[The article below was originally posted on the BBC Future blog, and was titled "Will we ever… find life elsewhere in the universe?" I'm reposting it here because, oddly, the BBC page is only readable for people outside the UK! It has to do with the BBC rights and all that. But they gave me permission to post it here, and since I thought it was fun and provocative, I figure y'all would like it. Enjoy.]
Will we ever… find life in space?
One of the reasons I love astronomy is that it doesn’t flinch from the big questions. And one of the biggest is: are we alone?
Another reason I love astronomy: it has a good shot at answering this question.
Even a few decades ago hard-headed realists pooh-poohed the idea of aliens. But times change, and so does science. We’ve accumulated enough data that makes the question less far-fetched than it once was, and I’m starting to think that the question isn’t "Will we find life?" but rather "Which method will find it first?"
There are three methods that, to me, are the front-runners for finding life on other worlds. And I have an idea as to which one may find it first.
Life on Mars?
The first method follows the principle that when you’re looking for something, it’s best to start close to home.
We know of one planet that has life: Earth. So it makes sense to look for other places with Earth-like conditions: that is, liquid water, oxygen in the air, nutrients for growth, and so on.
The most obvious place to look is Mars. At first glance it appears dry, cold and dead. But if you can see past that, things start to look up. The polar caps, for example, have lots of frozen water, and we’ve directly seen ice at lower latitudes on the Red Planet as well – meteorite impacts have left behind shiny craters, digging up fresh ice from below the surface.
Several Mars rovers and landers have uncovered tantalising evidence that liquid water might flow just beneath the surface, but we still lack any conclusive evidence. However, if you broaden your timescale a bit, there is excellent evidence that in the past – perhaps a billion years or so ago – our neighbouring planet had oceans of liquid water and thicker air. In fact, conditions were pretty good to develop life as we know it even before it popped up here on Earth.
It’s entirely possible that life got a toehold (or pseudopod hold) there long ago, and died out. If that’s the case, we may yet find fossils in the Martian rocks. Again, there’s no conclusive evidence yet, but we’ve literally barely scratched the surface there. Now that it has successfully landed on Mars, we have the exciting possibility that the plutonium-powered, car-sized Curiosity rover will soon use its on-board laser and other tools to crack open and examine rocks in the Gale Crater, which were laid down billions of years ago in the presence of liquid water.
And Mars isn’t the only possibility in our solar system. Liquid water exists inside Saturn’s moon Enceladus, where geysers of liquid water erupt from deep canyons at its south pole. Energised by the gravitational tug of the giant ringed planet itself, the interior of Enceladus may be a vast ocean of liquid water even while the surface is frozen over. That doesn’t guarantee we’ll ever find alien fish swimming that moon’s seas, of course. But it’s an interesting place to look.
Europa, a moon of Jupiter, almost certainly has an undersurface ocean as well. If you relax your constraints even more, Saturn’s moon Titan has lakes of liquid methane and ethane on its surface, too. The chemistry for life would be different there – it’s a rather chilly -180C on the surface – but it’s not impossible to suppose life might arise there too.
Finding out whether this is the case means getting up close and personal. We’re doing that for Mars; however, the likes of Europa and Enceladus may have to wait a decade or four.
But maybe we don’t have to go anywhere. Instead, we might be able to sit here and wait for alien beings (of whatever form) to message us.
One of my favorite aspects of astronomy is how it tackles the biggest questions we humans have. How did this all begin? What is the ultimate fate of the Universe?
Are we alone?
Oh, that last one. Such an interesting question, and one that for centuries has been essentially unanswerable due to a lack of solid data. But that’s changed very recently. We’ve started exploring other planets up close. We’ve been able to listen to potential signals from other civilizations. And we’ve begun to get a handle on how many habitable planets there might be in the Universe.
The BBC Future blog asked me to write up my thoughts on this for their clever series, "Will we ever…?", and so I did: "Will we ever… find life elsewhere in the universe?" is now online.
I’ll note this is an opinion piece, but it’s based on the best data I know about these three avenues of inquiry: physical inspection of other worlds in our solar system, listening for E.T., and observing planets around other stars. Given the current state-of-the-art, and where these programs are going, I predict which of these three I think will pay off first – assuming life is out there to find.
I won’t spoil it here. Go read the article!
[Note: In June, I also wrote a piece for them called Will We Ever Live on the Moon? which you may also enjoy.]
- Will we ever live on the Moon?
- 50 new worlds join the exoplanet list
- Success: SETI array back on track!
