# SETI: The Casino Perspective

I like George Johnson’s approach toward SETI. In The Intelligent-Life Lottery, he talks about playing the odds in various ways, and that of course gets us into the subject of gambling. What are the odds you’ll hit the right number combination when you buy a lottery ticket? Whenever I think about the topic, I always remember walking into a casino one long ago summer on the Côte d’Azur. I’ve never had the remotest interest in gambling, and neither did the couple we were with, but my friend pulled a single coin out of his pocket and said he was going to play the slots.

“This is it,” he said, holding up the coin, a simple 5 franc disk (this was before the conversion to the Euro). “No matter what happens, this is all I play.”

He went up to the nearest slot machine and dropped the coin in. Immediately lights flashed and bells rang, and what we later calculated as the equivalent of about \$225 came pouring out. Surely, I thought, he’ll take at least one of these coins and play it again — it’s how gambling works. But instead, he headed for the door and we turned the money into a nice meal. \$225 isn’t a huge hit, to be sure (not in the vicinity of Monte Carlo!), but calculating the value of the 5 franc coin at about a dollar, he did OK. As far as I know,none of us has ever gone back into a casino.

Image: The Palais de la Méditerranée in Nice. It’s possible to drop a lot of money in here fast, but we got out unscathed.

The odds on winning the grand prize in a lottery are formidable, and Johnson notes that a Powerball prize of \$90 million, the result of hitting an arbitrary combination of numbers, went recently to someone who picked up a ticket at a convenience store in Colorado. The odds on that win were, according to Powerball’s own statistics, something like one in 175 million.

Evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr probably didn’t play the slots, but he used his own calculations of the odds to argue against Carl Sagan’s ideas on extraterrestrial civilizations. No way, said Mayr, intelligence is vanishingly rare. It took several billion years of evolution to produce a species that could build cities and write sonnets. If you’re thinking of the other inhabitants of spaceship Earth, consider that we are one out of billions of species that have evolved in this time. What slight tug in the evolutionary chain might have canceled us out altogether?

Johnson likewise quotes Stephen Jay Gould, who argued that so many chance coincidences put us where we are today that we should be awash in wonder at our very existence. We not only hit the Powerball numbers, but we kept buying tickets, and with each new ticket, we won again and got an even larger prize. Some odds!

For Gould, the fact that any of our ancestral species might easily have been nipped in the bud should fill us “with a new kind of amazement” and “a frisson for the improbability of the event” — a fellow agnostic’s version of an epiphany.

“We came this close (put your thumb about a millimeter away from your index finger), thousands and thousands of times, to erasure by the veering of history down another sensible channel,” he wrote. “Replay the tape a million times,” he proposed, “and I doubt that anything like Homo sapiens would ever evolve again. It is, indeed, a wonderful life.”

A universe filled with planets on which nothing more than algae and slime have evolved? Perhaps, but of course we can’t know this until we look, and I think Seth Shostak gets it right in an essay on The Conversation called We Could Find Alien Life, but Politicians Don’t Have the Will. Seth draws the distinction between searching for life per se, as we are engaged in on places like Mars, and searching for intelligent beings who use technologies to communicate. He’s weighing evolution’s high odds against the sheer numbers of stellar systems we’re discovering, and saying the idea of other intelligence in the universe is at least plausible.

And here the numbers come back into play because, despite my experience in the Nice casino, we’re unlikely to hit a SETI winner with only a few coins. Shostak points out that the proposed 2015 NASA budget allocates \$2.5 billion for planetary science, astrophysics and related work including JWST — this encompasses spectroscopy to study the atmospheres of exoplanets, another way we might find traces of living things on other worlds, though not necessarily intelligent species. And while this figure is less than 1/1000th of the total federal budget in the US, the combined budgets for the SETI effort are a thousand times less than what NASA will spend.

“Of course, if you don’t ante up, you will never win the jackpot,” Shostak concludes, yet another gambling reference in a field that is used to astronomical odds and how we might defeat them. I have to say that Mayr’s analysis makes a great deal of sense to me, and so does Gould’s, but I’m with Shostak anyway. The reason is simple: We have no higher calling than to discover our place in the universe, and to do that, the question of whether or not other intelligent species exist is paramount. I’m one of those people who want to be proven wrong, and the way to do that is with a robust SETI effort working across a wide range of wavelengths.

And working, I might add, across a full spectrum of ideas. Optical SETI complements radio SETI, but we can broaden our SETI hunt to include the vast troves of astronomical data our telescopes are producing day after day. We have no notion of how an alien intelligence might behave, but we can look for evidence not only in transmissions but in the composition of stellar atmospheres and asteroid belts, all places we might find clues of advanced species modifying their environment. It is not inconceivable that we might one day find signs of structures, Dyson spheres or swarms or other manipulations of a solar system’s available resources.

So I’m with the gamblers on this. We may have worked out the Powerball odds, but figuring out the odds on intelligent life is an exercise that needs more than a single example to be credible. I’ll add that SETI can teach us a great deal even if we never find evidence of ETI. If we are alone in the galaxy, what would that say about our prospects as we ponder interstellar expansion? Would we, as Michael Michaud says, go on from this to ‘impose intention on chance?’ I think so, for weighing against our destructive impulses, we have a dogged need to explore. SETI is part of our search for meaning in the cosmos, a meaning we can help to create, nurture and sustain.

Comments on this entry are closed.

• don wilkins August 19, 2014, 12:57

While I’m all for a good dose of politician bashing, I think this may be a tad unfair. Politicans are usually limited by what the population will let them do. I would dearly love a vibrant space program but my fellow citizens, at least the majority of them, do not. You expect too much of politicans if you expect them to change voters’ minds when we of the space advocate community cannot summon convincing arguments.

Frankly, comparisons to lotto leave me cold. Even the gambling community must provide warnings against placing too much money into their bets. The risk to payoff ratio is poor.

Your friend was sensible to “invest” only a token and wise to walk away win or lose. However, so long as SETI remains a curiosity satisfying project, an entertainment project, do not expect anyone, politicans included to pour buckets of money into it.

Why would the average citizen push a politican to invest large sums of money into a project when the odds of success are very low and success provides nothing to the average citizen. Even if we determine that intelligent ET exists what does it do for the guy on the street? For his children? His grandchildren? His great-grandchildren?

Unless those questions can be answered, I fear investments in SETI will remain small.

• Alex Tolley August 19, 2014, 13:00

The problem with playing in the cosmic life casino is that we don’t know the odds and there may be no winning number. What we need are more, inexpensive ways to play red/black, rather than individual numbers.

