Tag Archives: extraterrestrial life

Speaking in (Alien) Tongues


Considering that we humans cannot clearly communicate with any other living species on the planet it seems rather fanciful that we might be able to chat with an extraterrestrial intelligence.

But some linguists have a plan should we ever come across an alien civilization, or more likely should they ever choose to give Earth a visit. The idea is to develop a communication process using monolingual fieldwork.

From Scientific American:

In the upcoming sci-fi drama “Arrival,” several mysterious spacecraft touch down around the planet, and humanity is faced with how to approach—and eventually communicate—with these extraterrestrial visitors.

In the film, a team of experts is assembled to investigate, and among the chosen individuals is a linguist, played by actress Amy Adams. Though the story is rooted in science fiction, it does tackle a very real challenge: How do you communicate with someone—or how do you learn that individual’s language—when you have no intermediary language in common?

The film is based on “Story of Your Life,” a short story by Ted Chiang. It taps into the common science-fiction theme of alien tongues; not only the communication barrier they might present, but the unusual ways they could differ from human language. “There’s a long tradition of science fiction that deals with language and communication,” Chiang told Live Science in an email.

And in both the short story and film, linguists play a key role in bridging the gap between humans and aliens—something that isn’t entirely farfetched, according to Daniel Everett, a linguist at Bentley University in Massachusetts. “Linguists who’ve had extensive field experience can do this. That’s what they do,” Everett told Live Science.

Everett spent more than 30 years working with the Pirahãpeople of the Brazilian Amazon, learning and studying their language, which was poorly documented prior to his work. Pirahãis what’s called a language isolate, a linguistic orphan of sorts, and is the last surviving member of its language family. It is also well-known for some of its atypical qualities, such as a lack of counting numbers or relative directions, such as “left” and “right,” qualities which Everett worked out over years of study.

The people were similarly isolated, and were entirely monolingual, he said. So it didn’t matter that Everett didn’t know Portuguese. Rather than asking questions about the Pirahãlanguage in a shared second language, he conducted his research in a style known as monolingual fieldwork.

Pointing to a nearby object, like a stick, and asking (even in English) what it’s called is typically interpreted as a cue to name it, Everett said. From the names of things, a linguist can then work their way towards actions, and how to express relationships between objects, Everett said. All the while, linguists typically transcribe the statements, paying attention to the sounds, the grammar and the way meanings are combined, building a working theory of the language, he said.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Reprint of The War of the Worlds cover-featured on the July 1951 issue of Famous Fantastic Mysteries. Public Domain.

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Searching for Signs of Life

Gliese 581 c

Surely there is intelligent life somewhere in the universe. Cosmologists estimate that the observable universe contains around 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 planets. And, they calculate that our Milky Way galaxy alone contains around 100 billion planets that are hospitable to life (as we currently know it).

These numbers boggle the mind and beg a question: how do we find evidence for life beyond our shores? The decades long search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) pioneered the use of radio telescope observations to look for alien signals from deep space. But, the process has remained rather rudimentary and narrowly focused. The good news now is that astronomers and astrobiologists have a growing toolkit of techniques that allow for much more sophisticated detection and analysis of the broader signals of life — not just potential radio transmissions from an advanced alien culture.

From Quanta:

Huddled in a coffee shop one drizzly Seattle morning six years ago, the astrobiologist Shawn Domagal-Goldman stared blankly at his laptop screen, paralyzed. He had been running a simulation of an evolving planet, when suddenly oxygen started accumulating in the virtual planet’s atmosphere. Up the concentration ticked, from 0 to 5 to 10 percent.

“Is something wrong?” his wife asked.


The rise of oxygen was bad news for the search for extraterrestrial life.

