Going Viral: Why Alien Signals Get Everyone Excited

One of the 42 dishes in the Allen Telescope Array that searches for signals from space. Credit: Seth Shostak / SETI Institute.

So, that ‘strong’ signal from aliens everyone was so excited about this week? Turns out, it was probably something from Earth, maybe a satellite passing overhead or another object of “terrestrial origin,” the Russian researchers have concluded.
Yeah. Dang.

“This supports our initial assumption that the signal was made by human intelligence, not extraterrestrial intelligence,” said Doug Vakoch, President of METI International (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence), a group doing follow-up observations of the star system HD 164595, where the signal was thought to maybe, perhaps originate.

When the news broke of the possible alien signal, SETI scientists were quick to temper the excitement with measured skepticism, saying more often than not, these signals end up being “natural radio transients” (stellar flare, active galactic nucleus, microlensing of a background source, etc.) or interference of a terrestrial nature (a passing satellite or a microwave oven, for example.)

But still, people were excited and the news went viral. Crazy viral.

“Being no stranger to how the media can hype SETI stories, I can sympathize with those at the center of the latest dustup,” said astronomer and SETI researcher Jason Wright from Penn State University. “It’s understandable that many content outlets, seeking ‘clickbait’ headlines, would spin this particular story in the most intriguing, exciting way, and once that happens a ‘bidding war’ of hype can make the story spin out of control.”

But is it all about clickbait? Since I’m part of the media (and admittedly was initially very excited about this story,) I’d like to think that the excitement and viral-tendencies of news about possible alien signals says more about humanity’s fervent hope that we aren’t alone in the cosmos, rather than who can get the most pageviews.

And I do know that researchers who dedicate their careers to the search for alien signals and Earth-like planets aren’t doing so just so they can keep telling us to not get excited. They, too, are hoping for that chance, that very remote possibility, that we’ve got company in our big and magnificent Universe.

“You can’t always be cynical,” said SETI senior astronomer Seth Shostak. “If a signal is looking promising, we are going to check it out.”

And that’s the thing, say the researchers. They do this all the time.

“This is the sort of thing SETI researchers do all the time, because by the nature of the search, radio SETI experiments come across strong signals all the time,” Vakoch said via email. “At the end of the day, these need to be confirmed as coming from distant locations in space, and if we can’t, we need to consider them spurious. The unusual feature of HD 164595 is that this process of checking is being followed by the media.”

And while scientists were surprised (and maybe annoyed) at the amount of attention the ‘alien signal’ news got this week, there is an upside.

“The silver living here is that those who read the more responsible stories carefully will learn a lot about how SETI works,” Wright told Universe Today, “that communication SETI researchers see “one-off” signals all the time from both astronomical and terrestrial sources, in addition to perhaps the occasional instrumental glitch. Searches using arrays (like the ATA) have an automatic check against many of these, but in any event no one will be popping the champaign until a signal repeats enough for an independent telescope and instrument to detect it, and its intelligent origin is clear.”

“The public is getting an inside view of the usual process of following up interesting SETI candidates,” said Vakoch. “This helps the public understand the standard process of doing SETI: we find interesting signals, and then we see if we can verify them. If not, we move on.”

Vakoch and Wright said that the confirmation process, however, involves a lot of steps, and it’s not always easy or quick to follow-up. So, most of the time, determining the source of the signal takes time.

“Unlike Hollywood movies, where you get a quick “yes or no” about a possible signal from aliens,” Vakoch explained, “the real SETI confirmation process takes some time. It’s easy to think that all we need to do is get on the phone with an astronomer at another location, and we’re all set. But even when colleagues at other facilities are willing to observe, they may face technical limitations.”

Typical radio SETI searches look for narrowband signals, and most observatories aren’t set up to detect such signals on short notice. And even though radio observatories can make observations even when it’s cloudy, there can be other types of local interference at certain radio frequencies.

“If you need to do a real-time follow-up of a promising SETI signal, you might face significant roadblocks to a ready confirmation – even if the signal is really there,” Vakoch said.

Another upside of the recent media attention is that SETI researchers can let everyone know they aren’t getting much funding for this type of research, and the search could really use a lot more eyes and ears on the Universe, as Jill Tartar tweeted:

Re: HD 164595 – who knows? One telescope is not enough and an array is better.

— Jill Tarter (@jilltarter) August 30, 2016

“It’s all the more evident that we need to replicate these innovative optical SETI systems over and over,”Vakoch said, “so we can have a global network of modest-sized observatories ready for follow-up of promising SETI signals. Developing such a network is one of METI International’s top priorities as an organization.”

(You can support SETI here and find out more about METI and optical SETI here.)

Wright said while the public interest in SETI is great, sometimes the media (or the tin foil hat crowd or conspiracy theorists) can blow things out of proportion.

“This can make it hard for anyone doing SETI to talk about their work, because any mention of ‘strange’ or ‘candidate’ signals has the potential to enter that echo chamber,” he said.

Which can go viral.

But if anyone is worried that SETI researchers are keeping secrets or not telling the whole story, I can personally vouch that during this week, absolutely every SETI researcher I contacted answered all my questions in an extremely timely manner (and provided even more information than I was expecting) plus, other researchers contacted me, asking to be able to explain the signal and the process of how SETI works.

“Nothing would make us more excited than to verify it,” said Bill Diamond, president and CEO of SETI, “But we have to observe it and look at the data.”

Further reading:

Statement from Russian researchers about followup observations revealing the signal to be ‘terrestrial in origin’

TASS news story about signal

“Let’s Be Careful About This SETI Signal” by Franck Marchis

“No, we almost certainly did not detect an alien signal from a nearby star” by Phil Plait

SETI is Hopeful Yet Skeptical that Russians Found Aliens by Dean Takahashi

“That Alien Signal? Observations Are Coming Up Empty” by Nadia Drake

The post Going Viral: Why Alien Signals Get Everyone Excited appeared first on Universe Today.

Aliens? “Strong” Signal Detected From Sun-Like Star Being Verified By SETI

RATAN-600 radio telescope located in Northern Caucasus in the Karachaevo-Circassian Republic of Russian Federation. . Credit: SAO RAS.

We’re not saying its aliens, but this could be the most enticing SETI-related signal from space since the famous “Wow! Signal” in 1977.

Over the weekend, interstellar expert Paul Gilster broke the news that “a strong signal” was detected by Russian radio astronomers. This signal has attracted enough attention that two prominent SETI observatories are quickly making follow-up observations. Alan Boyle reports in Geekwire that the Allen Telescope Array in California has already been observing the star system and the Boquete Optical SETI Observatory in Panama will make an attempt this evening, if the weather is clear.

The signal was originally detected on May 15, 2015, by the Russian Academy of Science-operated RATAN-600 radio telescope in Zelenchukskaya, Russia. It came from the region around the star HD 164595, located about 95 light years from Earth in the constellation Hercules. The signal had a wavelength of 2.7 cm, with an estimated amplitude of 750 mJy.

Gilster wrote on his Centauri Dreams website that the researchers have worked out the strength of the signal and that if “it came from an isotropic beacon, it would be of a power possible only for a Kardashev Type II civilization,” which means a civilization capable of harnessing the energy of the entire star, and developing something like a Dyson sphere surrounding the star, and transfer all the energy to the planet.

If the beam was narrow and sent directly to our Solar System, the researchers say it would be of a power available to a Kardashev Type I civilization, a type of civilization more advanced than us that is able to harness the full amount of solar power it receives from its star.

Of course, like any other signal, such as the recent study of the dimming light curve of KIC 8462852 (Tabby’s Star) that is still being researched, it is possible the signal comes from other “natural” events such microlensing of a background source or even comets as been proposed for both Tabby’s Star or the “Wow! Signal.”

The SETI website explains that narrow-band signals – ones that are only a few Hertz wide or less – are the mark of a purposely built transmitter. “Natural cosmic noisemakers, such as pulsars, quasars, and the turbulent, thin interstellar gas of our own Milky Way, do not make radio signals that are this narrow. The static from these objects is spread all across the dial.”

