Scientists have been discussing alien life for some time: where it could be, what it might be like, and how we could find it.
Quite a few non-scientists have been talking about the same thing.
Some have pretty good grip on what we’ve been learning since Aristotle got famous and Anaxagoras didn’t.
Others have contributed to supermarket tabloid covers. And made informed discussion of extraterrestrial intelligence harder.
Or more interesting, depending on your viewpoint. I see it as a bit of both.
- News and Views
- What I think
Experts: 1950s to 2018
We learn. Slowly, sometimes, but we do learn. Take what seemed reasonable 58 years ago, for example:
“How do you stop astronauts going mad?”
Paul Marks, BBC (February 10, 2017)
“‘Impulsive, suicidal, sexually-aberrant thrill seeker.’ What kind of person might that describe? A Big Brother contestant? A Base jumper? A cult leader? Guess again. It is how some US Air Force (USAF) psychiatrists, back in the early days of the space race, imagined the psychological profile of would-be astronauts. Unless they were crazy, wreckless, hedonists, the doctors reasoned, there was no way they were going to be let anyone strap them into a modified intercontinental ballistic missile and then fire them into orbit.
“Of course, the men in white coats were wrong, and were guided more by their lack of knowledge about space and the tropes of science fiction than reason….”
Entertainment and PhD. dissertations aren’t the same thing. Presumably the experts knew that.
But their conclusions and 1950s science fiction films aren’t entirely dissimilar.
“…For instance, in the movie The Quatermass Experiment (1953) a rocket returns from orbit with two of its crew dead and another bizarrely transformed into a crazed killer by some kind of alien contact in orbit. In Conquest of Space (1955) a voyage to Mars is jeopardised by a commander who cracks under the space-induced stress and who becomes seized by a violent religious paranoia, endangering his whole crew….”
(Paul Marks, BBC)
I like some stories from science fiction’s more fictional fringes. That doesn’t mean I think folks planning Martian settlements should study “Total Recall.”
I think “Contact” may be less implausible than “Alien,” and I’m wandering off-topic.
Putting This Universe in Perspective
What’s big and old depends on how you see it. “Reference frame” is a technical term physicists use. In technobabble, it’s an abstract coordinate system with physical and temporal reference points.
A lot of folks use Cartesian coordinates, which work pretty well for designing buildings and stacking dishes. It’s sort of like Euclidean geometry. Non-Euclidean geometry impressed or disturbed H. P. Lovecraft. Maybe both. (December 16, 2016)
Looking at my desk in one frame of reference, metaphorically speaking, I can see it as big: or small. Mostly cluttered, and that’s another topic.
Earth is big, compared to my desk. But it’s small compared to planets like Jupiter. Seen from nearby stars — we might not see it at all, even with telescopes as good as the best we have. Some being built, maybe.
Our star is above-average compared to most we’ve been cataloging. In terms of brightness, anyway. A few are bigger and brighter. We recently discovered that dim red dwarf stars outnumber ones like ours. By a lot.
Our galaxy is the second-largest in the Local Group. Not as big as the Andromeda galaxy, but big nonetheless.
We’ve charted a big enough fraction of the Milky Way’s stars to estimate how many are in parts we haven’t mapped yet: between 200,000,000,000 and 400,000,000,000, most likely.
The Milky way is part of the Local Group.
The Local Group is just that: a bunch of galaxies in our immediate vicinity.
It’s part of what we call the Virgo Supercluster. Think of it as the galactic archipelago we’re in.
The Virgo Supercluster has something like 100 galaxy groups and clusters. It’s one of maybe 10,000,000 known superclusters.
That’s the observable universe. Cosmologists, some of them, have been learning a lot about it over the last century or so. Some of them say it makes more sense, mathematically, if we assume that it’s not the only universe.
Time and Technology
(From Efbrazil, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Big bang, 13,800,000,000 years later: mapped onto a 12-month calendar.)
This universe isn’t just big. It’s old. I don’t mean “old” like last year’s fashions or the Appalachian Mountains. Really, really old.
Some folks say they don’t approve. They apparently prefer living in a reality where the whole universe got started in 4004 BC.
I like reading fantasy and science fiction. But I prefer living in God’s universe: the one we started in, where Earth is.
Speaking of Earth, it’s not as old as this universe. It’s still a whole lot older than Barnenez, and that’s yet another topic.
Living on an oldish planet in an old universe doesn’t bother me. Particularly since I’m not running the place.
Like Psalms 115:3 says, God’s large and in charge. I’m okay with that.
Getting back to life, the universe, and all that — a hundred years is a long time. Compared to human lifespans. A few of us live that long, but not many.