The second problem is time. The winning number may only exist in discrete, narrow time slots in the universe’s history. The casino may be empty while we are gambling.

From a funding view, my sense is that life detection will hugely boost SETI funding. At present we have no proof that there is even life elsewhere. let alone ETIs. Finding definitive proof of life would at least narrow the odds. Kepler has identified some possible planets that could have life as we know it. That is a start. If we can find living planets in a similar manner, we can at least estimate how common life is. A universe full of life, even if non-technological would still be a wonderful place. Of course if we don’t find life, the SETI folks will just say that there are 10^9 other galaxies to search.

However we should also bear in mind that even if SETI succeeds, we will not likely have a way to have a conversation. So in some respects SETI will become more like history or archaeology. The only way out is if SETI gains us FTL communication technology or that a device nearby can communicate with us. Exciting yes, but very long odds. I can just see the fights that will start over who can communicate and what can be communicated. And of course the anti-METI faction will be screaming “Trojan Horse!”.

• RobFlores August 19, 2014, 14:49

Think of the SETI effort as a cheap insurance policy that gives peace
of mind, like AD & D. If we have a neighboring planet (200Ly? ) has a civilization it does not mean they will have rapid advance in technology. But it would be nice to be able to keep an eye out for them. Since they surely will find out about us too eventually even if we leak very little EM.

Also I think finding an accidental neighboring civilization that is very near
our technology and within 50 LY level will introduce another possibility. An artificial situation. Sort of the type shennanigans some wildlife documentaries have been accused of in the past. Think of ant farm that is divided in half suddenly a barrier is lifted at some point. What. Fun.

• william August 19, 2014, 18:10

Speaking of algae and slime:

http://www.grindtv.com/outdoor/nature/post/sea-plankton-discovered-outside-space-station/

Sea plankton discovered outside space station
Russian scientists make the odd find while doing experiments on ISS surface
August 19, 2014 by David Strege

wRussian scientists conducting experiments on the outside surface of the International Space State made a puzzling discovery, one made all the more remarkable because it’s something that whales eat.

Samples taken from illuminators and the surface of the space station were found to have traces of sea plankton and other microorganisms, but scientists are baffled as to how they got there, the Russian chief of the orbital mission told the ITAR-TASS News Agency.

“Results of the experiment are absolutely unique,” chief of the Russian ISS orbital mission Vladimir Solovyev told ITAR-TASS. “We have found traces of sea plankton and microscopic particles on the illuminator surface. This should be studied further.”

The study shows that the sea plankton and organisms can live in space despite lack of oxygen, zero gravity, extreme temperatures, and cosmic radiation, and they proved these organisms can even develop.

More from Will Stewart in Moscow for the U.K. Express:

The news agency reported that Mr. Solovyev was uncertain “how these microscopic particles could have appeared on the surface of the space station,” adding that the organisms were not typical for Baikonur in Kazakhstan, from where the space station lifted off.

“Plankton in these stages of development could be found on the surface of the oceans.

“This is not typical for Baikonur. It means that there are some uplifting air currents which reach the station and settle on its surface,” he was quoted as saying.

The discovery was made using high-precision equipment in the experiment, apparently prompted during an operation to clean and polish the International Space Station, the Express reported.

As Solovyev said, this should be studied further.

I’m not sure what all the hue and cry is concerning whether or not there is intelligent life in the universe. I’m not sure that any of that really matters in the scheme of things after all, there are worlds that probably have some type of primitive life that we can examine. In addition simply trying to find a second home (or even a third or fourth if it’s desirable) is enough of a goal in itself.

A question for Paul: while the articles that you have had in the last month have been enjoyable in themselves I was wondering if you were going to possibly start running some articles on people or peoples who are doing fundamental investigative work on materials, electronics, closed ecological systems, etc. like had been bandied about a few times in this blog.

• Gerry August 19, 2014, 18:18

It’s interesting to approach the life detection problem from other angles, to get a perspective on what we know. Based on our observations, what range of scenarios makes sense?

For high-tech life, if we stipulate (optimistically, perhaps) that there are currently ten civilizations roughly equivalent to ours in terms of power output and detectability in the galaxy, and taking into account what we know, or hypothesize, about galactic habitable zones, what is the average likely distance between each world? Would our technology allow us to detect each others’ signal leakage? If instead of incidental radiation there was a signal laser deliberately aimed at the Solar System, would we be able to detect that with our current efforts?

Also, if there are ten such civilizations at one time, what does that tell us about the average length of time that such civilizations tend to persist?

Or, say we want to look for high-tech, high-energy fusion pulse drives, dyson spheres, errant beamrider energy beams, etc. Things we at least understand in terms of physics if not engineering. At what range could these phenomena be detected (at least with what we are using now, such as radio telescopes)?

• Craig Watkins August 19, 2014, 18:57

While human beings are special, I wonder how special we really are. With all due respect to Gould (who I respect greatly), I think that we still have much to learn about evolution. Intelligence, opposable thumbs, bipedalism, and tool use are all products of convergent evolution. In much the same way that mammals went back into the ocean and took on characteristics of fish, other species may very well have evolved to fill the niches that our ancestors would have left behind.

Now, we did hit the lottery in the sense that a lot of factors came together to create a feedback loop that rewarded the expense of keeping large brains around. But I think over enough time, that would eventually happen again. Indeed, if DNA based life started on an earth twin, I would not be surprised to see beings that looked much like us come out of it after billions of years of trial and error.

That said, I suspect that life on other planets is probably more diverse than that. Still, we survived because we were fit. Yes, we faced long odds, but we beat the odds because we were fit. There’s a logic that eventually overrides chance at some point. In much the same way that extremophiles might be able to survive in certain conditions on Mars, I think something like us probably would be fit to survive in a vast array of environments.

The real key to me is whether or not DNA style life evolves elsewhere or whether it is a happenstance appearance. It certainly seemed to take root on earth just about as soon as life could (on a geologic time scale). If we even found single celled organisms or their remains on Mars/Europa and they reproduced in a similar manner, I would be extremely bullish on other sentient beings out there. Whether we can contact them is just a matter of great distances over time and space and overcoming untold cultural/technological differences.

• Eniac August 20, 2014, 7:06

If you’re thinking of the other inhabitants of spaceship Earth, consider that we are one out of billions of species that have evolved in this time. What slight tug in the evolutionary chain might have canceled us out altogether?

So what? With the exact same argument I could call myself a win of the lottery, despite the fact that I am surrounded by 6 billion others with the very same claim to uniqueness.