And so Gilster said “the signal is provocative enough that the RATAN-600 researchers are calling for permanent monitoring of this target.” You can see a graph of the signal on Centauri Dreams.

Update: A member of the SETI@Home team posted a note online that they were “unimpressed” with the paper from the Russian radio astronomers. “Because the receivers used were making broad band measurements, there’s really nothing about this “signal” that would distinguish it from a natural radio transient (stellar flare, active galactic nucleus, microlensing of a background source, etc.) There’s also nothing that could distinguish it from a satellite passing through the telescope field of view. All in all, it’s relatively uninteresting from a SETI standpoint.

What is most interesting is how similar this star is to our own Sun. HD 164595 just is a star just a tad smaller than our Sun (0.99 solar masses), with the exact same metallicity. The age of the star has been estimated at 6.3 billion years it is already known to have at least one planet, HD 164595 b, a Neptune-sized world that orbits the star every 40 days. And as we’ve seen with data from the Kepler spacecraft, with the detection of one planet comes the very high probability that more planets could orbit this star.

The signal has been traveling for 95 years, so it “occured” (or was sent) in 1920 on Earth calendars. (There is a good discussion of this in the comment section on Gilster’s article.)

Why the Russian team has only made this detection public now is unclear and it may have only come out now because the team wrote a paper to be discussed at an upcoming SETI committee meeting during the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Tuesday, September 27.

As Gilster wrote, “No one is claiming that this is the work of an extraterrestrial civilization, but it is certainly worth further study.”

It’s a rare day when any type of signal is detected, and when one comes from a relatively nearby star system where a planet has already been found, and the signal also matches up with a predicted alien profile, yes, it certainly is worth further study.

Sources: Centauri Dreams, Alan Boyle on Geekwire, SETI

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Why Haven’t We Found Any Aliens Yet?

The Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence could be a waste of time according to a recent statistical analysis of the likelihood of life arising spontaneously on habitable-zone exoplanets out there in the wider universe (and let's face it - when have predictive statistics ever got it wrong?) Credit: SETI Institute.

Many years ago, Carl Sagan predicted there could be as many as 10,000 advanced extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy.

After nearly 60 years of searching without success, a growing list of scientists believe life on Earth only came about because of a lucky series of evolutionary accidents, a long list of improbable events that just happened to come together at the right time and will never be repeated.

Is it possible they are right and we are all there is?

Highly unlikely.

Earth is a typical rocky planet, in an average solar system, nestled in the spiral arm of an ordinary galaxy. All the events and elements that came together to build our world could happen almost everywhere throughout the galaxy and there should be nothing unusual about the evolution of life on this planet or any others.

In a galaxy of hundreds of billions of stars, the law of averages dictates that intelligent life must exist somewhere.

So, why haven’t we found it yet?

There could be many reasons.

Looking for a radio signal in a galaxy of over 400 billion worlds across 100,000 light years and billions of radio frequencies makes the proverbial needle in a haystack sound easy. Imagine you are driving home, your spouse in one car and you in the other. There’s a thick fog making visual confirmation impossible and no cell phone reception. Luckily, a week ago you had a 250 channel CB installed in both cars. Unfortunately, you forgot to agree on a broadcast channel. To chat, the two CBs would have to be on at the same time and you’d need to independently search every channel, listen, broadcast, then move to the next, hoping to get lucky enough to land on the same channel.

What are the odds that would happen? Not very good. Multiply this scenario one hundred billion times and you have some idea of the challenges facing SETI. To add to that, advanced civilizations probably only stay radio active for a relatively short time in their development as they develop more sophisticated technology. Searching the radio spectrum would require looking at one frequency 24/7 for years to be sure you weren’t missing something and telescope time is far too expensive for that. While you were sitting on that single frequency, 20 extraterrestrial signals could have come in on other channels and you’d never know it.

The Fermi Paradox is used by many skeptics as the holy grail when trying to prove there is nobody out there. Fermi theorized that a galaxy with so much potential for life must be full of extraterrestrials. He noted that since the majority of stars are considerably older than our sun, extraterrestrials could be millions of years more advanced than us. Fermi calculated that even at sub light speed one of those civilizations should have colonized the galaxy by now and we would have seen evidence of it.

There is however a problem with that logic.

In 50,000 years, humans will probably look a little different than people do now. In 10 million years, considerably different. Imagine a civilization completely different from us from the start and 10 million years more advanced. We might not even be able to recognize them as life forms, let alone see any evidence of their existence.

Arthur C. Clarke once said advanced extraterrestrials would probably be indistinguishable to us from magic. Their communications would be like listening for an answer to drumbeats and getting only silence while the ether around you is filled with more information in a second than one could utter in a lifetime. There could be the alien equivalent of the super bowl going on a few light years away and we would probably not even have a clue.

The distances in our galaxy are incredibly vast. Current spacecraft travel about 20 times faster than the speed of a bullet. While that sounds fast, at that speed it would take a spacecraft 75,000 years to travel to our nearest star only 4 light years away. Light years are a measure of distance so if we could speed that ship up to 186,000,000 miles per second it would take 4 years to reach that same star.

Looking at a star 1,000 light years away is like being in a time machine. You are not seeing it as it is now, but one thousand years ago. Our galaxy is about 100,000 light years across with over 200 billion stars. Current theory suggests there may be as many as one billion earth-like planets in our galaxy. If just one tenth of those had some kind of life, that would leave us with about 100 million worlds harboring one celled creatures or better.

If just the tiniest fraction of them, (one one hundred thousandth) managed to spawn an advanced race of beings, there could be as many as 1,000 extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy. Regardless of whether you consider that a lot or a little, that would mean one technically advanced alien society exists for every hundred million stars. Our nearest extraterrestrial neighbor might be very, very far away. In the movies, the speculative fiction of warp speed, hyper drive and worm holes enable spaceships to travel faster than the speed of light and breach those distances fairly easily. But if the physics of this turn out to be impossible, than even the nearest alien civilizations may find interstellar travel very difficult and quite undesirable.

Another reason extraterrestrials may have made themselves scarce could be that the galaxy is jam packed with all sorts of weird beings and wondrous destinations. In this scenario why would advanced forms of life want to come here? There are probably so many more interesting places to visit. It would be like hunting for an exotic bird and not even giving the ant hill below your feet a second look.

Stephen Hawking has said, “I believe extraterrestrial life is quite common in the universe, although intelligent life less so. Some say it has yet to appear on Earth.”

Many think once a civilization achieves radio, it has a short window of but a few hundred years before it starts to integrate artificial intelligence into its own biology. Machines do everything so much easier, with far less risk and are immortal. It is entirely possible any aliens we hear from will have morphed into something more machine like than biological.

There has been a push lately for SETI to expand its operations from just passively listening, to actively broadcasting messages into the cosmos. One of the smartest men on the planet, Stephen Hawking, doesn’t think that’s a good idea. He believes that our messages might attract unwanted attention from unsavory creatures looking to blast us back into the stone age. He uses what happened to the Native Americans when they first encountered Columbus as an example. Alien races may have had to endure the same aggressive survival of the fittest culture. If they are at least as smart as Stephen Hawking, than everyone out there could be listening and nobody is broadcasting for fear of attracting the equivalent of Darth Vader and the Evil Empire to their shores.

Or, maybe there is a signal on its way right now, having traveled thousand of years, arriving next week, month or year.
Many scientists like Paul Davies, think SETI needs to start thinking more out of the box in its search methods. He advocates analyzing places in our own solar system like the moon, planets, asteroids and the Earth for evidence that aliens have passed this way. We should also be open to the possibility that we have already received a message from the stars and don’t recognize it because it arrived by something other than radio. Physist Vladimir Charbak thinks that life may have been spread throughout the galaxy by intelligent design and there may actually be evidence of this within our own DNA just waiting to be discovered.

