Seeking Strange New Worlds, Life and Civilizations

I noticed “Research sheds new light on intelligent life existing across the galaxy” in last year’s science news headlines.

That, and “‘Mirror Image’ of the Earth and Sun Discovered 3000 Light-Years Away,” started me writing about exoplanets, SETI and vaguely-related topics.

About 8,400 words later, I stopped writing. My ‘science news’ posts have usually run around 5,000 words. Give or take quite a bit.

Public domain image 'galaxy.'I’ve been told that they’re on the long side. Not necessarily too long: but long, nonetheless.

After passing 8,000 words with no signs of reaching a stopping point, I thought maybe enough was more than sufficient.

So I saved what I’d written and proceeded with reading, writing and not going bonkers during an election-year pandemic.

Some of the “…sheds new light…” material went into “My Top 10 Science News Stories For 2020.” Most of it will (probably) go into this series.


Life, the Universe and “That Untravell’d World”

'all experience is an arch wherethro' Gleams that untravell'd world....' (Tennyson)

I’ll get to the news. But first, I’d better sketch out how I see science, space aliens and life on other worlds.

“Do You Believe in Extraterrestrial Life?”


(From Survata, used w/o permission.)

Upwave, an analytics platform, discussed space aliens, religious people and a Survata poll several years back. Survata is Upwave’s new moniker, and I’m drifting off-topic.

Anyway, my guess is that if Survata polled 5,886 Americans today, they’d come up with different numbers. But not all that different.

Survata poll: 'Do you believe in extraterrestrial life?'Overall, around 37% of us, just over a third, would “believe in” extraterrestrial life.

Just over half the folks who say they’re atheist or agnostic would believe, and just under a third of folks who identify as Christians would admit that they believe in life ‘out there.’

Another third of openly-Christian Americans wouldn’t be sure about extraterrestrial life.

That compares with the two thirds of ‘prefer not to respond’ who are not convinced one way or the other. And the two fifths of everyone who also aren’t convinced.

“Reconciling Religion” — “Reconciling???”

D.W. Miller's depiction of Cambrian animals in the Burgess Shale. (Smithsonian)My hat’s off to the Survata folks, for recognizing that Catholics are Christians. And that Catholics and Baptists aren’t necessarily identical.

I’m not sure what to make of the author’s choice of “sacrilege” in the article’s title and “reconciling” in a heading.

Science or sacrilege? Atheists and agnostics are 76% more likely than Christians to believe in the existence of extraterrestrial life.
Troy Mathew, Blog, Upwave (September 19, 2013)

“…Reconciling Religion
“Belief in extraterrestrial life varies dramatically by religious affiliation (or lack thereof). Of those who identify as atheist or agnostic, 55% affirm a belief in extraterrestrial life compared to only 32% of Christians, meaning atheists and agnostics are 76% more likely than Christians to believe in the existence of life beyond our planet….”

“Sacrilege” means violation or misuse something that’s seen as sacred. I’ve also heard it used, along with “blasphemy,” as a label meaning “I don’t like/understand this.”

Maybe that’s the author’s experience, too, since he talked about “reconciling” religion and “a belief in extraterrestrial life.”

Then there’s the “belief” thing.

I don’t “believe in” extraterrestrial life. But I don’t “not believe in” extraterrestrial life.

I’m quite sure that we will find life on other worlds. Or that we won’t.

If we do, I’m pretty sure that some folks — including brittle Christians — will be upset.

But their displeasure won’t change reality.

God’s God, I’m Not, and That’s Okay

ESO/INAF-VST/OmegaCAM, OmegaCen/Astro-WISE/Kapteyn Institute; via Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.I’m a Christian, a Catholic.

I’m “not sure” whether there’s life anywhere but on Earth: or not.

I can’t ‘believe in’ or ‘not believe in’ extraterrestrial life. I don’t have enough data to form a reasoned opinion.

And because I’m a Christian and a Catholic, I sure won’t proclaim that there must be or can’t be life on other worlds.

That’s a God-level design decision, one I’m not qualified to make. Not even close. And I’m not about to try forcing God to accept my preferences. Or claim that I’ve got kind of clout.

But I see no reason why I shouldn’t wonder what’s in this universe. And learn what I can.

I think doing so is a good idea.

We can learn about God by noticing the order and beauty in this universe. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 3132, 319)

St. Bonaventure said that the universe communicates God’s glory. St. Thomas Aquinas said that the Almighty creates because God is good and loving. (Catechism, 293)

I think they’re right. I also think science and religion, faith and reason, get along. Or should. I’ve talked about that before:

People, Yes; Human, No — Pop Goes the Paradigm

Frank R. Paul's The Man From Venus.'Finding microbes on another world, microbes that hadn’t hitched a ride from Earth, would be a huge discovery.

