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The Light of Alien Cities

If you’re looking for a new tactic for SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, Avi Loeb (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) and Princeton’s Edwin Turner may be able to supply it. The duo are studying how we might find other civilizations by spotting the lights of their cities. It’s an exotic concept and Loeb understates when he says looking for alien cities would be a long shot, but Centauri Dreams is all in favor of adding to our SETI toolkit, which thus far has been filled with the implements of radio, optical and, to a small extent, infrared methods.

Image: If an alien civilization builds brightly-lit cities like those shown in this artist’s conception, future generations of telescopes might allow us to detect them. This would offer a new method of searching for extraterrestrial intelligence elsewhere in our Galaxy. Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA).

Spotting city lights would be the ultimate case of detecting a civilization not through an intentional beacon but by the leakage of radiation from its activities. In my more naïve days when I just assumed such civilizations filled the galaxy, I imagined someone making an accidental detection of an errant radio signal with a desktop radio receiver, the ultimate ham radio DX catch. As I learned more and came to realize how attenuated such signals would be at these distances, it seemed more likely that we’d need to listen for directed signals, or at best the kind of accidental transmission that might indicate something like one of our own planetary radars.

Then, too, we have to take into account how much our own use of radio has changed, so that because of fiber optic cables and other technologies, we’re lowering our visibility in many wavelengths. An advanced civilization would presumably do the same, but Loeb and Turner figure lighting is something intelligent creatures are going to have no matter what they’re listening to or how they’re listening to it. This is from the recent paper on their work:

Our civilization uses two basic classes of illumination: thermal (incandesent light bulbs) and quantum (light emitting diodes [LEDs] and fluorescent lamps). Such artificial light sources have different spectral properties than sunlight. The spectra of artificial lights on distant objects would likely distinguish them from natural illumination sources, since such emission would be exceptionally rare in the natural thermodynamic conditions present on the surface of relatively cold objects. Therefore, artificial illumination may serve as a lamppost which signals the existence of extraterrestrial technologies and thus civilizations.

The first order of business is to show that searching for artificial lighting is possible within the Solar System, which Loeb and Turner approach by looking at objects in the Kuiper Belt. The technique is “…to measure the variation of the observed flux F as a function of its changing distance D along its orbit.” Working the math, they conclude that “…existing telescopes and surveys could detect the artificial light from a reasonably brightly illuminated region, roughly the size of a terrestrial city, located on a KBO.” Indeed, existing telescopes could pick out the artificially illuminated side of the Earth to a distance of roughly 1000 AU. If something equivalent to a major terrestrial city existed in the Kuiper Belt, we would be able to see its lights.

Objects of interest could be followed up with long exposures on 8 to 10 meter telescopes to examine their spectra for signs of artificial lighting, while radio observatories like the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR) or the Precision Array for Probing the Epoch of Reionization (PAPER) could be used to check for artificial radio signals from the same sources. Interestingly, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) survey will be obtaining much data on KBO brightnesses of the sort that could be plugged into Loeb and Turner’s methodology. Thus running a KBO survey as a tune-up of their methods would involve no additional observational resources.

The researchers aren’t expecting to find cities on KBOs, but they do point out that the next generation of telescopes, both space- and ground-based, is going to be able to reach much further into the universe for signs of artificial lighting. An exoplanet can be examined for changes to the observed flux during the course of its orbit. When it’s in a dark phase, we should see more artificial light on the night side than what is reflected from the day side. A signature like this would have to be bright — the night side would need to have an artificial brightness comparable to natural illumination on the day side — but an advanced civilization might have such cities. For now, the Kuiper Belt provides a handy set of targets we can use to test the technique.

The paper is Loeb and Turner, “Detection Technique for Artificially-Illuminated Objects in the Outer Solar System and Beyond,” submitted to Astrobiology (preprint).

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Gunnar Larsson November 7, 2011, 15:22

    I like the logic behind looking for light based on the assumed persistent need for artificial lighting. However, I am a bit confused with regards to the wavelength of the light. My understanding was that the black-body radiation from old fashion light-bulbs was quite similar to that of the sun and that we would expect something similar with ETs, as they are likely to have a preference for the light that they are used to, i.e. their sunlight. If so I would assume that artificial lighting would actual make it harder to find the planet as the artificial light would reduce the difference between the day and night side of the planet.
    Anyway, I very much agree with your comment about another tool to the toolkit, the more tools the better. I am sure that when our telescopes become advanced enough to do decent spectra on terrestrial planets many more will appear (as have happened with the exoplanet field in general) providing more information than we can imagine.

  • James Pailly November 7, 2011, 15:35

    This sounds like a real long shot, detecting such a tiny light source compared to the light of a nearby star, but I remember when detecting an exoplanet at all was a long shot. Now we’ve found hundreds of them. If we’re going to find an alien civilization, I think this is the best way to do it.

  • JoeP November 7, 2011, 15:36

    “…Loeb and Turner figure lighting is something intelligent creatures are going to have no matter what…”

    Rationale for the above statement? Most advanced critters on earth have eyes, but this may not be an inevitable evolutionary development for alien lifeforms.

    Nevertheless, I think it is a fair guess that some alien civilizations (if any exist) would value illumination to at least the degree we do.

    With such detection technology, we might also pick up massive light-emitting biological sources as well (not necessarily intelligent), which is almost as intriguing.

  • Alex Tolley November 7, 2011, 16:20

    Why are we assuming advanced aliens will create light in such a wasteful way? As with communications, the trend is to use less light, in a more directed way. If anything, advanced species might well be invisible in this regard, being careful with their light, rather than extravagantly pouring it into space.

    This idea seems like a throwback to earlier SETI ideas – that civilization will be broadcasting with beacons. Now we are down to highly directed pulses. Soon we will be looking…where?

    Given the vast spans of time that might exist between civilizations, might we not be better off looking for signs of a more primitive kind, something that our somewhat smart ancestors were doing for a few million years, and certainly 50,000+ years since the cultural explosion?

    OTOH, perhaps some of those “natural”, cosmic phenomena are really very advanced technology that we cannot recognize. ;)

  • ljk November 7, 2011, 16:45

    Here is the Harvard-Smithsonian CfA news item on this topic, complete with images:

    http://www.cfa.harvard.edu/news/2011/pr201130.html

    My response:

    So we are hoping that alien civilizations will be just as wasteful with their lighting and electricity as we are. As the operators and proponents of SETI have said in the past about their efforts, they are by the limitations of current search efforts looking for species which are not too dissimilar from humanity – which would include being less than efficient with waste management at various levels. This idea will also include whether or not such beings are willing and able to conduct their own SETI and METI programs.

    Current human technology may have limitations when it comes to detecting ETI by their urban lights beyond the Kuiper Belt (and would any visitors in the KBO region be advertising their presence in such a manner – and would any human astronomer recognize such a thing, or be willing to report it?), but a species with really big telescopes positioned in space should be able to see Earth’s light pollution and numerous other aspects of our world with relative ease.

    For really advanced species that would be big on not wasting energy to power their large and complex civilizations, would detecting a society that has been randomly spraying its electromagnetic signals into the galaxy and allowing the vast majority of their urban and not-so-urban centers to let their night lighting needlessly shine up and out into the sky be the signs of an immature species that should be avoided until it literally cleans up its collective act?

    It is quite clear by the words of the paper’s authors and the responses I have seen around the net on this concept that most humans just assume that urban centers will be brightly lit for all to see on their worlds and beyond. Not impossible, to be sure, but the alien societies that we may have a better chance of detecting will be more advanced than us and may by that factor also be less wasteful when it comes to energy and their lighting by default.

    It is refreshing to see the professional community think outside the box when it comes to searching for other intelligences in the galaxy (meaning more than just radio signals), but the paradigms still need to be widened. Otherwise we will continue to search for versions of us, which evolution dictates may be very rare indeed.

  • Greg November 7, 2011, 17:36

    I’m not sure that alien city lights are valid, this assumes they see like us. Even if they had eyes much like ours, what if they had many more rods and cones in the retina than we do, much like cat’s do? it is possible they would not need lights at night or considerably less than we do. I’m still holding out that they could very well see by ultrasonics or infrared or radar even.