Another reason we have yet to detect alien life could be there is nothing out there to find. Or to put it another way, we are the only game in town. To best answer that question, ask yourself, does this seem logical? There is a very good chance that one or more worlds just in our own solar system harbor some form of life. In a galaxy with as many as one billion or more potentially habitable planets, one could almost guarantee many of them will host life. There may potentially be hundreds of millions of worlds with living things on them. Does it make sense that in all that habitable real estate we are the only race to evolve into an intelligent species?

We humans tend to think of things with a distinctly anthropomorphic spin. Notions like, life needs water, oxygen and is based on carbon. Or, an advanced alien race would use radio and their signals should repeat. In popular culture, extraterrestrials portrayed in movies look remotely like us. This is done so we can recognize emotions and that fills movie theaters. I can remember aliens portrayed in the classic science fiction television show, “The Outer Limits” as energy balls, dust motes and tumbleweeds. They weren’t the most popular episodes, but the reality is that those portrayals are probably closer to the truth than ET and his heart lamp. Extraterrestrials will probably be as different from us as we are from a blade of grass and their motivations a complete mystery. It is very possible that the reason we haven’t found them yet is one that completely eludes our understanding at this point.

So where does that leave us?

Time and patience.

If you compare the 4.5 billion year old earth to a 24 hour clock, mankind doesn’t appear until a little over a minute before midnight. Take the almost sixty years we have been looking for extraterrestrials and project that on the same clock, it probably represents only about 20 or 30 seconds worth of searching for intelligent beings who may have been around millions and perhaps billions of years longer than we have. Our passage through time is just a tiny almost imperceptible blip when compared to the evolution of our galaxy.

New, very powerful listening devices will be coming into operation soon as well as sophisticated instruments that will be able to analyze exoplanets atmospheres to look for hints of life. SETI will expand into new areas and scientists will be able to devote a lot more telescope time to the search as the newly funded (100MM) Project Breakthough Listen kicks into high gear. It will cover 10 times more of the sky and the entire 1-10GHz radio spectrum. There will be more powerful optical and infrared searches and it is estimated the project will generate in a day as much data as SETI produced in an entire year. Recently, Project Breakthrough Starshot was announced as well. Seeded by another 100MM by Russian Billionaire, Yuri Milner, this ambitious project seeks to send a tiny light propelled robotic spacecraft to our nearest star system, Alpha Centauri. Stephen Hawking thinks this can be accomplished within the next generation and that new technology would allow a journey of only 20 years.

SETI scientist Nathalie Cabrol thinks its also time for a new approach to SETI’s search, a reboot if you will. She feels that “SETI’s vision has been constrained by whether ET has technology that resembles or thinks like us. She feels that the search, so far, has in essence been a search for ourselves. Electromagnetic fingerprints of radio transmitions carry a strong like us assumption”. She proposes involving a lot more disciplines in a redesign of the search. Astrobiology, life sciences, geoscience, cognitive science and mathematics among others. Her plan is to invite the research community to help craft a new scientific roadmap for SETI that very well may redefine the meaning of life and the cosmic search for new forms of it.

Some experts say we won’t see evidence of extraterrestrials for another 1500 years. That’s the time it will take for our TV and radio signals to have reached enough stars and have the best chance to be discovered.

In my opinion, I think highly advanced extraterrestrial societies already know we’re here and in about 10-15 years we’ll start getting some of the answers we’ve been looking for.

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Alien Minds Part III: The Octopus’s Garden and the Country of the Blind

METI logo

In our galaxy, there may be, at least, tens of billions of habitable planets, with conditions suitable for liquid water on their surfaces. There may be habitable moons as well. On an unknown number of those worlds, life may have arisen. On an unknown fraction of life-bearing worlds, life may have evolved into complex multicellular, sexually reproducing forms.

During its habitable period, a world with complex life might produce hundreds of millions of evolutionary lineages. One or a few of them might fortuitously encounter special circumstances that triggered runaway growth of their intelligence. These favored few, if they exist, might have built technological civilizations capable of signaling their presence across interstellar distances, or detecting and deciphering a message we send their way. What might such alien minds be like? What senses might they use? How might we communicate with them?

The purposes of the newly created METI (Messaging to ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) International include fostering multidisciplinary research in the design and transmission of interstellar messages, and building a global community of scholars from the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, and arts concerned with the origin, distribution, and future of life in the universe.

On May 18 the organization sponsored a workshop which included presentations by biologists, psychologists, cognitive scientists, and linguists. This is the third and final installment of a series of articles about the workshop.

In previous installments, we’ve discussed some ideas about the evolution of intelligence that were featured at the workshop. Here we’ll see whether our Earthly experience can provide us with any clues about how we might communicate with aliens.

Many of the animals that we are most familiar with from daily life, like humans, cats, dogs, birds, fishes, and frogs are vertebrates, or animals with backbones. They are all descended from a common ancestor and share a nervous system organized according to the same basic plan.

Molluscs are another major group of animals that have been evolving separately from vertebrates for more than 600 million years. Although most molluscs, like slugs, snails, and shellfish, have fairly simple nervous systems, one group; the cephalopods, have evolved a much more sophisticated one.

Cephalopods include octopuses, squids, and cuttlefishes. They show cognitive and perceptual abilities rivaling those of our close vertebrate kin. Since this nervous system has a different evolutionary history than of the vertebrates, it is organized in a way completely different from our own. It can give us a glimpse of the similarities and differences we might expect between aliens and ourselves.

David Gire, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington, and researcher Dominic Sivitilli gave a presentation on cephalopods at the Puerto Rico workshop. Although these animals have a sophisticated brain, their nervous systems are much more decentralized than that of familiar animals. In the octopus, sensing and moving are controlled locally in the arms, which together contain as many nerve cells, or neurons, as the brain.

The animal’s eight arms are extraordinarily sensitive. Each containing hundreds of suckers, with thousands of sensory receptors on each one. By comparison, the human finger has only 241 sensory receptors per square centimeter. Many of these receptors sense chemicals, corresponding roughly to our senses of taste and smell. Much of this sensory information is processed locally in the arms. When an arm is severed from an octopus’s body, it continues to show simple behaviors on its own, and can even avoid threats. The octopus’s brain simply acts to coordinate the behaviors of its arms.

Cephalopods have acute vision. Although their eyes evolved separately from those of vertebrates, they nonetheless bear an eerie resemblance. They have a unique ability to change the pattern and color of their skin using pigment cells that are under direct control of their nervous systems. This provides them with the most sophisticated camouflage system of any animal on Earth, and is also used for social signaling.

Despite the sophisticated cognitive abilities it exhibits in the lab, the octopus is largely solitary.
Cephalopod groups exchange useful information by observing one another, but otherwise exhibit only limited social cooperation. Many current theories of the evolution of sophisticated intelligence, like Miller’s sapiosexual hypothesis, which was featured in the second installment, assume that social cooperation and competition play a central role in the evolution of complicated brains. Since cephalopods have evolved much more impressive cognitive abilities than other molluscs, their limited social behavior is surprising.

Maybe the limited social behavior of cephalopods really does set limits on their intelligence. However, Gire and Sivitilli speculate that perhaps “an intelligence capable of technological development could exist with minimum social acuity”, and the cephalopod ability to socially share information is enough. The individuals of such an alien collective, they suppose, might possess no sense of self or other.

Besides Gire and Sivitilli, Anna Dornhaus, whose ideas were featured in the first installment, also thinks that alien creatures might function together as a collective mind. Social insects, in some respects, actually do. She doubts, though, that such an entities could evolve human-like technological intelligence without something like Miller’s sapiosexuality to trigger a runaway explosion of intelligence.

But if non-sapiosexual alien technological civilizations do exist, we might find them impossible to comprehend. Given this possible gulf of incomprehension about social structure, Gire and Stivitilli suppose that the most we might aspire to accomplish in terms of interstellar communication is an exchange of mutually useful and comprehensible astronomical information.