And that, as I said before, would likely give at least a few folks conniptions.

But what if we found extraterrestrial life who could — in principle — talk with us?

Finding unambiguous evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence — physical creatures who are persons, but not human — would be an even bigger paradigm shift than finding fossil microbes.

We may have already found fossilized extraterrestrial microbes.

Or maybe we haven’t. I’ll get back to that in another installment.

But clear, obvious, indisputable evidence that we’ve got neighbors? I strongly suspect that would give even more folks conniptions. Particularly, perhaps, if they found us. I’ll get back to that, too. Eventually. Probably.


Science and Extraterrestrial Intelligence: Last Year’s News

Is Anyone There?

Public domain image 'galaxy.'
(From Phys.org, used w/o permission.)

Research sheds new light on intelligent life existing across the galaxy
University of Nottingham, via Phys.org (June 15, 2020)

“Is there anyone out there? This is an age-old question that researchers have now shed new light on with a study that calculates there could be more than 30 intelligent civilizations throughout our Galaxy. This is an enormous advance over previous estimates which spanned from zero to billions.

“One of the biggest and longest-standing questions in the history of human thought is whether there are other intelligent life forms within our Universe. Obtaining good estimates of the number of possible extraterrestrial civilizations has however been very challenging….”

“Very challenging” may be an understatement.

So far, we’ve discovered no evidence that we have neighbors: people who are more or less like us, free-willed creatures with physical bodies, but not human.

“Is there anyone out there” wouldn’t be a question if someone with an ‘alien abduction’ story had been wearing the ET equivalent of a tracking collar. Or a wrecked extraterrestrial spaceship was really being stored in Area 51.

No solid evidence.

No evidence that’s taken seriously outside society’s ‘UFO believers’ fringe, that is.

On the other hand, there’s no shortage of ambiguous or embroidered evidence.

Konig’s Baghdad Thingummy

Ironie's drawing of the Baghdad battery.The so-called Baghdad battery is real enough.

But I’m quite sure that it is not proof that ancient astronauts visited folks living where Sippar used to be and Baghdad would be. That’d make a good story, though. And has.

I’ll give Sumerians credit for being as smart and practical as we are. Or can be. And at least as inventive. Let’s remember that our achievements are built on foundations laid by folks living in Sumer, Egypt, the Indus Valley, Huang He valley and elsewhere.

Anyway, archaeologist Wilhelm Konig found his controversial gadget at the Khujut Rabu site near Baghdad in 1938.

The “Baghdad battery” was a small clay pot, about five inches tall. Inside the pot was a copper cylinder. Inside the cylinder was an iron rod. A bit of bitumen kept the rod from touching the cylinder.

The metal pieces were corroded. Hardly surprising, since the pot and its contents had been buried for two millennia, give or take a few centuries.

The Baghdad thingummy wouldn’t be a mystery, if Wilhelm Konig had found it while remodeling his basement.

Assumptions, Archaeologists and Allesandro Volta’s Invention

Alessandro Volta's electric battery, displayed in the Tempio Voltiano, Como, Italy.In that case, it would look like someone’s homemade battery: a battery that was nowhere near as efficient as the ones you can buy at Walmart or Sears. Maybe left over from some kid’s science project.

Problem is, the Konig object really is about two millennia old.

The first electrical batteries weren’t invented until just over two centuries back.

Alessandro Volta wrote about his voltaic pile, the first electrical battery, in 1791.

Folks like Daniell, Poggendorff and Leclanché made the first wet and dry cell batteries in the 19th century.

So the Baghdad battery couldn’t be a battery, because batteries hadn’t been invented yet.

Less snarkily, Konig’s thing lacks extensions that we’d identify as electrical connections. And it looks like other objects that archaeologists say were scroll holders for sacred texts.

My opinion is that the Baghdad doohicky looks like a battery, but might be something else. And that archaeologists would be well-advised to read Robert Nathan’s “The Weans.”

Getting back to the Baghdad thing. Folks have made replicas and shown that it could have worked like a battery. Not a particularly effective one. Not compared to contemporary off-the-shelf tech. But it could have generated a slight current.1

Maybe it was a sacred scroll holder. That just happens to look like a battery. And could have, when it was new, generated a light current.

Maybe it was a Persian joy buzzer.

Or space-alien technology we haven’t (re-) learned about yet, reverse-engineered and manufactured by one of Earth’s natives.

No, I don’t think so. But — again — that might make a good story.

A Face that Wasn’t There

I’d love to say that Viking 1’s image 035A72 was our first look at extraterrestrial architecture or sculpture.

But I think scientists are right.

What we’re looking at is a comparatively low-resolution image, taken when lighting was just right.