  • coolstar November 7, 2011, 19:03

    I would think this becomes a much better idea if one has a large space-based interferometer than can actually RESOLVE the disk of the planet. Even 10 resolution elements might be enough.

  • Dan Ibekwe November 7, 2011, 19:10

    Hopefully their astronomers won’t have taken effective steps to ban light pollution.

  • Christopher Phoenix November 7, 2011, 23:39

    Then, too, we have to take into account how much our own use of radio has changed, so that because of fiber optic cables and other technologies, we’re lowering our visibility in many wavelengths. An advanced civilization would presumably do the same, but Loeb and Turner figure lighting is something intelligent creatures are going to have no matter what they’re listening to or how they’re listening to it. This is from the recent paper on their work:

    This assumes that alien civilizations are as wasteful with their lighting as we are- and that they even need artificial lighting!! As ljk said, an advanced civilization would probably be a lot more efficient with their lighting, instead of letting their waste light spill into space.

    Sometimes SETI seems to live up to the nickname “silly effort to investigate”- SETI researchers assume aliens that behave just like we do, and many of their ideas seem rather silly in retrospect.

    In my more naïve days when I just assumed such civilizations filled the galaxy, I imagined someone making an accidental detection of an errant radio signal with a desktop radio receiver, the ultimate ham radio DX catch. As I learned more and came to realize how attenuated such signals would be at these distances, it seemed more likely that we’d need to listen for directed signals, or at best the kind of accidental transmission that might indicate something like one of our own planetary radars.

    Case and point. Most of the ideas of SETI will probably seem extremely naive in the not-to-distant future. First we assume intelligent, radio-using civilizations fill the galaxy, enthusiastically beaming signals into space and scanning for responses, ready to download the “encyclopedia galactica” to the first responders they comes across- that or these civilizations are leaking plenty of errant radio signals in our general direction. Then we suggest they might beam signals at us in hope of contacting ETI after the first ideas don’t hold up to scrutiny, and now we suggest that they spill as much light pollution into space as our urban centers do.

    How do we know aliens have eyes like we do? They need a sensory organ of some sort, but eyes are not the only option. Some creatures use echolocation and sonar-like methods. Perhaps there is such a thing as biological radar. Even if aliens have eyes- which could be quite likely, given how may species have independently developed them on Earth- they might not see in the same wavelengths as we do. Maybe they have night vision, like cats, obviating the need for artificial lighting.

    An advanced alien race probably won’t be nearly as wasteful as we are with our artificial lighting. We just let light shine up uselessly into space, creating terrible light pollution that prevents most urban dwellers from seeing the Milky Way arch overhead. There are already proposals for improved urban lighting to avoid waste and light pollution. An advanced alien society would have begun using far more efficient and directed lighting a long time ago, perhaps at the petitions of alien amateur astronomers!!

    So, we won’t find an alien race that has sensory organs that don’t require large amounts of light- be it sensitive night vision or some sort of echolocation. Neither will we find a civilization that is not as wasteful with their lighting as us. I’m glad scientists are coming up with new ways to look for ETI, but I’m not holding my breath until SETI finds something using this technique!! The idea of alien city lights is a very human-centric concept.

  • tacitus November 8, 2011, 2:42

    I don’t think this idea of looking for artificial light is all that new. At least, I remember discussing the possibility here on CD, and elsewhere, many moons ago. Either way, I’m happy to see the idea taken seriously. Even if it’s a long shot (and what isn’t when it comes to SETI?) the calculations of what is possible, might one day be possible, are valuable contributions to the debate.

    As for the likelihood of there being strong enough “light pollution” to detect, well, who knows? Sure, we may expect an advanced civilization to be less profligate with the wasteful transmission of light skyward, but then, there might be good reasons why they might have to, or want to, or don’t care. We currently have good reason to want to be more frugal with our energy consumption, but that might not always be the case.

    What if the civilization has been unable to expand beyond their own Solar System, but has solved their energy crisis, allowing their limited real estate to be very densely populated, thus requiring copious amounts of night-time illumination, which even if highly efficient, would still be enough to be a beacon to the stars.

    Their astronomers need not fret — not with their fleets of deep space remote controlled telescopes that are far beyond the light pollution from their densely populated planet.

    There has been talk on this board before about hunting for megastructures created by advanced civilizations. If artificial light is a component of their design — e.g. moon-sized habitats that travel through the outer solar system — then perhaps that is a source that can be detected.

    But there is another reason to grab the best images of the greatest number of exoplanets possible–to analyze their spectra for (a) signs of life and (b) signs of civilization. I presume that the search for artificial lights can piggyback on to those efforts, in which case little is lost in covering all the bases.

    The bottom line is that we just don’t know what alien civilizations would get up to, and what activities of theirs we might be able to detect. Obviously, with limited funding available, we have to make some educated guesses when prioritizing SETI programs, but other than that, the more the merrier I say!

  • Eniac November 8, 2011, 4:49

    @ljk: You could argue that lighting up the dark is not waste, but productive use of energy. Of which an advanced civilization is bound to have more than us. If you accept that, then short of covering everything with a black tarp I see no really good way to light up the landscape AND keep the light from showing in space.

    Speaking for me, if I was an advanced alien, I would want clear skies AND bright lights, at least in the city.

  • Brett Bellmore November 8, 2011, 8:44

    Several have said it but I’ll pile on: The trend seems towards increasing efficiency lowering our observable signature. Lighting is probably no exception, and it’s entirely possible that, 50 or 100 years from now, you couldn’t detect human civilization this way.

    So we’re stuck looking for a short-lived wasteful phase of civilizations, where they have the technology to generate huge amounts of power, but not to deploy it efficiently. That’s a pretty narrow window of detection.

  • ljk November 8, 2011, 10:15

    Christopher Phoenix said on November 7, 2011 at 23:39:

    “Sometimes SETI seems to live up to the nickname “silly effort to investigate”- SETI researchers assume aliens that behave just like we do, and many of their ideas seem rather silly in retrospect.”

    Do not be too hard on SETI: When it began over fifty years ago, such thinking was cutting edge, as were the tools for conducting it (radio astronomy did not take off in the professional community until the 1950s). It was enough of a career risk just to publicly admit there might be alien societies talking to each other across the galaxy, and that we might be able to join in.

    However, this is the 21st Century and it is time for mainstream SETI to check into other realms of the electromagnetic sprectrum beyond radio, and to search regions other than G class sun systems. Yes, I know there is Optical SETI (that only took four decades to get past the prejudices) and there have been a few efforts to search for Dyson Shells, but most SETI efforts outside of radio have been token ones.

    We will have our best chance at finding ETI by looking for the really advanced ones, who if they have not abandoned their bodies and gone on into a higher dimension, will be doing all kinds of noticable things to entire star systems. It is humanity that needs to evolve.

  • ljk November 8, 2011, 11:04

    On the likelihood of non-terrestrial artifacts in the Solar System

    Authors: Jacob Haqq-Misra, Ravi Kumar Kopparapu

    (Submitted on 4 Nov 2011)

    Abstract: Extraterrestrial technology may exist in the Solar System without our knowledge. This is because the vastness of space, combined with our limited searches to date, implies that any remote unpiloted exploratory probes of extraterrestrial origin would likely remain unnoticed.

    Here we develop a probabilistic approach to quantify our certainty (or uncertainty) of the existence of such technology in the Solar System. We discuss some possible strategies for improving this uncertainty that include analysis of moon- and Mars-orbiting satellite data as well as continued exploration of the Solar System.

    Comments: Accepted for publication in Acta Astronautica

    Subjects: Popular Physics (physics.pop-ph); Earth and Planetary Astrophysics (astro-ph.EP); Instrumentation and Methods for Astrophysics (astro-ph.IM)

    DOI: 10.1016/j.actaastro.2011.10.010

    Cite as: arXiv:1111.1212v1 [physics.pop-ph]

    Submission history

    From: Jacob Haqq-Misra [view email]

    [v1] Fri, 4 Nov 2011 18:51:58 GMT (143kb)

    http://arxiv.org/abs/1111.1212

  • JadeStar November 8, 2011, 11:04

    Greg,

    I believe I read that the eye evolved on Earth something like 6 different times so there are 6 different types of eyes. From ours to the compound eye of insects, etc.