Workshop presenter Alfred Kracher, a retired staff scientist at the Ames Laboratory of the University of Iowa, supposes that “the mental giants of the Milky Way are probably artificially intelligent machines… It would be interesting to find evidence of them, if they exist”, he writes, “but then what?” Kracher supposes that if they have emancipated themselves and evolved away from their makers, “they will have nothing in common with organic life forms, human or extraterrestrial. There is no chance of mutual understanding”. We will be able to understand aliens, he maintains, only if “it turns out that the evolution of extraterrestrial life forms is highly convergent with our own”.

Peter Todd, a professor of psychology from Indiana University, holds out hope that such convergence may actually occur. Earthly animals must solve a variety of basic problems that are presented by the physical and biological world that they inhabit.

They must effectively navigate through a world of surfaces, barriers and objects, finding food and shelter, and avoiding predators, parasites, toxins. Extraterrestrial organisms, if they evolve in an Earth-like environment, would face a generally similar set of problems. They may well arrive at similar solutions, just as the octopus evolved eyes similar to ours.

In evolution here on Earth, Todd notes, brain systems originally evolved to solve these basic physical and biological problems appear to have been re-purposed to solve new and more difficult problems, as some animals evolved to solve the problems of living and finding mates as members of societies, and then as one particular age species went on to evolve conceptual reasoning and language. For example, disgust at bad food, useful for avoiding disease, may have been become the foundation for sexual disgust to avoid bad mates, moral disgust to avoid bad clan mates, and intellectual disgust to avoid dubious ideas.

If alien brains evolved solutions similar to the ones our brains did for negotiating the physical and biological world, they they might also have been re-purposed in similar ways. Alien minds might not be wholly different from ours, and thus hope exists for a degree of mutual understanding.

In the early 1970’s the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft were launched on the first exploratory missions to the planet Jupiter and beyond. When their missions were completed, these two probes became the first objects made by humans to escape the sun’s gravitational pull and hurtle into interstellar space.

Because of the remote possibility that the spacecraft might someday be found by extraterrestrials, a team of scientists and scholars lead by Carl Sagan emplaced a message on the vehicle, etched on a metal plaque. The message consisted, in part, of a line drawing of a man and a woman. Later, the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft carried a message that consisted, in part, of a series of 116 digital images encoded on a phonographic record.

The assumption that aliens would see and understand images seems reasonable, since the octopus evolved an eye so similar to our own. And that’s not all. The evolutionary biologists Luitfried Von Salvini-Plawen and Ernst Mayr showed that eyes, of various sorts, have evolved forty separate times on Earth, and vision is typically a dominant sense for large, land dwelling animals. Still, there are animals that function without it, and our earliest mammalian ancestors were nocturnal. Could it be that there are aliens that lack vision, and could not understand a message based on images?

In his short story, The Country of the Blind, the great science fiction writer H. G. Wells imagined an isolated mountain village whose inhabitants had been blind for fifteen generations after a disease destroyed their vision.

A lost mountain climber, finding the village, imagines that with his power of vision, he can easily become their king. But the villagers have adapted thoroughly to a life based on touch, hearing, and smell. Instead of being impressed by their visitor’s claim that he can ‘see’, they find it incomprehensible. They begin to believe he is insane. And when they seek to ‘cure’ him by removing two strange globular growths from the front of his head, he flees.

Could their really be an alien country of the blind whose inhabitants function without vision? Workshop presenter Dr. Sheri Wells-Jensen, an associate professor of Linguistics at Bowling Green State University, doesn’t need to imagine the country of the blind, because, in a sense, she lives there. She is blind, and believes that creatures without vision could achieve a level of technology sufficient to send interstellar messages. “Sighted people”, she writes, “tend to overestimate the amount and quality of information gathered by vision alone”.

Bats and dolphins image their dimly lit environments with a kind of naturally occurring sonar called echolocation. Blind human beings can also learn to echolocate, using tongue clicks or claps as emitted signals and analyzing the returning echoes by hearing. Some can do so well enough to ride a bicycle at a moderate pace through an unfamiliar neighborhood. A human can develop the touch sensitivity needed to read braille in four months. A blind marine biologist can proficiently distinguish the species of mollusc shells by touch.

Wells-Jensen posits a hypothetical civilization which she calls the Krikkits, who lack vision but possess sensory abilities otherwise similar to those of human beings. Could such beings build a technological society? Drawing on her knowledge of the blind community and a series of experiments, she thinks they could.

Finding food would present few special difficulties, since blind naturalists can identify many plant species by touch. Agriculture could be conducted as modern blind gardeners do it, by marking crops using stakes and piles of rock, and harvesting by feel. The combination of a stick used as a cane to probe the path ahead and echolocation make traveling by foot effective and safe. A loadstone compass would further aid navigational abilities. The Krikkits might use snares rather than spears or arrows to trap animals, making tools by touch.

Mathematics is vital to building a technological society. For most human beings, with our limited memory, a paper and pencil or a blackboard are essential for doing math. Krikkits would need to find other such aids, such as tactual symbols on clay tablets, abacus-like devices, or patterns sewn on hides or fabric.

Successful blind mathematicians often have prodigious memories, and can perform complex calculations in their heads. One of history’s greatest mathematicians, Leonard Euler, was blind for the last 17 years of his life, but remained mathematically productive through the use of his memory.

The obstacles to a blind society developing technology may not be insurmountable. Blind people are capable of handling fire and even working with molten glass. Krikkits might therefore use fire for cooking, warmth, to bake clay vessels, and smelt metal ores. Initially there only astronomical knowledge would be of the sun as a source of heat. Experiments with loadstones and metals would lead to a knowledge of electricity.

Eventually, the Krikkits might imitate their sonar with radio waves, inventing radar. If their planet possessed a moon or moons, radar reflections from them might provide their first knowledge of astronomical objects other than their sun. Radar would also enable them to learn for the first time that their planet is round.

The Krikkits might learn to detect other forms of radiation like X-rays and ‘light’. The ability to detect this second mysterious form of radiation might allow them to discover the existence of the stars and develop an interest in interstellar communication.

What sorts of messages might they send or understand? Well-Jensen believes that line drawings, like the drawing of the man and the woman on the Pioneer plaque, and other such pictorial representations might be an impenetrable mystery to them. On the other hand, she speculates that Krikkits might represent large data sets through sound, and that their counterpart to charts and graphs might be equally incomprehensible to us.

Images might pose a challenge for the Krikkits, but perhaps, Wells-Jensen concedes, not an impossible one. There is evidence that bats image their world using echolocation. Kikkits might be likely to evolve similar abilities, though Wells-Jensen believes they would not be essential for making tools or handling objects.

Perhaps humans and Krikkits could find common ground by transmitting instructions for three dimensional printed objects that could be explored tactually. Wells-Jensen thinks they might also understand mathematical or logical languages proposed for interstellar communication.

The diversity of cognition and perception that we find here on Earth teaches us that if extraterrestrial intelligence exists, it is likely to be much more alien than much of science fiction has prepared us to expect. In our attempt to communicate with aliens, the gulf of mutual incomprehension may yawn as wide as the gulf of interstellar space. Yet this is a gulf we must somehow cross, if we wish ever to become citizens of the galaxy.

For further reading:

Cain, F. (2008) Is Our Universe Ruled by Artificial Intelligence, Universe Today.

Kaufmann G. (2005) Spineless smarts, NOVA

Land, M. F., and Nilsson, D-E. (2002) Animal Eyes, Oxford University Press.

Mather, J. A. (2008) Cephalopod consciousness: Behavioral evidence, Cognition and Consciousness 17(1): 37-48.

Patton, P. E. (2016) Alien Minds I: Are Extraterrestrial Civilizations Likely to Evolve? Universe Today.

Patton, P. E. (2016) Alien Minds II: Do Aliens Think Big Brains are Sexy Too? Universe Today.