After millennia of wondering whether we’re alone in the universe — one of “mankind’s most profound and probably earliest questions beyond, ‘What are you going to have for dinner?’” as the NASA astrobiologist Lynn Rothschild put it — the hunt for life on other planets is now ramping up in a serious way. Thousands of exoplanets, or planets orbiting stars other than the sun, have been discovered in the past decade. Among them are potential super-Earths, sub-Neptunes, hot Jupiters and worlds such as Kepler-452b, a possibly rocky, watery “Earth cousin” located 1,400 light-years from here. Starting in 2018 with the expected launch of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, astronomers will be able to peer across the light-years and scope out the atmospheres of the most promising exoplanets. They will look for the presence of “biosignature gases,” vapors that could only be produced by alien life.

They’ll do this by observing the thin ring of starlight around an exoplanet while it is positioned in front of its parent star. Gases in the exoplanet’s atmosphere will absorb certain frequencies of the starlight, leaving telltale dips in the spectrum.

As Domagal-Goldman, then a researcher at the University of Washington’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory (VPL), well knew, the gold standard in biosignature gases is oxygen. Not only is oxygen produced in abundance by Earth’s flora — and thus, possibly, other planets’ — but 50 years of conventional wisdom held that it could not be produced at detectable levels by geology or photochemistry alone, making it a forgery-proof signature of life. Oxygen filled the sky on Domagal-Goldman’s simulated world, however, not as a result of biological activity there, but because extreme solar radiation was stripping oxygen atoms off carbon dioxide molecules in the air faster than they could recombine. This biosignature could be forged after all.

The search for biosignature gases around faraway exoplanets “is an inherently messy problem,” said Victoria Meadows, an Australian powerhouse who heads VPL. In the years since Domagal-Goldman’s discovery, Meadows has charged her team of 75 with identifying the major “oxygen false positives” that can arise on exoplanets, as well as ways to distinguish these false alarms from true oxygenic signs of biological activity. Meadows still thinks oxygen is the best biosignature gas. But, she said, “if I’m going to look for this, I want to make sure that when I see it, I know what I’m seeing.”

Meanwhile, Sara Seager, a dogged hunter of “twin Earths” at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is widely credited with inventing the spectral technique for analyzing exoplanet atmospheres, is pushing research on biosignature gases in a different direction. Seager acknowledges that oxygen is promising, but she urges the astrobiology community to be less terra-centric in its view of how alien life might operate — to think beyond Earth’s geochemistry and the particular air we breathe. “My view is that we do not want to leave a single stone unturned; we need to consider everything,” she said.

As future telescopes widen the survey of Earth-like worlds, it’s only a matter of time before a potential biosignature gas is detected in a faraway sky. It will look like the discovery of all time: evidence that we are not alone. But how will we know for sure?

Read the entire article here.

Image: Artist’s Impression of Gliese 581 c, the first terrestrial extrasolar planet discovered within its star’s habitable zone. Courtesy: Hervé Piraud, Latitude0116, Xhienne. Creative Commons Attribution 2.5.

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The Big Breakthrough Listen

If you were a Russian billionaire with money to burn and a penchant for astronomy and physics what would you do? Well, rather than spend it on a 1,000 ft long super-yacht, you might want to spend it on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. That’s what Yuri Milner is doing. So, hats off to him and his colleagues.

Though, I do hope any far-distant aliens have similar, or greater, sums of cash to throw at equipment to transmit a signal so that we may receive it. Also, I have to wonder what alien oligarchs spend their excess millions and billions on — and what type of monetary system they use (hopefully not Euros).

From the Guardian:

Astronomers are to embark on the most intensive search for alien life yet by listening out for potential radio signals coming from advanced civilisations far beyond the solar system.

Leading researchers have secured time on two of the world’s most powerful telescopes in the US and Australia to scan the Milky Way and neighbouring galaxies for radio emissions that betray the existence of life elsewhere. The search will be 50 times more sensitive, and cover 10 times more sky, than previous hunts for alien life.

The Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia, the largest steerable telescope on the planet, and the Parkes Observatory in New South Wales, are contracted to lead the unprecedented search that will start in January 2016. In tandem, the Lick Observatory in California will perform the most comprehensive search for optical laser transmissions beamed from other planets.