    On the other hand things like echo location developed in environments where seeing in visible light is difficult or impossible.

  • Alex Tolley November 8, 2011, 11:07

    IF we did find the presence of such city light, AND the civilization was at least as advanced as we are, then we must have at least one counter example for the Fermi paradox based on the idea that civilizations actively mask themselves from detection from predatory civilizations. However, if fear of detection was common, then I would expect advanced civilizations to be very careful about their light emissions, as well as other electromagnetic radiations. In that case we might be looking for the proverbial black cat in a dark room that may not be there.

    Certainly it doesn’t hurt to look, even if the search in a very long shot, as long as resources are not diverted from more important uses.

    I’m more interested in knowing whether life, or any sort, is detectable elsewhere. What would their unambiguous bio-signatures be? Would we have to to send a probe to resolve the issue, or can we do everything from the solar system?

  • tacitus November 8, 2011, 12:16

    IF we did find the presence of such city light, AND the civilization was at least as advanced as we are, then we must have at least one counter example for the Fermi paradox based on the idea that civilizations actively mask themselves from detection from predatory civilizations. However, if fear of detection was common, then I would expect advanced civilizations to be very careful about their light emissions, as well as other electromagnetic radiations.

    If there is one thing I am reasonably sure of, even though we have no data to back it up, it’s that hiding from “predatory civilizations” is likely to be unnecessary, and is almost certainly pointless.

    Even if you grant that there are reasons for an interstellar civilization to predate on a pre-interstellar civilization (which I doubt), how are you going to hide the obvious fact that your planet is continually broadcasting a signal that clearly indicates there could is life on board? There is simply no way to mask the spectrum of the light reflected from your planet’s atmosphere.

    And given how much cheaper building a massive space telescope capable of sampling the spectra of reflected planetary light would be compared to undertaking a single interstellar mission, there is every reason to believe that any advanced civilization knows exactly which planets are likely to be hosting life within dozens of light years of home a very long time before they have the ability to visit any of them. I suspect that if you study are able to study a collection of life-bearing planets for a period of centuries, you will eventually be able to tell with a reasonable degree of certainty which ones are home to a technological civilization.

    Also, if it’s possible to build telescopes that can capture images of an exoplanet’s surface, even if it’s only a few pixels wide, that makes the task of remaining hidden that much more improbable.

    The only chance a technological civilization has of remaining undetected from long range is if there are millions of planets that harbor abundant life, like their own. In that case, they can probably take some measures to reduce the chances of standing out in the crowd. But then, if life-bearing planets are commonplace, that reduces the reasons why an interstellar civilization would want to expend colossal resources predating your home planet in the first place.

  • Abelard Lindsey November 8, 2011, 13:19

    This is not much different than looking for any other artifact, such as Dyson clouds and the like. As a society develops, it is reasonable to assume it would move out into space. Large structures such as ring worlds and Dyson spheres are likely impossible. However, large numbers of O’neill style space habitats ought to be possible, which would make up a Dyson cloud over time.

    Just look for the Dyson clouds. They ought to be easier to spot than the street lights from alien cities.

  • Abelard Lindsey November 8, 2011, 13:22

    The thought does occasionally occur to me that we should look for evidence of alien visitation in our own solar system. If aliens visited, say a billion years ago, there should be some recognizable pieces of artifacts either on our moon or out in the asteroid belt. These might be worth looking for. If no artifacts, there was likely no visitation either.

  • Greg November 8, 2011, 15:54

    @Aberlard, If it’s billions of years old, it would have no power and no real way to find it. People forget, space is huge, your looking at a volume millions of times larger than Earth. I seriously doubt it would be worth looking for.

  • tacitus November 8, 2011, 17:36

    The thought does occasionally occur to me that we should look for evidence of alien visitation in our own solar system.

    What, you mean like the Face on Mars..?

    :-)

    I don’t see how such a search would differ from the usual surveys, searches, and investigations we already conduct into discovering new Solar System objects and study existing ones in every increasing detail. Clearly, if there is an ancient artifact out there somewhere, it is either very small or a very long way away, and with every year that passes without discovery, it’s getting smaller and/or further away.

  • Bob November 8, 2011, 19:20

    “The thought does occasionally occur to me that we should look for evidence of alien visitation in our own solar system.”

    These links refer to a recent article by Paul Davies regarding how to search for possible past visitations in the 100 million year time frame.
    http://spacearchaeology.org/ (from this site)
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0094576511002323#sec3

  • Christopher Phoenix November 8, 2011, 20:36

    Do not be too hard on SETI: When it began over fifty years ago, such thinking was cutting edge, as were the tools for conducting it (radio astronomy did not take off in the professional community until the 1950s). It was enough of a career risk just to publicly admit there might be alien societies talking to each other across the galaxy, and that we might be able to join in.

    I consider it highly unlikely that SETI will ever pick up a signal. SETI researchers make many assumptions about what alien civilizations might be up to, and I think many of these assumptions are not correct. Frankly, I find very little hard science behind the SETI effort.

    SETI researchers assume that alien civilizations use communications technology similar to ours to try to gain our attention, and will tell us the secrets of the universe once we contact them. They assume that interstellar travel is impossible, even though most SETI researchers are radio astronomers that have no experience with designing nuclear rocket engines or spacecraft. They assume that no one is traveling across interstellar distances, even if it is possible, because it takes less energy to send radio signals than launch starships. SETI researchers assume alien civilizations don’t explore or colonize neighboring planetary systems. That is a lot of questionable assumptions.

    How can we expect to know what kinds of signals aliens send, and what frequencies they use? We can’t scour the heavens and then say, “Aliens don’t exist, or they’d be talking to us with radios” just because we did not find a signal. Aliens could be thousands of years ahead of us, technologically speaking. An AM radio doesn’t pick up FM signals- there could be an entire interstellar communications net all around us that we might never see simply because we don’t know recognize the alien signals for what they are or are looking at the wrong parts of the spectrum.

    I don’t think that SETI will ever find a usable signal. Aliens probably won’t communicate using plain old radio signals. Perhaps they use laser technology. In the internet, a message is chopped up and sent through many different routes to be reformed at the other end. How do we know that aliens don’t do something similar? They might use the whole spectrum, chopping a message up into bits and sending it on many different signals. If we picked up a piece of this message, we would read gibberish- we wouldn’t be able to piece it together without the other pieces of the whole message.

    A German general just before the start of WWII noted that the British were building a whole array of tall (over 200ft.) towers with cross pieces he figured had to be part of a radar net. The Graf Zeppelin moved slowly parallel to the array and found no signals. The frequencies the towers were using was ten times higher than the ones the Germans were using and they never realized how well their planes were being tracked.

    If one group of humans is unable to guess what frequencies another group of humans is using, how can we hope to second-guess aliens? The challenge of hacking into an alien communications net is probably like a group of people who just discovered radio communications trying to hack into the internet. They are not aware of how their more technologically advanced neighbors actually communicate, what the signals look like, and that they send them down fiber optic cables, so they just keep scouring a narrow part of the radio frequency band!!

    Of course, SETI always assumes that aliens want to attract the attention of species that still generates energy by burning dead plants, rather than suggesting that ETI wants to talk to other Type-II civilizations.

    I really don’t agree with their other big assumption- that interstellar travel is impossible forever for both us and ETI. I predict that advanced propulsion systems will eventually be able to reach speeds of 10% light speed sometime in the next few centuries- fast enough for a voyage to the nearest star in 40 years. Eventually, improved propulsion systems might reach speeds of 50%- 80% light-speed. By harnessing the power of the sun, we could generate the energy required for interstellar travel. Clever designs can lower the energy cost even further by harnessing natural phenomena.

    Eventually, our society will develop into a Type-II civilization that might think of star travel as being no more difficult than a jetliner trip today. After all, in medieval times, harnessing the power to send humans jetting through the air to the other side of the world would have seemed like pure fantasy!!

