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back to article Forget SETI, this is how you find aliens: Hefty prof speaks

A top alien-hunting boffin has said that current efforts seeking extraterrestrial intelligent life are unlikely ever to work - not because there couldn't be any aliens out there, but because the methods themselves are wrong. He proposes several radical new means of finding out whether we really are alone in the universe. …

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Title is "Victory Unintentional"

By Isaac Asimov

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Alert

What is worse?

Finding out that we are alone in the universe? Or, finding out that we are first and have to teach all the other intelligent races that come after us?

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The absolute worst

would be being discovered by an alien archaeologist trying out some ancient radio frequency kit that the aliens stopped using 20,000 years ago because they found better ways to communicate. Then getting gentrified by aliens moving in and taking over our quaint customs and lifestyle.

If you use human history as a parallel for what alien history might be like: we've been intelligent for 10,000 or so years. We've only been making reasonable levels of RF energy for less than 100 years. That's about 1% of the time.

So even if there is an intelligent alien population there is only a very small chance that they are doing detectable RF.

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Paris Hilton

Intelligent life

I have yet to see any evidence of intelligence having arisen on Earth yet, let alone elsewhere

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Heart

Hah - you are the moderatrix...

As I glanced at this post I both agreed and realised this is one of those puzzles...

You are in fact the moderatrix and where do I get to claim my prize...

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Alien

Primes

"A more realistic hope is that an alien civilization has built a powerful beacon to sweep the plane of the galaxy like a lighthouse."

Sounds remarkably like a pulsar to me. Especially as the idea of a star with the mass of our sun or more rotating with a period of minutes seems just a tad far-fetched, regardless of the theories thrown up to explain it.

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Minutes ?

'period of minutes' ?

Pulsar 1748-2446ad rotates 716 times a second. Now that's a lighthouse for some serious aliens...

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Alien

Scary Aliens

...question is...would we even want to communicate with them?

The (theoretical) ability to create pulsars on a whim would be a pretty significant indicator of serious power. We'd have to hope we didn't do anything to piss them off. Probably best we avoid them....until we can create our pulsars anyway at least, and close the "Pulsar gap".

Dr Strangelove? No, never heard of him.

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Ta

Another marvellous article from Lewis... we're not all sci-fi drones. A couple of brilliant quotes stand out as particularly scary:

"A more realistic hope is that an alien civilization has built a powerful beacon to [...] serve as [...] a warning"

"it may still be that intelligence is [...] a counter-survival trait which tends to wipe its possessor out"

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This post has been deleted by its author

Coat

Cheers

"Finding out that we are alone in the universe? Or, finding out that we are first and have to teach all the other intelligent races that come after us?"

Just because the universe is X Billion/Trillion years old, doesn't necessitate that life has evolved prior to now. We, ourselves, could be that "ancient" alien race that went about seeding and colonizing the planets in our galaxy and beyond.

Anyone got a few Stargates in their pocket to sprinkle around? Methinks I misplaced my coat...

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Charlie Stross Alert

Either Lewis or the Prof has been reading Charlie. Intergalatic space routers indeed.

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Boffin

@Graham Bartlett

It's called "Victory Unintentional" by Isaac Asimov.

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Meat

http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/TheyMade.shtml

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Boffin

I've always said

That projects like SETI will most likely never uncover anything, simply because any incidental radio transmissions would be too weak and obliterated by natural radio sources in any event. My reasoning is:

1. The Inverse Square Law, which states that the intensity of radiative energy decreases as the reciprocal square of the distance from the source. So if a radio source is broadcasting such that there are 20 million photons per square metre at a distance of 1000 kilometres, then at 2000 kilometres there would be only 5 million photons per square metre, and at 3000 kilometres there would be only 1.1... million photons per square metre. By the time it gets to us over interstellar distances, we'd be lucky to be able to spot 1 photon in a million square metres. So the good prof is right when he says it would have to be a radio beam directed specifically at us or past us, which reduces the effect of the ISL; our broadcast TV and radio sources, and presumably those of alien civilisations, are omnidirectional and therefore subject to this law.