P. Patton (2014) Communicating across the cosmos, Part 1: Shouting into the darkness, Part 2: Petabytes from the Stars, Part 3: Bridging the Vast Gulf, Part 4: Quest for a Rosetta Stone, Universe Today.

Wells, H. G. (1904) The Country of the Blind, The literature network.

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Alien Minds Part II: Do Aliens Think Big Brains are Sexy Too?

peahen and peacock

“Nothing in biology makes sense”, wrote the evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky, “except in the light of evolution”. If we want to assess whether it is likely that technological civilizations have evolved on alien planets or moons, and what they might be like, the theory of evolution is our best guide. On May 18, 2016 the newly founded METI (Messaging to ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) International hosted a workshop entitled ‘The Intelligence of SETI: Cognition and Communication in Extraterrestrial Intelligence’. The workshop was held in San Juan, Puerto Rico on the first day of the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference. It included nine talks by scientists and scholars in evolutionary biology, psychology, cognitive science, and linguistics.

In the first instalment of this series, we saw that intelligence, of various sorts, is widespread across the animal kingdom. Workshop presenter Anna Dornhaus, who studies collective decision-making in insects as an associate professor at the University of Arizona, showed that even insects, with their diminutive brains, exhibit a surprising cognitive sophistication. Intelligence, of various sorts, is a likely and probable evolutionary product.

Animals evolve the cognitive abilities that they need to meet the demands of their own particular environments and lifestyles. Sophisticated brains and cognition have evolved many times on Earth, in many separate evolutionary lineages. But, of the millions of evolutionary lineages that have arisen on Earth in the 600 million years since complex life appeared, only one, that which led to human beings, produced the peculiar combination of cognitive traits that led to a technological civilization. What this tells us is that technological civilization is not the inevitable product of a long term evolutionary trend, it is rather the quirky and contingent product of particular circumstances. But what might those circumstances have been, and just how special and improbable were they?

Workshop presenter Geoffrey Miller is an associate professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico. Miller thinks he has an answer to the question of what the special circumstances that produced human evolution were. Our protohuman ancestors inhabited the African savanna. But so do many other mammals that don’t need enormous brains to survive there. The evolutionary forces driving the production of our large brains, Miller surmises, can’t be due to the challenges of survival. He thinks instead that human evolution was guided by an intelligence. But Miller is no creationist, nor does he have the alien monolith from the 1960’s science fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey in mind. Miller’s guiding intelligence is the intelligence that our ancestors themselves used when they selected their mates.

Miller’s theory harkens back to the ideas of the founder of modern evolutionary theory, the nineteenth century British naturalist Charles Darwin. Darwin proposed that evolution works through a process of natural selection. Animal offspring vary one from another, and are produced in too great of numbers for all of them to survive. Some starve, some are eaten by predators, others fall prey to the numerous other hazards of the natural world. A few survive to produce offspring, thereby passing on the traits that allowed them to survive. Down the generations, traits that aided survival become more elaborate and useful and traits that did not, vanished.

But Darwin was troubled by a serious problem with his theory. He knew that many animals have prominent traits that don’t seem to contribute to their survival, and are even counterproductive to it. The bright colors of many insects, the colors, elaborate plumage, and songs of birds, the huge antlers of elk, were all prominent and costly traits that couldn’t be explained by his theory of natural selection. Peacocks, with their elaborate tail feathers were everywhere in English gardens, and came to torment him.

At last, Darwin found the solution. To produce offspring, an animal must do more than just survive, it must find a partner to mate with. All the traits which worried Darwin could be explained if they served to make their bearers sexier and more beautiful to prospective mates than other competing members of their own gender. If peahens like elaborate plumage, then in each generation, they will choose to mate with the males with the most elaborate tail feathers, and reject the rest. Through the competition for mates, peacock tails will become more and more elaborate down the generations. Darwin called his new theory sexual selection.

Many subsequent evolutionary biologists regarded sexual selection as of limited importance, and lumped it in with natural selection, which was said to favor traits conducive to survival and reproductive success. However, in recent decades evolutionary biologists have come to view sexual selection in a much more favorable light. Geoffrey Miller proposed that the human brain evolved through sexual selection. Human beings, he supposes, are sapiosexual; that is, they are sexually attracted by intelligence and its products. The preference for selecting intelligent mates produced greater intelligence, which in turn allowed our ancestors to become more discerning in selecting more intelligent mates, producing a kind of amplifying feedback loop, and an explosion of intelligence.

On this account, language, music, dancing, humor, art, literature, and perhaps even morality and ethics exist because those who were good at them were deemed sexier, or more trustworthy and reliable, and were thus more successful in securing mates than those who weren’t. The elaborate human brain is like the elaborate peacock’s tail. It exists for wooing mates and not for survival. There are some important ways in which protohumans were different from peafowl. Both males and females are choosy and both have large brains. Protohumans, unlike peafowl, probably formed monogamous pair bonds. Miller’s theory has complexities that space won’t permit us to explore here. To show that his theory can work, Miller needed to develop a computer model.

If Miller is right, then just how probable is the evolution of a technological civilization, and how likely is it that we will find them elsewhere in the galaxy? Miller thinks that if complex life exists on other planets or moons, it is likely to evolve reproduction through sex, just as has happened here on Earth. For complex organisms that depend on a large and complicated body of genetic information, most mutations will be neutral or harmful. In sexual reproduction half the genes of one’s offspring come from each parent. Without this mixing of genes from other individuals, asexual lineages are likely to falter and go extinct due to an accumulation of harmful mutations. Unless sexually reproducing creatures choose their mates purely at random, sexual selection is an inevitability. So, the basic conditions for runaway sexual selection to produce a brain suited to language and technology probably exists on other worlds with complex life.

One problem, though, that Anna Dornhaus pointed out, is that in sexual selection, the trait that gets exaggerated is essentially arbitrary. There are many bird species with elaborate plumage, but none exactly like the peacock. There are many species where brains and cognitive traits matter for mating success, like the singing ability of nightingales and many other birds, or gibbons, or whales. Male bower birds build complicated structures, called bowers, out of found items, like sticks and leaves and stones and shells, to attract a female. Chimpanzees engage in complex power struggles that involve negotiation, grooming, and fighting their way to the top.

But despite the selective success of cognition and braininess in many species, our specific human sort of intelligence, with language and technology, has happened only once on Earth, and therefore might be rare in the universe. If our ancestors had found big noses rather than big brains sexy, then we might now have enormous noses rather than enormous radio telescopes capable of signaling to other worlds.

Miller is more optimistic. “It’s a rare accident” he writes, in the sense that mate preferences only rarely turn ‘sapiosexual’, focused so heavily on conspicuous displays of general intelligence… On the other hand, I think it’s likely that in any biosphere, sexual selection would eventually stumble into sapiosexual mate preferences, and then you’d get human-level intelligence and language of some sort. It might only arise in 1 out of every 100 million species though,…I suspect that in any biosphere with sexually reproducing complex organisms and a wide variety of species, you’d quite likely get at least one lineage stumbling into the sapiosexual niche within a billion years”.

A planet or moon is currently deemed potentially habitable if it orbits its parent star within the right distance range for liquid water to exist on its surface. This distance range is called the habitable zone. Since stars evolve with time, the duration of habitability is limited. Such matters can be explored through climate modeling, informed by what we know of the climates of Earth and other worlds within our solar system, and about the evolution of stars.

Current thinking is that Earth’s total duration of habitability is 6.3 to 7.8 billion years, and that our world may remain habitable for another 1.75 billion years. Since complex life has already existed on Earth for 600 million years, this seems a generous amount of time for complex life on a similar planet to stumble upon Miller’s sapiosexual niche. Stars of smaller mass than the sun are stable on longer timescales, some perhaps capable of sustaining worlds with liquid water for a hundred billion years. If Miller’s estimates are reasonable, then there may be worlds enough and time for an abundance of sapiosexual alien civilizations in our galaxy.

