In the noble pursuit of contacting aliens, we humans have broadcast images, music, voices, and more into space, but have you ever stopped to think that maybe we’re sending mixed messages? Some astronomers have, and to counter that problem they’ve suggested creating standard rules for all future space-bound missives–and they want to harness the power of crowdsourcing to “edit” these messages.
In their Space Policy paper, a team of alien-hunting scientists say that standard message protocols would increase the likelihood that aliens would hear us, one goal for those involved with SETI, or the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Wired Science quotes astrobiologist Jacob Haqq-Misra:
“The paper is really a call for unity among thinking about messaging exraterrestrials,” Haqq-Misra said. “Right now it’s messy, it’s kind of all over the place. Maybe we can increase our success chances by being more unified about this.”
Need to teach 13-year-old Ke$ha fans about the quest for extraterrestrial life, but worried you won’t capture their attention? Fret no more. Fresh off of YouTube comes a parody of Ke$ha’s song “We R Who We R,” refashioned into an informative and utterly dorky song about astrobiology.
The video credits Jank for the lyrics and video and mrskimful for the music. We applaud the creators for their shout-outs to moons like Jupiter’s Europa and Saturn’s Titan and Enceladus–all promising destinations in the search for microbial life in our solar system. But we have to take exception to the quick, unqualified mention of bacteria that can thrive on arsenic, and the video’s implication that this recent finding stretches scientists’ notions about what kinds of life can exist. Have they not been following the roiling controversy over whether that finding is valid?
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While watching the science news for you here at Discover blogs, we’ve seen our share of bad science coverage. Most of the time, we let it slide. Most of the time, we write the truth and hope to overshadow the erroneous and exaggerated stories. But this time… this time we’re calling it out.
Last week’s coverage of the bacteria that live in Mono Lake, CA was over hyped because of a cryptic message in a NASA press release (namely, that the discovery would “impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life”). And even after all the build up, the early embargo break, and a long press conference, many news outlets STILL got the story wrong.
The United Nations, tackling head-on the problem of what to do if an alien says “take me to your leader”, is poised to designate a specific individual for the task…. An obscure Malaysian astrophysicist who is head of its little-known Office for Outer Space Affairs (Unoosa).
The story, which was widely reported over the weekend, was published on Sunday at 12:50 pm AEST (Saturday, 9:50 pm EDT). It compared Unoosa and Othman to the Men In Black and even quoted experts in space policy:
Professor Richard Crowther, an expert in space law and governance at the UK Space Agency and who leads British delegations to the UN on such matters, said: “Othman is absolutely the nearest thing we have to a ‘take me to your leader’ person.”
The story was then picked up by The Telegraph, which published on Sunday at 11:30 am BST (Sunday, 6am EDT), discussing the details of Othman’s push for her new role:
She will set out the details of her proposed new role at a Royal Society conference in Buckinghamshire next week. The 58-year-old is expected to tell delegates that the proposal has been prompted by the recent discovery of hundreds of planets orbiting other starts, which is thought to make the discovery of extraterrestrial life more probable than ever before.
From there the story spread to various other news sites, including CNET, Daily Mail, Wired.co.uk, and Time before anyone thought to actually check the facts of the Australian article. At around 8 am EDT on Monday The Guardian posted a story claiming that that Mazlan Othman has officially denied the statement:
Finally an email from Othman herself would have prompted our Martian to trudge back to his spaceship. “It sounds really cool but I have to deny it,” she said of the story. She will be attending a conference next week, but she’ll be talking about how the world deals with “near-Earth objects”. Our alien will just have to try someone else, or stop reading the Sunday Times.
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Gene Expression: Diplomacy among the aliens
Gene Expression: The aliens are out to get us!
In 2001, a bizarre red rain showered India’s southern state of Kerala. Godfrey Louis, a physicist now in Cochin University of Science and Technology’s astrobiology department, decided to collect samples and take a closer electron-microscope look. He noticed some particles in the rainwater that looked like biological cells, but when he went looking for DNA, he found none. That enticingly strange result led Louis to speculate that he had found extraterrestrial bacteria.