2. What I call the Searchlight and Candle effect. In our solar system, there are two god-almighty-powerful radio sources, namely the Sun and Jupiter. To an observer at say Tau Ceti, the overwhelming noise of these two objects would drown out any signal we emit in much the same way you wouldn't be able to see a candle flickering in front of a warship's searchlight. You'd be able to separate them if you knew the exact brightness and variability of the searchlight, because you could then subtract that parameter from the total, leaving the candle; but since both the Sun and Jupiter are emitting randomly variable broadband white noise this would be all but impossible to determine. A radio engineer would call this a signal-to-noise ratio of something like 0.00000000001 - meaning the signal is indetectable from the noise.

So the likelihood of us detecting the incidental transmissions of an extraterrestrial civilisation is vanishingly small. That leaves directed-beam sources transmitted specifically in our direction, at just the right time for it to appear in the 50-year window we've been looking for it. And I would say that the chance of such a civilisation just happening to beam a signal in our exact direction at the exact right time is also vanishingly small.

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CDMA?

OK, I admit that your analogy of the candle and searchlight has merit.

But, just look at the spectrum of 3G. Bizarre, but mainly noise. That's a candle (wanted signal) in the presence of a searchlight (unwanted signal). Yet, some folks on Earth actually believe it works. The twits even try to twitter on it.

When we get to 35 ½ G, then maybe we can spam Martians.

Oh, wait, Spirit got spammed with messages it ignored to get out of the sandpit. It should've bought some 'Meds'. Viagra (80%off today! as I'm reliably told. Repetitively.) would've shifted the fuc*ker.

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Alien

First deep space message deciphered

"Come in Number 5, your time is up"

Jokes aside, you could tell an awful lot from a message like that.

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Alien

My theory about intelligence,

OK, it's probably not my own but there you go, this will be a long post.

We're asking all the wrong questions and are looking in the wrong places.

In effect, what we're asking is this:

Are there other biological creatures, that evolved in complex structures, developed technology much like our own, are are speaking a language that is

translatable into English. the answer is: maybe.

however, if we look at intelligence as it's own, it might evolve in countless other ways, intelligence as we define it is simply a system of interactions that can process inputs and produce outputs much like our brains. but this does not have to be biological at all.

a series of well placed crystals for example, one receiving light beams from a nearby sun and reflecting it to the others, in a complex system of diffractions and refractions to produce a variable output at the other end could be considered intelligent, and we might even be able to communicate with it if we translated English into light signals. and this can be naturally occurring, in fact systems like these are a plenty here on earth, and some of them might be intelligent and communicate-able with. I know this sounds like a load of hippie crap, but that point is that abstract intelligence may well be naturally occurring and plentiful, it's just that we're too stubborn to discover them.

I can expand on this theory but this isn't the place for it.

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Boffin

Calling Darwin

What is the probability of such a system of crystals arising by chance? Pretty close to zero.

BUT, if the system can produce almost exact copies, Darwinian evolution can take place... we have a system capable of processing energy and reproducing. "It's Life, Jim, but not as we know it!"

Biologists might, in general, be too set in their ways to recognise radically different life, but there are quite a few who speculate on related topics, such as possible self-replicating molecules that may have been around before DNA/RNA became the standard. Novel self-replicating molecules might be being generated far more than we realise, but they get trashed by the installed user-base before they can build up enough complexity to compete. There, it's almost an IT angle.

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Alien

Look deeper...

I agree we should be looking around Earth a bit more for signs... start in Giza, there may be a Stargate or two buried there...

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Stop

What life

I live in England and I can tell you for a fact that in this celebrity obsessed, thieving scum politician ridden land there is no intelligent life, alien or otherwise.