    My biggest question for SETI researchers is, “Why would an advanced alien society want to talk to a species that still generates power by burning dead plants, let along give us the secrets of the universe?”

    SETI would never find an intelligent species that did not use radio communications, like an intelligent species similar to Earth cetaceans. We don’t know how common life is out in the cosmos yet, nor how much of that life might develop intelligence, but we aren’t going to find it assuming all alien civilizations fit into a precise category defined by SETI researchers.

    There could be a whole galactic neighborhood around us filled with societies that communicate with advanced interstellar communication systems, intelligent beings who don’t happen to broadcast random signals on the same frequencies SETI researchers look at, or just plain aren’t interested in us yet- not to mention primitive forms of life- and we would never know through the SETI program.

    The biggest problem is that the universe is really, really, really big. Intelligent, technologically advanced civilizations are probably pretty rare. In a universe this big, there might be still be quite a few of them, but they could be so far away we might not find them for many thousands of years barring any faster-than-light hyperdrives that allow us to leap instantly across the universe. There are so many stars to look at, so many possible alien home planets, and actual alien civilizations are probably very rare. We are a lot more likely to be caught up in exploring our neighboring planetary systems than scouring the entire galaxy for advanced civilizations. So many stars, so little time…

  • Schneider November 9, 2011, 2:31

    As it sometimes happens, people rediscover hot water.
    Exo-city lights have been investigated in
    “The far future of exoplanet direct characterization”
    Astrobiology, 10, 121 (2010)
    preprint available at http://fr.arxiv.org/abs/0910.0726

  • ljk November 9, 2011, 9:27

    Good catch, Dr. Schneider, thank you.

    All very good points about SETI, Christopher Phoenix. I also did not know that World War Two story (and that the Germans were still using zeppelins by then).

    Since interstellar vessels to even the nearest stars are a long way off, even in the aftermath of an exciting Symposium, listening and looking for signals is the best we can do at present. As we have seen, SETI does not get much in terms of funding to begin with, and not so long ago it wasn’t even being supported by the “geniuses” in the U.S. Government.

    As you have seen me write here, I wish SETI would start getting outside the radio box more often, though they should not abandon it because radio is the easiest and most inexpensive way to get messages across interstellar distances.

    The plain fact is that we are going to have to hope for a while that there are intelligences out there who do act similar to us and have similar technology in order to find someone else in the Milky Way galaxy. Otherwise our SETI programs are going to need some pretty darn big signs from some really advanced beings to get humanity’s attention.

    We can and have and should keep searching for objects like Dyson Shells and looking for unusual elements in the spectrum of stars that naturally do not belong there due to someone using their sun as a dumping place for their civilization waste. We should also be searching for evidence of alien objects and probes in our Sol system, despite the “threat” of being labeled part of the UFO sect. Gravity waves, gamma rays signatures, and neutrinos should also be examined for anything unusual, if the facilities which monitors these phenomenon are willing to try getting outside their comfort zones once in a while.

    SETI can and should start expanding its search parameters, because we will not be warping off to Omega Centauri any time soon. We have to hope someone is as noisy as we or at least not afraid to conduct their own METI.

  • Ronald November 9, 2011, 10:20

    This has developed into a quite interesting discussion!

    I agree with tacitus that it’s probably no use to try to hide from an advanced civilization, since they will already know we are here, or at least a ‘living planet’, by means of relatively simple and near-term telescopic spectroanalysis. As much as trying to hide New York from pirates.

    The fact that we have never been attacked by any hostile alien civilization can only mean a few things:

    1) There are no such civilizations in our MW galaxy (quite possible).
    2) There are such civilizations, but they are not able to cross the gap bewteen the stars (quite possible).
    3) There are such hostile civilizations and they are able to reach us, but they they don’t find our planet very appealling, there are sufficient better/easier targets within reach (unlikely?).
    4) …?

    With regard to the ancient alien artefacts: the fact that we have never found any, does, I think, not bode well with regard to interstellar ETI. If any alien civilization had ever either:
    1) been massively present in our solar system;
    and/or:
    2) wanted to deliberately plant some to be found once there is an intelligence ready for it, say at different testing stages (as in AC Clarke’s 2001, 2010),

    we should have found some by now, either here on earth, on the moon, on Mars, …

    The fact that we haven’t found any clear signs seems to indicate, not just that we are not being visited during this very small window of opportunity, called our ‘modern civilization’, but that we have not been visited, or at least not settled, during very long aeons.

  • ljk November 9, 2011, 12:45

    Ronald said:

    “With regard to the ancient alien artefacts: the fact that we have never found any, does, I think, not bode well with regard to interstellar ETI. If any alien civilization had ever either:

    1) been massively present in our solar system;
    and/or:
    2) wanted to deliberately plant some to be found once there is an intelligence ready for it, say at different testing stages (as in AC Clarke’s 2001, 2010),

    we should have found some by now, either here on earth, on the moon, on Mars, …”

    Ronald, are you serious? The only thing we can be certain of regarding alien artifacts in our Sol system is that there are not any gigantic objects of that nature on those worlds. We have hardly explored any place beyond Earth in enough detail to know for certain if such things exist. Would you consider the literal handful of landers and rovers we have successfully placed on Mars to be thorough enough? Not even our Moon has been searched sufficiently enough, though the public seems to have the impression that a few Apollo missions four decades ago was somehow good enough.

    And heck, what am I talking about – who has sent ANY mission to another world to look for alien artifacts? NASA has been gun shy about searching for native microbes on Mars, to say nothing of an alien monolith or propulsion stage or picnic trash.

    The same goes for SETI: We have done largely broad, temporary sweeps and a few narrow-range ones, also transient for the most part. Many have even been just token efforts, like Carl Sagan’s listening to the Andromeda galaxy with Arecibo for a few hours in 1975 and the very recent Green Bank scan of some of the systems explored by Kepler.

    When people start getting serious about SETI and its variations and have conducted thorough searches with no positive results, then we can talk about saying nobody came to visit or wants to say Hi.

  • Bob November 9, 2011, 18:48

    I agree with ljk that we really have not looked for artifacts in the solar system.
    The only people who do look are judged cranks (Hoagland, Face on Mars…).

    Given enough time almost any unnatural structure would look like natural. In fact the “Face” on Mars looks about what one would expect if it were not natural yet was left to decay for multiple millions of years. Now, I am not a proponent of the “Face” but am just using it as an example.

    Surveys could be done with sophisticated algorithms to look for extremely unlikely mathematical patterns in surface features which could be judged artificial to a high degree of certainty.

  • Ronald November 10, 2011, 6:33

    ljk: “We have hardly explored any place beyond Earth in enough detail to know for certain if such things exist.”

    You are right about that and in this respect I stand corrected. Maybe I should have specified better, what I meant:
    There are apparently no massive signs (either in size or abundance) of (ancient) alien presence on earth, like ‘Egyptian’ etc.
    And there are apparently no deliberate (long-lived) beacons left in our inner solar system with the purpose to be detected by a budding technological and/or space-faring civilization, as in Clarke’s 2001/2010.

    What is really important here is that the chance of two (or more) technological civilizations overlapping in the MW galaxy may be very small, this ‘window of opportunity’ is expanded significantly if traces of ancient alien civilizations can be included.
    If an alien civilization ever settled on earth during the past x million years, one may expect traces of this to remain, either archeologically or in the fossil record.
    It is also conceivable that such a civilization, even if only visiting a planet with complex life, would leave beacons, either to notify them in case an intelligence develops there, and/or to notify that intelligence of their existence.

    Apparently these two things (massive settlement, intentional beacons) haven’t happened, or we must be really stupid in finding/recognizing them.

  • ljk November 10, 2011, 9:58

    Bob said:

    “I agree with ljk that we really have not looked for artifacts in the solar system. The only people who do look are judged cranks (Hoagland, Face on Mars…).”

    Hoagland *is* a crank, and a major one at that. If you need evidence for this, go check out his Enterprise Mission Web site (I refuse, in the name of rationality and taste, to put a hot link to it here in this blog). If he were ever a serious researcher, such credentials disappeared a long time ago.