Operators have signed agreements that hand the scientists thousands of hours of telescope time per year to eavesdrop on planets that orbit the million stars closest to Earth and the 100 nearest galaxies. The telescopes will scan the centre of the Milky Way and the entire length of the galactic plane.

Launched on Monday at the Royal Society in London, with the Cambridge cosmologist Stephen Hawking, the Breakthrough Listen project has some of the world’s leading experts at the helm. Among them are Lord Martin Rees, the astronomer royal, Geoff Marcy, who has discovered more planets beyond the solar system than anyone, and the veteran US astronomer Frank Drake, a pioneer in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (Seti).

Stephen Hawking said the effort was “critically important” and raised hopes for answering the question of whether humanity has company in the universe. “It’s time to commit to finding the answer, to search for life beyond Earth,” he said. “Mankind has a deep need to explore, to learn, to know. We also happen to be sociable creatures. It is important for us to know if we are alone in the dark.”

The project will not broadcast signals into space, because scientists on the project believe humans have more to gain from simply listening out for others. Hawking, however, warned against shouting into the cosmos, because some advanced alien civilisations might possess the same violent, aggressive and genocidal traits found among humans.

“A civilisation reading one of our messages could be billions of years ahead of us. If so they will be vastly more powerful and may not see us as any more valuable than we see bacteria,” he said.

The alien hunters are the latest scientists to benefit from the hefty bank balance of Yuri Milner, a Russian internet billionaire, who quit a PhD in physics to make his fortune. In the past five years, Milner has handed out prizes worth tens of millions of dollars to physicists, biologists and mathematicians, to raise the public profile of scientists. He is the sole funder of the $100m Breakthrough Listen project.

“It is our responsibility as human beings to use the best equipment we have to try to answer one of the biggest questions: are we alone?” Milner told the Guardian. “We cannot afford not to do this.”

Milner was named after Yuri Gagarin, who became the first person to fly in space in 1961, the year he was born.

The Green Bank and Parkes observatories are sensitive enough to pick up radio signals as strong as common aircraft radar from planets around the nearest 1,000 stars. Civilisations as far away as the centre of the Milky Way could be detected if they emit radio signals more than 10 times the power of the Arecibo planetary radar on Earth. The Lick Observatory can pick up laser signals as weak as 100W from nearby stars 25tn miles away.

Read the entire story here.

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Where Are They?

Astrophysics professor Adam Frank reminds us to ponder Enrico Fermi‘s insightful question posed in the middle of the last century. Fermi’s question spawned his infamous, eponymous paradox, and goes something like this:

Why is there no evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations in our Milky Way galaxy given the age of the universe and vast number of stars within it?

Based on simple assumptions and family accurate estimates of the universe’s age, the number of galaxies and stars within it, the probability of Earth-like planets and the development of intelligent life on these planets it should be highly likely that some civilizations have already developed the capability for interstellar travel. In fact, even a slow pace of intra-galactic travel should have led to the colonization of our entire galaxy within just a few tens of millions of years, which is a blink of an eye on a cosmological timescale. Yet we see now evidence on Earth or anywhere beyond. And therein lies the conundrum.

The doomsayers might have us believe that extraterrestrial civilizations have indeed developed numerous times throughout our galaxy. But, none have made the crucial leap beyond ecological catastrophe and technological self-destruction before being able to shirk the bonds of their home planet. Do we have the power to avoid the same fate? I hope so.

From 13.7:

The story begins like this: In 1950, a group of high-powered physicists were lunching together near the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Among those in attendance were Edward Teller (father of the nuclear bomb) and the Nobel Prize-winning Enrico Fermi. The discussion turned to a spate of recent UFO sightings and, then, on to the possibility of seeing an object (made by aliens) move faster than light. The conversation eventually turned to other topics when, out the blue, Fermi suddenly asked: “Where is everybody?”

While he’d startled his colleagues, they all quickly understood what he was referring to: Where are all the aliens?

What Fermi realized in his burst of insight was simple: If the universe was teeming with intelligent technological civilizations, why hadn’t they already made it to Earth? Indeed, why hadn’t they made it everywhere?