Yes, we are unique and one-of-a kind as the exact species we are, but not as a species in general. The only reason for our unique level of intellectual ability is that we have eradicated potential rivals long ago. Chance has nothing to do with it.

• Eniac August 20, 2014, 7:14

A universe filled with planets on which nothing more than algae and slime have evolved?

I consider this a somewhat chauvinistic attitude towards algae and slime. We are much closer to algae and slime than the algae and slime are to rock and water. Algae and slime have the very real potential to develop into something like us in just a few hundred million years. Rock and water? Not so much.

• Eniac August 20, 2014, 7:20

It certainly seemed to take root on earth just about as soon as life could (on a geologic time scale).

I don’t believe this at all. It is a common argument in the SETI community, but in my opinion real evidence is lacking for at least the first billion years.

• ljk August 20, 2014, 9:17

Here is yet another METI (Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project whose creators very likely do not see as such. More commentary after the intro….

Beam your message to Mars to celebrate 50 years since first mission to Red Planet

August 19, 2014 — How are you planning to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first successful mission to Mars? How about sending a “shout out” to the Red Planet?

“Beam Me to Mars,” the latest project by Uwingu, a space research funding company, will transmit public messages to Mars on Nov. 28, 2014, 50 years (to the day) after the start of the Mariner 4 mission. The NASA probe made the first flyby of another planet [Mariner 2 did the first successful flyby of the planet Venus in December of 1962, to be accurate], beaming back the first photos of the Martian surface.

“Come and celebrate the exploration of Mars in this very special, first of a kind 21st century interplanetary social movement!” Uwingu’s chief executive officer Alan Stern, a former NASA science chief who also heads the agency’s New Horizons mission to Pluto, said.

Between now and November 5, anyone can register their message to be beamed to Mars for as little as \$5. “Beam Messages” can be as simple as just your name, or can be more elaborate, including text and even images. There is no limit to how many messages can be sent, either.

http://www.collectspace.com/news/news-081914a-beam-me-to-mars-uwingu.html

According to this site, Mars will be in the constellation Sagittarius in November of 2014:

http://www.nakedeyeplanets.com/mars.htm

That is very near galactic center. I have been the first to say here in Centauri Dreams and elsewhere that while it would be nice to have people conduct METI efforts with some thought and consideration for what they are saying, where it is going into the Milky Way, and being mindful of humanity and our descendants in the event of a reply, I also recognize that it will be difficult to monitor and control every transmission sent from this planet into deep space.

However, when organizations deliberately treat METI as a publicity stunt or token gesture, it not only flaunts those who have legitimate criticisms of signalling into the galaxy but tells the general public that such actions have no potential harm behind them. They may not as space is very big and even lightspeed transmissions will take ages to cross the gulfs of stars, but the whole point is we do not know who or what is out there or how they may react to our presence. We should be more mindful of everything we send past our planetary system borders. This includes space probes.

How many know that the European Space Agency (ESA) recently sent children’s messages related to the Rosetta comet probe project into deep space using a large radio telescope in Spain? When asked on their blog if anyone at the ESA had contacted any authorities such as the IAU before doing this along with other questions such as signal strength and where exactly the messages are going, the reply was simply “It’s fine.” This, from Europe’s version of NASA.

See here:

http://blogs.esa.int/rosetta/2014/05/08/a-light-speed-voyage-to-the-distant-future/

and here:

http://blogs.esa.int/rosetta/2014/05/16/sending-a-signal-into-the-future-2/

I can understand (if not respect) why certain authorities would not want to socially embarrass themselves by appearing all worked up about potentially hostile aliens, but to just send fluff (I am being polite here) into the galaxy with no thought to consequences is irresponsible.

I would hope those who are opposed to METI or at least have serious concerns about it will attempt to coordinate their efforts and ideas so there will be an official place to handle and discuss this matter. Because it is pretty clear so far that just about anyone who wants to beam anything into the Universe can do so without so much as a peer review.

We may not know how an ETI might respond to even a polite, measured, scientific message, but I would rather err on the side of caution in our first ventures into the Milky Way, be they radio transmissions or deep space probes bearing information packages.

This “tribute” to Mariner 4 may seem like a cute stunt to those conducting it, but they seemed to not take into account that the radio messages will not suddenly stop at Mars but keep on going essentially forever. Just note they will be heading towards the center of our galaxy.

• ljk August 20, 2014, 9:33

SETI Searches Kepler Candidates for Signals of Life

by Nola Taylor Redd for Astrobiology Magazine

Moffet Field CA (NASA) Aug 19, 2014

The Kepler-10 system, with its three known planets, was one of the targets SETI’s search for radio signals.

A recent search by the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) studied 86 candidates in the Kepler space observatory’s field for radio signals that could potentially indicate the presence of an intelligent civilization.

Of course, no radio signals were found, but the search did identify the most promising Kepler objects for wide-band observations using the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia.

“The 86 target stars were selected because they hosted planets discovered by [the year] 2011 with properties that could be conducive to the development of life,” said Abhimat Gautam, of the University of California, Berkeley.

Gautam, who just completed his senior undergraduate year at the University of California, Berkeley and was part of the Berkeley SETI Research Center, presented the results at the 224th summer meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Boston, Massachusetts in June.

http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/SETI_Searches_Kepler_Candidates_for_Signals_of_Life_999.html

If SETI really wants to ramp up to more modern thinking with the field, they should also be focusing on places where Artilects might be, in the cold and dark of interstellar space away from hot suns to radiate all their heat. They will be quite visible in the infrared as a result.

• Alex Tolley August 20, 2014, 10:44

@Eniac real evidence [of life] is lacking for at least the first billion years.

Earth formed ~4.5e9 ya. Evidence of life is ~ 3.8e9 ya. But you have to remember that Earth was under heavy bombardment for much of that early period, destroying any evidence that life existed, and certainly making surface conditions very difficult. This bombardment ended at about the time the earliest evidence for life is found. IMO, it is better to think of Earth being suitable for life after the bombardment, and that is when life almost immediately appears. That isn’t to say that abiogenesis happened around 3.8e9 ya, rather that just that as soon as conditions were stable enough, life (whatever its origin) was able to gain a foothold.

Where my opinion differs from Craig’s, is the significance of life on Mars. If we find evidence of early life on Mars, it may be that Mars was seeding Earth throughout the Hadean period until Earth was stable, and Mars started to dry up. This would imply that there was still a unique abiogenic even in the solar system which would imply nothing elsewhere. So if Curiosity finds such evidence, I would be cautious about life elsewhere, rather than bullish. [I’m very skeptical about life in Europa. I think that Nasa’s “life needs water” and a “follow the water strategy” has been interpreted as “water implies life”, a logical fallacy. Worth taking a look, but I would be very surprised at a positive result.]

