Welcome back to the Codex Futurius project, this blog’s never-ending quest to explore the ineffable scientific ideas raised by science fiction. In an earlier entry in the Codex, Jill Tarter of SETI talked about whether we and intelligent-alien species X would recognize each other’s transmissions as such. Now Kevin Grazier–JPL physicist, Hollywood sci-fi adviser, and official friend of Science Not Fiction–looks at the next big question: how we could communicate with any aliens we encounter.
My heroes are in a first-contact situation, meeting an alien face-to-face for the first time. How could my heroes and the alien learn to communicate with each other?
Both knowingly and unwittingly, humans have been broadcasting their presence to the Universe since the 1920s—when coherent transmissions in the radio portion of the electromagnetic spectrum became widespread. Our radio and television broadcasts do not stop at the edge of Earth’s atmosphere; rather they propagate into space at the speed of light. While these signals attenuate with distance, they are detectable nevertheless: NASA still regularly communicates with the twin Voyager spacecraft despite the fact that they are over 100 times further from the Sun than Earth and that each of which transmit data to Earth with less power than a common household light bulb. This means that an alien civilization as far away as 58 light-years could potentially be trying to make sense of “Lucy, you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do!” (There are 105 G-type stars—ones like our own lovable Sol—within this I Love Lucy-sphere.)
Welcome to another juicy installment of the Codex Futurius project, this blog’s never-ending quest to explore the timeless scientific ideas raised by science fiction. This question about what kind of aliens we may eventually run into goes to Rocco Mancinelli of SETI. Thanks to Dr. Mancinelli for the enlightening contribution and to Jennifer Ouellette, the director the NAS’ Science and Entertainment Exchange (SEEx) program, for connecting us with him.
What is the most likely form an alien would take?
Life’s architecture is difficult to predict because it depends on many factors involving the interaction of the environment and life through evolution and natural selection. We can, however, make some generalizations based on the vast number of morphological forms that life takes on earth.
Here’s another entry in the Codex Futurius project, this blog’s never-ending quest to explore the timeless scientific ideas raised by science fiction. This question about communicating with aliens goes to Jill Tarter of SETI. Thanks again to Jennifer Ouellette, the director the NAS’ Science and Entertainment Exchange (SEEx) program, for connecting us with Tarter.
Would/will we recognize an alien transmission right away? Is there a chance we could miss such a transmission, or they ours?
We will recognize the sorts of electromagnetic signals for which we have built good matched filters: nanosecond optical laser pulses, narrowband radio continuous wave or pulsed signals. If signals are of some other type (e.g., a modulation scheme with higher dimensionality, or something other than electromagnetic waves) then we will not detect them, except by serendipity as we build new instruments to study our universe in different ways, or by using increasing computational power to look for more complex types of electromagnetic signals.
If signals are transmitted via a technology that we haven’t yet invented, we will miss them until we manage to invent the appropriate technology (remember that we are a very young technology (~100 years) in a very old galaxy (~10 billion years). I suspect we have a lot more to learn.
The Codex Futurius project, this blog’s never-ending quest to explore the timeless scientific questions raised by science fiction, is back—and this time we have reinforcements. The NAS’ Science and Entertainment Exchange (SEEx), a group dedicated to bringing real science into entertainment, has agreed to help us find experts who can tackle these ineffable sci-fi questions.
Our first expert-answered Codex question goes to J Storrs Hall, an independent scientist and author who’s also president of the Foresight Institute, a nanotech-oriented think tank. Thanks especially to Jennifer Ouellette, a science writer and the director of SEEx, for connecting us with Hall. Without further ado, here’s the question of the day, asked by an (imagined) big-time Hollywood director/producer who thinks getting the science right might help nail down that elusive Oscar:
“How could nanotechnology transform the world? Most importantly, how could I stop a plague of nanorobots from eating my spaceship/research facility/planet?”
