Don’t Write Off ET Just Yet: It’s True We Haven’t Seen Alien Life; But, Neither Have We Seen Much Of The Universe — “It’s Time For A Bold New Effort At Searching For Extraterrestrial Intelligence
Caleb Scharf writing on the January 1, 2015 website, Nautilus, begins by noting – “Here’s a riddle. We’ve never seen any, and we don’t know if they exist; but, we think about them, debate them, and shout at each other about them. What are they?,” he asks.
“Aliens of course.”
Mr. Scharf is an astrophysicist and the Director of Astrobiology at Colombia University in New York. His latest book is, “The Copernicus Complex: Our Cosmic Significance In A Universe Of Planets And Probabilities. ”
“A while,” Mr. Scharf writes, “I wrote a piece for Nautilus, on what might happen to us after learning about the existence of extraterrestrial life –whether microbes on Mars, or technological civilizations around other stars — and, asked if there might be inherent, unexpected dangers in acquiring this information. Could infectious alien memes run riot, disrupting societies?,” he asks. “Might intelligent life decide to shield itself from such knowledge? It was a whimsical, quizzical thought experiment, exploring the real science in the hunt for life in the cosmos, and the possibility — even if remote — that there could be unexpected perils for intelligently curious life everywhere.”
“Simple enough,” Mr. Scharf observes. “But, as comments to the piece began to pile up — many in my inbox — I found myself on the receiving end of a barrage of opinion. There was outrage at the suggestion that there might even be circumstances to drive us (or any intelligent species) to close our astronomical and scientific eyes to avoid picking up dangerous alien data. At the other extreme, and I do mean extreme,” Mr. Scharf writes, “there was outrage that we were already being kept in the dark about aliens in our governments. And, across the board was a world-weary sense of our seemingly boundless capacity to screw things up.”
“Science is littered with the corpses of phenomena we’d thought we’d observed in their entirety.”
“For some of us, the prospect of joining a universe that we fantasize is populated by intelligent aliens ‘a la Star Wars is irresistible. It’s an escape hatch from the ever-diminishing circles of an Earth with 7B hungry, polluting humans. We have to stretch our interstellar wings. For others, a sinister extraterrestrial presence already exists here on Earth, a scapegoat for explaining humanity’s ills — so there’s no point seeking aliens out there when they’re already down here, locked behind a firewall of deceit and cat videos,” Mr. Scharf writes.
“One can feel a modicum of sympathy for these views,” he concedes. “But what bothered me [him] the most were statements of defeat; “There’s no point worrying. We know there’s nothing out there.” “These [thoughts/opinions] stem from that we currently have no answer to the “Where is everybody?, question, also known as the Fermi Paradox. If life is reasonably likely, and the universe is vast and old, why are extraterrestrials not already on our doorstep? Many construe this as evidence that intelligent, technological life must be thinly spread through cosmic space and time, out of sight, out of the equation. True? No, not necessarily,” Mr. Scharf contends.
“Despite out best efforts, science is littered with the corpses of phenomena we thought we’d observed in their entirety. Consider the planet Mercury,” Mr. Scharf notes. “Since the 1880s, scientists generally assumed that Mercury was tidally locked to the sun, with a day length equal to its orbital period of 88 Earth days. Astronomers’ hand-drawn maps nicely corroborated this, always showing the same surface features on a permanently sunlit side.”
“Except that’s wrong,” Mr. Scharf writes. “Data in the mid-960s, revealed that Mercury spins once every 59 days — despite what had been charted across the decades. In fact, the maps were consistent with our view of Mercury every second orbit, when it was easier to observe the surface from the Earth’s northern latitudes — we simply didn’t appreciate how blinded we were.”
“Time and again,” he writes, “we grossly overestimate our ability to sense what’s happening in the universe around us. Unlike many Hollywood movies, there is no global “command center’ that magically monitors and charts our interplanetary turf, alerting presidents, prime ministers, and plucky school kids that it’s time to welcome our alien overlords.”
“For example, until the 1990s, we hadn’t discovered any of the substantial trans-Neptunian objects that share Pluto’s heritage in the distant Kuiper Belt. It’s true, that we’ve now detected over 1,500 of these bodies, the largest of which are a thousand kilometers across. But, there should be another 100,000 of these objects — we just haven’t found them yet — because they’re so faint,’ Mr. Scharf notes.
“Consider too,” he says, “that the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope — a sky charting behemoth currently under construction — will take 10 years to detect 90 percent of all potentially hazardous (to us) asteroid and comet bodies larger than about 140 meters. It will be a remarkable accomplishment, yet the missing 10 percent likely totals 2,000 objects. That’s a lot of crucial stuff that we simply can’t find in our own solar system. This doesn’t mean that there are alien spacecraft or artifacts floating around our neighborhood; but, if there were, there’s no guarantee we’d have spotted them.”
“We’ve similarly only scraped the surface when it comes to trying to detect artificial radio signals, or modulated flashes of light traversing the cosmos. Despite the noble and sophisticated efforts of a cadre of scientists working on SETI — the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence — over the past several decades, the window of opportunity has been microscopic in cosmic terms,” Mr. Scharf argues.