I would prefer that a good sample of stars showed fairly unmistakeable biosignatures before I was confident that life was common. I’m hoping that this will be tested within the next 20 years.

• Neutrino78x August 20, 2014, 10:52

Ljk, as a submarine veteran I can understand your security concerns. However, we spent decades sending signals into space and continue to do so. Television, radio, radar etc. Some of the earth like planets we have discovered are close enough to have received early transmissions like I love Lucy, right? So while there is a valid concern, it seems too late to avoid detection. :-o

• Neutrino78x August 20, 2014, 10:55

Speaking of which, my question is whether SETI is sensitive enough to detect the alien equivalent of television broadcast? My understanding is that currently, aliens would have to be deliberately signalling us, with an extremely strong signal.

• ljk August 20, 2014, 11:32

My first question is, have these organisms been found on other spacecraft in Earth orbit or elsewhere before – and if not, why not?

Second question: Do they just hang out in LEO or are they higher up or even in cislunar and interplanetary space?

Third question: How are they able to survive and even reproduce in raw space?

Now the news article:

PLANKTON found in space: Sea creatures are discovered living on the exterior of the ISS

– Russian space officials confirmed the plankton were living on the ISS

– Sea plankton were not carried by the craft as they aren’t native to Baikonur in Kazakhstan, where the Russian modules of the station blasted off

– Plankton may have been blown there by air currents, Russia claims

– Organisms were able to survive without oxygen in sub zero temperatures

– Discovery made during a routine space walk to clean the ISS’ windows

By WILL STEWART IN MOSCOW and JONATHAN O’CALLAGHAN FOR MAIL ONLINE and SARAH GRIFFITHS FOR MAIL ONLINE

PUBLISHED: 10:30 EST, 19 August 2014 | UPDATED: 14:02 EST, 19 August 2014

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2728979/Never-mind-alien-life-SEA-PLANKTON-space-Creatures-living-surface-ISS-officials-say.html

You can rightly say this discovery if true does not automatically mean smart aliens all over the galaxy, but it doesn’t exactly hurt the possibility of extraterrestrial beings, either.

• Mike Jude August 20, 2014, 12:09

I disagree to a certain extent with Gould. I think that as the sophistication of prey predator interactions increases, there comes a natural point where being somewhat more intelligent confers a survival advantage. And, if over time, the more intelligent critters continue to breed, then they will become even more intelligent. At some point you end up with a sufficiently intelligent critter that it can, in effect, create its own luck. Intelligence loads the survival dice by enabling a flexible response to adversity. Our ancestors could have been wiped out many times, but they weren’t…probably because they were smart enough to adapt quickly to changing circumstances. Does that mean that an asteroid or something couldn’t still wipe us out or could have wiped us out in the past? No…but even with an asteroid, the chances of survival are better if you are intelligent.

So…I think it is kind of miraculous that we are here to explore space, but I think the miracle is not so improbable that it didn’t happen elsewhere..perhaps often.

• ljk August 20, 2014, 14:01

Neutrino78x said on August 20, 2014 at 10:52:

“Ljk, as a submarine veteran I can understand your security concerns. However, we spent decades sending signals into space and continue to do so. Television, radio, radar etc. Some of the earth like planets we have discovered are close enough to have received early transmissions like I love Lucy, right? So while there is a valid concern, it seems too late to avoid detection. :-o”

Technically we have been spewing various forms of electromagnetic radiation into the Milky Way galaxy for a bit over one century now. That means a “bubble” of radio, radar, and television transmissions about 200 light years across. In a galaxy 100,000 light years across with 400 billion fellow star systems.

I believe this illustration will really bring home just how cosmically small a “footprint” human civilization has actually made in the Milky Way galaxy so far:

Note too that most of those signals were not only not meant for communicating with ETI but were also fairly weak, meaning they would be pretty much indistinguishable from the natural cosmic background radio noise before they got very far on the interstellar scale. In such a vast and ancient galaxy, we have not exactly been a literal beacon of attention making; 200 light years is a walk across the street compared to the rest of the galaxy.

This Centauri Dreams article from 2011 might answer some of your questions about how far our various signals would reach into the Milky Way:

https://www.centauri-dreams.org/?p=16765

The article includes a link to a paper on METI at the end.

Here is a good tutorial on SETI, METI, and related items:

http://www.coseti.org/lemarch1.htm

And the Soviet father of the hydrogen bomb thought his invention might do the trick:

http://lnfm1.sai.msu.ru/SETI/eng/articles/sakharov.html

• ljk August 20, 2014, 14:07

Carl Sagan once said if there were one million technological civilizations in the galaxy and there were evenly spaced across the stars, then the nearest such ETI would be about 200 light years from Earth. Please do not take these estimates literally.

So if that is the case, we have at least another 100 years to go before this alien race would even have a chance of noticing our electromagnetic radiation. All this assumes they are capable of it and doing their own SETI programs. Then if they decided to respond via radio or lasers, it would take another 200 years for humanity to get a reply.

So SETI is in for the long haul. Our chances may not be high, but not searching at all pretty much guarantees not finding a signal.

• ljk August 20, 2014, 15:41

don wilkins said on August 19, 2014 at 12:57:

“While I’m all for a good dose of politician bashing, I think this may be a tad unfair. Politicans are usually limited by what the population will let them do. I would dearly love a vibrant space program but my fellow citizens, at least the majority of them, do not. You expect too much of politicans if you expect them to change voters’ minds when we of the space advocate community cannot summon convincing arguments.”

As a general rule, the main goal of a politician is to get themselves reelected. If they serve any useful purpose to their community it is as a bonus from their efforts to stay in power. :^)

Now you can say these same politicians are limited in both intellectual scope and where their powers can reign; nevertheless, the ones in Washington, D.C. are technically in charge of funding national science so who else shall we blame? It would be nice if an S. R. Hadden ala Contact would come along to fund SETI, but I for one am leery of relying on the whims of a few really wealthy individuals.

To give one real world example: Ross Perot once purchased a whole bunch of spacecraft and other artifacts from the former Soviet Union and brought them to the USA for preservation. This made a bunch of space advocates and buffs think Perot would then go on to finance America’s space program, but by then Perot had lost interest and decided to spend his money elsewhere.

What it boils down to is that so long as the general public fails to do their part to support SETI and its related fields, the effort will continue to work largely on a shoestring budget and a few dedicated individuals. What will really change SETI’s fortunes is finding an actual alien, of course, but that’s the Catch-22.

