It's hard to believe we're alone out here in this endless universe. But, in such a vast expanse, there's a chance it may all end without us ever meeting another intelligent civilization. Until we become more of a spacefaring civilization, able to explore the universe, we're left to merely look at the stars to find what could be or what could have been a civilization.

Astronomer Jason Wright has already searched 100,000 galaxies for waste and heat signatures emitted by “supercivilizations,” but his team of scientists has come up empty-handed so far. The search is still on, but recently another group of researchers has turned to look for simpler signatures indicating life... or what used to be life.

Astronomer Jason Wright has already searched 100,000 galaxies for waste and heat signatures emitted by “supercivilizations,” but his team of scientists has come up empty-handed so far.

Researchers are looking for signs of life in different places: in their destruction, like that of a nuclear apocalypse. A planet undergoing one nuclear explosion wouldn't be enough to send a discernible heat and light signature light-years away — at least not enough for our telescopes to detect. There would need to be a multitude of blasts, so this civilization would probably be dead.

These researchers have crafted a paper devising several apocalyptic scenarios that could produce a heat and light signature strong enough to be detected by us. These scenarios would have to produce “significant changes in atmospheric composition,” they write. This might include decimation by atomic bombs, pathogen, or pollution. Even the destruction of the planet itself could tell researchers if it once held an intelligent civilization. By looking at production of debris through the explosive disc rings, they “may indicate signs of artificial construction in their chemical composition.”

Is there intelligent life out there in the universe? Theoretical physicist Brian Greene says it's complicated.


Ross Andersen of The Atlantic asked Jill Tarter, former director of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute, her thoughts on this paper. She had this to say“The problem is the signatures are detectable for cosmically insignificant amounts of time.”

Timing would be everything in order to catch a glimpse of a distant nuclear war. There are tens of billions of galaxies out there and, as it stands, we just don't have the technology to take such a large survey of the universe each day.

The odds of finding one, Tarter says, are “a lot worse than Vegas.”

But imagine if we did find one through this method. Would we be saddened by the news? How would humanity, as a whole, react?

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Natalie Shoemaker has been writing professionally for 6 years. After graduating from Ithaca College with a degree in Feature Writing, she snagged a job at PCMag.com where she had the opportunity to review all the latest consumer gadgets. Since then she has become a writer for hire, freelancing for various websites. In her spare time, you may find her riding her motorcycle, reading YA novels, hiking, or playing video games. Follow her on Twitter: @nat_schumaker

Photo Credit: MARTIN BERNETTI / Getty Staff