This question, known as “Fermi’s paradox,” is now a staple of astrobiological/SETI thinking. And while it might seem pretty abstract and inconsequential to our day-to-day existence, within Fermi’s paradox there lies a terrible possibility that haunts the fate of humanity.

Enough issues are packed into Fermi’s paradox for more than one post and — since Caleb Scharf and I are just starting a research project related to the question — I am sure to return to it. Today, however, I just want to unpack the basics of Fermi’s paradox and its consequences.

The most important thing to understand about Fermi’s paradox is that you don’t need faster-than-light travel, a warp drive or other exotic technology to take it seriously. Even if a technological civilization built ships that reached only a fraction of the speed of light, we might still expect all the stars (and the planets) to be “colonized.”

For example, let’s imagine that just one high-tech alien species emerges and starts sending ships out at one-hundredth of the speed of light. With that technology, they’d cross the typical distance between stars in “just” a few centuries to a millennium. If, once they got to a new solar system, they began using its resources to build more ships, then we can imagine how a wave of colonization begins propagating across the galaxy.

But how long does it take this colonization wave to spread?

Remarkably, it would only take a fraction of our galaxy’s lifetime before all the stars are inhabited. Depending on what you assume, the propagating wave of colonization could make it from one end of our Milky Way to the other in just 10 million years. While that might seem very long to you, it’s really just a blink of the eye to the 10-billion-year-old Milky Way (in other words, the colonization wave crosses in 0.001 times the age of the galaxy). That means if an alien civilization began at some random moment in the Milky Way’s history, odds are it has had time to colonize the entire galaxy.

You can choose your favorite sci-fi trope for what’s going on with these alien “slow ships.” Maybe they use cryogenic suspension. Maybe they’re using generation ships — mobile worlds whose inhabitants live out entire lives during the millennia-long crossing. Maybe the aliens don’t go themselves but send fully autonomous machines. Whatever scenario you choose, simple calculations, like the one above, tend to imply the aliens should be here already.

Of course, you can also come up with lots of resolutions to Fermi’s paradox. Maybe the aliens don’t want to colonize other worlds. Maybe none of the technologies for the ships described above really work. Maybe, maybe, maybe. We can take up some of those solutions in later 13.7 posts.

For today, however, let’s just consider the one answer that really matters for us, the existential one that is very, very freaky indeed: The aliens aren’t here because they don’t exist. We are the only sentient, technological species that exists in the entire galaxy.

It’s hard to overstate how profound this conclusion would be.

The consequences cut both ways. On the one hand, it’s possible that no other species has ever reached our state of development. Our galaxy with its 300 billion stars — meaning 300 billion chances for self-consciousness — has never awakened anywhere else. We would be the only ones looking into the night sky and asking questions. How impossibly lonely that would be.

Read the entire article here.


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Active SETI


Seventy years after the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) experiment began some astronomers are thinking of SETI 2.0 or active SETI. Rather than just passively listening for alien-made signals emanating from the far distant exoplanets these astronomers wish to take the work a bold step further. They’re planning to transmit messages in the hope that someone or something will be listening. And that has opponents of the plan rather worried. If somethings do hear us, will they come looking, and if so, then what? Will the process result in a real-life The Day the Earth Stood Still or Alien? And, more importantly, will they all look astonishingly Hollywood-like?

From BBC:

Scientists at a US conference have said it is time to try actively to contact intelligent life on other worlds.

Researchers involved in the search for extra-terrestrial life are considering what the message from Earth should be.

The call was made by the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence institute at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Jose.

But others argued that making our presence known might be dangerous.

Researchers at the Seti institute have been listening for signals from outer space for more than 30 years using radio telescope facilities in the US. So far there has been no sign of ET.

The organisation’s director, Dr Seth Shostak, told attendees to the AAAS meeting that it was now time to step up the search.

“Some of us at the institute are interested in ‘active Seti’, not just listening but broadcasting something to some nearby stars because maybe there is some chance that if you wake somebody up you’ll get a response,” he told BBC News.