A central message of the METI Institute workshop is that, animals evolve whatever sort of intelligence is necessary for them to survive and reproduce under the circumstances in which they find themselves. Human-style intelligence, with language and technology, is a peculiar quirk of particular and improbable evolutionary circumstances. But we don’t know just how improbable. Given the vastness of time and number of worlds potentially available for the roll of the evolutionary dice, alien civilizations might be reasonably abundant, or they might be once-in-a-billion galaxies rare. We just don’t know. Better knowledge of the evolution of life and intelligence here on Earth might allow us to improve our estimates.

If alien civilizations do exist, what can life on Earth tell us about what their minds and senses are likely to be like? Are they, like us, visually oriented creatures, or might they rely on other senses? Can we expect that their minds might be similar enough to ours to make meaningful communication possible? These intriguing questions will be the subject of the third and final installment of this series.

For further reading:

Hooper, P. L. (2008) Mutual mate choice can drive costly signalling even under perfect monogamy. Adaptive Behavior, 16: p. 53-70.

Marris, E. (2013) Earth’s days are numbered. Nature News.

Miller, G. F. (2000) The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature. Random House, New York.

Miller, G. F. (2007) Sexual selection for moral virtues, The Quarterly Review of Biology, 82(2): p. 97-125.

Patton, P. E. (2016) Alien Minds I: Are Extraterrestrial Civilizations Likely to Evolve? Universe Today.

P. Patton (2014) Communicating across the cosmos, Part 1: Shouting into the darkness, Part 2: Petabytes from the Stars, Part 3: Bridging the Vast Gulf, Part 4: Quest for a Rosetta Stone, Universe Today.

Rushby, A. J., Claire, M. W., Osborn, H., Watson, A. J. (2013) Habitable zone lifetimes of exoplanets around main sequence stars. Astrobiology, 13(9), p. 833-849.

Yirka, B. (2016) Yeast study offers evidence of the superiority of sexual reproduction versus cloning in speed of adaptation. Phys.org.

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Weekly Space Hangout – May 27, 2016: Dr. Seth Shostak

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain) Special Guest: Dr. Seth Shostak is the Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute. He also heads up the International Academy of Astronautics’ SETI Permanent Committee. In addition, Seth is keen on outreach activities: interesting the public – and especially young people – in science in general, and astrobiology in particular. He’s […]

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Finding Aliens May Be Even Easier Than Previously Thought

Finding extra-terrestrial life may be easier, now that we know what to look for. Credit: NASA/Serge Brunier

Finding examples of intelligent life other than our own in the Universe is hard work. Between spending decades listening to space for signs of radio traffic – which is what the good people at the SETI Institute have been doing – and waiting for the day when it is possible to send spacecraft to neighboring star systems, there simply haven’t been a lot of options for finding extra-terrestrials.

But in recent years, efforts have begun to simplify the search for intelligent life. Thanks to the efforts of groups like the Breakthrough Foundation, it may be possible in the coming years to send “nanoscraft” on interstellar voyages using laser-driven propulsion. But just as significant is the fact that developments like these may also make it easier for us to detect extra-terrestrials that are trying to find us.

Not long ago, Breakthrough Initiatives made headlines when they announced that luminaries like Stephen Hawking and Mark Zuckerberg were backing their plan to send a tiny spacecraft to Alpha Centauri. Known as Breakthrough Starshot, this plan involved a refrigerator-sized magnet being towed by a laser sail, which would be pushed by a ground-based laser array to speeds fast enough to reach Alpha Centauri in about 20 years.

https://youtu.be/_MCVaLMWQbA

In addition to offering a possible interstellar space mission that could reach another star in our lifetime, projects like this have the added benefit of letting us broadcast our presence to the rest of the Universe. Such is the argument put forward by Philip Lubin, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the brains behind Starshot.

In a paper titled “The Search for Directed Intelligence” – which appeared recently in arXiv and will be published soon in REACH – Reviews in Human Space Exploration – Lubin explains how systems that are becoming technologically feasible on Earth could allow us to search for similar technology being used elsewhere. In this case, by alien civilizations. As Lubin shared with Universe Today via email:

“In our SETI paper we examine the implications of a civilization having directed energy systems like we are proposing for both our NASA and Starshot programs. In this sense the NASA (DE-STAR) and Starshot arrays represent what other civilizations may possess. In another way, the receive mode (Phased Array Telescope) may be useful to search and study nearby exoplanets.”

DE-STAR, or the Directed Energy System for Targeting of Asteroids and exploRation, is another project being developed by scientists at UCSB. This proposed system will use lasers to target and deflect asteroids, comets, and other Near-Earth Objects (NEOs). Along with the Directed Energy Propulsion for Interstellar Exploration (DEEP-IN), a NASA-backed UCSB project that is based on Lubin’s directed-energy concept, they represent some of the most ambitious directed-energy concepts currently being pursued.

Using these as a teplate, Lubin believes that other species in the Universe could be using this same kind of directed energy systems for the same purposes – i.e. propulsion, planetary defense, scanning, power beaming, and communications. And by using a rather modest search strategy, he and colleagues propose observing nearby star and planetary systems to see if there are any signs of civilizations that possess this technology.

This could take the form of “spill-over”, where surveys are able to detect errant flashes of energy. Or they could be from an actual beacon, assuming the extra-terrestrials us DE to communicate. As is stated in the paper authored by Lubin and his colleagues:

“There are a number of reasons a civilization would use directed energy systems of the type discussed here. If other civilizations have an environment like we do they might use DE system for applications such as propulsion, planetary defense against “debris” such as asteroids and comets, illumination or scanning systems to survey their local environment, power beaming across large distances among many others. Surveys that are sensitive to these “utilitarian” applications are a natural byproduct of the “spill over” of these uses, though a systematic beacon would be much easier to detect.”
According to Lubin, this represents a major departure from what projects like SETI have been doing for the past few decades. These efforts, which can be classified as “passive” were understandable in the past, owing to our limited means and the challenges in sending out messages ourselves. For one, the distances involved in interstellar communication are incredibly vast.

Even using directed-energy, which moves at the speed of light, it would still take a message over 4 years to the nearest star, 1000 years to reach the Kepler planets, and 2 million years to the nearest galaxy (Andromeda). So aside from the nearest stars, these time scales are far beyond a human lifetime; and by the time the message arrived, far better means would have evolved to communicate.

Second,  there is also the issue of the targets being in motion over the vast timescales involved. All stars have a transverse velocity relative to our line of sight, which means that any star system or planet targeted with a burst of laser communication would have moved by the time the beam arrived. So by adopting a pro-active approach, which involves looking for specific kinds of behavior, we could bolster our efforts to find intelligent life on distant exoplanets.

But of course, there are still many challenges that need to be overcome, not the least of which are technical. But more than that, there is also the fact that what we are looking for may not exist. As Lubin and his colleagues state in one section of the paper: “What is an assumption, of course, is that electromagnetic communications has any relevance on times scales that are millions of years and in particular that electromagnetic communications (which includes beacons) should have anything to do with wavelengths near human vision.”

In other words, assuming that aliens are using technology similar to our own is potentially anthropocentric. However, when it comes to space exploration and finding other intelligent species, we have to work with what we have, and with what we know. And as it stands, humanity is the only example of a space-faring civilization known to us. As such, we can hardly be faulted for projecting ourselves out there.

Here’s hoping ET is out there, and relies on energy beaming to get things done. And, fingers crossed, here’s hoping they aren’t too shy about being noticed!

Further Reading: arXiv

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Alien Minds I: Are Extraterrestrial Civilizations Likely to Evolve?

The face of a jumping spider

Is it likely that human level intelligence and technological civilization has evolved on other worlds? If so, what kinds of sensory and cognitive systems might extraterrestrials have? This was the subject of the workshop ‘The Intelligence of SETI: Cognition and Communication in Extraterrestrial Intelligence’ held in Puerto Rico on May 18, 2016. The conference was sponsored by the newly founded METI International (Messaging to ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence). One of the organization’s central goals is to build an interdisciplinary community of scholars concerned with designing interstellar messages that can be understood by non-human minds.

