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Examining SETI Assumptions

If we’re trying to extend the boundaries of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, how do we proceed? A speculative mind is essential, and one of the delights of science fiction is the ability to move through an unrestricted imaginative space, working out the ramifications of various scenarios. But we have to prioritize what we’re doing, which is why Freeman Dyson settled on the idea of looking for conspicuous examples of intelligence using technology. It’s no surprise that the term ‘Dysonian SETI’ has arisen to describe how such a search might proceed.


The Dyson sphere is a case in point. We can imagine a civilization vastly more ancient and technologically adept than our own deciding to maximize the amount of power it can draw from a star. Although Dyson spheres are sometimes pictured as shells completely surrounding a star, Dyson’s ideas are more readily thought of in terms of a ‘swarm’ of objects soaking up as much power as possible. Other configurations are in the mix, including the ‘ringworld’ envisioned by Larry Niven in the novel of the same name. Such engineering would throw a unique astronomical signature. Even a completely enclosed star could be detected by its radiation in the infrared, which is where previous searches for Dyson spheres have been conducted.

Image: Physicist Freeman Dyson, whose work has inspired not only SETI proponents but aerospace engineers, science fiction authors and philosophers of science. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Would a powerful civilization build such things? It’s a key question, and as Clément Vidal points out in The Beginning and the End (Springer, 2014), Dyson’s 1966 paper on the matter made the assumption that an alien intelligence would use a technology we can understand. The idea has been rightfully criticized as anthropocentric, even by Dyson himself, who called the notion ‘utterly unrealistic.’ But we have to start somewhere, acknowledging the very real prospect that a truly advanced civilization might operate in ways that mimic natural processes. Developing criteria based on what we do understand at least gives us an opening into studying things we see in our astronomical data that might flag the presence of astroengineering. We’re limited by but must employ our own level of scientific knowledge.

As I mentioned yesterday, Dysonian SETI (or Vidal’s ‘Zen SETI’) does not conflict with older radio and optical SETI methods. By looking for manifestations of technology at work in our astronomical data, Zen SETI largely abandons the idea of SETI as an attempt at receiving intentional communications, and looks instead to identify large-scale anomalies that show us another civilization at work. This form of SETI also pushes not only deep into our own galaxy but into any observable astronomical objects we can see with our telescopes. As I said yesterday, this is a bit like archaeology, with conceivable discoveries that are billions of years old.

Where Life Can Emerge

So while traditional SETI pushes on with its entirely valid search, newer forms of SETI widen the search space and cause us to question the philosophical bases of our assumptions. Should we, for example, assume we are looking for forms of life reliant on carbon and water? Vidal notes a 1980 definition of life by Gerald Feinberg and Robert Shapiro (in Life Beyond Earth, Morrow) that describes life as highly ordered systems of matter and energy ‘characterized by complex cycles that maintain or gradually increase the order of the system through the exchange of energy with the environment.’ Vidal comments:

It is important to notice the high generality of such a definition. There is no mention of carbon, water or DNA. What remains are energetic exchanges leading to an increase of order. Free from the limiting assumptions of [carbon and water], the two authors conceive possible beings living in lava flows, in Earth’s magma, or on the surface of neutron stars. The idea of life on neutron stars was explored not only in science fiction… but also by scientist [Frank] Drake.

The reference to science fiction takes in Robert Forward’s Dragon’s Egg (Ballantine, 1980), a punchy tale driven by the usual Forward gusto. Drake lesser known article is “Life on a Neutron Star,” which ran in Astronomy (Vol. 1, No. 5) in 1973, and which I still have buried in the stacks of old magazines that fill a cabinet here in my office. I remember the Drake with pleasure as one of those eye-opening things that make you look at the world a bit differently when you see how much you are a creature of your own environment. And then you start thinking about how many environments are out there…

The field for speculation is wide — Robert Freitas has even written about the possibility of metabolisms of living systems based on the four fundamental physical forces: the strong nuclear force, electromagnetism, the weak force, and gravitation. We should also consider the possibility (likelihood?) that an advanced civilization will be comprised largely of postbiological beings. Vidal reminds us of the many generations computers have gone through in our own lifetimes, with three-dimensional molecular computing as a possible follow-on to today’s integrated circuits. And he asks what a computer scientist from the 1940s would make of today’s digital world. Would he be able to find large parts of our technology, much less understand it? Vidal adds:


The moral of the story is that in SETI, matter doesn’t matter (much). What is important is the ability to manipulate matter-energy and information, not the material substrate itself. The case for postbiology is strong… Abandoning the hypothesis of ET using a biological substrate such as carbon, water, DNA molecules, or proteins makes us focus on the functional systems theory, which aims to be independent of a particular material substrate. This makes system theory the interdisciplinary research field par excellence and also an indispensable tool in astrobiology and SETI.

