Humans are more likely to have "first contact" with an advanced alien civilization, according to a recent NASA-funded paper.
- A new paper outlines some of the most promising ways scientists and space agencies can search for evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations.
- Because of a concept called "contact inequality," the researchers suggested it's relatively unlikely humans will discover evidence of alien civilizations that have similar levels of technology to us.
- However, near-future technology could soon allow scientists to search for both highly advanced and less advanced alien civilizations.
How will humans discover the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations?
Unless aliens decide to visit Earth, the most likely answer is by scanning the skies for "technosignatures," which are observational evidence of technological or industrial activity in the Universe.
In a recent paper published in the journal Acta Astronautica, a team of NASA-funded researchers outlined some of the most promising ways scientists and space agencies could search for technosignatures. The paper included a somewhat surprising proposition: Humanity's "first contact" with aliens is likely to be with a much more advanced civilization.
In other words, there could be many alien civilizations throughout the Universe, or even in our galaxy, but if they're similar to us in terms of technological advancement, we probably can't spot them yet. The same goes for those human-like civilizations spotting us.
That's because the "cosmic footprints" of our civilization and theirs would be relatively small, compared to highly advanced alien civilizations. The researchers call this concept "contact inequality."
"It seems unlikely that civilizations with a relatively low level of technological development would enter into contact with each other, since that would require either very high sensitivities or highly visible engineering," reads the paper. "Less advanced civilizations lack the sensitivity needed to detect other civilizations unless they have built very large or luminous structures."
So, unless near-future technology like the James Webb Space Telescope enables scientists to find biomarkers on other planets, we're far more likely to discover more sophisticated civilizations.
How? The paper outlines a series of strategies that are either currently being practiced, could be practiced in conjunction with other astronomical projects, or could be developed in the near future.
A few of those strategies include searching for:
- Dyson spheres — gigantic structures that, in theory, could orbit stars and generate vast amounts of energy for civilizations.
- Near-Earth objects — space agencies could search the Moon, Mars or other space bodies for evidence of extraterrestrial artifacts, such as crashed probes.
- Abnormal spectra in planetary atmospheres — if aliens are conducting industrial activity on another planet, that planet's atmosphere would likely contain evidence of such activity.
- Night-time illumination
- Radio and laser signals
When thinking about the best ways to search for alien life, it helps to reverse the perspective: How would aliens know humans exist? With this question in mind, researchers who deal with technosignatures consider all of the signals humans are sending into space.
Some of our technosignatures are transmitted intentionally, like the Arecibo message humans sent toward the globular star cluster M13 in 1974. Others are unintentional, like night-time illumination and pollution-driven atmospheric changes.
To put the concept of technosignatures into perspective, researchers have developed a framework called ichnoscale. Ichnoscale ranks the size of a technosignature relative to what human technology is currently capable of producing.
The scale also ranks the number of potential targets throughout the Universe. For example, searching for a crashed alien probe on the Moon would represent one target, while scanning the stars for Dyson spheres would have millions of targets.
Together, these measurements help scientists estimate the most likely ways to discover evidence of alien civilizations. Of course, there's no guarantee that any one strategy will work, or that aliens even exist.
That's one reason why efforts to search for technosignatures have received little funding. But the researchers propose that many of these strategies could be tacked onto other astronomical missions at little cost.
Socas-Navarro et al.
And even if the searches turn up nothing, the researchers said the results would still provide "enormous ancillary benefits on solar system research and advance our knowledge about the objects being scrutinized," and would "establish quantitative upper bounds on certain types of technologies or developmental stages of civilizations in the solar neighborhood."
"The search for TS deals with questions that have profound implications on the future of humanity," the researchers concluded. "Perhaps one the most important is whether technological civilizations are ephemeral or, on the contrary, can be long lasting. A closely related question is whether space faring civilizations are common, and if humankind will eventually become one of them."
"We do not yet have any answers for these and other important questions but if we can start to explore the search parameter space, even in the absence of any detection we may be able to gain some valuable insights."
Two new studies examine ways we could engineer human wormhole travel.
- Sci-fi movies and books love wormholes—how else can we hope to travel through interstellar distances?
- But wormholes are notoriously unstable; it's hard to keep them open or make them big enough.
- Two new papers offer some hope in solving both of these issues, but at a high price.
Imagine if we could cut paths through the vastness of space to make a network of tunnels linking distant stars somewhat like subway stations here on Earth? The tunnels are what physicists call wormholes, strange funnel-like folds in the very fabric of spacetime that would be—if they exist—major shortcuts for interstellar travel. You can visualize it in two dimensions like this: Take a piece of paper and bend it in the middle so that it makes a U shape. If an imaginary flat little bug wants to go from one side to the other, it needs to slide along the paper. Or, if there were a bridge between the two sides of the paper the bug could go straight between them, a much shorter path. Since we live in three dimensions, the entrances to the wormholes would be more like spheres than holes, connected by a four-dimensional "tube." It's much easier to write the equations than to visualize this! Amazingly, because the theory of general relativity links space and time into a four-dimensional spacetime, wormholes could, in principle, connect distant points in space, or in time, or both.