And yes, I think for many reasons finding extraterrestrial life, especially the intelligent kind, is one of the most important things humanity can and should do. I have the same views on space exploration and utilization/colonization.

• ljk August 20, 2014, 15:50

william said on August 19, 2014 at 18:10:

“I’m not sure what all the hue and cry is concerning whether or not there is intelligent life in the universe. I’m not sure that any of that really matters in the scheme of things after all, there are worlds that probably have some type of primitive life that we can examine. In addition simply trying to find a second home (or even a third or fourth if it’s desirable) is enough of a goal in itself.”

I wish I had your awareness and assurance about ETI. I mean both your view that finding alien intelligences is not a big deal and that there’s probably not much of it anyway in the galaxy. It makes one wonder if the human race was happier before Copernicus came along with his crazy hypothesis.

Of course assuming that the Universe is full of just algae and slime mold will make human colonization of the Cosmos much easier both logistically and ethically. Until we find out that other smart species do exist and have that exact same attitude about existence.

• Alex Tolley August 20, 2014, 16:24

You can rightly say this discovery if true does not automatically mean smart aliens all over the galaxy, but it doesn’t exactly hurt the possibility of extraterrestrial beings, either.

I wouldn’t go that far. It is equivalent to saying that ETI are more likely if you found live crabs on a beach. We’ve known that bacteria have been detected at the edge of space for a long time. We don’t know the status of the algae except that they were not dead when incubated. We don’t even know the source – from some sort of updraft, contamination from the launchers, contamination from elsewhere? But primarily I have the same argument as with find any sort of life on Mars – it tells us nothing about life beyond the solar system. All it tells us is that life is possibly hardier than expected and that the biosphere maybe reaches further than we thought – from LEO to 10’s of kilometers into the lithosphere.

• ljk August 20, 2014, 16:26

First we have plankton clinging to the sides of the International Space Station and doing just fine, now we have rock-eating microbes living quite happily under a half mile of solid ice in Antarctica:

http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=132267&org=NSF&from=news

• Wojciech J August 20, 2014, 16:36

ljk
“but to just send fluff (I am being polite here) into the galaxy with no thought to consequences is irresponsible.”
It’s too late.
Biosphere has been sending signals since billions of years into the space by trace amounts in atmosphere.
Signs of civilization in form of artificial lights are observable since(depending on how sensitive their telescopes are) at least around 200 years, if not more than 2000 years(possible lighthouses or Rome city lights being detectable).
In any cases there is no use being worried about sending messages.They have already been sent in the past and will be sent in the future without us being able to stop them(you can’t conceal biosphere)

• Eniac August 20, 2014, 19:25

@Alex: Given the inherent problems with microfossils, including interpretation, contamination and dating, I consider that 3.85Gy evidence for life you mention shaky at best. It is an extraordinary claim without extraordinary evidence. Remember the microbes from Mars?

Where my opinion differs from Craig’s, is the significance of life on Mars. If we find evidence of early life on Mars, it may be that Mars was seeding Earth throughout the Hadean period until Earth was stable, and Mars started to dry up.

It may be. However, if we analyze this martian life, we will be able to tell for sure whether it is related to ours or not. If we find it is not related, that would settle the question of easy abiogenesis, affirmatively. If it turns out related, it would be another nail in the coffin.

Perhaps by “early life” you mean life that has disappeared leaving only fossils, which would resist such analysis? That, to me, is inconceivable. Looking at the range and tenacity of extremophiles here on Earth, I am hard pressed to believe that Mars is so inhospitable as to bring all life to an end.

• ljk August 20, 2014, 23:16

Random scattered noise is one thing, strong deliberate and targeted transmissions are another. I am simply asking for some sense of caution or at least good taste when it comes to METI.

Then again, sending a clump of messages from a group of humans who say such things as “Come have a beer!” and “Don’t eat us!” might be the most honest face of current humanity after all. These were real messages I saw in that Hello from Earth campaign in 2009 aimed at Gliese 581, by the way:

http://cosmosmagazine.com/media_room/earth-gliese-581d-anyone-there/

I believe equally “diverse” messages were sent with the Lone Signal project begun in June of 2013 and which seems to have vanished without so much as a goodbye: The Web site is non-existant and their Tumblr and Facebook pages have not been updated in about one year:

http://thelonesignal.tumblr.com/

In any event, METI of all types will continue irregardless of what I say or think. And please note that China is building the largest single dish radio telescope on Earth. If they want to let the galaxy know that one of the oldest of human nations is ready to communicate with any celestial neighbors, who is going to stop them?

http://news.discovery.com/space/astronomy/monster-chinese-telescope-the-next-et-hunter-110621.htm

• Craig Watkins August 21, 2014, 1:26

Alex Tolley,
Yes, it’s possible that any life we find still only implies one genesis. Although I have a feeling that if it isn’t strikingly similar it would be obviously alien. Even if it’s obviously related, panspermia has its own implications about the conditions necessary for life. If it came from Mars, then it would seem at the very least that there’s nothing that all that special about Earth.

• ljk August 21, 2014, 9:11

Alex Tolley said on August 20, 2014 at 16:24:

[LJK] “You can rightly say this discovery if true does not automatically mean smart aliens all over the galaxy, but it doesn’t exactly hurt the possibility of extraterrestrial beings, either.”

[AT] “I wouldn’t go that far. It is equivalent to saying that ETI are more likely if you found live crabs on a beach.”

We and other complex life forms on this planet evolved from very simple creatures, far simpler than a crab, so yes I do think there is a connection. I know what you mean, please note, but when life does get a foothold then the odds automatically increase, even if it takes a few million or billion years.

Of course we would like to think that having intelligence is the pinnacle of being an organism in this Universe, but the vast majority of life forms on Earth at least are microbes. One very recent news item says certain ones might even be controlling how we think!

http://www.kurzweilai.net/do-gut-bacteria-control-your-mind

It is SO frustrating to have just one data point for something so important.

• ljk August 21, 2014, 9:21

Martian Mystery: What Is Odd Cell-Like Structure in Mars Meteorite?

By Mike Wall, Senior Writer | August 21, 2014 06:50 am ET

Scientists have found a strange structure resembling a microbial cell inside a Martian meteorite, but they’re not claiming that it’s evidence of Red Planet life.

The researchers discovered the microscopic oval object within the Nakhla Mars meteorite, which fell to Earth in Egypt in 1911. While the structure’s appearance is intriguing, it most likely formed as a result of geological rather than biological processes, team members said.

