MIT scientists propose giant laser beacon to attract alien attention

The concept was likened to a porch light in our little neighborhood of the galaxy.

  • It could be the thing that makes an intelligent alien civilization stop and look at us further
  • It's surprisingly not all that difficult to accomplish; a 100-foot diameter primary mirror and 1 to 2 megawatt laser is about what it takes.
  • The idea is to create a noticeable anomaly, rather than trying to directly target anything. But hold on a second... should we do this?

Star light, start bright... wait, what?!

(MONICA M. DAVEY/AFP/Getty Images)

An Avlis copper/dye laser emits a laser beam guide star into the night skies behind a telescope at the Lawrence Livermore National Labratory in Livermore, California 12 January. Scientists from the US and France sent the beam skyward during a series of experiments to attempt to refine technology for astronomical observation.

A new article by researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology was just published in The Astrophysical Journal, and it's proposing that humans can build a laser capable of effectively sending out beams to various locations—a relatively close proximity, granted—that would create enough of an anomaly in the light signals that are already broadcast by our own Sun that an intelligent alien civilization could see it and go... wait, what?!

Potentially, the laser beams could reach up to 20,000 light years away.

"If we were to successfully close a handshake and start to communicate, we could flash a message, at a data rate of about a few hundred bits per second, which would get there in just a few years," said James Clark, graduate student in MIT's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics and author of the study.

In the MIT article announcing the "feasibility study," the concept was likened to a porch light in our little neighborhood of the galaxy.

It's possible to accomplish, according to MIT, and it could create a tantalizing reality in which communication lines can be established with said civilization, once found.

Direct communication?

(JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images)

It gets even more interesting if we happen upon aliens who understand what it is, and then, basically "talk back" using similar methods of communication; using lasers, we can establish a channel capable of 2mbps speeds. In other words, a somewhat slow but still capable Internet connection. Think basic DSL type of data transfers.

"Mean-time-to-handshake"

(Photo by Chris Ware/Keystone Features/Getty Images)

9th January 1964: An actor wearing a sculpted 'Martian' costume approaches a curious crowd whilst taking a break from a theatre production of 'The Man in the Moon'.

Of course, the communication line itself has to be established first, and that could take decades or even centuries.

From the paper: "While the probability of closing a handshake with even a nearby extraterrestrial intelligence is low with current survey methodologies, advances in full-sky surveys for SETI and other purposes may reduce the mean-time-to-handshake to decades or centuries, after which these laser systems may close links at data rates of kbps–Mpbs."

Although we can be looking for similar signals from within 20,000 lights years, the problem is that unless they're lasers on the infrared spectrum, they're very hard to detect. That's a key reason that this paper was written; the author says he hopes it will spur infrared imaging techniques that would improve the chances of us detecting signals such as what he proposed.

"With current survey methods and instruments, it is unlikely that we would actually be lucky enough to image a beacon flash, assuming that extraterrestrials exist and are making them," Clark says. "However, as the infrared spectra of exoplanets are studied for traces of gases that indicate the viability of life, and as full-sky surveys attain greater coverage and become more rapid, we can be more certain that, if E.T. is phoning, we will detect it."


(Photo by Mary Turner/Getty Images)

A troop of alien characters dance through the Excel Centre at the London Super Comic Convention on March 15, 2014 in London, England.

The question of whether it's actually wise to be broadcasting laser beams around our galaxy still remains to be debated, however. And, for that matter, the concept of reaching out and trying to contact aliens is up for hot discussion.

For example, in 2010, Stephen Hawking suggested we might not want to let an alien civilization know we are here, thinking they might have consumed all resources they can find and wish to locate other planets to gather even more from.

"Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they could reach," Hawking said. "If so, it makes sense for them to exploit each new planet for material to build more spaceships so they could move on. Who knows what the limits would be?"

And then there's Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., in his novel, Breakfast of Champions. I'll not assume I can summarize it better than the man himself, but it's another example of what might happen should aliens contact us in a more direct fashion:

A flying saucer creature named Zog arrived on Earth to explain how wars could be prevented and how cancer could be cured. He brought the information from Margo, a planet where the natives conversed by means of farts and tap dancing. Zog landed at night in Connecticut. He had no sooner touched down than he saw a house on fire. He rushed into the house, farting and tap dancing, warning the people about the terrible danger they were in. The head of the house brained Zog with a golfclub."

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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