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."

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less

An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
Surprising Science
  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.

For most of history, humans got smarter. That's now reversing.

We were gaining three IQ points per decade for many, many years. Now, that's going backward. Could this explain some of our choices lately?

The Flynn effect appears to be in retrograde. (Credit: Shutterstock/Big Think)
popular

There's a new study out of Norway that indicates our—well, technically, their—IQs are shrinking, to the tune of about seven IQ points per generation.

Keep reading Show less

Lama Rod Owens – the price of the ticket to freedom

An ordained Lama in a Tibetan Buddhist lineage, Lama Rod grew up a queer, black male within the black Christian church in the American south. Navigating all of these intersecting, evolving identities has led him to a life's work based on compassion for self and others.

Think Again Podcasts
  • "What I'm interested in is deep, systematic change. What I understand now is that real change doesn't happen until change on the inside begins to happen."
  • "Masculinity is not inherently toxic. Patriarchy is toxic. We have to let that energy go so we can stop forcing other people to do emotional labor for us."
Keep reading Show less