At present, the only clues we have to the nature of extraterrestrial minds and perception are those that can be garnered by a careful study of the evolution of mind and perception here on Earth. The workshop included nine speakers from universities in the United States and Sweden, specializing in biology, psychology, cognitive science, and linguistics. It had sessions on the evolution of cognition and the likely communicative and cognitive abilities of extraterrestrials.

Doug Vakoch, a psychologist and the founder and president of METI International, notes that astronomers and physicists properly concern themselves largely with the technologies needed to detect alien intelligence. However, finding and successfully communicating with aliens may require attention to the evolution and possible nature of alien intelligence. “The exciting thing about this workshop”, Vakoch writes, “is that the speakers are giving concrete guidelines about how to apply insights from basic research in biology and linguistics to constructing interstellar messages”. In this, the first installment dealing with the conference, we’ll focus on the question of whether the evolution of technological societies on other planets is likely to be common, or rare.

We now know that most stars have planets, and rocky planets similar to or somewhat larger than the Earth or Venus are commonplace. Within this abundant class of worlds, there are likely to be tens of billions with conditions suitable for sustaining liquid water on their surfaces in our galaxy. We don’t yet know how likely it is that life will arise on such worlds. But suppose, as many scientists suspect, that simple life is abundant. How likely is it that alien civilizations will appear; civilizations with which we could communicate and exchange ideas, and which could make their presence known to us by signaling into space? This was a central question explored at the conference.

In addressing such questions, scientists have two main sets of clues to draw on. The first comes from the study of the enormous diversity of behavior and nervous and sensory systems of the animal species that inhabit our Earth; an endeavor that has been called cognitive ecology. The second set of clues come from modern biology’s central principle; the theory of evolution. Evolutionary theory can provide scientific explanations of how and why various senses and cognitive systems have come to exist here on Earth, and can guide our expectations about what might exist elsewhere.

The basics of the electrochemical signalling that make animal nervous systems possible have deep evolutionary roots. Even plants and bacteria have electrochemical signalling systems that share some basic features with those in our brains. Conference presenter Dr. Anna Dornhaus studies how social insects make decisions collectively as an associate professor at the University of Arizona. She defines cognitive ability as the ability to solve problems with a nervous system, and sometimes also by social cooperation. An animal is more ‘intelligent’ if its problem solving abilities are more generalized. Defined this way, intelligence is widespread among animals. Skills traditionally thought to be the sole province of primates (monkeys and apes, including human beings) have now been shown to be surprisingly common.

For example, cognitive skills like social learning and teaching, generalizing from examples, using tools, recognizing individuals of one’s species, making plans, and understanding spatial relationships have all been shown to exist in arthropods (an animal group consisting of insects, spiders, and crustaceans). The evidence shows the surprising power of the diminutive brains of insects, and indicates that we know little of the relationship between brain size and cognitive ability.

But different animals often have different sets of cognitive skills, and if a species is good at one cognitive skill, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be good at others. Human beings are special, not because we have some specific cognitive ability that other animals lack, but because we possess a wide range of cognitive abilities that are more exaggerated and highly developed than in other animals.

Although the Earth, as a planet, has existed for 4.6 billion years, complex animals with hard body parts don’t appear in the fossil record until 600 million years ago, and complex life didn’t appear on land until about 400 million years ago. Looking across the animal kingdom as a whole, three groups of animals, following separate evolutionary paths, have evolved especially complex nervous systems and behaviors. We’ve already mentioned arthropods, and the sophisticated behaviors mediated by their diminutive yet powerful brains.

Molluscs, a group of animals that includes slugs and shellfish, have also produced a group of brainy animals; the cephalopods. The cephalopods include octopuses, squids, and cuttlefish. The octopus has the most complex nervous system of any animal without a backbone. As the product of a different evolutionary path, the octopus’s sophisticated brain has a plan of organization that is completely alien to that of more familiar animals with backbones.

The third group to have produced sophisticated brains are the vertebrates; animals with backbones. They include fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals, including human beings. Although all vertebrate brains bear a family resemblance, complex brains have evolved from simpler brains many separate times along different paths of vertebrate evolution, and each such brain has its own unique characteristics.

Along one path, birds have evolved a sophisticated forebrain, and with it, a flexible and creative capacity to make and use tools, an ability to classify and categorize objects, and even a rudimentary understanding of numbers. Following a different path, and based on a different plan of forebrain organization, mammals have also evolved sophisticated intelligence. Three groups of mammals; elephants, cetaceans (a group of aquatic mammals including dophins, porpoises, and whales), and primates (monkeys and apes, including human beings) have evolved the most complex brains on Earth.

Given the evidence that intelligent problem solving skills of various sorts have evolved many times over, along many different evolutionary pathways, in an amazing range of animal groups, one might suspect that Dornhaus believes that human-style cognitive abilities and civilizations are widespread in the universe. In fact, she doesn’t. She thinks that humans with their exaggerated cognitive abilities and unique ability to use language to express complex and novel sorts of information are a quirky and unusual fluke of evolution, and might, for all we know, be wildly improbable. Her argument that alien civilizations probably aren’t widespread resembles one stated by the imminent and influential American evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr in his 1988 book Towards a New Philosophy of Biology.

There are currently more than 10 million different species of animals on Earth. All but one have failed to evolve the human level of intelligence. This makes the chance of evolving human intelligence less than one in 10 million. Over the last six hundred million years since complex life has appeared on Earth, there have been tens of million different animal species, each existing for roughly 1-10 million years. But, so far as we know, only one of them, Homo sapiens, ever produced a technological society. The human lineage diverged from that of other great ape species about 8 million years ago, but we don’t see evidence of distinctly human innovation until about 50,000 years ago, which is, perhaps, another indication of its rarity.

Despite the apparent improbability of human level intelligence evolving in any one lineage, Earth, as a whole, with its vast array of evolutionary lineages, has nonetheless produced a technological civilization. But that still doesn’t tell us very much. For the present, Earth is the only habitable planet that we know much of anything about. And, since Earth produced us, we are working with a biased sample. So we can’t be at all confident that the presence of human civilization on Earth implies that similar civilizations are likely to occur elsewhere.

For all we know, the quirky set of events that produced human beings might be so wildly improbable that human civilization is unique in a hundred billion galaxies. But, we don’t know for sure that alien civilizations are wildly improbable either. Dornhaus freely concedes that neither she nor anybody has a good idea of just how improbable human intelligence might be, since the evolution of intelligence is still so poorly understood.

Most current evolutionary thinking, following in the footsteps of Mayr and others, holds that human civilization was not the inevitable product of a long-term evolutionary trend, but rather the quirky consequence of a particular and improbable set of evolutionary events. What sort of events might those have been, and just how improbable were they? Dornhaus supports a popular theory proposed by Dr. Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist who is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of New Mexico and who also spoke at the METI institute workshop.

In our next installment we’ll explore Miller’s theories in a bit more detail, and see why the abundance of extraterrestrial civilizations might depend on whether or not aliens think big brains are sexy.

For further reading:
Baluska, F. and Mancuso, S. (2009) Deep evolutionary origins of neurobiology. Communicative and Integrative Biology, 2:1, 60-65.

Chittka, L. and Niven, J. (2009) Are bigger brains better?, Current Biology. 19:21 p. R995-R1008.

Margonelli, L. (2014) Collective mind in the mound: How do termites build their huge structures. National Geographic.

Mayr, E. (1988) The probability of extraterrestrial intelligent life. In Towards a New Philosophy of Biology, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Patton, P. E. (2015) Who speaks for Earth? The controversy over interstellar messaging. Universe Today.

P. Patton (2014) Communicating across the cosmos, Part 1: Shouting into the darkness, Part 2: Petabytes from the Stars, Part 3: Bridging the Vast Gulf, Part 4: Quest for a Rosetta Stone, Universe Today.