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(Written by Reg staff)

Re: What life

I think people who post comments like yours should be obliged to spend a month in Zimbabwe - six weeks if they're this spuriously connected to the story in question.

Well I mean honestly.

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Gates Horns

Re what life

Conveniently Zuma is in Blighty right now to push for sanctions against Zimbabwe to be lifted.

Convenient.. or a sign?

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Pointless but...

The chances of find an alien life form that is intelligent even if the methodology was 100% right is not likely anyway.

Given the age of the universe even if life did exist somewhere what are the chances that is is dead now? Or what are the chances that life will exist somewhere but not at this present time?

But you might find something else that may be useful as they don't just search for alien life I think they also look for blackholes and pulsars and other stuff. Something may be stumbled on by accident so it's not totally pointless.

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Alien

Star Trek - Prime Directive

...don't interfere with primitive civilisations. Also known as the Zoo / Interdict Scenario solution to the Fermi Paradox.

BTW I think we might consider applying that scenario instead of arranging regime change in places like Iraq and Afghanistan (and Zimbabwe). It might save lives in the short term (dubious in Iraq), but they would value their new "freedom" more if they had fought for it themselves.

Of course my friends in Bosnia & Kosovo didn't agree when I suggested it to them, and neither would any Tutsi Rwandans.

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re: None of the geeks got it

I think everyone got it, to the point that it wasn't worth commenting on.

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Megaphone

obvious

How about just trying to decrypt the static. We could have detected the signal long time ago, we just don't understand the protocol.

Lol

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Alien

Alien probe blog

Accessing alien galactic news blog via the internet? There should be an app for that.

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Alien Life

If Alien life was detected, it would have been hushed up to avoid global panic and mass suicides.

And all religions will realise that God/Allah/Budda/etc do not exist but have infact been worshipping aliens. Goa'uld System Lords (Ra, Apophis, Anubis) perhaps?

Explains the birth of Jesus...

Mary impregnated by aliens.

The 3 "Wise" men following the light of an alien ship which then shone it's searchlight onto the stable.

Jesus has "special" abilities, like heal people with a single touch. Alien psychic powers.

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Umm John70...

Jesus has not been proven beyond doubt that he actually existed.

Of course, by that method, neither do I, pffft!

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Alien

Perhaps, better shut up

Knowing how we used to deal with "other" civilisations perhaps we should better shut up.

I would assume we would never have any use or understanding for an civilisation different to ours.

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Coat

Dyson Spheres

As I recall, were designed to capture 100% of a star's radiant energy, as energy, while everywhere, is also important to capture. The problem I see as most troublesome with the Dyson sphere, besides stability and gravity, which could be dealt with (spin to provide pseudo-gravity, add ramjets to compensate for wobble) is heat escape-see the Puppeteer homeworld in Ringworld.

Before you ask how spinning is going to help with pseudo-gravity at the poles, it's quite simple. It won't. The poles are devoted to solar energy capture, in the form of photoelectric power generation, tanks of algae (or similar) producing biofuels, or whatever else the constructing civilization finds convenient. The remainder of the inner surface is terraced, so that the ground is always flat, or nearly so, rather than curving more and more steeply as latitude increases. Thousand-mile walls, with elevators built in for transport and airlock functions, keep the atmosphere from flowing down from the higher-latitude terraces to the equatorial terrace-much like the rim walls on a Niven Ring. It is possible that deep oceans with external cooling fins could be used to cool the interior, but I just don't have the thermodynamic engineering to know what-if anything-could be done to prevent the Dyson Sphere's inhabitants from boiling in their own steam.

Not to mention what to do when the sun starts expanding into a Red Giant.

Also unexplained is how we're meant to FIND another species' Dyson Spheres. After all, the intent of the sphere is to trap all the radiation from the sun, so one assumes it would not radiate itself. And, after all, "Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the street to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space..." The galaxy is approximately 7.8x10^15 cubic light-years, while a 1AU radius Dyson Sphere is approximately 2x10^3 cubic light-minutes-and there are about 144x10^15 cubic light-minutes in a cubic light-year. This makes for a very small needle, and one humongous haystack.