“The consideration of possible biotic scenarios for the origin of the ovoid structure in Nakhla currently lacks any sort of compelling evidence,” the scientists write in a new study published this month in the journal Astrobiology.

“Therefore, based on the available data that we have obtained on the nature of this conspicuous ovoid structure in Nakhla, we conclude that the most reasonable explanation for its origin is that it formed through abiotic processes.”

http://www.space.com/26895-mars-life-nakhla-meteorite-structure.html

That is the meteorite which supposedly struck and killed a dog.

• Alex Tolley August 21, 2014, 10:10

@Eniac Given the inherent problems with microfossils, including interpretation, contamination and dating, I consider that 3.85Gy evidence for life you mention shaky at best. It is an extraordinary claim without extraordinary evidence.

This identification and dating for early life has withstood assault since my undergraduate days in the 1970’s. I think that if the evidence was as shaky as you claim, that there would be a lot of controversy about the claims. AFAIIK, there isn’t. The Martian micro fossils (in the meteorite ALH84001) were different because the tests were not definitive, just suggestive.

If we found alien life on Mars that was sufficiently different to preclude a common ancestor with Earth life and indicate a second genesis, then yes, that would IMO, suggestion easy abiogenesis. The only alternative would be a robust, varied panspermia. If that hypothesis were true, we should find evidence of alien spores all over our solar system, especially in preserving ice.

• Alex Tolley August 21, 2014, 10:31

@Craig – any finding of life on Mars would be exciting. If it was related to Earth life, that would have implications for abiogenesis, although it might suggest that it is still difficult and only appeared on Mars, or that it is easy, but Mars got there first.

If the biology was very different, then that would be one of the most exciting discoveries for biology, that will keep scientists (and probably technologists) occupied for decades. It might also mean that Mars is temporarily off limits to human exploration and colonization. My guess is that if there is life on Mars, it is in the lithosphere, or possibly in a few spots where water intermittently liquifies underground. Microbial “fossils” will be a lot harder to identify and characterize. Mars appears to have dried up sufficiently early that multicellular life would not have had time to evolve if the Earth’s model for evolution is typical. So no macro fossils expected. If Mars was always sterile, then that is interesting too, as it suggests that there was no transference of life from Earth either, and that Earth might have had unique conditions.

Competing hypotheses are always going to occur if we only have fragmentary evidence in our solar system, which is why extra solar biosignatures detection would be so much more useful in answering the biogenesis question.

• Alex Tolley August 21, 2014, 11:41

Somewhat OT, but this article in New Scientist talks about the WISE data on galaxies and the search for Kardashev III civs. Apparently a few galaxies are emitting a lot of IR. One interpretation is that this is technological, although natural phenomena is a more likely explanation.

• Alex Tolley August 21, 2014, 11:41
• NS August 21, 2014, 12:41

Yes, there are a number of questions about the origin of life, the range of possible biochemistries, etc. that can only be answered by studying the native life of multiple worlds, whether in our own solar system or elsewhere. This is in part why even in the absence of ETI (which if present would introduce a whole new range of moral issues) we should not spread Earth life to those worlds before we know what’s out there.

• Mark Wakely August 21, 2014, 13:03

If interstellar-traveling microbial life is “infecting” solar systems as fast as they’re being formed, taking hold to whatever planetary environment it can adapt to, then pools of slime might be ubiquitous. Even those times in Earth’s history when life was supposedly “wiped out”, orbiting organisms (or those newly arrived from deep space) might have bided their time until conditions on Earth’s surface improved sufficiently to infect Earth again. There might be a wide variety of space borne microbes constantly traveling throughout our “dirty” Universe; each looking for its own unique environment to conquer and flourish. Maybe why the naysayers can’t fathom the possibility of advanced life elsewhere is a kind of failure to grasp the truly huge number of other stars and worlds out there, the “billions and billions’ Sagan kept telling us about. The naysayer’s minds might be so boggled they can’t wrap their heads around all the overwhelming possibilities. And life itself has a kind of forward gear to evolve, complexity opening up new vistas and niches to ensure survival. If we repeatedly rewound the tape of life on Earth, we might not see advanced creatures quite like ourselves but familiar enough to recognize their intelligence, since intelligence is a beneficial evolutionary trait that also grows in complexity. Sagan might not have been too far off the mark in his estimate of the number of intelligence species in our galaxy; the real question is how best to detect that life and whether deliberately contacting them is wise or vain and ultimately dangerous.

• Marshall Eubanks August 22, 2014, 0:06

There are multiple spacecraft in operation on and around Mars right now (and another, from India, about to undergo orbit insertion). All of these spacecraft require tracking and communications, which use the same systems as do these “outreach” efforts, and have the same (tiny) possibility of being detected. I don’t see that there is a difference : if you like (say) MSL or Mars Express, I don’t see why you should object to children’s messages either.

• Eniac August 22, 2014, 0:31

Alex:

This identification and dating for early life has withstood assault since my undergraduate days in the 1970′s. I think that if the evidence was as shaky as you claim, that there would be a lot of controversy about the claims. AFAIIK, there isn’t. The Martian micro fossils (in the meteorite ALH84001) were different because the tests were not definitive, just suggestive.

I don’t think there has been much assault. There are very few studies, and they have not nearly been as widely debated as the Mars meteorite fossils. Absence of controversy does not validate a result. It could also mean no-one took it seriously enough to make an effort to challenge it. There is a long history of misinterpretation of much more widely studied, much larger and younger fossils. Giving so much credence to a handful of studies interpreting bubble-like inclusions billions of years old as cells strikes me as unwise.

• NS August 22, 2014, 4:17

Can’t find the link, but there’s a paper online somewhere that claims that the number of possible DNA sequences is orders of magnitude larger than the number of stars in the universe. IIRC it contends that each world with life probably samples only a tiny fraction of possible DNA sequences, and even all such worlds combined might not represent a significant percentage. If true this would make life a very chancy thing indeed, even if it’s all based on DNA.

• Alex Tolley August 22, 2014, 11:07

@NS – you are restating the creationsist’s randomness argument. Evolution selects solutions that work, massively pruning the search space. If the RNA-world hypothesis is correct, small, self replication RNAs are the core of abiogenesis. If the metabolism-first hypothesis is true, then relatively small sets of molecules, perhaps in volcanic inclusions are the start. Either of these two hypotheses posit relatively simple starting points with selection as the driver.

