An Alien Encounter 20 Years Away?
Astronomers have been actively searching for extraterrestrial civilizations for the past 50 years, but so far have come up empty. Now a top Russian astronomer predicts the "eerie silence" will be broken by 2031.
From 2011-2014, Daniel Honan was the Managing Editor at Big Think. Prior to Big Think, Daniel was Vice President of Production for Plum TV, a niche cable network he helped launch in 2002. The production team he oversaw won over two dozen Emmy awards. Daniel has created numerous shows and documentaries for television, and his film credits include Stealing the Fire, a documentary on the black market for nuclear weapons technology.
Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanielHonan
What's the Big Idea?
"Life exists on other planets and we will find it within 20 years," said Andrei Finkelstein, director of the Russian Academy of Sciences Applied Astronomy Institute. Finkelstein made this prediction at a conference this week in St. Petersburg, and it instantly made headlines around the world. After all, while others have argued the same point, that we will soon detect intelligent life, and perhaps civilization on another planet, Finkelstein's time scale is particularly bold. For instance, theoretical physicist and Big Think expert Dr. Michio Kaku says contact with our earth-like twins could occur "perhaps sometime in this century." SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute Director Jill Carter hedged her bet when she told Big Think the detection of an extraterrestrial signal "could happen tomorrow," and it could also "happen never."
What's the Significance?
How likely is it that life will be discovered on an Earth-like planet? This question was once the stuff of supermarket tabloids. Today, "the pendulum has swung from extreme skepticism about extraterrestrial life to extreme credulity," says Arizona State University Cosmologist and Astrobiologist Paul Davies. And "the truth is somewhere in between," Davies says.
While credulity may be in fashion, the actual scientific "facts on the ground," however, have not changed much over the last 50 years. And many people are asking why there is no evidence. With all of the celestial monitoring that has gone on with increasingly powerful instruments over the years, what accounts for the "eerie silence"?
According to Professor Davies:
If you ask the astronomers of the sharp end of SETI [Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence] why they think there has been an eerie silence they’ll say, “Well we only have been doing it for 50 years. We’ve just started. What more do you expect? It’s a big universe out there.” And in fact, to put that into context they look carefully. It’s just a few thousand stars. There are 400 billion stars within our Milky Way galaxy alone, so it is a needle in a haystack search.
A needle in a haystack indeed. And yet, there is a way to calculate the possibility that a life-sustaining planet exists in our galaxy. In this video below, Carl Sagan describes the so-called "Drake Equation," named after SETI founder Frank Drake, in the Cosmos program called "The Encyclopaedia Galactica." The Drake Equation is used to calculate the number of planets in the Milky Way Galaxy that are suitable for life. The answer, it turns out, is in the millions for our galaxy alone.
Contrasted with this is a pessimistic notion known as the Fermi paradox that posits that after several billion years of evolution, an intelligent civilization would likely destroy itself, very shortly after achieving advanced technological abilities such as radio astronomy. On the other hand, Sagan demonstrates the possibilities at play if we were to take a generally more optimistic view of what can be achieved by intelligent life.
Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.
- Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
- Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
- Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.
- The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
- The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
- It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
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