Mine's the one with the blueprints for a Niven Ring in the pocket.

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Anonymous Coward

Dyson Spheres are Big Engines

"It is possible that deep oceans with external cooling fins could be used to cool the interior, but I just don't have the thermodynamic engineering to know what-if anything-could be done to prevent the Dyson Sphere's inhabitants from boiling in their own steam."

The whole thing is an engine. The Dyson sphere itself uses the rest of the universe as a place to dump waste heat. On its way from the inside to the outside of the Dyson sphere, the heat is used to do useful work.

Compare with a coal-fired power station. Coal is burned, and used to heat water in boilers. The superheated water, at high pressure, enters steam turbines, expanding and cooling while driving the turbines. Coming out of the turbines, the steam is cooler, and at the same pressure as the environment. In the cooling towers, the steam's remaining, waste heat is dumped into the environment, and the steam condenses back into water. The water can then be pumped back into the boilers to be used again.

In the case of a Dyson sphere, the central star is the burning coal, the Dyson sphere is the power station, including boilers, turbines and cooling towers, and the rest of the universe is the external environment.

"Also unexplained is how we're meant to FIND another species' Dyson Spheres. After all, the intent of the sphere is to trap all the radiation from the sun, so one assumes it would not radiate itself."

If it's a big engine, dumping waste heat into the rest of the universe, it'll radiate, though at longer wavelengths than the star itself.

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Dyson Spheres and gravity

Gravity is not a problem. I'm fairly sure that there is a mathematical proof that there would be real gravity on the inside of the Dyson Sphere. The field strength would depend on the mass and radius of the sphere.

This is explained in the sciency bits at the end of one of Larry Niven's Ringworld books. The proof is based on an infinite sheet, and a large sphere would approximate an infinite sheet. It would be enough to hold the atmosphere close to the surface (on both sides!). Gravity would be perpendicular to the surface at all points, so the terracing would not be required, and in fact could not work if you were relying on spin for gravity (close to the poles, there would not be enough spin to generate pseudo-gravity. There would be no atmosphere at the poles unless the whole volume of the sphere was under pressure, but then the Sun would not work, nor would there be enough gasses to fill the HUGE volume of the interior of the sphere).

You would have to leak energy through the shell to maintain thermodynamic equilibrium, but the way that the energy would leak would probably mostly be in the infra-red, and would be fairly low grade and difficult to detect.

Unlike a ringworld, it would probably not be possible to steer a Dyson Sphere.

The Ringworld needed to spin because it did not approximate an infinite sheet. They also needed rim mountains to contain the atmosphere, ramjets to correct wobble, and shadow squares to approximate day and night.

I'm just wondering whether it would be worth having a Teela Brown around for company, or whether Tree of Life root would be categorized as a Class 1 drug!

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Anonymous Coward

No Internal Gravity!

"The proof is based on an infinite sheet, and a large sphere would approximate an infinite sheet."

Except, at any point on the internal surface of the sphere, most of the sphere is on the wrong side of you ("above" your head, like the sky). The infinite sheet is a poor approximation, since it puts all the sheet on just one side of you ("below" your feet).

I vaguely remember, from A-level physics, that there is no gravity within a hollow sphere. If you were inside it, you'd have some of the sphere pulling you in one direction, but the rest of the sphere pulling you in the other direction. These two gravitational forces just happen to balance and cancel each other out, no matter where you are inside this hollow sphere. (Assuming the sphere is sufficiently uniform.)

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It has long been thought that the discovery of an alien intelligence would change us.

I've thought about this, and come to this conclusion: no.

We will realise that we can never reach them, that they will never come to us - that any considerations about their intentions toward us (hostile or benevolent) will be rendered irrelevant by the intervening space, between us and them - and that the gigantic fairy-story humanity has been telling itself, for over half a century, about the possibility of travelling to distant stars (or indeed, the inhabitants of such stars, coming here - regardless of their intentions) will be thrown into stark relief.