    Sadly, the vast majority of those self-proclaimed “experts” who look for alien artifacts on other worlds are non-professional variations of Hoagland, taking any fuzzy image to be undeniable proof of extraterrestrial visitation, with the standard claim that the Government is covering all this up. All they do is sully the real scientific search for alien life and intelligence and set it back even further.

    The “Face” on Mars was proven to be a natural mesa when orbiting probes with better cameras than the Viking orbiters imaged it starting in 1998. What is sad is how much time and effort was wasted on this object, even by the cranks and fringe elements.

  • ljk November 10, 2011, 11:11

    Ronald said:

    “Apparently these two things (massive settlement, intentional beacons) haven’t happened, or we must be really stupid in finding/recognizing them.”

    My response:

    “Thanks” to the fringe elements, the general public, and the film industry, who have all managed to marginalize and keep SETI/METI and exobiology as subjects of ridicule for decades, the scientific community is going to continue to “miss” finding evidence for alien life, both intelligent and otherwise, to remain respectable and funded by their colleagues and bosses.

    Note how most professional SETI researchers were and are scientists who are already well along and secure in their careers (Carl Sagan being a notable exception here). They have far less to risk dabbling in this field, whereas most younger scientists knew and know that looking for aliens was almost as career-ending as declaring a search for Bigfoot or Atlantis.

    Though there have been a number of strides in exobiology and its related fields since the days of Project Ozma (searching for exoplanets has been a booming business since 1992/1995 and it’s now okay to wonder about life on Europa, Enceladus, and Titan, for example – just don’t expect a life-seeking space mission to those worlds any time soon), you will still be hard-pressed to find a professional scientist publicly exclaiming or even just wondering aloud if an unusual-looking or behaving celestial object might be of artificial origin.

    While it is wise for science to be conservative in these areas, I also think its members go too far in their efforts not to be lumped in with the UFO groupies. One example is that we may be missing real evidence for life on Mars because the data returned by the Vikings in the late 1970s was not fully understood at the time. Now we have actual scientists from that project and now dismissing (probably out of professional embarrassment) what the Viking landers may have found, saying it was “so long ago.”

    This and others reasons are why we are so far behind in searching for alien life in so many ways. This is why NASA is so hard-pressed to claim that the MERs and Curiousity are ONLY looking for SIGNS of organics on Mars, not actual life forms or fossils – though hopefully they will be shouting it from the rooftops should proof of an actual Martian microbe be discovered.

    Until humanity collectively starts accepting that it is part of the wider Universe and begins to really move out into space, not play housekeeping in Earth orbit, we won’t be sending probes to other worlds to search for life and SETI will remain under funded and sporadic as it has since 1960.

    At this point, it will probably take an advanced society rearranging a group of stars to spell out HI HUMANS across Earth’s sky to get our attention, and even then the science community will wonder if it might be just a really unusual natural phenomenon. This will naturally upset the general public, who will further reject the declarations of science and the field itself, and progress in this realm will continue to drag along.

  • Bob November 10, 2011, 13:58

    ljk, you prove my point. A serious professional could not broach the subject without risking scorn and being grouped with the cranks. That limits research.

    “The “Face” on Mars was proven to be a natural mesa when orbiting probes with better cameras than the Viking orbiters imaged it starting in 1998. ”

    You also missed my point on the “face” which I clearly was NOT promoting as an unnatural phenomenon. I merely suggested that something which looks natural now could theoretically have been unnatural. Like I said, that is not my position but if one cannot even entertain such ideas then one will just be cutting off areas of research.

    “All they do is sully the real scientific search for alien life and intelligence and set it back even further.”

    No one owns the search for alien life and I believe the non professional enthusiast has a role to play even if he is not as disciplined as the professional. Likewise, the professionals are too staid and conservative in their ideas and approach sometimes.

  • Eniac November 10, 2011, 14:34

    If an alien civilization ever settled on earth during the past x million years, one may expect traces of this to remain, either archeologically or in the fossil record.

    Even more, one would expect the alien civilization to still be here. What reason would they have had to pick up and leave, with or without a trace? Every single one of them? Sure, you could think of reasons, but the expectation should be that once a system is settled, it will remain so. Life has never left the Earth, and human settlements generally persist indefinitely. Most ruins of ancient settlements are found underneath much larger modern cities, with a more or less continuous history of occupation.

  • ljk November 10, 2011, 15:30

    Bob said on November 10, 2011 at 13:58:

    Bob: “ljk, you prove my point. A serious professional could not broach the subject without risking scorn and being grouped with the cranks. That limits research.”

    LJK replies: I certainly was not trying to disprove it. :^)

    LJK said: “The “Face” on Mars was proven to be a natural mesa when orbiting probes with better cameras than the Viking orbiters imaged it starting in 1998.”

    Bob: “You also missed my point on the “face” which I clearly was NOT promoting as an unnatural phenomenon. I merely suggested that something which looks natural now could theoretically have been unnatural. Like I said, that is not my position but if one cannot even entertain such ideas then one will just be cutting off areas of research.”

    LJK replies: Not stopping you or anyone else from entertaining the idea that anywhere and anything on Mars could be unnatural. I just think the odds of the “Face” being anything more than a natural geological feature are very slim. If we humans had a different shaped head and face (or something else entirely) from what we have evolved into now, no doubt it would have been another feature on Mars that would catch our attention and people would be wondering if it too were some kind of alien artifact, while overshadowing all the other amazing things on and about Mars.

    But the *real* point here is, with our current limited ability to explore the Red Planet, do you want to spend the money, time, and resources on building a probe to examine a mesa that is suspected of being artificial based on the only fact that over three decades ago an orbiting vessel took an image of it that was just fuzzy enough to make the object resemble a humanoid face and get a bunch of non-experts worked up about it? And then was shown to be anything but a face by more sophisticated probes starting two decades later.

    Someday, I hope, or in an ideal reality, we will have all sorts of sophisticated colonies on Mars and we can send expeditions to study the “Face” in detail to everyone’s satisfaction. Or you can prompt some really rich guy to fund an expedition to the Face using his or her own money. But again, I am willing to bet that the Face is natural and that there are definitely more interesting places to go on Mars, including spots that might have actual native life forms or their fossils.

    LJK said: “All they do is sully the real scientific search for alien life and intelligence and set it back even further.”

    Bob said: “No one owns the search for alien life and I believe the non professional enthusiast has a role to play even if he is not as disciplined as the professional. Likewise, the professionals are too staid and conservative in their ideas and approach sometimes.”

    This is not a question of ownership. Nor are facts and the scientific method determined by the whims and wills of “the people”. The simple fact is that while some sciences actually benefit from the participation of educated and experienced amateurs, such as amateur astronomy and fossil collecting, other science fields are just too large and require too much interdisciplinary knowledge and technology to be handled properly by the non-specialist.

    Exobiology is one of these fields for what I hope are obvious reasons. That being said, SETI is becoming more accessible to the sophisticated non-professional, but even in terms of radio that is limited due to the fact that really large radio antennae are needed to pick up such signals. Optical SETI, on the other hand, can be successfully conducted by the serious amateur with a few bucks and proper technical know-how, but how many are actually out there doing this kind of search?

    Then there is the matter of discipline and integrity. I know professionals can be just as error prone and corrupt as the next human being, but they do have the peer review system to reduce those kinds of problems. What and who is there to make sure some amateur scientist is telling the truth in case they claim an ETI detection? I am not even talking about someone deliberately pulling a hoax: I am talking about the well-meaning fellow who is so eager to find something alien that they interpret a signal or a blip as an alien message or ship and will swear up and down they have made the discovery of the century. How does one prove or disprove this if the person in question is the only one who says they found it? This just winds right back to where we are now and why so few in the professional community take UFO reports seriously.

    All this being said, I do want to see that same professional community start taking a stronger interest and effort in delving into areas of interest that the public tend to focus on, if for no other reason than to make them feel less ignored, to inspire some would-be future scientists, and to get the public to support funding their own scientific research.

