilisation.
        Antibiotic resistance and climate in the nature of flood defenses and pollution.
        Going to Mars is schoolboy stuff ; media waffle fine if there is time and money to throw around.

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      • I never claimed it was likely or unlikely whether we’d find extra-terrestrial life and given the extent of the unknowns it should be impossible to be convinced either way.

        As for climate change and antibiotic resistance, they are obviously massive issues, but they’re not going to cause the fragmentation of society. To imply that spending money on astronomy detracts from resolving these problems is wrong. The budget for medical research dwarfs the astronomy budget so transferring the money over would be a drop in the ocean. Again you underestimate blue-sky research, the field of microscopy would not be anywhere near as developed were it not for the parallel work on the telescope.

        As for climate change, there is a heavy reliance on satellites for observational data. Much of this technology was developed from (or even hand-in-hand with) devices used for astronomy and other space related fields.

        Although I never really discussed going to Mars, I would recommend you read the wait but why series on Elon Musk, Tesla and SpaceX. It’s a very thorough and well reasoned. Here’s the link to the SpaceX one that discusses the Mars issue at length:

        http://waitbutwhy.com/2015/08/how-and-why-spacex-will-colonize-mars.html

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      • Well if you hedge your bets like that you can’t be wrong and may end up right. I will read those Mars issue docs thankyou for sending.
        Americans spend more on pizza than the NASA budget, but these sort of statistics can be dug up anywhere.
        Millions have no basic hygene inspite of the huge budget you speak of. I suspect its orientated to the rich countries and things like heart transfers or proton beam cancer cures. I doubt if they are taking place in Africa or India.
        Prof Sally Davis has warned we are on the cusp of an antibiotic apocalpse so if we don’t act we may not get to Mars or anywhere else.
        When I look at the scientific revolution I see good and bad. To take a longstanding example the internal combustion engine revolutionised the world and polluted it. I believe the Club of Rome have the right and only sensible policy limits to growth.

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