Plus, the image’s best-known versions have been digitally enhanced.

The Cydonian face may be today’s best-known example of pareidolia: humanity’s knack for seeing faces that aren’t there.2 (October 13, 2017)

The Salzburg Lump

The Vöcklabrucker meteorite/Wolfsegg Iron/Salzburg Cube, in the Heimathaus Vöcklabruck.Then there’s the Wolfsegg Iron AKA Salzburg Cube. It’s been billed as a perfect steel cube with a machined groove that miners found in a coal vein.

That story’s almost true.

The Wolfsegg Iron was found in a lignite mine.

It’s at least partly iron. Not steel. And it’s a vaguely squarish lump with a groove. Not even close to cubical.

I gather that the Salzburg lump’s fame started in 1886, when a geologist said it was a meteorite that someone had reshaped. And that it was millions of years old.3

By the time I first read about it, around 1970, enthusiastic retellings had turned it into a precision-machined steel cube.

Folks who aren’t UFO buffs have said it’s a chunk of meteoric iron.

Or, more likely, iron ballast from ca. 19th century mining machinery that got mixed in with the coal. I very strongly suspect that the ‘mining machinery’ folks right. Or on the right track.

But, a hypothetical ufologist might counter, the truth is out there! And “they” are keeping it a secret. “They” being the government, Illuminati, Freemasons, David Icke’s lizard-men, or whoever.

Appealing as conspiracy theories are, I think the odds of Area 51 and/or alien abduction conspiracies being real are barely greater than zero.

I also figure that the Salzburg lump currently on display in the Heimathaus Museum, Vöcklabruck, Austria, isn’t a fake: planted by space-aliens to deceive the uninitiated. 🙄

Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence: Estimating the Odds


(From Amanda Carden, via Phys.org, used w/o permission.)
(“A new study uses Bayesian statistics to weigh the likelihood of life and intelligence beyond our solar system.” (Phys.org News))

New study estimates the odds of life and intelligence emerging beyond our planet
Columbia University, via Phys.org News (May 19, 2020)

“Humans have been wondering whether we alone in the universe since antiquity….

“…But despite knowing when life first appeared on Earth, scientists still do not understand how life occurred, which has important implications for the likelihood of finding life elsewhere in the universe.

“In a new paper published in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences today, David Kipping, an assistant professor in Columbia’s Department of Astronomy, shows how an analysis using a statistical technique called Bayesian inference could shed light on how complex extraterrestrial life might evolve in alien worlds….”

Statistics?? Oi.

As the fellow said — there are lies, damned lies and statistics.

Someone coined that quip, we aren’t sure who, and that’s another topic.4

On the ‘up’ side, “damned lies and statistics” warns against unfounded assertions with statistical trimmings.

The ‘down’ side is that frequent repetition of “damned lies and statistics” might encourage the assumption that all statistics are bogus.

Me? I see thinking as preferable to rejecting rational analysis, statistical or otherwise.

I also figure that the Columbia Department of Astronomy, and National Academy of Sciences, aren’t run by crackpots. And don’t make a habit of publishing crackpot opinion pieces.

Dealing with Incomplete Data: Bayesian Statistics


(From Gnathan87, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Results for an archaeological simulation, an example of Bayesian inference.)

Bayesian statistics grew out of Bayes’ Theorem, an 18th century Presbyterian minister’s solution to a problem of inverse probability.

Basically, it gives us the odds that something will happen, based on facts that might be related to the event. It can be useful when we don’t know everything about what we’re studying.5 Which is, arguably, always the case.

Recapping — We know more about planets, stars and this galaxy than we did a century back. We haven’t learned everything. And we have mathematical tools for dealing with incomplete data.

The Columbia Department of Astronomy’s David Kipping used one of those tools, Beysian inference, to estimate the odds for our having neighbors.

He published what he found in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) — and that’s what I’ll talk about next.

Are We Alone? Good Question

Kipping looked at only four possibilities. For his analysis, he assumed that life is:

  1. Common
    • And often develops intelligence
  2. Rare
    • But often develops intelligence
  3. Common
    • But rarely develops intelligence
  4. Rare
    • And rarely develops intelligence

His conclusion was that there’s better than three to one odds that abiogenesis — life starting on a planet like Earth — happens fast. When it happens. If it happened anywhere except Earth.

And three to two odds that intelligent life may be rare.

That’s based on data from the only known example of a planet with intelligent life: Earth. And what we’re learning about other planets.6

Kipping’s recent paper builds on Spiegel and Turner’s 2012 “Bayesian analysis of the astrobiological implications of life’s early emergence on Earth.” Other scientists will almost certainly respond with their own analyses and conclusions.

And I’m quite sure that Kipping is right. “We don’t know” is the only reasonable answer to the “are we alone” question. Today.