A wormhole connecting two points in space.
Credit: TDHster via Adobe Stock
The idea of wormholes is not new. Its origins reach back to 1935 (and even earlier), when Albert Einstein and Nathan Rosen published a paper constructing what became known as an Einstein-Rosen bridge. (The name 'wormhole' came up later, in a 1957 paper by Charles Misner and John Wheeler, Wheeler also being the one who coined the term 'black hole.') Basically, an Einstein-Rosen bridge is a connection between two distant points of the universe or possibly even different universes through a tunnel that goes into a black hole. Exciting as the possibility is, the throats of such bridges are notoriously unstable and any object with mass that ventures through it would cause it to collapse upon itself almost immediately, closing the connection. To force the wormholes to stay open, one would need to add a kind of exotic matter that has both negative energy density and pressure—not something that is known in the universe. (Interestingly, negative pressure is not as crazy as it seems; dark energy, the fuel that is currently accelerating the cosmic expansion, does it exactly because it has negative pressure. But negative energy density is a whole other story.)
If wormholes exist, if they have wide mouths, and if they can be kept open (three big but not impossible ifs) then it's conceivable that we could travel through them to faraway spots in the universe. Arthur C. Clarke used them in "2001: A Space Odyssey", where the alien intelligences had constructed a network of intersecting tunnels they used as we use the subway. Carl Sagan used them in "Contact" so that humans could confirm the existence of intelligent ETs. "Interstellar" uses them so that we can try to find another home for our species.
If wormholes exist, if they have wide mouths, and if they can be kept open (three big but not impossible ifs) then it's conceivable that we could travel through them to faraway spots in the universe.
Two recent papers try to get around some of these issues. Jose Luis Blázquez-Salcedo, Christian Knoll, and Eugen Radu use normal matter with electric charge to stabilize the wormhole, but the resulting throat is still of submicroscopic width, so not useful for human travel. It is also hard to justify net electric charges in black hole solutions as they tend to get neutralized by surrounding matter, similar to how we get shocked with static electricity in dry weather. Juan Maldacena and Alexey Milekhin's paper is titled 'Humanly Traversable Wormholes', thus raising the stakes right off the bat. However, they are open to admitting that "in this paper, we revisit the question [of humanly traversable wormholes] and we engage in some 'science fiction.'" The first ingredient is the existence of some kind of matter (the "dark sector") that only interacts with normal matter (stars, us, frogs) through gravity. Another point is that to support the passage of human-size travelers, the model needs to exist in five dimensions, thus one extra space dimension. When all is set up, the wormhole connects two black holes with a magnetic field running through it. And the whole thing needs to spin to keep it stable, and completely isolated from particles that may fall into it compromising its design. Oh yes, and extremely low temperature as well, even better at absolute zero, an unattainable limit in practice.
Maldacena and Milekhins' paper is an amazing tour through the power of speculative theoretical physics. They are the first to admit that the object they construct is very implausible and have no idea how it could be formed in nature. In their defense, pushing the limits (or beyond the limits) of understanding is what we need to expand the frontiers of knowledge. For those who dream of humanly traversable wormholes, let's hope that more realistic solutions would become viable in the future, even if not the near future. Or maybe aliens that have built them will tell us how.
Three lines of evidence point to the idea of complex, multicellular alien life being a wild goose chase. But are we clever enough to know?
- Everyone wants to know if there is alien life in the universe, but Earth may give us clues that if it exists it may not be the civilization-building kind.
- Most of Earth's history shows life that is single-celled. That doesn't mean it was simple, though. Stunning molecular machines were being evolved by those tiny critters.
- What's in a planet's atmosphere may also determine what evolution can produce. Is there a habitable zone for complex life that's much smaller than what's allowed for microbes?
"Do you think we are alone?" That question is, without fail, one of the first things people ask me when they learn I'm an astronomer. And I get why. It's also the question I most want an answer for. But that answer may depend a lot on what kind of life the universe favors (if it favors any at all). So, the question I want to briefly touch on today is how common will it be for any life that appears on any planet in the universe to start climbing up the evolutionary ladder of complexity?On Earth, the history of life is mainly a story of single cells. Earth's origin lies some 4.5 billion years ago, and the best fossil records put the emergence of life as single-celled creatures about a billion years later. After life's first appearance, almost two billion years go by during which all evolutionary activity was on those single-celled organisms. There was some really amazing biochemical machinery evolving within those little cells but if you are interested in multicellular creatures, they don't appear until sometime around 700 million years ago.