Many Forms of SETI Could Be A Bargain
“NASA’s Curiosity rover recently sniffed a burst of methane on Mars, which may prove to be a breakthrough — as sign of extraterrestrial biology right under our nose,” Mr. Scharf says. “But. that’s handful of data points from a mission that’ll traverse a tiny fraction of 56M square mile planetary surface. This is not yet anything more than a tentative assay.”
“We should, as I argued [Mr. Scharf] in Nautilus in September, be cautious in the face of this ignorance. As speculative as it is to consider infectious extraterrestrial memes, we simply don’t what we’ll find. The cost of being prudent, to at least consider the implications, is small, and needn’t stop the search.”
“But, right now,” Mr. Scharf concedes, “the cost of that search is steep. The Curiosity Rover has a $2.5B price tag. NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, due to launch in 2018, has a shot at sensing atmospheric molecules, like carbon dioxide, methane, and water in a few Earth-analog planets orbiting nearby stars — molecules that can participate in biogeochemical cycles. It costs $9B. Huge, 30-meter aperture earthbound telescopes are being built that will have a similar capability, perhaps even sniffing out molecular oxygen in atmospheres 100 trillion miles away. These come in at around $1B a pop,” Mr. Scharf writes.
“The successful detection of these bio-signatures would be extraordinary, and would bolster our hopes that life can be studied remotely in a future filled with astronomical sensors. Except, it’s going to be awfully hard work, very expensive, and the first measurements will be rudimentary at best.”
“Many forms of SETI, by contrast — could be a bargain,” Mr. Scharf argues. “Early expectations of stray radio signals leaking from technological civilizations — were — overly optimistic….we ourselves have gone radio faint with digitization. But, the recent surge of exoplanet discoveries, have provided very specific targets. The problem,” he writes, “is that observatories able to pursue these targets, like the Allen Telescope Array in northern California, have struggled with on-again, off-again funding. For this project, a couple of million dollars is all that stands between action and inaction for a year.”
“New efforts to hunt for extraterrestrial techno-signatures are also bubbling up from the scientific community. From seeking peculiar stellar eclipses, to optical surveys of transient events, or seeing infrared glow of waste heat, might emanate from alien structures.”
“One can be skeptical,” Mr. Scharf concludes, “but the simple fact remains that only SETI has the potential to answer all of our questions in one fell swoop: Is there other life? Is it intelligent? I think [Mr. Scharf] that this potential raises SETI’s reward/failure ratio to on par with billion-dollar projects; and, what their bio-signature measurements can….and, can’t confirm for us.”
“On balance,” Mr. Scharf pleads, “it’s time to make a bold new effort at SETI, to pick up the gauntlet thrown by our pessimism and our continuing ignorance. That’s right, let’s stick our necks out and risk those alien memes anyway, I’m tired of prehensile thumb twiddling.”
‘On A Great Threshold Of Space Exploration:’ Evidence Of Alien Life WILL Be Found In The Next 20yrs., Says MIT Astronomer
“Life beyond Earth seems ‘inevitable,’ given the immensity of the universe,” says Dr. Sara Seager, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology Planetary scientist. Ellie Zolfagharifard, writing in the August 4, 2014 edition of London’s The Daily Mail, writes that “improving chances of alien life will require a technological leap. Two techniques under development could help the search significantly,” she notes. “One,” she says, “involves using specialized optics to block out interfering starlight. The other is the ‘star-shade,’ an umbrella-like screen, tens of meters in diameter — placed tens of thousands of kilometers in front of a telescope.”
“Astronomers are standing on a ‘great threshold’ of space exploration…that could see evidence of extra-terrestrial life being discovered in the next 20 years,” Dr. Seager said. “Life beyond Earth, seems ‘inevitable,’ given the immensity of the universe. Our own galaxy has 100 billion stars; and, our universe has upwards of 100 billion galaxies — making the chance for life elsewhere seem inevitable…based on sheer probability,” she said.
Writing in the journal, Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, Dr. Seager wrote, “We can say with certainty that, for the first time in human history…we are finally on the verge of being able to search for signs of life beyond our solar system around the nearest hundreds of stars.”
“In the coming decades, chemical fingerprints of life written in the atmospheres of planets orbiting nearby stars could be found by the next generation of telescopes,” Ms. Zolfagharifard wrote. “Astronomers know that statistically, every star in our galaxy [100 billion], The Milky Way, should have at lest one planet; and, small rocky worlds like the Earth are common. In the next decade, or two, a handful of ‘potentially habitable’ exoplanets, will have been found with atmospheres that can be studied in detailed by sophisticated space telescopes. The first of these next generation telescopes, will be NASA’s James Webb Telescope (JWST), due to be launched in 2018. It will analyze the atmospheres of dozens of ‘super-Earths’ – rocky planets somewhat larger than our own planet — including several that could harbor life,” Ms. Zolfagharifard.
Are We Alone In The Universe?
In November 2013, astronomer Geoffrey W. Marcy of the University of California, Berkeley, and an experienced planet hunter, co-authored a study by a team of astronomers that concluded “there could be as many as 40 billion habitable planets in our galaxy. Paul Davies, writing in the November 18, 2013 New York Times, wrote that the finding “represents one great leap toward the possibility of life, including intelligence life, in the universe.”
As the late, great sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke once wrote, “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the universe; or, we are not. Both, are equally terrifying.” V/R, RCP