Be Extraordinarily Cautious About the Newest Alien Claim

By John Wenz | October 11, 2016 5:38 pm
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(Credit: Colby Gutierrez-Kraybill / Wikimedia Commons)

The slightest whiff of aliens is enough to send the public into a frenzy. There have been quiet rumblings after a pre-print paper was released on ArXiv from two French-Canadian researchers who interpreted certain sky signal data to be possibly of intelligent extraterrestrial origin.

According to their research, it’s not just one star candidate. There are several, all coming from data in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. These stars experienced rapid bursts of light that, to some researchers, would be the calling card of an intelligent civilization turning on an optical (rather than radio) beacon. There’s something quite tantalizing about the conclusion, “We find that the detected signals have exactly the shape of an ETI signal predicted in the previous publication and are therefore in agreement with this hypothesis,” and the paper has been accepted into Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

Not So Fast

But about that whiff … hold your nose on this one for now.

“Apparently several — more than three or four — referees have been disinclined to see this published,” Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute says in an email. “I am quite skeptical, in particular of the data processing that can take spectrally sampled data, and infer time variations. So I’d be a little careful.”

Similarly, Andrew Siemion, director of SETI Berkeley, urged skepticism. Along with heading up SETI Berkeley, Siemion heads up the Breakthrough Listen initiative, a global $100 million decade long survey to hunt for potential extraterrestrial signals using dedicated telescope time.

“Punch line is that this is interesting but needs to be followed up on other facilities, which we will be doing with Breakthrough Listen,” he says in an email.

Breakthrough Listen also released a statement:

The one in 10,000 objects with unusual spectra seen by Borra and Trottier are certainly worthy of additional study. However, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It is too early to unequivocally attribute these purported signals to the activities of extraterrestrial civilizations. Internationally agreed-upon protocols for searches for evidence of advanced life beyond Earth (SETI) require candidates to be confirmed by independent groups using their own telescopes, and for all natural explanations to be exhausted before invoking extraterrestrial agents as an explanation. Careful work must be undertaken to determine false positive rates, to rule out natural and instrumental explanations, and most importantly, to confirm detections using two or more independent telescopes.

Peaks in Fourier analysis of stellar spectra, such as those discussed by Borra and Trottier, can be caused by instrumental optics or introduced during data reduction. Data artifacts, fringing, and inconsistencies in the manufacture of detectors are known to users of high resolution spectrographs to cause minute patterns to appear in the resulting spectra. The movement of the telescope, variations in observing conditions, and the process of wavelength calibration can easily introduce undesired signals at levels that are only barely detectable. It is therefore important to check the claimed signal using a different telescope and instrument.

What Could Help Verify?

The statement goes on to say that on a 10 point scale used by international SETI researchers when ranking potential signals called the Rio Scale, this barely rises above a 0 rating, listed as “insignificant.” What would be needed to see that rank climb? Independent verification by another telescope would go a long way to, at the very least, notching it up a little more on the scale.

Some of those will be carried out by instruments utilized by the Breakthrough Listen consortium, which includes several stakeholders in the field. The group will use the Automated Planet Finder to target a handful of stars to see if any similar “beacons” appear — something that, while not ruled out, isn’t seeming likely.

Like everything — promising signals, megastructures, Mars rocks, whatever else — it’s too early to tell if this is anything. And so far, it’s looking incredibly unlikely.

This article originally appeared on Astronomy.com.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics
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  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    rapid bursts of light” “calling card” That makes no sense at all.

    1) Raleightscattering (for atoms, molecules, dust; diameter less than 10% of wavelength) varies as (frequency)^4. Mie scattering for larger particles. It makes no sense to long range broadcast in the optical range. What radio goes around optical bounces off.

    2) Energy conversion to high power, collimated, modulated radio and microwave signals is very efficient. A laser doing the same, operating at 10% efficiency plug to output overall, would be a miracle.

    3) Radio and microwave would be accidentally detected by a whole civilization at high sensitivity. Consider New Jersey pigeon excrement, TV screen noise, and cosmic background radiation. Optical requires a very limited, sophisticated look. It is drowned out by atmospheric dirt scattering and ground glow of any civilization – and dawn to dusk.