Michael D. asked, on the Assignment Desk post:
In the most recent issue of Nature, there are two papers…that detail the characteristics of sodium and lithium under extreme pressure. Specifically, these two metals adopt semiconductor-like (even superconductor-like) characteristics if you subject them to giga-pressure (literally, 80-200 gigapascals). The sodium actually becomes optically transparent during this squeeze. Reading this reminded me of a Star Trek [movie] that involved a not-so-scientific explanation of “transparent aluminum” …Is the idea of using transparent metal for windows pure science fiction?
The paper you’re talking about, the one on high pressure sodium, sure did make a lot of noise in the science world, and for good reason. Drs. Yanming Ma and Artem Oganov at SUNY Stonybrook showed that lithium and sodium do goofy things under pressure — like turn transparent. Normally under really high pressure, elements turn into metals, c.f. hydrogen. The science makes intuitive sense because the atoms are getting smooshed together as the pressure increases. The electrons are freed to become conductors, and the element takes a metal-like structure. But in sodium, it turns out, the electrons line up into columns, one on top of the other. This creates gaps between the atoms, and instead of becoming a conductor, it becomes an insulator, and, conicidentally, becomes transparent.
All of which is cool, but it doesn’t really answer Michael D’s question, because the sodium is under 200 gigapasacals of pressure, the sort of pressure you find if you were journeying from Jupiter’s surface toward its core, not hanging out on the bridge of the Enterprise.
And yet! That formula Scotty gave for transparent aluminum in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home very nearly exists in the form of aluminum oxynitride (known as ALONtm). Harder than diamond, ALONtm is far more shock resistant than even bullet resistant glass. In Air Force tests it has resisted multiple rounds from a .50 caliber sniper rifle. That hardness also prevents wear and tear, since neither sand nor rocks nor shrapnel in the night will scratch the stuff.
In practical use, the ALONtm would be the outer layer for windscreens of cockpit covers. It would be backed by a thin layer of glass and a layer of transparent polymer to prevent shattering. All together the ALONtm windscreen would be thinner and lighter than a traditional bullet-resistant windscreen.What’s unclear from my research is whether it would be strong enough to hold back enough water to make the aquarium for all those humpbacks whales on a captured Klingon spaceship, but it’s a start.
The main downside? It’s wicked expensive. Traditional bullet resistant glass goes for $3 per inch-squared, but ALONtm costs between $10-$15, or it did back in 2005. I can’t seem to find any more current applications for it, but this is the military, it could be classified.
Anyway Michael D., I hope that answers your question.
In this installment of Science Not Fiction’s Codex Futurius project, we pose the question:
I want to have a teleporter in my story. How would one work?
The good news is that a working teleportation device already exists. The bad news is that it won’t work for you if you happen to be bigger than a rubidium atom—but scientists are toiling away to fix that. As physicist Michio Kaku noted last year in DISCOVER, we could be teleporting things as big as a virus within a few decades, which means we would be ready teleport a person around the 23rd century, just in time for the predicted construction date of Captain Kirk’s Enterprise.
Sometimes there’s just more Sci Fi than the SciNoFi team can keep up with. It sounds crazy, I know, but it’s true – we live in a golden age of speculative fiction in a host of media. And more than likely, some of it brushes up close enough to real science to make you, our dear readers, wonder: “Can they do that?” But then the laundry needs folding, or your boss actually wants you to get some work done, or there’s a critical game of Facebook Scrabble that needs playing, and you don’t get around to finding the answer.
We’re here to help. In the comments below, fire away with your science questions about any sci fi book, TV show, movie, radio play, comic, or whatever that you can think of, and we’ll set about answering as many as we can in upcoming posts as part of our Codex Futurius project.
Bear in mind, we yearn to answer science questions. We’re relatively useless for fielding pop entertainment rumors or speculating on why Starbuck keeps having weird visions. But the science of Sci Fi? Bring it on.
Greetings from the flashing, buzzing, control room of Science Not Fiction! Today we kick off our Codex Futurius project, which will strive to answer the kinds of questions that we see keep coming up in science fiction books, shows, movies–and even the occasional musical. We’re phrased the questions in the way that a beleaguered author or scriptwriter might pose them, and today’s question is:
I want Superheroes in my story, all with amazing powers. I also want a good explanation for their origin: could genetic mutation or manipulation create a superhuman?