I also think Kipping makes a good point in his paper’s conclusion. Given what we know, the odds of finding biosignatures make looking for them worthwhile.

And maybe technosignatures too.

An objective Bayesian analysis of life’s early start and our late arrival
David Kipping, Research Article, PNAS (May 18, 2020)

“…Overall, our work supports an optimistic outlook for future searches for biosignatures (4–7). The slight preference for a rare intelligence scenario is consistent with a straightforward resolution to the Fermi paradox. However, our work says nothing about the lifetime of civilizations, and indeed the weight of evidence in favor of this scenario is sufficiently weak that searches for technosignatures should certainly be a component in observational campaigns seeking to resolve this grand mystery.”

Biosignatures? Technosignatures??

Allen Telescope Array at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory in Shasta County, California, USA.I figure you know or can guess what biosignatures and technosignatures are.

But I’m a recovering English teacher, so I’ll define them anyway.

  • Wiktionary
    • Biosignature
      Any measurable phenomenon that indicates the presence of life
    • Technosignature
      A marker that a particular technology is/was used by a particular society

Oxygen in a planet’s atmosphere is a biosignature. Or could be.

Life on Earth includes critters that get energy from sunlight and release oxygen as a byproduct. That’s why our atmosphere is about one-fifth oxygen by volume.

Artificially reproduced color enhancement of a ten-minute far-ultraviolet image of Earth, taken with a filter blocking the glow from atomic hydrogen but transmitting the glow from atomic oxygen and molecular nitrogen. (from NASA (1972))That’s also why Earth’s most obvious biosignature is probably the oxygen in our home’s atmosphere.

But non-biological chemical reactions can release oxygen. Reactions like those could put oxygen in a lifeless planet’s atmosphere.

And, although we need oxygen to live, some critters can live without oxygen. Or die when exposed to the gas.

Even so, learning that a rocky planet’s atmosphere is 20 percent oxygen would suggest that there might be life there.

I’m pretty sure scientists would want samples from the planet’s surface. Even then, we might not know whether or not anything lived there.

Technosignatures: They’re Obvious, But Maybe Not So Much

Science fiction technosignatures are often obvious: modulated electromagnetic radiation, for example.

The story’s EM radiation’s frequency is between 30 hertz and 300 gigahertz.

The signal is obviously non-random.

Details depend on the author’s imagination and the story’s needs.

Maybe our first evidence that we have neighbors will be an obviously-artificial signal.

A signal using technology that we developed over the last century or so. And modulated in a way that’s consistent with International Telecommunication Union standards.7


A Sky Full of New Worlds

A protoplanetary disc has formed around the young star HL Tau's protoplanetary disc. Image from ALMA, C Brogan, B Saxton; via BBC News. (2014)My high school science textbooks briefly mentioned the possibility of planets orbiting other stars, along with a quick overview of stellar and  planetary formation hypotheses.

Back then, scientists agreed that maybe planets often formed around other stars.

Or that maybe planets could form only in wildly improbable scenarios.

If the ‘often formed’ view was right, we might eventually find a few planets orbiting other stars. If the ‘wildly improbable’ view reflected reality, we might, maybe, if we were lucky, find a few other planetary systems. Eventually.

Fast-forward about a half-century. We’ve catalogued thousands of planets orbiting other stars, and can be very nearly certain that there are many million more waiting to be found.

We’ve found old planetary systems, and very young ones that don’t quite have planets yet.

But we still haven’t found a planet quite like Earth. And we’re not sure whether there’s life on other worlds: or, maybe, people.

I’ll be looking at what we’re learning about those ‘strange new worlds,’ and how I see the possibilities of ‘new life and new civilizations.’

Meanwhile, here’s some of what I’ve said before:


1 The Baghdad thingamajig:

2 Seeing things that aren’t quite there:

3 A cube that isn’t (or) an allegedly anachronistic artifact and the telephone game:

4 Statistics and a famous quote:

5 Dealing with incomplete data:

6 Life, the universe, and working with available data:

7 Looking for life and neighbors:

About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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2 Responses to Seeking Strange New Worlds, Life and Civilizations

  1. It’s not just a question about whether we believe there is, (or not), extraterrestrial life. It’s also a question as to, if there is extraterrestrial life, does this life, (as individuals), believe that we exist? It’s one thing us believing in them; and them not believing in us.

    The second question; if there is extraterrestrial life, has this life visited us here on earth? If so, why has it not been made known to us? Is it that difficult to learn English?

    God bless.

    • That last question – is it that difficult to learn English – learn to speak it well? probably yes.

      All those questions: excellent! Judging from metaphorical sounds coming from my mind’s back office, I’ll probably be discussing them. Thanks! 🙂

Thanks for taking time to comment!