The new paper (pdf) appears in Arxiv.org, not a peer-reviewed journal. But it repeats earlier work by Louis and a collaborator that they say shows the cell-like particles can survive and grow at high temperatures that would kill most life as we know it (around 250 degrees Fahrenheit). At room temperature, particles appear as inert as, well, odd looking red rain dirt.
On Friday evening, in the midst of the upscale boutiques and trendy cafes of Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood, a crowd filled the Galapagos Art Space for a sold-out show titled “The Science of Star Trek,” organized as part of the World Science Festival.
The crowd—scarf-wrapped, martini-sipping, not a single costumed fan in sight—was far from what one might expect at a Star Trek themed event (“closeted fans,” remarked one audience member after the show). Nonetheless, the packed space burst into applause as the night’s speakers were introduced: There was Laurence Krauss, a physicist from Arizona State; Seth Shostak, an astronomer with SETI; and Eric Horvitz, a researcher at Microsoft.
Moderating the discussion was the peppy Faith Salie, a regular on public radio but better known to Star Trek fans as the beautiful, genetically enhanced, Serena Douglas on the series spinoff Deep Space Nine.
Salie first steered the speakers into a conversation about whether the star ship Enterprise’s main means of navigating the galaxy—Warp Drive—is physically possible.
How do you hunt for extraterrestrial life? You visit other planets, you find new planets, you study our own planet, or you listen.
All four methods came together last night at the World Science Festival when four speakers took part in a conversation called, simply, “The Search for Life in the Universe.” When you put four lively scientists with four different ways of thinking on a stage together, consensus isn’t the first thing to emerge. But the panel could agree on one thing: If you yearn to know whether we’re alone in the universe, it’s a hell of a time to be alive.
Steve Squyres of Cornell University is one of the project leads on the Mars rovers, those endurance robots Spirit and Opportunity that continue sending back Martian data. Spirit may be stuck, but in this week’s edition of the journal Science, Squyres’ team has published a new study based on information the rover found at a rock outcropping called Comanche about four years ago.
Spirit found evidence of carbonates that would have formed in the presence of water. The rover had done that before, but what’s exciting now, Squyres says, is that the chemistry of these new carbonate finds show they formed in water of a more neutral pH, rather than the more acidic circumstances that would have formed prior carbonate finds.
That water no longer flows on the martian surface, but “this points to more life-friendly conditions” billions of years ago, he said.
2. A Second Earth?
Humans have long imagined faraway planets around other stars, Harvard astronomer David Charbonneau said. “We are all alive at this magical moment when we have the technical ability to find those planets.”
The count of known exoplanets now stands at greater than 400, and astronomers have found most of those by one of two methods. There’s the wobble, in which astronomers spy a star jostled ever so slightly by its planet’s gravity. It’s like watching a dance, Charbonneau said, “it’s just that one of the dance partners is 1,000 times heavier than the other.” Secondly, there’s the transit method, in which a planet passes in front of its star and dims the star slightly, giving away its presence.
Charbonneau is also a member of the Kepler Space Telescope team. It launched last year with the express purpose of exoplanet hunting, and at the World Science Festival he predicted it would find a truly Earth-like world in two to three more years (he’s gotten close already). Plus, in 2014, exoplanet hunters will get another assist from this bad boy, the James Webb Space Telescope, a full-scale replica of which is currently on display in Battery Park.
3. Science Staycation
“This is my favorite planet, I have to say.”
Michael J. Russell is the most Earth-focused of the four panelists who spoke last night. And he might be the most convinced that Earth is not alone in harboring life. As someone who studies the emergence of life on our homeworld, especially the possibility that it emerged in the pressure cooker of deep-sea vents, Russell is impressed by the reach and expansion of life here. And that’s a good sign for life elsewhere in the universe.
What can Earth tell us about life on distant worlds? Life, Russell says, leaves evidence of itself in the waste it leaves behind. It accelerates chemical reactions—through photosynthesis, for example. Says Russell: “The question isn’t, ‘What is life?’ What we should ask is, ‘What does life do?’”
Zeta rays. Zeta rays are the key.