Tonn, S. (2015) Termites are teaching architects to design super-efficient skyscrapers. Wired Magazine.

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Don’t Want Aliens Dropping By? Engage Laser Cloaking Device

Lasers like this one, at the VLT in Paranal, help counteract the blurring effect of the atmosphere. Powerful arrays of much larger lasers could hide our presence from aliens. (ESO/Y. Beletsky)

Of course we all know that aliens want to take over Earth. It’s in all the movies. And after they take over, they could do whatever they want to us puny, weak Earthlings. Enslavement? Yup. Forced breeding programs? Sure. Lay eggs in our bellies and consume our guts for their first meal? Why not.

But here at Universe Today, we’re science-minded types. We love the science fiction, but don’t take it too seriously. But someone we do take seriously when he has something to tell us is Stephen Hawking. And when he warned us that aliens might want to conquer and colonize us, it lent gravity to the whole discussion around contact with aliens. Should we reach out to alien civilizations? Will we be safe if they find us? Or should we try to conceal our presence?

If we choose concealment, then a new paper from two astronomers at New York’s Columbia University have good news for humanity. The authors of the paper, Professor David Kipping and graduate student Alex Teachey, say that lasers could be used to hide Earth from alien prying eyes.

At the heart of this whole idea are transits. When a planet passes in between its star and a distant observer, the star’s light is dimmed, and that’s called a transit. This is how the Kepler spacecraft detects exo-planets, and it’s been remarkably successful. If alien species are using the same method, which makes sense, then Earth would be easily detectable in the Sun’s habitable zone.

According to Kipping and Teachey, lasers could be used to mask this effect. A 30 MW laser would be enough to counter the dimming effect of Earth’s transit in front of the Sun. And it would only need to be turned on for 10 hours, once every year, since that’s how long Earth’s transit takes.

But that would only take care of the dimming effect in visible light. To counter-act the transit dimming across the whole electromagnetic spectrum would require much more energy: a 250 MW cloak of lasers tuned all across the spectrum. But there might be a middle way.

According to an interview with the paper’s authors in Science Daily, it might take only 160 MW of lasers to mask biological signatures in the atmosphere. Any prying alien eyes would not notice that life had ever come into being on Earth.

Should we decide that we do indeed want to be colonized, or forced to take part in breeding programs, or be enslaved, then the same system of lasers could be used to amplify the transit effect. This would make it easier, rather than harder, for aliens to detect us. In fact, according to the authors, these lasers could even be used to communicate with aliens, by transmitting information.

Of course, there’s one other element to all this. For this to work, we have to know where to aim the lasers, which means we have to know where the alien civilization is. And if we’re worried about them coming to get us, they will have more advanced technology than us. And if they have more advanced technology than us, they will for sure already have laser cloaking like the type talked about here.

So who’ll be the first to blink, and turn off their laser cloaking and allow detection?

You first, aliens.

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Why Haven’t We Heard From All The Aliens? Because They’re All Dead!

Illustration of Kepler-186f, a recently-discovered, possibly Earthlike exoplanet that could be a host to life. (NASA Ames, SETI Institute, JPL-Caltech, T. Pyle)

In 1950, physicist Enrico Fermi raised a very important question about the Universe and the existence of extra-terrestrial life. Given the size and age of the Universe, he stated, and the statistical probability of life emerging in other solar systems, why is it that humanity has not seen any indications of intelligence life in the cosmos? This query, known as the Fermi Paradox, continues to haunt us to this day.

If, indeed, there are billions of star systems in our galaxy, and the conditions needed for life are not so rare, then where are all the aliens? According to a recent paper by researchers at Australian National University’s Research School of Earth Sciences., the answer may be simple: they’re all dead. In what the research teams calls the “Gaian Bottleneck”, the solution to this paradox may be that life is so fragile that most of it simply doesn’t make it.

To put this in perspective, let’s first consider some of the numbers. As of the penning of this article, scientists have discovered a total of 2049 planets in 1297 planetary systems, including 507 multiple planetary systems. In addition, a report issued in 2013 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA indicated that, based on Kepler mission data, there could be as many as 40 billion Earth-sized planets orbiting in the habitable zones of Sun-like stars and red dwarfs within the Milky Way, and that 11 billion of these may be orbiting Sun-like stars.

So really, there should be no shortage of alien civilizations out there. And given that some scientists estimate that our galaxy is 16 billion years old, there’s been no shortage of time for some of that life to evolve and crate all the necessary technology to reach out and find us. But according to Dr Aditya Chopra, the lead author on the ANU paper, one needs take into account that the evolutionary process is filled with its share of hurdles.

“Early life is fragile, so we believe it rarely evolves quickly enough to survive,” he says. “Most early planetary environments are unstable. To produce a habitable planet, life forms need to regulate greenhouse gases such as water and carbon dioxide to keep surface temperatures stable.”

Consider our Solar System. We all know that planet Earth has all the right elements to give rise to life as we know it. It sits within the Sun’s so-called “Goldilocks Zone” (aka. habitable zone), it has liquid water on its surface, an atmosphere, and a magnetosphere to protect this atmosphere and ensure that life on the surface isn’t exposed to too much radiation. As such, Earth is the only place in our Solar System where life is known to thrive.

But what about Venus and Mars? Both of these planets sit within the Sun’s Goldilocks Zone and are believed to have had microbial life on them at one time. But roughly 3 billion years ago, when life on Earth was beginning to convert the Earth’s primordial atmosphere by producing oxygen, Venus and Mars both underwent cataclysmic change.

Whereas Venus experienced a runaway Greenhouse Effect and became the hot, hostile world it is today, Mars lost its atmosphere and surface water and became the cold, desiccated place it is today. So whereas Earth’s microbial life played a key role in stabilizing our environment, any lifeforms on Venus and Mars would have been wiped out by the sudden temperature extremes.

https://youtu.be/k9uAPAezbis

In other words, when considering the likelihood of life in the cosmos, we need to look beyond the mere statistics and consider whether or not it may come down to an “emergence bottleneck”. Essentially, those planets where lifeforms fail to emerge quickly enough, thus stabilizing the planet and paving the way for more life, will be doomed to remain uninhabited.

In their report, “The Case for a Gaian Bottleneck: The Biology of Habitability” – which appears in the first issue of Astrobiology for 2016 – Dr. Chopra and his associates summarize their argument as follows:

If life emerges on a planet, it only rarely evolves quickly enough to regulate greenhouse gases and albedo, thereby maintaining surface temperatures compatible with liquid water and habitability. Such a Gaian bottleneck suggests that (i) extinction is the cosmic default for most life that has ever emerged on the surfaces of wet rocky planets in the Universe and (ii) rocky planets need to be inhabited to remain habitable.

While potentially depressing, this theory does offer a resolution to the Fermi Paradox. Given the sheer number of warm, wet terrestrial planets in the Milky Way Galaxy, there ought to be at least a few thousand civilizations kicking around. And of those, surely there are a few who have climbed their way up the Kardashev Scale and built something like a Dyson Sphere, or at least some flying saucers!

And yet, not only have we not detected any signs of life in other solar systems, but the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) hasn’t detecting any radio waves from other star systems since its inception. The only possible explanations for this are that either life is far more rare than we think, or that we aren’t looking in the right places. In the former case, an emergence bottleneck may be the reason why life has been so hard to find.

But if the latter possibility should be the case, it means our methodology needs to change. So far, all of our searches have been for the “low-hanging fruit” of alien life – looking for signs of it on warm, watery planets like our own. Perhaps life does exist out there, but in more complex and exotic forms that we have yet to consider.  Or, as is often suggested, it is possible that extra-terrestrial life is taking great pains to avoid us.

Regardless, Fermi’s Paradox has endured for over 50 years, and will continue to endure until such time that we make contact with an extra-terrestrial civilization. In the meantime, all we can do is speculate. To quote Arthur C. Clarke, “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”

Further Reading: ANU, Astrobiology

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