    In this current economic situation, it is foolish for the professionals not to cater to the public, as both realms can benefit from this. Otherwise we are going to have folks, rich and poor, going off on their own in all areas of science doing their own thing and coming to their own conclusions, which could only harm knowledge and in the case of such areas as medicine actually harm lives.

    The long story of rich and persuasive amateur Percival Lowell and the canals of Mars are a prime and very relevant example of what can happen when non-professionals start playing scientist and claiming to speak for “the people.”

  • tacitus November 10, 2011, 15:36

    No one owns the search for alien life and I believe the non professional enthusiast has a role to play even if he is not as disciplined as the professional. Likewise, the professionals are too staid and conservative in their ideas and approach sometimes.

    Agreed that no one has a monopoly on SETI, but the tripe Hoagland and his cohorts come up with (Face on Mars, Cydonia, Enceladus/Phobos are spaceships, Ancient Astronaunts, etc.) are utter tripe and do nothing but encourage people to accuse NASA and their personnel of being liars and frauds when they refuse to pay any attention to their craziness.

    If someone wants their SETI ideas and research taken seriously, they do not make unserious claims. An amateur SETI investigator , for example, might undertake a systematic computer-assisted search of a catalog of close up images of the Moon to look for anomalous or artificial objects, perhaps using the detection of the Moon landing sites their benchmark for their algorithms. A successful result would be something like the detection of one or more old Moon landings and possibly some other “hits” that the computer software finds that can then be investigated under the assumption that most will likely be eliminated as image artifacts or just plain old rocks. Perhaps, after all that work, the researcher might end up with a couple of intriguing spots that cannot easily be dismissed as rocks or image artifacts, but are still no cause to jump to any extraordinary conclusions. Such research would undoubtedly be dismissed by many as futile, but it would still be a genuine and laudable effort to run a real SETI research project.

    Contrast that with the behavior of 99% of the anomalies community, who leap to the ultimate conclusion the moment they see a straight line or right-angle on a fuzzy JPEG-compression-artifact laden image. Apparently there are the ruins of whole cities on the Moon, with their shattered glass domes stabbing hundreds of feet into the sky. Their analysis is full of pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo about “hyperdimensional physics” and other nonsense, and their idea of being cautious with making a claim is to stick a question mark on the end of it.

    The difference really is as stark as that. The former keeps a level-headed open mind about the existence of alien life and the possibility that they have visited us in the past. The latter knows alien life exists, they know we are being visited, and they know that the government knows.

    It’s all about instant gratification, and as you well know, real SETI research is about as far away from instant gratification as you can get.

  • ljk November 10, 2011, 15:55

    Eniac said on November 10, 2011 at 14:34:

    If an alien civilization ever settled on earth during the past x million years, one may expect traces of this to remain, either archeologically or in the fossil record.

    “Even more, one would expect the alien civilization to still be here. What reason would they have had to pick up and leave, with or without a trace? Every single one of them? Sure, you could think of reasons, but the expectation should be that once a system is settled, it will remain so. Life has never left the Earth, and human settlements generally persist indefinitely. Most ruins of ancient settlements are found underneath much larger modern cities, with a more or less continuous history of occupation.”

    LJK replies: Eniac, would an ETI settlement be able survive millions or even many thousands of years on Earth in any form recognizable? Maybe if they had some kind of special supermetals for their building material, but most artifacts made by humans tend to vanish after just a few thousand years, excluding the old stone tools and carvings. If left alone, in a matter of centuries the vast majority of our cities would crumble to the ground and then be covered in plant growth, followed by glaciers and a number of other possible natural disasters after that. Even the Pyramids of Egypt will be a pile of dust in about 125,000 years.

    And then we come to the other matter that has been discussed as of late here: Would a current professional archaeologist, paleontologist, or historian ever claim to have found an alien artifact or the remains of a civilization on Earth unless the evidence was nothing less than solid enough to ensure one’s career remained intact? Eric Von Daniken and his ilk made sure to bury any possibility of real research on this subject for ages to come with their amateur shenanigans.

  • JoeP November 10, 2011, 16:38

    I think alien artifacts are extremely unlikely, although Clarke made some good arguments. Clarke had it right in that such a thing would be unmistakable (not some erosion prone thing like a rock formation or some-such nonsense like the “face” on Mars).

    A nice spot for an alien artifact planted for eventual discovery by terrestrial intelligence would be the far side of the moon, since it would have little chance of ever being seen by an earthbound observer, but nice and close.

  • tacitus November 10, 2011, 17:01

    If left alone, in a matter of centuries the vast majority of our cities would crumble to the ground and then be covered in plant growth, followed by glaciers and a number of other possible natural disasters after that. Even the Pyramids of Egypt will be a pile of dust in about 125,000 years.

    Not so sure about that. It would very much depend on how widespread the civilization was. If it was just a single colony within a small area, then the odds of us ever digging something up from it after, say, 10 million years, would be negligible. But, if say, we were to vanish from the Earth’s surface tomorrow, and an alien fleet arrived in orbit 10 million years from now, it wouldn’t take them very long to discover some remains of our planet-encompassing past. Perhaps they would have to dig, but the odds are that somewhere conditions conspired to preserve some remains of our civilization.

    We routinely dig up the fossilized remains of extremely fragile creatures these days, and there is no reason to assume that the more robust remains of a technological society — e.g. stone buildings, cut gems, plastics, underground mine-workings, nuclear fallout shelters and other vaults, etc. — cannot continue to exist for millions of years, assuming chance conditions conspire to preserve them.

    Would a current professional archaeologist, paleontologist, or historian ever claim to have found an alien artifact or the remains of a civilization on Earth unless the evidence was nothing less than solid enough to ensure one’s career remained intact?

    So, you don’t claim to have found an alien artifact. You publish the findings, describe the object and the location and circumstances, rule out certain possibilities, and offer up possible explanations as to why such an artifact was found in such an anomalous place — the shifting of faults, catastrophic flooding, previously unknown human activity in the area, etc. — and assess their likelihood. Assuming the find was significant enough to attract attention, work would continue on the site to see if other objects could be turned up.

    As ridiculous as von Danikan et al are, I don’t think their nonsense would get in the way of discovering a real ancient alien presence on Earth because discovering the artifacts themselves (assuming they can be distinguished from rocks) would drive more research, even if the researchers were naturally very hesitant about attributing the objects to aliens. Geologists were happy enough to look into the underwater Bimini Road off the coast of Florida, for example, and came to the conclusion that it was a natural formation and not an artifact of civilization.

    The most annoying thing would be that if we do ever discover anything alien, the “true believers” will all crow “we told you so” even if they played absolutely no part in the uncovering of the evidence, and knew no better than anyone else.

  • Eniac November 10, 2011, 17:29

    @ljk: I agree with you that artifacts would mostly disappear after a sufficiently long time. What I was trying to say is that the aliens themselves (or rather their distant descendants) would likely still be around, not just their artifacts. Life, including the intelligent variety, is very resilient, due to its self-replicating nature.

  • Bob November 10, 2011, 19:07

    ljk:
    “In this current economic situation, it is foolish for the professionals not to cater to the public, as both realms can benefit from this. Otherwise we are going to have folks, rich and poor, going off on their own in all areas of science doing their own thing and coming to their own conclusions, which could only harm knowledge and in the case of such areas as medicine actually harm lives.”

    Bob:
    Actually, if people were free to develop systems of thought independently it would only add to knowledge in the long run. For example, we might have practical fusion reactors running now unimpeded by the drain and narrow focus by the “official” sanctioned programs. People promoting systems of
    thought or physics that did not work would ultimately be weeded out.

    ljk:
    The long story of rich and persuasive amateur Percival Lowell and the canals of Mars are a prime and very relevant example of what can happen when non-professionals start playing scientist and claiming to speak for “the people.”