• Alex Tolley August 22, 2014, 11:26

@Eniac – there are a number of different lines of evidence for early life, including iron layers in sandstones and fossil stromatolites as two examples. We can also rule out “contamination” :) Somewhat riskier, we can also use molecular clocks to estimate when bacteria and archaea split and possibly appeared. Yes, it all gets rather iffy before 3.5e9 mya. But the various lines of evidence seem to confirm an early date for life taking hold after the bombardment. One can suspect that scientists are looking to lay claim to finding the earliest life forms, but there is lots of competition and peer review to constrain bias. We do not have a pristine sample of rock from Mars yet, so speculation that Mars had life is confined to meteorites of confirmed Martian origin. If Curiosity finds evidence of early life at Mount Sharp, then we will have some exciting evidence and a driver for a sample return mission.

• ljk August 22, 2014, 13:55

Marshall Eubanks said on August 22, 2014 at 0:06:

“There are multiple spacecraft in operation on and around Mars right now (and another, from India, about to undergo orbit insertion). All of these spacecraft require tracking and communications, which use the same systems as do these “outreach” efforts, and have the same (tiny) possibility of being detected. I don’t see that there is a difference : if you like (say) MSL or Mars Express, I don’t see why you should object to children’s messages either.”

You are missing the point: I am not objecting to the messages because they are from children, I am concerned about transmissions for where there is almost no hope of translation by intelligences in other star systems because the ones who sent them did not make such a thing possible. The recipients may understand that the signals are artificial, but that will likely be about all – unless everyone in the galaxy just happens to speak English just like in Star Trek. If we were sent a message from an alien species, I am quite sure we would like to know what they are saying by means of an interstellar “Rosetta Stone.”

I also object to the random nature of such broadcasts with no real thought or concerns about where they would be going after reaching Mars, as anyone with even basic science knowledge will tell you the signals will not stop at the Red Planet but keep going indefinitely.

I am merely asking that our species behave a bit more carefully and constructively when sending examples of ourselves into the unknown of deep space. Carl Sagan did an effective job getting across that point in his only science fiction novel, Contact, where advanced ETI detect humanity’s electromagnetic radiation and send back one of the earliest transmissions capable of leaving our planet: The television broadcast of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, with Adolph Hitler presiding over the opening ceremonies.

Speaking of children and METI, here is one such project where effort was taken to make the messages decodable by any recipients:

http://www.cplire.ru/html/ra&sr/irm/teen-age-message.html

From a larger site on the subject here, for reference:

http://www.cplire.ru/html/ra&sr/irm/index.html

Here is a 2012 paper from Acta Astronautica by Paolo Musso:

• NS August 23, 2014, 1:18

To Alex Tolley, I’m not arguing for creationism. I agree that evolution does select solutions, but it selects the ones it stumbles on that work better than what’s already there, the “good enough” rather than the optimum. With such a huge range of possibilities the solutions that get selected may vary drastically from world to world, simply by the chance of being hit on first.

• Joëlle B. August 23, 2014, 17:30

@ljk in response to the comments made on August 20, 2014 at 15:41

Maybe the sociological solution to your issues lies in having lots of offspring, initiating the emergence of your own world views, with the eventual goal of spanning outwardly into the cosmos. After all, most of the dominating world views at present were started in this way–it would only make sense to follow in those footsteps, except this time with an open mind toward scientific methodology and the broader implications of survival outside of one’s own limited experiential facsimiles.

Imagine a scenario where everything a parent does revolves around the excitation of his or her children’s cosmological curiosity? Many of the Earth’s greatest minds have been the result of the influences of their progenitors, possessing an upward mobility in the arts and sciences. Politics is an important “science” [the science of lying and getting away with it :)], but I feel that it is lacking the necessary scientific representation now that we know how small our species is in the grand scope of everything. Also, let’s not forget that there is always room for reform in government; why not rally for a political party based solely on astronomical interests? It seems like a good start in combining science with government, to steer society in a direction which may better fit one’s needs and ultimately the human community’s.

Though entirely based in fiction, I’m particularly enthusiastic about http://www.starwars.com/tv-shows/star-wars-the-clone-wars Star Wars: The Clone Wars as a useful tool for kids, teaching them to recognize important things, like: political corruption, war, space travel and galactic awareness, whilst at the same time casually invoking the concepts of alien life, technology, economics and civilization. Cleverly, each episode begins with a caption that summarizes the lesson aimed at being taught ex. http://www.starwars.com/tv-shows/clone-wars/corruption “The challenge of hope is to overcome corruption.”

Raising children is obviously not some type of socio-political experiment (arguably) and I doubt anyone can really predict what another person will want to do in their own lives… Risky business, but might be worth the risk, with all other goings-on considered if one is adequately fit for the responsibilities involved. This is of course coming from someone without any experience, so maybe to a parent I come across as an insane person. I wouldn’t know, just a playful thought.

• Joëlle B. August 23, 2014, 17:35

Ah, finally my comment is awaiting moderation. I guess Centauri Dreams doesn’t use the [ url = ][ /url ] bbcode for title linking? Tried to title link The Clone Wars and “The challenge of hope is to overcome corruption.” but my comment kept disappearing when I clicked submit.

• Paul Gilster August 23, 2014, 20:56

I’ve run into sporadic problems with linking though have never diagnosed just what’s happening — sorry, it looks as though you found the workaround.

• Alex Tolley August 24, 2014, 1:01

@NS – I interpreted what you were saying was that the possible variations in DNA: 4^genome_length created an almost infinite variety of possible sequences and hence phenotypes. In reality, the functional space of sequences is much smaller. I hope that you at least recognize that the cited huge possible DNA variation is the creationist argument in favor of design.

I would argue something different. Just as there is an infinite number of numbers for the value of PI, you need that sequence of numbers. Life is much more flexible, but functional protein sequences are not infinite and random sequences of amino acids will not create useful proteins. For all teh diversity of life, there are relatively few phyla, all of which for multicellular forms emerged during the Cambrian “explosion”. While that probably does not represent all possible body plans, it just might be indicative that relatively few basic forms will work well. When we eventually can study carbon life in the galaxy, we will find out how representative, or not, these body plans are.

• ljk August 25, 2014, 11:49

8/21/2014 @ 12:02 PM 16.760 views

NASA, Russia Squabble Over International Space Station Sea Plankton Claim

You’ve probably seen the fantastical headlines flying around social media or the web this week that Russian cosmonauts have reported discovering traces of sea plankton living on the exterior of the International Space Station, exposed to the harsh, airless vacuum of space.

The only problem is that the Russians’ American ISS roommates from NASA don’t seem to agree with the assessment that there’s some sort of microscopic space barnacles clinging to their orbiting home.