... if there is one thing we know is true, it's that nature is more clever than we are. That means it may know lots of ways to produce animals without oxygen around or even in the presence of buckets of CO2.
What are we to make of this incredibly long run of Earth as Planet Bacteria? (Note, there were actually other kinds of single-celled creatures too). Well, it certainly tells us that evolutionary success does not demand multicellularity. During these long eons, life invented the most amazing array of nano-machines for a jaw-dropping variety of purposes. For example, single-celled critters invented photosynthesis for turning sunlight into sugars, metabolisms for turning sugars into energy, and complex intracellular transport mechanisms to move stuff where it was needed and get rid of waste. Earth before plants and animals was already a fertile place full of life that had, in its way, become spectacularly complex at least on the level of biochemistry.
Given the long run of this version of Earth, it may be that there is no reason that more complex life should be expected to form in all or even most cases on other planets.
Protozoa—a term for a group of single-celled eukaryotes—and green algae in wastewater, viewed under the microscope.
Credit: sinhyu via Adobe Stock
Another way the story of life on Earth might not get repeated elsewhere in the cosmos relates to the composition of planetary atmospheres. Our world did not begin with its oxygen-rich air. Instead, oxygen didn't show up until almost two billion years after the planet formed and one billion years after life appeared. Earth's original atmosphere was, most likely, a mix of nitrogen and CO2. Remarkably it was life that pumped the oxygen into the air as a byproduct of a novel form of photosynthesis invented by a novel kind of single-celled organism, the nucleus-bearing eukaryotes. The appearance of oxygen in Earth's air was not just a curiosity for evolution. Life soon figured out how to use the newly abundant element and, it turns out, oxygen-based biochemistry was supercharged compared to what came before. With more energy available, evolution could build ever larger and more complex critters.
Oxygen may also be unique in allowing the kinds of metabolisms in multicellular life (especially ours) needed for making fast and fast-thinking animals. Astrobiologist David Catling has argued that only oxygen has the right kind of chemistry that would allow for animals to form on any world.
Atmospheres may play another role in what can and can't happen in the evolution of life. In 1959, Su-Shu Huang proposed that each star would be surrounded by a "habitable zone" of orbits where a planet would have temperatures neither too hot nor too cold to keep life from forming (i.e. liquid water could exist on the planet's surface). Since then, the habitable zone has become a staple of astrobiological studies. Astronomers now know that the outer part of the habitable zone will be dominated by worlds with lots of greenhouse gases like CO2. A planet in a location like Mars, for example, would require a thick CO2 blanket to keep its surface above freezing. But all that CO2 could present its own problems for life. Almost all forms of animal life on Earth, including sea creatures, die when placed in CO2-rich environments. This has led astronomer Eddie Schwieterman and colleagues to propose a habitable zone for complex life: A band of orbits where planets can stay warm without requiring heavy CO2 atmospheres. According to Schwieterman, animal life of the kind we know would only be able to form in this much thinner band of orbits.
So, we have three lines of evidence that may suggest multicellular life (including thinking animals) may not be the road most taken across the universe. If this were true, then the galaxy might be awash with life but be sparse in terms of tentacles, paws, or boots on the ground.
Now, before your shoulders sag in sadness, it's important to note some facts. First, there are likely 400 billion planets in our galaxy alone. This provides a lot of leeway for experimentation. Second, if there is one thing we know is true, it's that nature is more clever than we are. That means it may know lots of ways to produce animals without oxygen around or even in the presence of buckets of CO2.
We just won't know until we start looking. And here is the good news. We finally are ready to start looking.
The search for alien life is far too human-centric. Our flawed understanding of what life really is may be holding us back from important discoveries about the universe and ourselves.
- What, should it exist, is the universal law that connects all living things? To even dream of answering that question, and to one day find alien life elsewhere in the cosmos, humans must first reconcile the fact that our definition of life is inadequate.
- For astrobiologist Sara Walker, understanding the universe, its origin, and our place in it starts with a deep investigation into the chemistry of life. She argues that it is time to change our chemical perspective—detecting oxygen in an exoplanet's atmosphere is no longer sufficient enough evidence to suggest the presence of living organisms.
- "Because we don't know what life is, we don't know where to look for it," Walker says, adding that an unclear or too narrow focus could result in missed discoveries. Gaining new insights into what life on Earth is could shift our quest to find alien life in the universe.
A strange object found in the desert has prompted worldwide speculation.
- A monolithic object found in a remote part of Utah caused worldwide speculation about its origins.
- The object is very similar to the famous monolith from Stanley Kubrick's "2001: Space Odyssey".
- The object could be work of an artist or even have extraterrestrial origins.