Image: Philosopher Clément Vidal approaches SETI with a multidisciplinary background that he uses to question underlying assumptions that affect the search. Credit: Sébastien Herrmann.

Maybe these extracts give some sense of how provocative this tightly written study is, and how often it questions the assumptions we bring to astrobiology. In fact, Vidal thinks a tight analysis of SETI can help us rid ourselves of those assumptions that apply only to terrestrial life so that we can try to uncover what the essential characteristics of all life must be. He’s looking for concepts of living systems and especially intelligence that can be generalized to extraterrestrial venues as we proceed to tighten our criteria for studying anomalous astronomical data.

What kind of things might we hope to find if there is such a thing as astroengineering on an interstellar scale? Beyond the aforementioned Dyson spheres, could we detect extensive mining in asteroid belts in exoplanetary systems? How about anomalous stars, far too young to be in the region we find them, or stars that display unusual spectra that may indicate a civilization trying to lengthen the hydrogen fusion burning cycle of its home sun? As I mentioned yesterday, you can see a summary of recent ideas on the matter in my essay Distant Ruins, which ran in Aeon.

Tomorrow I’ll wrap up this discussion of The Beginning and the End with Vidal’s own thinking on what may be a candidate for what we can call ‘high energy astrobiology,’ an astronomical phenomenon that is curious enough to provoke Dysonian SETI theorists. But I’ll argue in advance that the value of this book isn’t in a specific SETI candidate but in the far broader context Vidal brings to the human quest for other civilizations, a context that challenges readers to examine their own views of the place of intelligent beings in the universe.

The original Dyson paper covering a broadened search for ETI is “The Search for Extraterrestrial Technology,” in Marshak, R.E. (ed.) Perspectives in Modern Physics (Wiley, 1966), pp. 641-655.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • coacervate October 28, 2014, 18:45

    I hope this does not come off as combative…but the line of reasoning, that we seek more sublime signs of intelligence, however valid it may be assumes that we have searched the more mundane radio and optical frequencies and found them to be silent.

    I wonder…Should we ask Frank D about that? What is really going on SETI-wise and just how exhaustive has the more “conventional” search been? I’m just guessing i guess but i cant find anything better than SETI@home and they seem to have megazillions of hits including a few hundred repeats. Doesn’t that rate some discussion?

    I’m all for mining the data. Have we done that with exisiting radio/optical archives? Is that a Zoouniverse project to be? Can a shmoe like me and my Vaio do it? I implore you to help us understand the current state-of-play.

    One thought, I’m sure others have it before me: how would our most advanced ideas about starships manifest themselves if the Universe where peppered with them? Wouldn’t there be a doppler signature from their exhaust? What about bow shock? Wouldn’t there have to be a force field ahead of the ship to sweep out stray matter? I’d love to read your take on the physical effects of near LS travel through the IM. TY

  • Christopher Phoenix October 28, 2014, 19:51

    Interesting speculations… I agree that reexamining our ideas (assumptions?) about alien life is important. Pretty much any technique for locating aliens makes some assumptions about what those beings might be like and what they might get up too, which may not ultimately be correct. A negative result for a certain type of SETI search indicates either that intelligent life does not exist in the searched area- or something is wrong with our basic assumptions.

    Seen this way, SETI becomes a tool of basic science. Various hypotheses and scenarios can be tested and discarded as they turn out not to be the sort of universe we seem to be living in. While our search for alien radio messages might yet turn up an unambiguous signal, our search so far has ruled out some early optimistic scenarios like advanced aliens running omnidirectional “tutorial beacons”, for example.

    The real problem is interpreting what those results mean. Would finding no SETI signals mean that there are no intelligent technology-using species in our area of the universe? That they are not interested in communicating with each other? That we are looking for the wrong kinds of signals? That the net of communicating civilizations is closed to outsiders? That they are deliberately avoiding contact? Or, as some SF stories suggest, they keep quiet for fear of attracting some cosmic boogeyman? Or simply that they are all using Dirac transmitters and don’t have time for civilizations that use primitive and slooow methods of communication like radio waves? :-) This comes back to the assumption that aliens use technology we can currently understand.