To be clear, the actual astronauts aboard the space station haven’t chimed in on the space plankton controversy. Rather, it’s being fought out in the media via brief quotes from space agency representatives here on Earth.

“Results of the experiment are absolutely unique. We have found traces of sea plankton and microscopic particles on the illuminator surface. This should be studied further,” chief of the Russian ISS orbital mission Vladimir Solovyev told Russia’s state-owned ITAR-TASS news agency.

The Russian report also seems to infer that the plankton finding and other previous surveys indicate such organisms can survive and even grow outside the space station, despite having to contend with being blasted by radiation from the sun and lacking the basic life support system found in Earth.

“Results of the scope of scientific experiments which had been conducted for a quite long time were summed up in the previous year, confirming that some organisms can live on the surface of the International Space Station (ISS) for years amid factors of a space flight, such as zero gravity, temperature conditions and hard cosmic radiation. Several surveys proved that these organisms can even develop.”

But all this seems to be news to NASA.

http://www.forbes.com/sites/ericmack/2014/08/21/nasa-russia-squabble-over-international-space-station-sea-plankton-claim/

• ljk August 25, 2014, 12:15

Lick Observatory: Searching for Exoplanets & Funds

By Elizabeth Howell, Space.com Contributor | August 23, 2014 12:24 am ET

Lick Observatory is an astronomical research facility in California that has been in operation since 1888. Astronomers at Lick are searching for planets outside the solar system, trying to understand how stars and galaxies came to be, and doing a survey of supernovae to learn about the universe’s history. The University of California owns and operates the observatory; however, Lick will soon lose funding.

“Citing budget stringency, the University of California Office of the President (UCOP) has announced its intention to terminate funding for Lick in 2018,” the observatory’s website states. “Lick operations currently cost \$1.5 million per year. Unless these funds are replaced, the telescopes will close. Also closing will be the public programs, including access to the 36-inch refractor and the main building.”

The office is spending the next three years in search of new partners to take on a share of the cost, the website said in mid-2014, and is also examining how much it would cost to close down the telescope and deconstruct it, leaving the site close to its original condition.

http://www.space.com/26920-lick-observatory.html

• ljk August 25, 2014, 12:22

They Came From Outer Space! The Mystery Of The Fast Radio Bursts

In 2007, David Narkevic, then a physics and political science undergraduate student at the West Virginia University, discovered a very powerful, ultra short radio burst that had seemingly come from beyond the Milky Way, while he was re-analysing archival data from 2001 that had been collected with the iconic 64-m Parkes radio telescope in Australia. The nature of this powerful 4.6 millisecond-long signal, which was hidden inside a ‘haystack’ of 480 hours-worth of data, proved to be quite elusive while bearing no resemblance whatsoever to other known, previously discovered cosmic radio bursts.

The enigmatic signal, named ‘the Lorimer burst’ after Dr. Duncan Lorimer, an astronomy professor at the West Virginia University and Narkevic’s supervisor, thus remained a strange peculiarity for years, without reappearing in follow-up scans of the same part of the sky. A new cosmic mystery had been born.

The history of astronomy is replete with instances of unexpected findings that defy explanation at first, ultimately leading to a better understanding of the Universe in the process. Such was the case with the startling discovery in 1967, of a mystifying radio source in the direction of the constellation Vulpecula which emitted short radio pulses with a period of 1.33 seconds and that would be later identified as coming from a previously unknown type of collapsed stars, called pulsars.

During the same time, the-then recently deployed network of US Vela satellites, which constantly monitored for any gamma ray pulses that would be emitted from a possible testing of nuclear weapons in space by the former Soviet Union, detected a series of unexpected short flashes of gamma rays that proved to be of a cosmic origin instead. Decades would pass before astronomers could understand the origins of these short-duration cosmic gamma ray bursts, that last from a few milliseconds up to a few minutes, finally associating then with some of the most energetic astrophysical phenomena in the Universe, like the collapse of supermassive stars and the formation of black holes in far away galaxies.

http://www.americaspace.com/?p=66487

To quote:

In the meantime, researchers are planning to conduct many more rigorous studies of these mysterious radio signals, whose elusive nature have intrigued the scientific community for years, in the hopes of finally uncovering their secrets. “Now, with the discovery of a burst from Arecibo, we are more confident that FRBs are astrophysical phenomena, and discovering and classifying them should be a priority of radio astronomical observatories in the future,” adds Spitler.

“The Effelsberg radio telescope [located in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany] has great potential for detecting many of these bursts. We are sure that there are bursts to be found in archival data from radio pulsar surveys at Effelsberg, and currently we are working hard to implement a system that will detect bursts in real-time. Real-time detection is an important step forward as it enables follow-up observations with facilities at other observing bands, which is crucial to understanding this mystery.”

As with every other mystery in the history of astronomical research, the solution to the fast radio burst enigma promises to be a fascinating one, providing us with new and important insights into the hidden processes of our Universe.

• Hiro August 25, 2014, 17:10

The distance 200 ly between 2 advanced civilization is still nothing if these two have separation about 1M years from each other. Honesty speaking, we wouldn’t have known anything even if an ancient civilization had existed in the Centauri system 1M years ago.

I don’t believe civilizations could stay in the same stage without devolving or evolving into something else.

• ljk August 26, 2014, 11:46

Hiro said on August 25, 2014 at 17:10:

“The distance 200 ly between 2 advanced civilization is still nothing if these two have separation about 1M years from each other. Honesty speaking, we wouldn’t have known anything even if an ancient civilization had existed in the Centauri system 1M years ago.”

Not just technological differences, but biological and cultural as well. We tend to assume an intelligent species will evolve their technology and culture roughly similar to ours, but we keep forgetting the real meaning of the word alien, as in not like us.

ETI could be like cetaceans, smart but have not bothered with radio telescopes or other means of interstellar communication in the last 30 million years of their existence. I already know the Douglas Adams bit, so don’t try it. :^)

So in addition to factors like huge distances, incompatible technology, knowing when and where to aim any METI devices, and the odds of perceiving the Universe the way we do, we can add to the Fermi Paradox the fact that aliens will be alien. They won’t have to necessarily be utterly bizarre, either, to be and think in ways quite different from humanity.

Recall that with few exceptions, for most of human civilization the idea of beings on other worlds was considered fantasy and even dangerous thinking. And only in the last few decades have we even attempted to search for and communicate with ETI in any plausible, scientific sort of way – and much of that has been sporadic and token. So I am not exactly shocked that SETI has not found any examples yet. We need to get serious about it just as we do with interstellar vessels.