- Enceladus does and does not have a global ocean
- Huge lakes of water may exist under Europa’s ice
When I was at SXSW last month, I ran into my friend Drew. He dragged me and my friends to a party, saying this guy named Rob Reid would be there. Rob, he told me, wrote a really good scifi novel.
"Oh?" I said. "What’s it about?"
Drew got a funny look on his face. He said, "I can’t explain it. If I tried it would sound ridiculous, and you’d think I’m nuts. Just talk to Rob about it."
So at the party I met this Rob Reid fellow, and we hit it off immediately. He’s really funny, articulate, and smart; three things I admire above almost everything else, especially in a writer.
Turns out the novel is called Year Zero, and Rob gave me the elevator pitch about it: the Universe is filled to the brim with advanced civilizations, well ahead of us in every way except one: music. Theirs is terrible, but our rock music is revered throughout the cosmos, and all these aliens have been uploading it for decades. But they also have one law above all others: to respect native laws. And we have copyright laws. Since they’ve been pirating our music for so long, they owe us money for all those uploaded songs. Lots of money.
All the money, it turns out.
This is a ridiculously cool premise for a satirical scifi novel! [And Drew was right; had he tried to explain it to me I would've thought he was nuts.] Rob sent me an advanced copy and I swallowed it down in about two days. I loved it. Funny, smart, silly… three things I also happen to admire in a novel.
Bottom line: recommended. Buy it and read it. Rob had a trailer made for it as well:
This book is hot off the presses: it was released today! It’s available on Amazon (duh) as well as for the Kindle. I imagine you can find other flavors of booksellers, both analog and cyber, to fit your needs.
And I hope the movie rights have been secured. I’d wait in line to watch that. Rather than pirate it, of course.
Last night, I started getting emails and tweets asking about a possible detection of a radio signal coming from two of the newly-discovered planets orbiting other stars.
Cutting to the chase: yes, a signal has been seen, but no, it’s not coming from some alien civilization. It’s almost certainly something much closer, like a satellite interfering with the observation.
So what’s the deal?
You talkin’ to me?
The Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is a
privately-funded group of scientists and engineers who are trying* an ongoing effort to figure out ways to detect signals from space that could be coming from other intelligences: aliens. They focus (haha) mostly on radio signals, since it’s very easy to send radio waves across the vast light years separating stars, it’s easy to detect radio waves (so primitive life like us can pick up the call), and it’s easy to encode information that way. Heck, we’ve been broadcasting coded radio waves for over a century now!
Currently, no unambiguous alien "Hello there!" has been detected. The sky is big, there are a lot of stars out there, and the radio spectrum is really wide, too. Think of how many radio stations there are on a typical radio dial from top to bottom; now divide that up into a billion tiny slices and try to find the one that’s playing the song you want to hear. It’s something of a painstaking process.
Recently, astronomers came up with a clever idea: the Kepler space mission is finding tons of planets orbiting other stars. It may find an Earth-like planet orbiting a Sun-like star at just the right distance to allow life to evolve, though no such planet has been found just yet. Still, why look all over the sky when we know where there are lots of planets?
Can’t stop the signal
So a search targeting those stars with planets has been set up. And that’s where our story picks up: using the ginormous 100 meter Green Bank Telescope, astronomers from UC Berkeley found what look like artificial signals when observing two different stars. The stars are called Kepler Object of Interest 812 and 817 (or just KOI 812 and 817 for short). Here’s an example of a signal they found from KOI 817:
Colorado has some weird stuff in the elections tomorrow.
For one thing, Denver resident Jeff Peckman — the same guy who thought a really badly done video of a Peeping Tom alien was real — went around to other Denverites and got enough signatures to get an initiative on the ballot to create an alien affairs bureau.
I wish I were kidding. I wrote about this last year, hoping it wouldn’t come to pass, but he got enough signatures (though many were apparently faked) to get it on the Denver ballot.
Yay. Or, I guess, "yay?" Over at the JREF’s Swift blog, Karen Stollznow has the takedown of this ridiculous situation. It’s tempting to laugh it off, except that 1) it’s already cost real money to even get this on the ballot, and b) this election cycle is so crazy that something like this might have a real chance. We’ll see.
It’s too bad I’m not eligible to vote on that. But there are lots of other issues in this election I’m watching, some of which are very serious (like Colorado Proposition 62, which would give a fertilized human egg the status of a person under the law. Yes, seriously. What’s next: giving zygotes the vote? Sponsoring the Blastula Non-Discrimination Act, and Take Your Morula To Work Day?).