The concerns are obvious, but sitting in his office at the institute in Mountain View, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley, he expresses them with characteristic, impish glee.

Game over?

“A lot of people are against active Seti because it is dangerous. It is like shouting in the jungle. You don’t know what is out there; you better not do it. If you incite the aliens to obliterate the planet, you wouldn’t want that on your tombstone, right?”

I couldn’t argue with that. But initially, I could scarcely believe I was having this conversation at a serious research institute rather than at a science fiction convention. The sci-fi feel of our talk was underlined by the toy figures of bug-eyed aliens that cheerfully decorate the office.

But Dr Shostak is a credible and popular figure and has been invited to present his arguments.

Leading astronomers, anthropologists and social scientists will gather at his institute after the AAAS meeting for a symposium to flesh out plans for a proposal for active Seti to put to the public and politicians.

High on the agenda is whether such a move would, as he put it so starkly, lead to the “obliteration” of the planet.

“I don’t see why the aliens would have any incentive to do that,” Dr Shostak tells me.

“Beyond that, we have been telling them willy-nilly that we are here for 70 years now. They are not very interesting messages but the early TV broadcasts, the early radio, the radar from the Second World War – all that has leaked off the Earth.

“Any society that could come here and ruin our whole day by incinerating the planet already knows we are here.”

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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So Where Is Everybody?

Astrobiologist Caleb Scharf brings us up to date on Fermi’s Paradox — which asks why, given that our galaxy is so old, haven’t other sentient intergalactic travelers found us. The answer may come from a video game.

From Scientific American:

Right now, all across the planet, millions of people are engaged in a struggle with enormous implications for the very nature of life itself. Making sophisticated tactical decisions and wrestling with chilling and complex moral puzzles, they are quite literally deciding the fate of our existence.

Or at least they are pretending to.

The video game Mass Effect has now reached its third and final installment; a huge planet-destroying, species-wrecking, epic finale to a story that takes humanity from its tentative steps into interstellar space to a critical role in a galactic, and even intergalactic saga. It’s awfully good, even without all the fantastic visual design or gameplay, at the heart is a rip-roaring plot and countless backstories that tie the experience into one of the most carefully and completely imagined sci-fi universes out there.

As a scientist, and someone who will sheepishly admit to a love of videogames (from countless hours spent as a teenager coding my own rather inferior efforts, to an occasional consumer’s dip into the lushness of what a multi-billion dollar industry can produce), the Mass Effect series is fascinating for a number of reasons. The first of which is the relentless attention to plausible background detail. Take for example the task of finding mineral resources in Mass Effect 2. Flying your ship to different star systems presents you with a bird’s eye view of the planets, each of which has a fleshed out description – be it inhabited, or more often, uninhabitable. These have been torn from the annals of the real exoplanets, gussied up a little, but still recognizable. There are hot Jupiters, and icy Neptune-like worlds. There are gassy planets, rocky planets, and watery planets of great diversity in age, history and elemental composition. It’s a surprisingly good representation of what we now think is really out there.

But the biggest idea, the biggest piece of fiction-meets-genuine-scientific-hypothesis is the overarching story of Mass Effect. It directly addresses one of the great questions of astrobiology – is there intelligent life elsewhere in our galaxy, and if so, why haven’t we intersected with it yet? The first serious thinking about this problem seems to have arisen during a lunchtime chat in the 1940?s where the famous physicist Enrico Fermi (for whom the fundamental particle type ‘fermion’ is named) is supposed to have asked “Where is Everybody?” The essence of the Fermi Paradox is that since our galaxy is very old, perhaps 10 billion years old, unless intelligent life is almost impossibly rare it will have arisen ages before we came along. Such life will have had time to essentially span the Milky Way, even if spreading out at relatively slow sub-light speeds, it – or its artificial surrogates, machines – will have reached every nook and cranny. Thus we should have noticed it, or been noticed by it, unless we are truly the only example of intelligent life.