We will hear their industry, realise that they never had any intention of communicating with us, and the futility of attempting to communicate with them. And we will come to the conclusion that the best we can do, is listen to the noise of their machines, and hope, one day, to work out what we are listening to, and replicate the machines - and then, knowing what to listen for maybe, turn our telescoes outwards, once again, and listen for the noise of others, in the galaxy, who have done like wise.

We may end up realising, that the most useful signal we can send one another, is the noise of our machines.

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Joke

Dyson Sphere

Withdrawn from market due to cost and warranty problems.

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Anonymous Coward

First contact

Forget "Take me to your leader" or "We come in peace". I expect the first message from our inter-galactic neighbours to be "Turn the bloody noise down, or we're calling the council."

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Communications would only be one way anyhow

So let's try to be a bit more clever than random stuff. Next time there is an 'interesting' cosmic event, let's send out a long message to the opposite direction. Now if there is (or will be) a civilisation in that direction, it will look towards us. It'll see the event, and then when it dims down, see our message. When the message arrives we will probably have died out a long time ago, but the others will have gotten a message from us, telling them that they are not alone.

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Alien

That's Some Smart Thinking

And if you can come up with that idea, then so can aliens.

So why haven't we identified any such messages, yet?

Now I'm starting to think about the prisoners' dilemma, and super-rationality.

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Badgers

God-Botherers?

Suppose they'd visited aeons ago, and left a message in a medium only loosely-coupled to then-likely evolutions of human self-awareness. What would it feel like now? Well, 'religionism' seems pervasive in all societies, and has no evident utility, and seems to incorporate some very resilient 'memes' (about origins and morals). Not saying it's 'true', ye ken, just that it's the kind of echo one might consider.

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Pint

announcement of extraterrestrial life expected in Q3

"We do not yet believe that we have rigorously proven there is [or was ] life on Mars." says David S. McKay, chief of astrobiology at the NASA Johnson Space Center.

"But we do believe that we are very, very close to proving there is or has been life there," McKay tells Spaceflight Now.

http://www.spaceflightnow.com/news/n1001/09marslife/

Pint glass because when we know there is life beyond our world, we will all still be at the pub.

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FAIL

I continue to find it hillarious..

..scientists and biologists insist that evidence of life out there must mirror our own. There must be Oxygen! There must be Radio Signals to show intelligence! There must be Water! It must be an environment composed of things we need to survive!

Seriously. Maybe intelligent life out there is expecting us to use antimatter to fuel our hover-cars - and are searching for the energy signatures it leaves. Maybe they're looking for environments like pure nitrogen, or acidic reservoirs to keep our acidic levels just-so. Hell, maybe they're looking for evidence of telepathy to show an intelligent species exists in our galaxy!

Biologists and scientists.. you need to realize that life doesn't need to replicate your limited view of it to exist.

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re "probing for the unique signatures"

Like the inter-Galactic Pulsar Network ? Already published by Paul Laviolette.

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graffiti - can we distinguish it from nature?

Maybe the aliens have been, and swapped the magnetism of the earth a few times to mark that "kilroy was here". That's the problem -- until we investigate more planets of our own we won't know what is to be expected and what is graffiti.

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@Glen Turner 666

"Maybe the aliens have been, and swapped the magnetism of the earth a few times to mark that "kilroy was here". That's the problem -- until we investigate more planets of our own we won't know what is to be expected and what is graffiti."

So basically, in your mind, it's logical that aliens have visited the Earth tens of thousands of times over the last 4 billion years, with the only intention of tagging the planet?

Can you comprehend why, exactly, this is highly unlikely, to the point of not investigating the possibility?

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Badgers

Biologists have only scratched the surface of the microbial realm

You don't want to do that.

You'll get an infection.

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