    4) OK, they are a piddly 50 lightyears distant. Mankind will be crashed if not mostly exterminated before a dialog is established.

    • Gary Kelnhofer

      I disagree, our technology is increasing very fast in the propulsion and laser sectors. We simply need to perfect our cryogenics to the point we can use and depend on it for Cryopreservation. If we can last the journey we should be able to maintain life for long enough to become self sustainable.

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

        Lightspeed limit plus 90 rad./year cosmic background, Nobody is materially going anywhere.

  • OWilson

    “Internationally agreed-upon protocols for searches for evidence of advanced life beyond Earth (SETI) require candidates to be confirmed by independent groups using their own telescopes, and for all natural explanations to be exhausted before invoking extraterrestrial agents as an explanation.”

    It’s not rocket science. A single radio spike, or a flash of light can’t do it!

    Another simple thought experiment. Put yourself in their place.

    If there were aliens out there trying to contact us, their signals would be unmistakable from background noise. There’d be no argument about it. A simple number series, odd, even, rational;, irrational, whatever.

    Think about it!

  • Captain Obvious

    Nowhere in the paper released on ArXiv did I see anything about looking for a message in the supposed signals. What would be the point in sending a signal if it contains no data?

    • OWilson

      A simple call of “123” answered by “456” is all that’s required.

      But some folks prefer to infer smart aliens who can teach us to save ourselves, or dumb aliens who are blowing themselves up.

      And all from a flash of light, or a blip on a screen. :)

      • Captain Obvious

        Unfortunately, due to the distance, an answer to the call is not feasible.

        Based on the near immense size of the universe I believe that it is inevitable that there is other intelligent life out there. It’s great that there are SETI folks listening but the likelihood of us ever hearing from them is small. Like you, I am skeptical when someone reports evidence of intelligent life from such dubious data.

        • OWilson

          Where they are presently looking, Alpha Centauri, is 4 light years or so away, so it’s feasible we could get a return signal in 8 years.

          • Gary Kelnhofer

            I think its closer to 8 years when you factor in the round trip. I believe we s should send a probe that we can use to collect better data at half the distance and send humans soon after it is clear we can survive the planet. We should start sending probes out in all directions now so that in a few years we can have the means to pier out into space much farther than we can now. We need more than one space station and it needs a propulsion system and cryogenics on board. Soon man will find a new home.

  • Lorie Franceschi

    If it was a burst of light, it would too far away for us to do anything about anyway. Especially since the nearest star to Sol is over 4 light years away.

  • Gary Kelnhofer

    Soon we will be able to go find out for ourselves. Our technology is increasing very fast in the propulsion and laser sectors. We simply need to perfect our cryogenics to the point we can use anddepend on it for Cryopreservation. If we can last the journey we should be able to maintain life for long enough to become self sustainable. And so we live on.

  • aepling12

    Another possibility is that there are many civilizations just like our that have barely reached the “nuclear” age. Perhaps the “flashes of light” are either their first attempts at detonating a nuclear device or they destroying themselves with a nuclear war, like we are on the precipice of. A nuclear detonation has the brightness of a sun and would be seen from a great distance.

  • David Palmer

    The first thing I notice is that they have a threshold of 5.5 sigma, and none of the signals is above 6.09 sigma. (The second strongest is 6.00 sigma. I see lots of 5.0x stars despite their quoted threshold).

    Out of the 234 stars they claim a signal for, covering a factor of 10 in brightness, there are none that are 2x, or even 125%, of the threshold. If the exposure time had been chosen to be 2 hours instead of an hour and a half, a marginal 6 sigma detection would have been a convincing 7 sigma.

    It is as if every inhabited star in the sky were in a Galactic conspiracy to send a signal towards Earth at just barely above the threshold of this particular analysis technique for this specific dataset from this specific telescope. And because the signals were sent decades to centuries before the telescope was even built, the conspiracy must have had agents on Earth to mind-control the Sloan astronomers to choose a 90 minute instead of 120 minute exposure.

    The paper is PDF only, so I couldn’t extract the table easily for analysis. but my guess is the data is consistent with a thresholded gaussian with either slightly fat tails or a slightly underestimated variance. It takes an extremely small systematic effect to fatten a Gaussian.

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