  • Jim October 29, 2014, 11:30

    We may have been contacted by alien civilizations in the past,
    but dinosaurs and ancient Egyption/Roman culture didn’t
    have radio technology. The next attempted contact
    may be after humans are extinct. You have to consider
    how far away in light years the senders of a message are
    and the time it would take to reach Earth.

  • Bill October 29, 2014, 13:47

    It’s interesting that although the origin of life is difficult to explain it seems to have appeared on Earth about as soon as it could have been supported. Perhaps evidence for exraterrestrial intelligence and technology is literally staring us in the face. Are we Von Neumann machines?

  • Andrew Palfreyman October 29, 2014, 15:49

    Claudio Maccone points out that the KLT is a superior way to analyse radio transmissions than is the FFT. Just noting.

  • Geoffrey Hillend October 29, 2014, 16:50

    Nuclear fusion power makes the Dyson Sphere idea completely obsolete. It is an idea that may be trapped in today’s technology or the past. If we can take the power of the Sun or fusion with us inside the spacecraft, then we don’t need the Dyson sphere. This is true whether it is a generational world ship or a warp drive. Fusion power is the way to go. If we solve interstellar travel we won’t have a need to increase the lifetime of our Sun we can simply leave the Earth and go somewhere else. We eventually will make fusion reactors smaller and more powerful. We can convert that energy directly into electricity for the ship such as lights or anything else. Consequently, ET’s would not need a Dyson sphere if we don’t. It can’t hurt to look for one though

  • Eric Hughes October 29, 2014, 21:15

    It appears the Vidal book was his PhD thesis. Preprint at http://arxiv.org/abs/1301.1648

  • Wojciech J October 30, 2014, 9:59

    Out of the top of my head, it would be interesting to list(just for fun) all the possible mega-engineering projects we could detect in theory.
    I know that there were some interesting results with Dyson Spheres, however obviously inconclusive.
    Other things I recall-attempts to discover anti-matter drive, high-speet travelling stars escaping the Galaxy(I recall Centauri Dreams article about it), I also remember one poster noting that there is a galaxy with extremely high amount of red dwarfs which is an anomaly difficult to explain with current theories, but could be explained with stellar mining.

    Also Geoffrey Hillend is spot on on the use of Dyson Spheres and if they are useful at all.

    I think the main issue is with vastness of space and time. If there are any civilizations they would be very far apart from us in both space and age, making contact doubtful. On top of it, colonization doesn’t seem to me to be that important for any civilization to colonize whole galaxy.

  • RobFlores October 30, 2014, 12:05

    Just to add to G. Hillend. on the mastery of fusion.

    With fusion, you are also freed from scavenging for raw
    elements. There would not be any need to enter in close proximity to star
    system, since you can harness fusion to create most of the base
    metals required for life.
    In an vagabond world ship type of existence for humans in deep time , the interesting speculation will be how the Artificial Gravity problem will be solved, via mechanical toroids or A.G.G. (artificial gravity generator if that
    is even possible.) AGG allows for enormous populations on modest size
    ships, as the volume of the living space is not constrained to narrow ribbons.

  • Andrew Palfreyman October 30, 2014, 15:24

    Even if an advanced civilisation maintains the will to communicate interstellarly (if that’s a valid adverb) for one million years, it’s still a drop in the ocean of time within which we seek our luck at detecting them.

  • Joëlle B. October 30, 2014, 19:27

    @Andrew Palfreyman & Christopher Phoenix

    I think it is plausible to conclude that as soon as a biological species realizes it has the ability to manipulate it’s own existence, the subsequent natural maneuver is to imprint its very essence throughout the cosmos, in whatever way proves most commodious. For the cell, immortality and replication is prime-directive No. 1, as evident through violation of the Hayflick limit and competitiveness in evolution.

    A being desires the zenith of supremacy–to be a controller of all its reality–a providential deity, who answers to none, not even the means of its own existence. Perhaps we are too small: a cell, a part of an illusory form of subjugation to the greater real, or have simply failed to attain such a pinnacle due to the will of the broader organism of humanity to remain comforted in the harsh, adaptable processes of our environment.

    Communication by local signalling, if anyone is there to answer, will imply partakers in such a similar struggle–and if not, the next preemptive assumption begs, ‘why the hell are they trying to detect radio signals and why would they be stupid enough to respond to us?’ And the dumbbell knows not the answer until it would have been too late, finding herself a captive of the Terran Empire or blown to smithers by the Xindi, because of the transdimensional beings, who were intelligent enough to have developed lord’s atemporal, ‘causality violating’ technology to better accommodate their interests.