It’s a ‘long time’ in terms of our technology, too. We’ve been developing new tools fast, including ones we use to chat with each other.
Stepping back a bit, a hundred years barely registers:
- 13,799,000,000 years ago – universe starts
- 4,540,000,000 – Earth forms
- 3,500,000,000 – life has started
- 2,600,000 – Oldowan stone tools
- 1,700,000 Acheulean stone tools
- 154 – Maxwell’s radio equations
- 119 – Marconi’s wireless telegraphy
I’ve said that before. (September 8, 2017; December 16, 2016)
“Are We Alone?”
(From Science Examiner, used w/o permission.)
(A standard-issue space alien. Familiar, entertaining, and not particularly probable.)
“Mind Bending ‘Zoo Theory’ on existence of Aliens stun scientists”
Ron Miller, Science Examiner (January 1, 2018)
“Are we alone? Do aliens exist? Search for extraterrestrial life got a massive boost in 2017, and some people claimed to spot alien creatures and UFOs to prove the existence of alien life. However, no better proof one can give except by presenting the alien body itself.
“Meanwhile, a radio astronomer at MIT believes that aliens do exist and for some reasons they are hiding from us. John A. Ball….”
I ran into several articles like this New Year’s Day. This one is comparatively calm — and gave names: MIT and John A. Ball.
A quick search led me to the abstract of a paper that was, in fact, about extraterrestrial intelligence: written in 2004. It was based on lectures given from 1980 to 1985.
Dr. Ball’s paper is serious if speculative science, not the usual ‘space alien’ stuff.1
A little more checking led me to other papers Dr. Ball wrote for the MIT Haystack observatory. They’re less ‘newsworthy,’ but look like nice reads on radio astronomy topics.
On the off chance that Science Examiner had noticed something most scientists had missed, I read Dr. Ball’s paper. The abstract, actually.
Whether or not it’s “mind bending” would most likely depend on whose mind we’re talking about. I suppose a few scientists might be ‘stunned’ by what Dr. Ball wrote.
Fermi’s Paradox and a New Publication
Maybe, if they’d specialized in something other than astronomy and related fields.
And hadn’t read anything not directly related to their chosen focus since 1979.
And had never run across discussions of Fermi’s paradox. (September 18, 2016)
Fermi’s paradox popped up in 1950 while the scientist was working at Los Alamos National Laboratory. He wasn’t the first to raise the ‘where is everybody’ question. Maybe it’s named after him because he’s famous for other things.
On the other hand, I hadn’t run into Science Examiner before. There’s so much getting published, it’s arguably impossible for one person to keep up with everything, unless you narrow the focus a lot.
Like many outfits, Science Examiner has an About page. It’s got the usual Mission Statement, Terms and Policies, and contact information.
Turns out they’re headquartered in New York City, and a relatively new publication: “It was a group of journalists who brought up Science Examiner into existence [!] in 2016.”
That, to me, explains a lot.
I have some respect for journalists who take the time to at least get a story’s background by using Google. Or some other fast, easy and free online search service.
But I’ve learned to expect familiarity with esoteric topics like science and religion from only a few.
Based on what I keep running into, I’m pretty sure the Science Examiner bunch are trying to provide an “honest platform,” with “straight access to “most reliable and out-and-out information and sources….”
They did, after all, give Dr. Ball’s name and where he works.
But I get the impression that these Big Apple journalists are like many of their colleagues: earnest, professional, and somewhat limited in their perspective.
My experience has been that news services are pretty good at reporting some things: like sports events.
Maybe that’s because so many of their readers avidly follow sports news, and have at least a vague knowledge of the topic. Editors may realize that they must get at least a few of the facts right when covering sporting events.
Think about it. Have you ever seen an editorial discussing the quality of this year’s home runs compared to the number of women employed by the NFL? Or speculation about why jockeys in the Super Bowl weren’t wearing feed bags?
Alien Life: What If?
(From Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post, used w/o permission.)
(“Psychologists at Arizona State University studied how humans are likely to respond to the discovery of alien microbes.”
(The Washington Post))
“How will humanity react to alien life? Psychologists have some predictions.”
Ben Guarino, Speaking of Science, Washington Post (December 4, 2017)
“Germs stuck to the outside of the International Space Station are not from around here, cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov said in an interview last week with Russian state-owned news service Tass. Microbes ‘have come from outer space and settled along the external surface,’ Shkaplerov said. ‘They are being studied so far, and it seems that they pose no danger.’ Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, has not weighed in on this extraordinary claim.
“The odds are not on the side of aliens. If microorganisms are tucked away within the space station hull’s crannies, as Shkaplerov says, they probably hitchhiked the 250 miles from our planet’s surface.