    Bob:
    I say we are better off that Lowell speculated. It likely had an overall positive effect on science. Part of the problem is that professionals are too worried about being wrong- because it ends their careers because of the ridicule of their peers. Professionals need to learn to stop ridiculing others failures.

    ljk:
    “Would a current professional archaeologist, paleontologist, or historian ever claim to have found an alien artifact or the remains of a civilization on Earth unless the evidence was nothing less than solid enough to ensure one’s career remained intact? Eric Von Daniken and his ilk made sure to bury any possibility of real research on this subject for ages to come with their amateur shenanigans.”

    Bob:
    Yes, but the problem lies with the professionals, not Von Daniken. And we know the drill. Say someone actually finds such evidence and convinces his peers. They will still say Von Daniken was an idiot even if it was evidence exactly along the lines he proposed. The point is he is not one of “them”.
    We are better off for allowing the Von Daniken’s of the world speculate even if mostly or completely wrong.

    tacitus:
    “As ridiculous as von Danikan et al are, I don’t think their nonsense would get in the way of discovering a real ancient alien presence on Earth because discovering the artifacts themselves (assuming they can be distinguished from rocks) would drive more research, even if the researchers were naturally very hesitant about attributing the objects to aliens. ”

    Bob:
    Exactly. But the bigger point is that everyone we describe as cranks have the courage to ask bold questions. Usually the problem is they are too quick to answer them. I do say we are better off as a society for that even though I disagree with them.

    Bob said: “No one owns the search for alien life and I believe the non professional enthusiast has a role to play even if he is not as disciplined as the professional. Likewise, the professionals are too staid and conservative in their ideas and approach sometimes.”

    ljk;
    “This is not a question of ownership. Nor are facts and the scientific method determined by the whims and wills of “the people”. The simple fact is that while some sciences actually benefit from the participation of educated and experienced amateurs, such as amateur astronomy and fossil collecting, other science fields are just too large and require too much interdisciplinary knowledge and technology to be handled properly by the non-specialist.”

    “Exobiology is one of these fields for what I hope are obvious reasons.”

    Bob:
    The SETI folks sure feel like they own the field. Anyone outside is unappreciated. But notice just how safe SETI is: It is virtually designed to fail
    thus no one has to face that crisis of announcing a significant finding and then be proven wrong. Careers are safe.

    ljk:
    “But the *real* point here is, with our current limited ability to explore the Red Planet, do you want to spend the money, time, and resources on building a probe to examine a mesa that is suspected of being artificial based on the only fact that over three decades ago an orbiting vessel took an image of it that was just fuzzy enough to make the object resemble a humanoid face and get a bunch of non-experts worked up about it? And then was shown to be anything but a face by more sophisticated probes starting two decades later.”

    No, what they could do though is perform a sophisticated mathematical analysis on the myriads of hi res photos they already have. Or let the public do this. It won’t cost much.

  • Bob November 10, 2011, 19:42

    tacitus:
    “The most annoying thing would be that if we do ever discover anything alien, the “true believers” will all crow “we told you so” even if they played absolutely no part in the uncovering of the evidence, and knew no better than anyone else.”

    Oh, yes. No idea, concept or work really counts unless it is said or done by the “right” people.

    If the president ever announced that intelligent aliens really did exist I would just love to watch the disappointment on Seth Shostak’s face.

  • ljk November 10, 2011, 21:23

    Eniac said on November 10, 2011 at 17:29:

    “@ljk: I agree with you that artifacts would mostly disappear after a sufficiently long time. What I was trying to say is that the aliens themselves (or rather their distant descendants) would likely still be around, not just their artifacts. Life, including the intelligent variety, is very resilient, due to its self-replicating nature.”

    Maybe WE *ARE* the aliens! Sorry, had to say that. :^)

  • Eniac November 10, 2011, 22:52

    A tempting thought, indeed! Too bad there is all this rock-solid evidence that we descend from monkeys and a long line of less and less sophisticated creatures all the way back to microbes…

  • Rob Henry November 10, 2011, 23:48

    Why can no one from the SETI community admit that, if we are ever to find evidence for ETI’s, we are orders of magnitude more likely to have found this clue residing in our system, rather than via detection of an insanely powerful (radio) message that could only have been be sent in a fit of profligacy.

    Bob’s idea that crank’s provide us with the valuable service of facilitating the uptake of radical new ideas feels to me as if it holds true. If so this is more an indictment of how most modern scientists are in pathological fear of loosing face amongst their peers, than an endorsement of cranks.

    That also makes me think of the interesting case of the face on Mars. I feel ljk is wrong in holding that it become of interest just because it was face-like. To me that point came when a second image from a different light angle showed that its hitherto shaded side had a fair degree of symmetry to the sunlight side. Thereafter, for reasons peculiar to the neurology of the human brain, both opponents and proponents of its artificiality became fixated on just its face-like characteristics. Some tried pass their prediction of what higher resolution imaging might find though peer review, but were never taken seriously – thus allowing no basis for testing this rocks artificiality. Here I feel it necessary to state that there are 2 categories of object that wrongly look face like to us, those that do so because the have a chance accumulation of asymmetric face like features, and those that, due to their artificiality, have so much symmetry that any further hint can make them appear as faces. To me, their were hints that “the” face, might just possibly be in that second category, but either way we destroyed our chance for an objective test. Let’s improve on this shocking state.

    PS talking of failure among scientists, can anyone explain why a trained scientist such as Richard Hoagland, seems to have forgotten that a posteriori data fitting can not be assessed for significance in a similar manor to a priori data.

  • ljk November 11, 2011, 12:35

    Bob and Rob –

    While everyone in a free society can utter whatever they want to, good or nonsense, that does not mean that everything anyone can say is of equal value. And when it becomes harmful, whether actually putting someone’s life in danger or just feeding them wrong information and continuing the spread of ignorance, then it becomes worthless and worse.

    I am sensing here that there is more than just a “freedom of speech” support for the cranks: I can almost feel the anti-science/anti-establishment vibe in your comments. Scientists and science are not always right, but the system does have self-correcting mechanisms along with all that proof and solid evidence for their various claims. Cranks hold tight to their beliefs like the members of a cult no matter how flimsy their evidence. The only thing they spread is ignorance, not real ways of new thinking.

    The Mars Face has been of interest to the public PRECISELY because it looked like a human face in those early fuzzy Viking orbiter images! To say otherwise is pure bull. But hey, if you guys can get an actual mission to the Red Planet to check it out, by all means please do so! These days we will have to do whatever it takes to keep space exploration alive.

    And for the record, Hoagland was *never* an actual professional scientist: He was the curator of a small science museum and he claims to have been a consultant to the networks during the Apollo era. He is about as much of a real scientist as I am a neurosurgeon. His stuff is crap, pure and simple. Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy also took apart Hoagland’s ridiculous claims of the Apollo missions being a hoax – not that it will ever stop the True Believers.

    And as for Lowell “helping” the cause for exploring Mars: Well, he certainly made it exciting while all those real scientists keep saying Mars was too dry and the air too thin to support intelligent life or the need for canals hundreds of miles wide and thousands of miles long, but never let reality get in the way of a good story. And Lowell actually set back planetary science for decades before the Space Age in the professional astronomy community, as many of them were disgusted and embarassed by Lowell’s extravagant claims.

  • Bob November 11, 2011, 13:34

    ljk;
    ” Maybe WE *ARE* the aliens! Sorry, had to say that. :^)”
    Eniac
    ” A tempting thought, indeed! Too bad there is all this rock-solid evidence that we descend from monkeys and a long line of less and less sophisticated creatures all the way back to microbes…”

    Hoyle, Wickramsinge and many others have for years suggested that the DNA our biosphere is based on is ubiquitous in the galaxy and seeds life wherever it can take hold. If that is true it stands to reason that evolution would likely produce a similar cornucopia of life with variations and in a sense we are all aliens or at least likely related to any possible life out there.

  • tacitus November 11, 2011, 15:34

    @Bob:
    Oh, yes. No idea, concept or work really counts unless it is said or done by the “right” people.

    You completely missed the point, Bob. Anyone can say “aliens exist,” but even if it turns out that they are right (it’s a 50/50 chance after all), the vast majority of so-called UFO and anomaly experts have not contributed a thing to researching the question (and no, running around the countryside collecting fuzzy photos of blurry lights and indistinct blobs doesn’t count).

