Alien Hunters Still Thinking Inside The Box (or Dyson Sphere)

As those who are familiar with my writing already know, I have long thought that the SETI program was highly illogical, for a number of reason, some of which are outlined here and here.

To summarize, it is the height of anthropomorphic and unimaginative thinking to assume that ET will evolve just like we did and develop radio technology at all.  Even if they did, and followed a technology evolution similar to our own, the era of high-powered radio broadcasts should be insignificant in relation to the duration of their evolutionary history.  In our own case even, that era is almost over, as we are moving to highly networked and low-powered data communication (e.g. Wi-Fi), which is barely detectable a few blocks away, let alone light years.  And even if we happened to overlap a 100-year radio broadcast era of a civilization in our galactic neighborhood, they would still never hear us, and vice versa, because the signal level required to reliably communicate around the world becomes lost in the noise of the cosmic microwave background radiation before it even leaves the solar system.

So, no, SETI is not the way to uncover extraterrestrial intelligences.

Dyson Sphere

Some astronomers are getting a bit more creative and are beginning to explore some different ways of detecting ET.  One such technique hinges on the concept of a Dyson Sphere.  Physicist Freeman Dyson postulated the idea in 1960, theorizing that advanced civilizations will continuously increase their demand for energy, to the point where they need to capture all of the energy of the star that they orbit.  A possible mechanism for doing so could be a network of satellites surrounding the solar system and collecting all of the energy of the star.  Theoretically, a signature of a distant Dyson Sphere would be a region of space emitting no visible light but generating high levels of infrared radiation as waste.  Some astronomers have mapped the sky over the years, searching for such signatures, but to no avail.

Today, a team at Penn State is resuming the search via data from infrared observatories WISE and Spitzer.  Another group from Princeton has also joined in the search, but are using a different technique by searching for dimming patterns in the data.

I applaud these scientists who are expanding the experimental boundaries a bit.  But I doubt that Dyson Spheres are the answer.  There are at least two flaws with this idea.

First, the assumption that we will continuously need more energy is false.  Part of the reason for this is the fact that once a nation has achieved a particular level of industrialization and technology, there is little to drive further demand.  The figure below, taken from The Atlantic article “A Short History of 200 Years of Global Energy Use” demonstrates this clearly.


In addition, technological advances make it cheaper to obtain the same general benefit over time.  For example, in terms of computing, performing capacity per watt has increased by a factor of over one trillion in the past 50 years.  Dyson was unaware of this trend because Moore’s Law hadn’t been postulated until 1965.  Even in the highly corrupt oil industry, with their collusion, lobbying, and artificial scarcity, performance per gallon of gas has steadily increased over the years.

The second flaw with the Dyson Sphere argument is the more interesting one – the assumptions around how humans will evolve.  I am sure that in the booming 1960s, it seemed logical that we would be driven by the need to consume more and more, controlling more and more powerful tools as time went on.  But, all evidence actually points to the contrary.

We are in the beginning stages of a new facet of evolution as a species.  Not a physical one, but a consciousness-oriented one.  Quantum Mechanics has shown us that objective reality doesn’t exist.  Scientists are so frightened by the implications of this that they are for the most part in complete denial.  But the construct of reality is looking more and more like it is simply data.  And the evidence is overwhelming that consciousness is controlling the body and not emerging from it.  As individuals are beginning to understand this, they are beginning to recognize that they are not trapped by their bodies, nor this apparent physical reality.

Think about this from the perspective of the evolution of humanity.  If this trend continues, why will we even need the body?

Robert Monroe experienced a potential future (1000 years hence), which may be very much in line with the mega-trends that I have been discussing on “No sound, it was NVC [non-vocal communication]! We made it! Humans did it! We made the quantum jump from monkey chatter and all it implied.” (“Far Journeys“)

earthWe may continue to use the (virtual) physical reality as a “learning lab”, but since we won’t really need it, neither will we need the full energy of the virtual star.  And we can let virtual earth get back to the beautiful virtual place it once was.

THIS is why astronomers are not finding any sign of intelligent life in outer space, no matter what tools they use.  A sufficiently advanced civilization does not communicate using monkey chatter, nor any technological carrier like radio waves.

They use consciousness.

So will we, some day.

Why Worry about ET, Stephen Hawking?

Famous astrophysicist, Stephen Hawking, made the news recently when he called for us to stop attempting to contact ET.  No offense to Dr. Hawking and other scientists who have similar points of view, but I find the whole argument about dangerous ET’s, to use a Vulcan phrase, “highly illogical.”