OK, I don’t know what zeta rays are, and neither does Jill Tarter, longtime member of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). The point is that we’re using technologies and weird physics that we didn’t know about a half-century ago when SETI was founded. Given our location in the galaxy, she says, any civilization that might like to contact us probably has had more time to mature. “We can be fairly confident that we are the youngest,” she said.
Thus, we use the methods we know—like optical and radio signals—to search for alien intelligences. But they might be trying to reach us with zeta rays, or some other crazy thing we haven’t discovered yet. That, plus the great vastness of the galaxy, tells Tarter that 50 years of nothing but silence doesn’t mean SETI is a failure. It means they’re just getting started.
[Read more about SETI's first 50 years in the feature "Call Waiting" in the July/August issue of DISCOVER, on newsstands soon.]
So what if it’s out there?
“First of all, I’m going to take a drink of champagne,” Tarter said.
In case you were worried, SETI does have a plan in place for its response to an alien signal. Tarter says the scientists won’t attempt to respond themselves, but would rather tell the world and try to reach a global consensus for our planet’s next move.
Right… “global consensus.” Tarter concedes that this sounds great on paper and is probably impossible to achieve. But in a socially connected world, maybe we can just take a vote on whether or not we want to tell E.T. we’re here.
That plan, of course, would apply only if we found intelligent life. But if we detected even “pond scum,” Squyers said, the achievement would be monumental. He’s willing to accept that habitable environments proliferate throughout the galaxy. Even in our own solar system, promising locales for life like the moons Europa and Titan lie outside what we would call the “Goldilocks Zone.” But finding that life independently arose twice just in our own tiny solar system would mean to him that the universe is “teeming with life.”
I hope it is.
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80beats: Stephen Hawking, For One, Does Not Welcome Our Potential Alien Overlords
Old and busted: whirling flying saucers. The new hotness: triangular-shaped vessels. It seems Unidentified Flying Objects’ shapes are changing with the times–or maybe with TV shows.
This week, the British Government released its fifth batch of files on alleged UFO sightings within the country, this set dating from from 1994 to 2000. The files total more than 6,000 pages and were released by the Ministry of Defense and the National Archives. What struck experts most was the changing shape of the reported UFOs.
CNN reports that the shift may have come about because of popular notions of what futuristic tech would look like:
If you are a single male, please answer the following questions:
Repellent body odor? No?
Superfluous and abundant body hair?
Socially awkward? No again…?
Then why are you still single? And what are the odds of you finding a girlfriend this year?
Economics grad student Peter Backus of the U.K.’s University of Warwick pondered that question, and put his mathematical skills to good use to calculate his chances of hooking up in 2010. As Backus found, the odds of him finding an appropriate love interest on any given night out are 1 in 285,000. Backus used the Drake equation to calculate these odds of finding love and wrote it up as “Why I don’t have a girlfriend: An application of the Drake Equation to love in the UK.”
As New Scientist explains:
For the uninitiated, the Drake equation was set out by Frank Drake, one of the founders of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. It estimates the number of alien civilisations we should expect to find in our galaxy.
Citizen scientists–loosely defined as people who volunteer to aid researchers by tagging butterflies, monitoring the quality of water, sorting through galaxies, and more–by and large are committed, curious and enthusiastic about their work. But one citizen scientist has proven to be a little too enthusiastic, and it cost him his job.
Without approval, Brad Niesluchowski, a network systems administrator at Arizona’s Highley Unified School District, allegedly downloaded to every computer in the school district a program that uses Internet-connected computers to search for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence in radio communications. The program, known as SETI@home, is a research project administered by the University of California-Berkeley. The free program uses idle computer time to analyze radio telescope data.
Harnessing the power of the school district’s computers, Niesluchowski has been credited with logging 575 million hours of data search in nine years, resulting in a whopping $1.2 to $1.6 million in extra energy use and related computer expenses paid for by the school district, to its surprise.
Needless to say, he was asked to resign.
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80beats: NASA Invites You to “Be a Martian” & Explore the Red Planet’s Terrain
Image: flickr / soapylovedeb