I voted early because I’ll be out of town on November 2. But I looked over the list of initiatives very carefully, and I’ll be checking my news feeds come Tuesday. I know people of all stripes, beliefs, and ideas read this blog. I urge people to think carefully and logically about the issues in this election, and then to go out and vote. There’s a whole lot of nonsense out there this election cycle, far more even than usual. It is quite literally up to us to make sure that reality sees the light of day.
Are we under the threat of alien attack? Is Hollywood right? Could monsters from another world already be on their way here to steal our water and enslave or eat us?*
Find out in the thrilling second episode of "Phil Plait’s Bad Universe", airing on the Discovery Channel on Wednesday, October 6 at 10:00 p.m. EDT, right after MythBusters!
Yup, that’s me in the F-16, and I won’t say whether I tossed my cookies or not, so you’ll just have to watch the show to see.
Next week I’ll have another Twitter giveaway contest and I’ll have some stuff from the show in the pack, too. Stay tuned. Mwuhahahahaha†!
† Ha ha! Mine is an evil laugh!
I know, this blog could be all Mitchell and Webb, all the time. But man, they’re just so spot on with this stuff!
I would’ve changed one single line: "Fortunately the aliens landed somewhere very remote which is also a well-known top secret Army base," adding "… where we also happen to be doing high-altitude atomic bomb detection research using weather balloons that, when crashed, look very much like flying saucers."
But then, I’m a humorless skeptic striving all the time to bury the truth.
Tip o’ the tin foil beanie to Anders Øverby.
Apparently Stephen Hawking read my book, but not very carefully, because he thinks aliens will come here ala "Independence Day"* and eat up all our resources and move on.
I disagree with him. I think in fact it’s more likely that an aggressive alien race would create self-replicating robot probes that will disperse through the galaxy and destroy all life that way.
But more likely still doesn’t equate to likely. I’ve been thinking about this on and off for a few days, in fact, and I suspect a likely answer to Fermi’s Paradox — "Where are they?" — is simply that intelligent life that is capable of interstellar flight doesn’t last long enough to colonize other stars. That would neatly explain why, if stars with planets are common (which we know is almost certainly true), and the conditions for life to arise are relatively common (again, that seems very likely), the galaxy isn’t overrun with life. It should be by now; it’s had billions of years to have space-faring races evolve and colonize the whole shebang.
So in reality, Hawking’s idea and the one I go over in my book are probably wrong. But I’m an optimist, and I can hope that the reason the galaxy isn’t softly humming with life (that’s Carl Sagan’s poetic phrase) is that we’re the first, or at least the first in a while. That would mean we still get our chance. It’s a big responsibility, really.
And to be clear, that’s not snark, even if this post started out a bit snarky. I’m serious. We may be utterly, entirely alone in a galaxy filled with planets that outnumber people on our own planet 50 to 1. That idea gives me the creeps more than the idea of hostile aliens bent on sterilizing each of those planets. But at least it gives us a good chance to spread and see the place a bit. I’d like to think that in a hundred generations, this arm of the Milky Way will boast a thousand human planets. It’s a nice thought.
There are aliens among us!
Don’t believe me? Then gaze upon this picture, O Foolish Human:
BABloggee Jeremy Theriot sent this picture to me. It looks innocent, doesn’t it? Ah, certainly, until you see it from a different angle…
J’accuse! Obviously, they walk among us! Or, more accurately, they are rooted among us. If prickly pear cacti have roots. I think they do. Yeah, let’s assume they do.
So maybe they’re not a major threat, but have you ever seen one up close? I’m positive I don’t want one probing me, I assure you. There’s a reason they’re prickly…
P.S. This one provides even more evidence that they photosynthesize among us.
You know why science is hard and nonsense is easy?
Because as an adherent to reality, I’m not allowed to just make stuff up. Sadly, others need not follow that rule.
"An official announcement by the Obama administration disclosing the reality of extraterrestrial life is imminent", indeed. What does imminent mean? A year? 10? I’m guessing never. But as long as the antiscience advocates can use words like soon, imminent, and impending, they can keep their believers on the hook.
And why am I not surprised to see Richard Hoagland’s name in that article?
Every now and again I have to do that comical rapid-shaking-of-the-head accompanied by that wugga wugga wugga sound when I think that people actually buy into this, um, stuff. Wow.
Tip o’ the tin foil beanie to Sandra Prow.