    Of course, if the revelation is that there really are “greys” and they really have been buzzing people with their spacecrafts in backwoods country and conducting experiments with anal probes on hapless abductees for no good reason, then they would have every right to crow, but even if the government does really have information about visitations from aliens, dollars to doughnuts, nothing like that ever happened. Why? Because it defies common sense that these beings would be acting like cardboard cutout space aliens from some schlock 1950s low budget scifi movie.

    If the president ever announced that intelligent aliens really did exist I would just love to watch the disappointment on Seth Shostak’s face.

    Then I guess you really don’t understand what drives people who work on SETI. I would bet a considerable amount of money that Seth would be one of the happiest people on the planet if the US government announced that they had been harboring solid evidence of the existence of aliens.

    For one, unless the announcement was “Meet our friend, ET, he’s going to tell us everything we want to know about him and his people” the amount of money available for researching extraterrestrial life would skyrocket overnight, and the SETI Institute would stand to get a small piece of that pie.

  • Bob November 11, 2011, 15:35

    ljk;
    “And Lowell actually set back planetary science for decades before the Space Age in the professional astronomy community, as many of them were disgusted and embarassed by Lowell’s extravagant claims.”

    Thanks for proving my point again. The problem here was *entirely* in professional astronomy community, not with Lowell. If science was set back at all, which I doubt, blame them and them alone. Like it or not Lowell was an actual astronomer and it is disrespectful to try and label him as a crank. Some of his ideas turned out not to be true, like many scientist’s ideas do also.
    He built an observatory which has been used for generations.

    The idea that Lowell was more of a crank than a “real” scientist is offensive. Lowell was a “real” scientist of who was wrong on his view of life on Mars.

    ljk:
    “I am sensing here that there is more than just a “freedom of speech” support for the cranks: I can almost feel the anti-science/anti-establishment vibe in your comments.”

    Nonsense, I rightly criticize the arrogance of those who slow science down by resistance to new ideas, especially if they don’t like where they originate from. Many scientists have an incredible “not invented here” mentality and I have seen progress delayed for years if not decades because of establishment hostility to new ideas. Yet they virtually all get funded by the taxpayers. As a taxpayer I want greater oversight and accountability as well as mechanisms to reward creativity.

    As a society we need new ways to fund and do science. Right now it is a way too conservative good old boys club hostile to new ideas.

    Do you disagree with my assertion that people like Seth Shostak and Jill Tarter would be truly disappointed if it turned out that UFO’s actually existed?

  • Ron S November 11, 2011, 16:49

    “Do you disagree with my assertion that people like Seth Shostak and Jill Tarter would be truly disappointed if it turned out that UFO’s actually existed?”

    It’s not as if you’re talking about long-dead people. If you deeply care about their views, send an email and ask.

  • ljk November 11, 2011, 17:37

    Bob said on November 11, 2011 at 15:35:

    ljk;

    “And Lowell actually set back planetary science for decades before the Space Age in the professional astronomy community, as many of them were disgusted and embarrassed by Lowell’s extravagant claims.”

    Bob replied:

    Thanks for proving my point again. The problem here was *entirely* in professional astronomy community, not with Lowell. If science was set back at all, which I doubt, blame them and them alone. Like it or not Lowell was an actual astronomer and it is disrespectful to try and label him as a crank. Some of his ideas turned out not to be true, like many scientist’s ideas do also. He built an observatory which has been used for generations.

    The idea that Lowell was more of a crank than a “real” scientist is offensive. Lowell was a “real” scientist of who was wrong on his view of life on Mars.

    LJK replies:

    I should clarify (though I did not think I had to) that Lowell was not a crank in the sense of those who exist now. He was a very smart man and a decent *amateur* astronomer, but not a professional one. What he did have over most other amateur astronomers and even some pros back in his day through the present was a LOT of money and social clout to get what he wanted. This included a major observatory and the ability to get his works published far and wide. He was also apparently quite the good and charismatic speaker, guaranteed to sway an eager if non-scientific public from over a century ago. Superior intelligent aliens on a neighboring world – how could that not be exciting?! Just ask H. G. and Orson Wells, too.

    Also, Lowell firmly believed what he thought he saw through his telescope and considering how hard it is to discern fine details from Earth then and now (I can attest to this personally), it is understandable why Lowell thought and felt as he did. However, Lowell also ignored the strong evidence from professionals in his day who had the data from their research that Mars was not a world capable of supporting a society of intelligent beings who built huge canals to save their dying civilization.

    Note that is what Lowell determined all because he THOUGHT he perceived a bunch of straight lines on Mars, under the influence from the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli who began emphasizing them from his observations in 1877. Before then very few astronomers saw any kind of lines on Mars; after these two guys and their influence, practically everyone who looked at the Red Planet either saw those lines or made themselves see them. There were professional astronomers with better instruments who searched for the canals and came up wanting, but who do you think the public and the press focused on and supported? Again, science does not work by a mandate from the masses, neither back in 1894 nor now.

    Even as the scientific evidence built that Mars was too cold, dry, and lacking the atmosphere necessary to support intelligent life, Lowell clung to his ideas right up until his death in 1915. Most importantly and telling, Lowell tended to hire folks who shared his views on Mars and in at least one case fired an employee who started to doubt that the canals actually existed, especially after Lowell tried capturing them in photographs – and failed, even though he said he could see them clearly. I have seen those images and I agree that if there are canals, they must be microscopic.

    The point is, after Lowell there was a backlash by many (but not all) of the professionals towards planetary science that lasted for decades. Of course some scientists continued to study the worlds in our Sol system and strides were made (G. Kuiper is one prominent name, and of course Clyde Tombaugh), but the guys with the big observatories tended to focus on the wider Universe. Of course this was not solely because of Lowell, but he did not help as much as you think.

    Yes, he helped make Mars exciting in the mind of the public and we got some thrilling science fiction out of it in the form of conquering aliens and exotic princesses, but that is not exactly progress. Besides, the whole canal issue disappeared quickly after the Mariner probes started examining Mars up close and was already fading just before the Space Age anyway.

    ljk (said previously):

    “I am sensing here that there is more than just a “freedom of speech” support for the cranks: I can almost feel the anti-science/anti-establishment vibe in your comments.”

    Bob replied:

    Nonsense, I rightly criticize the arrogance of those who slow science down by resistance to new ideas, especially if they don’t like where they originate from. Many scientists have an incredible “not invented here” mentality and I have seen progress delayed for years if not decades because of establishment hostility to new ideas. Yet they virtually all get funded by the taxpayers. As a taxpayer I want greater oversight and accountability as well as mechanisms to reward creativity.

    LJK replies:

    I will say again: I am certainly not against creative thinking, which is very important for scientific progress and society in general. What I am against are those people who delve into areas that are essentially dead ends but pursuing them with the fervor of a religious fanatic. If an individual wants to run around a field all day with a butterfly net chasing elves and fairies, that is their choice and issue. But when these same kind of folks start insisting that everyone else better do this too or they aren’t real scientists, etc., that is where I draw the line.

    Besides, this kind of pseudoscientific “investigation” dominates television and the net anyway, from ghost hunting programs to guys who blow stuff up in the alleged name of science. Real science has enough trouble staying afloat in terms of funding and public support in this entertainment-hungry society.

    Bob said:

    As a society we need new ways to fund and do science. Right now it is a way too conservative good old boys club hostile to new ideas.

    LJK replies:

    Okay, how shall we do this? In particular, how do you do real research to find real knowledge outside the parameters of science without ending having exactly the same situations and institutions you are complaining about? I am not asking rhetorically, either.

    Bob said:

    Do you disagree with my assertion that people like Seth Shostak and Jill Tarter would be truly disappointed if it turned out that UFO’s actually existed?

    LJK:

    In two words: Hell, yeah! You need to read more interviews with those two and check out what other SETI folk have to say. If an alien spaceship landed in front of them (and so long as it did not behave in a hostile way), their reaction, as would be mine, would be major celebration! In fact ,I recall at least one of them saying it would certainly save them a lot of time searching via radio telescope.