“But imagine if scientists found alien microbes. How would humanity react to the news?…”
My guess is that the microbes are real — and from Earth. If they’re live and active, I’d be curious about what they’re ‘eating.’ And if they’ve been there long enough, how they’re adapting to their environment.
Another point, if the microbes started on Earth. If they weren’t carried to the ISS by one of the cargo or passenger runs, and we can show how it’s done, it’ll give weight to the panspermia model. (March 17, 2017)
Anaxagoras wrote about panspermia, the idea that live on Earth started elsewhere.
Someone else may have thought of it first, but what he said is the earliest mention I know of. That was around the time of the Cleisthenes reforms and Naxos rebellion. Meanwhile, Confucius was learning about practical applications of his ideals.
Panspermia might help explain how life got started on Earth and other worlds. But it wouldn’t help us how life began: the mechanics, I mean. Not the “why” questions.
And that’s yet again another topic.
I’ve read and heard — various — attitudes and assumptions about how folks would react if we learned that life exists elsewhere. Some were, I think reasonable.
More accurately, they matched how I think at least some folks would take the news.2
I’ve learned that different folks have vastly different notions of what’s likely and what isn’t.
“Aliens Are Monitoring Our Nukes, Worry Ex-Air Force Officers”
Fox News (September 23, 2010)
“Captain Robert Salas was on duty in Montana in 1967 when a UFO shut down the nuclear missiles on his base. And he’s hardly the only one to make such a claim….”
“Earth 2.0: Bad News for God”
Jeff Schweitzer, Huffington Post (July 23, 2015)
“…Let us be clear that the Bible is unambiguous about creation: the earth is the center of the universe, only humans were made in the image of god, and all life was created in six days. All life in all the heavens. In six days….”
Captain Salas and Jeff Schweitzer may be sincere. But I’m pretty sure that they’re wrong. Happily, some folks apparently realize that Christians aren’t all Bible-thumping neophobes. And that humans aren’t all alike. (September 16, 2016)
About concerns that space aliens are keeping close track of our weapons tech — excuse me while I rant. Or put that scenario in perspective. I’ll let you decide which.
Threat From Boogabooga!
Let’s say that there’s an island called Boogabooga. It’s so far off the beaten track that the folks living there don’t even have satellite television.
A military reconnaissance team from the Pentagon flew over Boogabooga’s larger centers of activity during World War II.
Outsiders haven’t been there since.
A second flyover didn’t happen. The paperwork was misfiled back in 1945.
An assistant clerk’s intern spotted the report while digitizing post-war documents.
An officer overseeing low-priority matters decided another flyover would make a good training exercise.
Now let’s say we’re at a meeting of top brass of the United States armed forces in the Pentagon. And that they’re a bit like Captain Salas.
They’re tensely awaiting a report from Project Boogabooga, a black operation started when trainees returned with high-resolution images of Boogabooga.
Captain Smith, head of Project Boogabooga, stumbles into the room: ashen-faced, the report clutched in his hand. “Our worst fears are realized” he gasps. “The boogaboogans not only have flint tools: They have BOWS AND ARROWS!!”
Make no mistake: the bow and arrow is a deadly weapon. Particularly if flint arrowheads are used. Those Boogaboogans are a potential threat to anybody landing on their island.
Boogabooga and the Big Apple
If Boogaboogans decided to invade New York City, there’s a good chance that they might get on local news that day.
Maybe even national. New York is one of America’s major cities.
An invading force trying to establish a beachhead on Brooklyn’s Manhattan Beach could easily get noticed by everyone from New York Post reporters to the U.S. military.
And, of course, anyone on the beach. I think they’d be well-advised to get off the beach before sharing pictures they’d taken. Remember: the Boogaboogans are armed invaders.
On the other hand, flint warheads on arrows probably wouldn’t strain the defensive capabilities of the armed forces.
Even if the Boogaboogans had advanced to the next level and had composite bows, my guess is that a moderately-well-trained SWAT team could deal with them. If they weren’t already in custody at the local precinct station when SWAT arrived.
The Boogaboogans might be lucky if they encountered police or the armed forces: instead of tangling with a street gang or meeting rush-hour traffic on an expressway.
The point of that ‘Boogabooga Threat’ silliness is that cutting-edge tech of one era may not be quite as impressive after a million or so years go by. I’ll get back to that.
Not Boogaboogans: how I see SETI and what we might expect.
Interplanetary Initiative and Averages
“Alien life” in Ben Guarino’s article — I’m back to The Washington Post piece — might be anything from Frank R. Paul’s Martian to, more likely, microbes.