The Fermi Paradox comes with a ton of caveats and variants. It’s not hard to think of all manner of reasons why intelligent life might be teeming out there, but still not have met us – from self-destructive behavior to the realistic hurdles of interstellar travel. But to my mind Mass Effect has what is perhaps one of the most interesting, if not entertaining, solutions. This will spoil the story; you have been warned.

Without going into all the colorful details, the central premise is that a hugely advanced and ancient race of artificially intelligent machines ‘harvests’ all sentient, space-faring life in the Milky Way every 50,000 years. These machines otherwise lie dormant out in the depths of intergalactic space. They have constructed and positioned an ingenious web of technological devices (including the Mass Effect relays, providing rapid interstellar travel) and habitats within the Galaxy that effectively sieve through the rising civilizations, helping the successful flourish and multiply, ripening them up for eventual culling. The reason for this? Well, the plot is complex and somewhat ambiguous, but one thing that these machines do is use the genetic slurry of millions, billions of individuals from a species to create new versions of themselves.

It’s a grand ol’ piece of sci-fi opera, but it also provides a neat solution to the Fermi Paradox via a number of ideas: a) The most truly advanced interstellar species spends most of its time out of the Galaxy in hibernation. b) Purging all other sentient (space-faring) life every 50,000 years puts a stop to any great spreading across the Galaxy. c) Sentient, space-faring species are inevitably drawn into the technological lures and habitats left for them, and so are less inclined to explore.

These make it very unlikely that until a species is capable of at least proper interplanetary space travel (in the game humans have to reach Mars to become aware of what’s going on at all) it will have to conclude that the Galaxy is a lonely place.

Read more after the jump.

Image: Intragalactic life. Courtesy of J. Schombert, U. Oregon.

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A Scientist’s Guide to Finding Alien Life: Where, When, and in What Universe

From Discover:

Things were not looking so good for alien life in 1976, after the Viking I spacecraft landed on Mars, stretched out its robotic arm, and gathered up a fist-size pile of red dirt for chemical testing. Results from the probe’s built-in lab were anything but encouraging. There were no clear signs of biological activity, and the pictures Viking beamed back showed a bleak, frozen desert world, backing up that grim assessment. It appeared that our best hope for finding life on another planet had blown away like dust in a Martian windstorm.

What a difference 33 years makes. Back then, Mars seemed the only remotely plausible place beyond Earth where biology could have taken root. Today our conception of life in the universe is being turned on its head as scientists are finding a whole lot of inviting real estate out there. As a result, they are beginning to think not in terms of single places to look for life but in terms of “habitable zones”—maps of the myriad places where living things could conceivably thrive beyond Earth. Such abodes of life may lie on other planets and moons throughout our galaxy, throughout the universe, and even beyond.

The pace of progress is staggering. Just last November new studies of Saturn’s moon Enceladus strengthened the case for a reservoir of warm water buried beneath its craggy surface. Nobody had ever thought of this roughly 300-mile-wide icy satellite as anything special—until the Cassini spacecraft witnessed geysers of water vapor blowing out from its surface. Now Enceladus joins Jupiter’s moon Europa on the growing list of unlikely solar system locales that seem to harbor liquid water and, in principle, the ingredients for life.

Astronomers are also closing in on a possibly huge number of Earth-like worlds around other stars. Since the mid-1990s they have already identified roughly 340 extrasolar planets. Most of these are massive gaseous bodies, but the latest searches are turning up ever-smaller worlds. Two months ago the European satellite Corot spotted an extrasolar planet less than twice the diameter of Earth (see “The Inspiring Boom in Super-Earths”), and NASA’s new Kepler probe is poised to start searching for genuine analogues of Earth later this year. Meanwhile, recent discoveries show that microorganisms are much hardier than we thought, meaning that even planets that are not terribly Earth-like might still be suited to biology.

Together, these findings indicate that Mars was only the first step of the search, not the last. The habitable zones of the cosmos are vast, it seems, and they may be teeming with life.

More from theSource here.

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