First of all, there is the whole issue around the ability to contact ET.  As I showed in my post “Could Gliesians be Watching Baywatch“, it is virtually impossible to communicate with any extraterrestrial civilization beyond our solar system without significant power and antenna gain.  The world’s most powerful radio astronomy dish at Arecibo has a gain of 60 dB, which means that it could barely detect a 100 kilowatt non-directional signal generated from a planet 20 light years away, such as Gliese 581g, but only if it were pointed right at it.  More to the point, what are the odds that such a civilization would be at the right level of technology to be communicating with us, using a technique that overlaps what we know?

Using the famous Drake equation, N=R*·fp·ne·fl·fi·fc·L, with the following best estimates for parameters: R*= 10/year, fp= .5, ne= 2, fl= .5, fi= .001 (highly speculative), fc= .01, L=50 (duration in years of the radio transmitting period of a civilization), we get .0025 overlapping radio wave civilizations per galaxy.  But if you then factor in the (im)probabilities of reaching those star systems (I used a megawatt of power into an Arecibo-sized radio telescope), the likelihood of another “advanced technology” civilization even developing radio waves, the odds that we happen to be  pointing our radio telescope arrays at each other at the same time, and the odds that we are using the same frequency, we get a probability of 1.25E-22.  For those who don’t like scientific notation, how about .0000000000000000000000125.  (Details will be in a forthcoming paper that I will post on this site.  I’ll replace this text with the link once it is up)

So why is Stephen Hawking worried about us sending a message that gets intercepted by ET?  Didn’t anyone do the math?

But there is a second science/sci-fi meme that I also find highly illogical.  And that is that malevolent ETs may want to mine our dear old earth for some sort of mineral.  Really?  Are we to believe that ET has figured out how to transcend relativity, exceed the speed of light, power a ship across the galaxy using technology far beyond our understanding, but still have an inability to master the control of the elements?  We have been transmuting elements for 70 years.  Even gold was artificially created by bombarding mercury atoms with neutrons as far back as 1941.  Gold could be created in an accelerator or nuclear reactor at any time, although to be practical from an economic standpoint, we may need a few years.  However, if gold, or any particular element, was important enough to be willing to fly across the galaxy and repress another civilization for, then economics should not be an issue.  Simple nuclear technology can create gold far easier than it can power a spaceship at near light speeds through space.

Even if our space traveling friends need something on Earth that can’t possibly be obtained through technology, would they really be likely to be so imperialistic as to invade and steal our resources?  From the viewpoint of human evolution, as technology and knowledge has developed, so have our ethical sensibilities and social behavior.  Of course, there is still “Jersey Shore” and “Jackass,” but by and large we have advanced our ethical values along with our technological advances and there is no reason to think that these wouldn’t also go hand in hand with any other civilization.

So while I get that science fiction needs to have a compelling rationale for ET invasion because it is a good story, I fail to understand the fear that some scientists have that extraterrestrials will actually get all Genghis Khan on us.


Could Gliesians be Watching Baywatch?

[Note: Click here for a more thorough treament of the viability of SETI and the (high) likelihood of extraterrestrial intelligence]

Gliese 581g is an earthlike planet orbiting the star Gliese 581, 20.3 light years away from us.  Discovered just last week by astronomer Steven Vogt, he announced that the odds of life on this exosolar planet are 100%.  That’s a pretty bold statement, even for a planet thought to be in a habitable zone of a star a little smaller and cooler than our sun.  Most astronomers are attributing his statement to being a little overexcited with his discovery.  But it got me wondering – if there were technologically advanced lifeforms on this planet, is it possible that they would be able to receive our radio or TV transmissions?  And, remember that when Gliese 581g might be receiving from us today is what we broadcast 20.3 years ago, such as episodes of Baywatch.  Alternatively, can we hear them, as SETI has been attempting to do for the past 30 or so years?

As it turns out, there isn’t much to worry about, unless we decide to send a very high-powered narrow directional message to a planet that just happens to be at the perfect level of technology which also just happens to have outpaced their social evolution dramatically.  Not likely there either, for reasons that I will discuss in an upcoming post (sorry, Stephen Hawking).

Here’s the deal.  Let’s take a typical TV broadcasting station operating 50000 watts on Channel 2.  Because radio waves attenuate proportional to the square of the distance from the transmitter, this signal will be pretty miniscule by the time it gets to the edge of our solar system.  In fact, by the time this 6 MHz wide signal at 60 MHz gets about 1.4E+11 km away, its power density will be at the same level as the corresponding power density of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation in that frequency band (feel free to check my math – it’s a little rusty).  In addition, the signal will be an indecipherable mess because it will be intermixed with all of the other TV stations broadcasting on Channel 2.  So how far out exactly is 1.4E+11 km?  Turns out this is past Pluto, but barely the beginning of the Oort cloud in our own Solar system, or .015 light years.  That is .00075 of the distance to Gliese 581, across which distance the signal will be attenuated by a further factor of 1.8 million and CMB background noise will completely swamp out the signal.