Folks would, obviously, react to discovering any unambiguously-alien critters.
We react to pretty much anything: finding that we’re one sock short after washing day, getting an unexpected gift, backing into a hot stove. You get the idea.
How we react, on average, to familiar stuff isn’t a big mystery. Unfamiliar stuff is another matter.
So are individual responses. Some folks are pretty close to “average,” at least in one or two categories. But I don’t think the “average American” really exists, except in statistical reports. Much less “average human.”
Ben Guarino’s article looks at what psychologists with Interplanetary Initiative think. An outfit with that sort of name might be almost anything.
The British Interplanetary Society, BIS, formed in 1933. They were, and are, folks who think spaceflight is a good idea. They’ve been applying current engineering and science to the ‘how do we get there’ questions for about eight and a half decades.
Then there’s the International Flying Saucer Bureau. One of their bulletins inspired Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft, a Carpenters song. Someone put a recording of the 1977 song on YouTube.
Flying saucer clubs were more common, or easier to see at any rate, than serious spaceflight societies in my youth.
Interplanetary Initiative looks like an academic version of BIS:
- Interplanetary Initiative, Arizona State University
If their self-description is reasonably accurate, they’re being sensible. They say they’re looking for folks who like the unknown, know how to “ask good questions” and accept pursuits that progress in small steps.
If I’d run into more academics like that, I might have stayed in academia. And that’s still another topic.
Seeing Potential, not Peril
Psychologists have learned a thing or three in the last few decades, so I wasn’t expecting dire predictions of torch-wielding mobs or mass hysteria.
Don’t laugh. Experts on the Robertson Panel came up with that gem in 1953.
A 2011 opinion poll showed that about 25% of Americans figured folks would panic.
I’m pretty sure they were thinking other Americans would panic. Folks who weren’t as savvy as themselves. My guess is that most folks think they’re more level-headed than average. Smarter, too. Above average. Like Keillor’s Lake Wobegon.
I think experts have opinions, and that opinion polls show what folks responding to opinion polls said. Sometimes the results of both are somewhat accurate.
If the experts knew what they were talking about, and the pollsters bothered taking selection bias and all the rest into account.
On the other hand, I had no idea what this particular bunch of experts would come up with. Or how they reached their conclusions.
It’s been a more-than-usually interesting week for me, so I haven’t done more than read that Washington Post article and the Interplanetary Initiative paper’s abstract.
I plan to get back to it — later. The I. I. paper, that is. What “later” is depends partly on what happens next week. I’ll probably talk about that in the Sunday post.
Reading what the Interplanetary Initiative folks said should be worthwhile. These psychologists used what we’re learning about gathering and evaluating data.
They say they’re the first to use empirical research to study how folks might react to discovering life from another world.
Their results make a great deal more sense to me than most of what I’ve seen to date. But like I said before, maybe that’s because their results aren’t far from what I’d expect.
Basically, they figure most Americans would react positively to learning there is life on another world. And that we’d be more likely to see potential rewards from the knowledge, than fear possible threats.
“Life” in this case is any living organism. People who aren’t human would be a step up from that, at least.
They also made this remarkable statement:
“…However, it is worth noting that our samples were restricted to US respondents, and, given the fact that Americans differ from many other populations on a slew of psychological tendencies (Henrich, Heine, & Norenzayan, 2010), we suggest caution in generalizing the present findings beyond the US.
(Kwon, Bercovici, Cunningham, Varnum)
I don’t think “different” means better or worse: just different.
I wouldn’t be surprised if most Americans are generally more upbeat about possibilities, compared to world averages.
The vast majority of us are descendants of folks who came here from elsewhere. Recently.
Some may have had little choice. My guess is that many thought that crossing one this planet’s oceans and settling in another country was worth the risk. And had the drive and energy to get here. That sounds like optimism to me, among other qualities.
I’m guessing that assorted doomsayers, crepehangers and purveyors of gloom get more attention; but are a noisy minority.
Or know a good marketing opportunity when they see it. Think about it. “Working for a Slightly Better Future” isn’t nearly as attention-grabbing as “We’re All Gonna Die!!!!!” (October 27, 2017; May 26, 2017; December 11, 2016)
That’s my ‘science’ news for the week: one each of the journalistic and scientific varieties. Now I’ll have some fun with my own speculations.
What About First Contact?
I’d be astonished if a spacecraft from beyond the Solar System shows up next week, asks permission to orbit Earth’s moon, and gets it.
Then various voices on the ship start chatting with whoever will send a message.
In syntactically-perfect English, Mandarin, or Hindi, depending on which language the human uses. Their Urdu isn’t quite right, but is understandable.