An enigmatic "monolith" found in the desert in Utah on November 18 has become the source of worldwide attention and speculation, with internet denizens looking for something more light-hearted to talk about as the tumultuous 2020 draws to a close.
The unusual object was discovered by a helicopter of the Utah Department of Public Safety department which was helping the Department of Wildlife Resources to count bighorn sheep in a remote southern part of the state. As the crew passed by the object, a biologist noticed what they described as something "out of this world." Upon landing amidst red rock cliffs and getting a closer look, they found a shiny object, between 10 and 12 feet high, that was eerily similar to the monolith in director Stanley Kubrick's seminal sci-fi masterpiece, "2001: Space Odyssey."
Given the cinematic history and the location of the object, here are top 5 theories on what it could be:
1. Art object
Chances are, this is an art object. The shiny "monolith" appears to be bolted to the ground and made of metal. It also seems to be fastened with rivets, rather being a uniform block of more unexplainable production origin. Deserts are great places for unusual installations as has been evidenced by past art projects that you can discover wandering through the ghost towns and faraway canyons of Nevada, California, Utah, and New Mexico. Certainly, an artist with a sense of humor and an appreciation of Kubrick's genius could have installed such "sculpture" in hopes of exactly what is happening right now–viral fame.
On the other hand, there is evidence, courtesy of eagle-eyed Google Earth sleuths, that the object appeared in that location (somewhere near Canyonlands National Park) in 2015-2016. So it's possibly been there for a few years. Would an artist have placed it there so long ago with the aim of having this type of success eventually?
A gallery owner claimed the work may be a tribute to the late artist John McCracken, who created similar-looking objects before he died in 2011. McCracken was part of the Light and Space movement with such artists as James Turrell, and was known to make his sculptures from plywood forms that were coated with fiberglass and polyester resin.
While the theory that the monolith was the work of a McCracken aficionado (or the artist himself) may hold some water due to the object's similarity, the fact that the artist died so long ago and the lack of clear incentive for anyone to have planted this years ago only to reveal it now work against this theory.
John McCracken sculptures.
Another Utah desert art object.
2. Alien evolutionary device
Certainly, explaining the monolith as an art installation may make the most sense at this point, but its resemblance to the famous object from Kubrick's epic "2001: A Space Odyssey" can't help but bring some science-fiction scenarios to our minds.
In the film, the perfect black slab was discovered by a group of prehistoric apes. After finding the slab, the apes seemed to have developed the ability to utilize found objects like bones as tools and weapons. The film suggests that finding the monolith had an evolutionary impact on the apes, perhaps serving as "the missing link" that propelled humans from being lower-end primates to the intellectual powerhouses they are today.
Later in the film, after fast-forwarding thousands of years into the future, such an object is discovered on the moon by human astronauts. Using the writer Arthur C. Clarke's short story "The Sentinel" as its inspiration, the film's narrative suggests that alien civilizations are responsible for these objects which potentially serve as beacons that may still be transmitting signals back to whoever created them while also possibly being responsible for fostering evolution throughout the Universe.
Could the Utah object be serving just such a function? While 2020 has offered very inconsistent evidence of human intelligence, a device from a benevolent alien race that can make us all smarter might be just what we need.
Or it could portend the exact opposite and be the one thing that will hasten our demise.
3. Alien probe
Besides having some specific impact on the inhabitants of planet Earth, the monolith could "just" be an extraterrestrial probe, sent here to learn about our ways. Would placing it in the middle of Utah desert be the best place to probe humanity? If the object was part of many such probes being sent all over the cosmos, it's possible the advanced alien overlord wannabes may not know specifically we are here and are just sending these everywhere they can. It's similar to when humans send probes to places like Mars and assume there's no life there just because the rover landed in the middle of a desert.
A closer look: the Utah monolith
4. Kubrick fan installation
Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) was one of the greatest film directors of all time, leaving behind a slate of films that are each considered a masterpiece – "Dr. Strangelove," "The Shining," "2001: A Space Odyssey," "A Clockwork Orange," "Spartacus," "Full Metal Jacket," and more.
The visionary American director left a profound legacy, garnering millions of fans around the world. As the monolith he devised for "2001: A Space Odyssey" is one of the most famous objects in movie history, it's not out of the question that one of the director's followers decided to recreate it.
5. Government control device
The American Southwest is rife with government military installations and mysterious bases like Area 51. Having the monolith be a part of some government (vast psychological?) experiment is a connection that's easy to make for any conspiracy-minded internet dweller.
Of course, given the government's penchant for both secrecy and ineptitude, this last one may be the hardest to ever prove definitively. In any case, the Department of Public Safety is not releasing the exact location of the object and warns people against trying to find it:
"It is in a very remote area and if individuals were to attempt to visit the area, there is a significant possibility they may become stranded and require rescue," DPS said.