So, zero chance of Gliesians kicking back and enjoying an interstellar episode of Baywatch.  And not much chance of us hearing accidental radio waves generated from their planet, even assuming they followed a similar technological evolution at the exact same time as us.  Sorry, SETI.
 radioastronomy200 baywatch200

Royal Astronomers Figure Out What Sci-Fi Writers Have Known for Years

Last month, Lord Martin Rees, the president of Britain’s Royal Society and “astronomer to the Queen of England”, hosted the National Science Academy’s first conference on the possibility of extraterrestrial life, which was attended by such scientific illuminaries as physicist Paul Davies, SETI founder and astrophysicist extraordinaire Frank Drake.  And the resulting sound bite of the week is “World-Leading Physicist Says ‘They Could Exist in Forms We Can’t Conceive'”?

Really?  That’s it?  That’s news?  That’s what we get from the world’s leading thinkers on cosmology?

Sorry for my tone, but it’s about time these guys got caught up with science fiction writers from 50 years ago.  Check out a 1959 movie called “Invisible Invaders.”  Or at a minimum, take Carl Sagan’s brainchild from the late 70’s, “Contact” (film treatment in 1979, book in 1985, and movie in 1997) featuring a highly advanced extraterrestrial race who can appear to us in any form they want.  I’m sure there were many other writers who considered that a civilization advanced enough to cross millions of light years of space, might be advanced enough to learn how to cloak.  I certainly pondered that idea as a kid.

No doubt, these guys are a bright bunch.  But not necessarily seeing the forest for the trees.  Take SETI, for example.

We tend to assign attributes of our own civilization and our own values to other potential civilizations.  But there is really no reason to assume that once life forms on a particular planet that it will evolve into a life form that is eager to communicate.  One could argue that the intelligence of dolphins, elephants, and humans are roughly equivalent (turn the clock back 50,000 years and look at what we assume about the behavior of each species; is there much difference?)  We don’t see dolphins building SETI dishes.  Using Drake’s own equation for counting the number of ET civilizations that we might be able to communicate with, we need to consider the duration of a civilization communicating with electromagnetic radiation in the radio spectrum.  One can make the assumption that it might be similar to ours and in the range of 50-100 years.  But this is a big assumption.  Maybe ET modulates magnetic fields, or seismic waves, maybe they got fully wired for broadband internet before discovering radio wave propagation, maybe they communicate via telepathy, or entanglement, or some form of communication that is completely unknown to us.  Expecting them to have a period of radio wave technology that just happens to overlap ours is probably quite unlikely.  When I made reasonable assumptions for the factors in the Drake Equation in my book “The Universe – Solved!“, I got the result of .08 overlapping radio wave civilizations per galaxy, making it unlikely that SETI will find anything before funding dries up.

On the other hand, modifying the Drake Equation to estimate the likelihood of ET visitation, I came to the following conclusion: If 50% of intelligent life forms can make it to Type III status, there should be thousands of migrating/colonizing/traveling species in our neighborhood.  On the other hand, would they even care about us?  When we take a walk through a field, do we attempt to communicate with the ants in an anthill?  If the field is ready to be leveled in order to make room for a housing development, do we attempt to save the ants?  No.  Why not?  Because they are so far beneath our intellect level or our perceived level of net worth, that such endeavors are simply not worth our time.  Now imagine what a Type II or III civilization might be like.  Consider how far we have progressed (some might say, regressed) as a society since the hunter/gatherer stage of human evolution 10,000 years ago.  Further, consider that we are accelerating in this progression exponentially.  So, for all practical purposes, it is impossible to even imagine where we might be in 10,000 years.  Telepathic communication, control of time and space, simultaneous access to parallel universes, full merge with AI?  Some futurists predict these things in hundreds of years, not 10,000.  Furthermore, since 100 million years represents less than 1% of the lifetime of our galaxy, it is not unrealistic to assume that Type III civilizations may be 100’s of millions of years advanced compared to our own society.  Given the foregoing discussion, it is easy to make an argument that it is highly unlikely that ETs are zipping about in our atmosphere in vehicles that appear to be no more than 50 years ahead of our technology (they supposedly crash, after all).  The only possible “True ET” explanation is that extremely advanced species either intentionally appear in a form that makes us realize that they are here (not unlike the father figure in the Carl Sagan movie “Contact”) or they don’t appear to us at all.  The above section was taken from my book and written in 2007.

Lord Martin Rees, you should have saved yourself the expense of a conference and picked up a copy of “Contact” and “The Universe – Solved!