I’d be even more astonished one of their landers touched down in the Sahara, and someone looking like Michael Rennie or Chris Hemsworth stepped out. I don’t think that the standard-issue space alien from Science Examiner is any more likely.
That’s mainly because they look almost exactly like humanity’s current model. Folks with northwestern European ancestry in the first two cases, a reasonable facsimile of a human infant in the other.
That last isn’t my idea. Comparing the popular ‘space alien’ face to human infants showed up in an article about our visual cortex, image processing, and templates. I tried looking it up recently. Maybe it hasn’t been digitized yet. Or fell through the cracks.
Or maybe THEY suppressed THE TRUTH.
No, I don’t think so. Conspiracy theories can make good stories, but don’t hold up to examination. My experience. (August 11, 2017; July 21, 2017; December 23, 2016)
Mr. Chuckles Returns
‘Alien conspiracy’ tales were popular a few decades back. At least in some genres.
I haven’t run into many tales with what I think is a more plausible premise. Slightly more plausible.
A few authors took the usual ‘galactic federation’ idea, adding a dash of plausibility.
In their scenarios, the alien ambassador doesn’t look quite human.
The federation’s anthropology/diplomacy folks picked a qualified professional from the species least unlike humanity. They’ve got the same number of eyes, almost the same body plan, and don’t need environment suits to survive on Earth.
The ambassador looks as reassuringly human as Mr. Chuckles there.
Not that I’d expect someone looking like that. I introduced him, briefly, about a year back. (December 23, 2016)
A few authors, and apparently even fewer scientists, have considered the possibility that people who aren’t human may not think like humans.
I’ve talked about that before, and will again. That’s almost inevitable, given my interests. (December 1, 2017; March 17, 2017)
Assuming that I get around to it.
Admiration: Part of our Job
I think we will definitely find life elsewhere in the universe. And eventually meet folks who came from another planet.
Or we will find life elsewhere in this galaxy during an equivalent of the Renaissance. Life planted by humans living in today’s future, an era nearly forgotten when folks start traveling again.
The discovery might be as important as Schliemann’s finding Troy. We might also meet “aliens:” descendants of humans who have been away from home a long time.
By then, folks in some of the wealthier or more ambitious cultures may be discussing whether and how to send probes to nearby galaxies.
Nonsense? Escapist fantasy? By some standards, yes. But I suspect folks who worked the bugs out of Oldowan tools might have seen today’s discussions of returning to Earth’s moon about the same way. (February 3, 2017)
As to whether or not we’re alone? At this moment, we don’t know. But we’re learning.
Either way, it’s not up to me: or any combination of experts.
This universe is God’s project. Part of our job is admiring and studying it. (Genesis 1:1–2:3; Wisdom 11:22; Sirach 17:1–14; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 283, 341, 2293)
Not, I am quite sure, telling God how it should work.
More of how I see life, the universe, and being human:
- “SETI: What If?”
(December 23, 2016)
- “Mars, Aliens, and SETI”
(December 16, 2016)
- “TRAPPIST-1: Water? Life??”
(March 3, 2017)
- “KIC 8462852 and Strange Stars”
(December 2, 2016)
- “Europa, Mars, and Someday the Stars”
(September 30, 2016)
1 Extraterrestrial intelligence, the usual weirdness and some serious science:
- “Extraterrestrial Intelligence: Where is Everybody?”
John A. Ball, MIT Haystack Observatory (2004)
(From haystack.mit.edu/hay/staff/jball/etiy.pdf (January 1, 2018))
2 Real hypothetical science. Also speculation:
- “How Will We React to the Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life?”
Jung Yul Kwon, Hannah Bercovici, Katja Cunningham, Michael E. W. Varnum; preprint copy; Frontiers in Psychology (November 9, 2017)
(From https://osf.io/rb5mj/ (December 3, 2018))
Missing an end-quote in here: “with “straight access to “most reliable and out-and-out information and sources….””
Stutter: “and we can show that we can show how it’s done, it’ll give”
Missing word: “one era may not quite as impressive after a million”
Wrong word: “and of the pollsters bothered taking selection bias and all”
Another missing word: “crossing one this planet’s oceans and settling in another country”
Another missing word? “We also meet “aliens:” descendants of humans”
Teeny-tiny type: “Real hypothetical science. Also speculation:”
The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader
Found, fixed (maybe) and thanks! The ‘descendants of humans’ thing doesn’t have, I think, a missing word. It’s not the sort of thing I’d let pass without remark in an English paper, but may be okay in this context. Then again, maybe not. User experience may vary. No guarantees made or implied. Not a substitute for unleaded gasoline, This end up.