    So I would propose that we should focus on empowering ourselves (and seeding the universe), cloaked in the shadows, spying on the other lifeforms and gaining intelligence. If we do present ourselves to another sentience, we should do so seated on sapphire thrones and low swinging chariots with winged spinners, listening to the visited make songs about us to let them take a ride on the mothership–and by royal assent, bestowed by Parliament, this will serve as the condition for all future first contacts, because obviously their taste in music implies they are, indeed, interstellarly funkadelic.

  • Eniac November 1, 2014, 22:33

    Wojciech J

    I think the main issue is with vastness of space and time. If there are any civilizations they would be very far apart from us in both space and age, making contact doubtful.

    Actually, the vastness of time works in the opposite direction. It ensures that any form of life capable of interstellar colonization would soon be everywhere, the opposite of far apart.

    On top of it, colonization doesn’t seem to me to be that important for any civilization to colonize whole galaxy.

    True, but you do not have to want to colonize the whole galaxy. One civilization may only want to colonize two other worlds, creating new civilizations which in turn want to do the same. In the old cosmic blink of an eye, the galaxy is settled. Without anyone ever finding it important to do so.

    Perhaps this makes it easier to understand: I am pretty sure that the original emigrants from Africa did not have it on their mind to spread humanity over the entire Earth. It still happened.

  • Rob Henry November 2, 2014, 17:35

    Eniac, a minor point about that out-of-African migration. Those emigrants were almost certainly nomadic, and their colonisation was so slow as to preclude the indea of a deliberate small scale plan that gives rise to an accidental large scale one. Here is a truer example.

    Polynesians were not nomadic, yet skilled enough at boat building and navigating to found new colonies. We know that this was deliberate colonisation because it was always against the trade winds (harder to get there but easier to return), even when there were other options, and the new settlers invariably set up trading with their old colony. We also know that they only intended to take one more step, as it could be a century or two before they took the next, with archaeological evidence that this was each time due to population pressure and/or depleted resources. Eventually, all the Pacific was colonised by them.

  • Wojciech J November 4, 2014, 9:02

    “It ensures that any form of life capable of interstellar colonization would soon be everywhere, the opposite of far apart.”
    There is no reason to believe that, especially with the lack of any visible widespread colonization of the galaxy. Once you have technology able to travel the interstellar space, the same technology makes colonization unnecessary, as you either will be able to create better artficial settlements or become post-biological. Re-creating biological conditions on dead planet or erasing a whole biosphere to replace it with your own is simply too time and resource consuming faced with alternative.
    “One civilization may only want to colonize two other worlds, creating new civilizations which in turn want to do the same. In the old cosmic blink of an eye, the galaxy is settled.”
    Two worlds don’t make a whole galaxy. And a space is so vast and full of resources that one solar system provides enough resources for millions if not billions of years for a civilization.

    “Perhaps this makes it easier to understand: I am pretty sure that the original emigrants from Africa did not have it on their mind to spread humanity over the entire Earth. It still happened.”

    “Here is a truer example.
    Polynesians were not nomadic, yet skilled enough at boat building and navigating to found new colonies.Eventually, all the Pacific was colonised by them.”
    Both above examples actually prove my point. Humanity didn’t colonize whole Earth, and all Pacific wasn’t colonized. In fact we retreated from colonization of Earth,established natural preserves, and you can find Pacific islands where humans decided to abandon settlements leaving them empty.
    And this is in environment much more friendly to life than space.

  • Geoffrey Hillend November 4, 2014, 16:13

    @Wojciech J you are still arguing from an a priori assumption which is that we know what the distribution of ET life is in the galaxy. We don’t know that yet and our lack of visible evidence is limited by the fact we don’t yet have the technology to image directly the atmospheres of Earth sized extra solar planets to see whats there nor do we have the technology in place for a spectroscopic analysis of their atmospheres but we will with the James Web space telescope and larger Earth based telescopes which will be completed by the middle of the next decade.

  • Eniac November 4, 2014, 18:07

    Rob Henry:

    Eniac, a minor point about that out-of-African migration. Those emigrants were almost certainly nomadic, and their colonisation was so slow as to preclude the indea of a deliberate small scale plan that gives rise to an accidental large scale one.

    I am not sure what you are saying, here. Certainly the idea is not precluded, because it is what actually happened. It is exactly my point that non-deliberate action still leads to complete colonization, in the long run.

    Your Polynesian example is, of course, nice, but it leaves more room for the argument that ETI or future generations will be different from the Polynesians and try to avoid colonization.

  • Eniac November 4, 2014, 18:47

    Wojciech J:

    Once you have technology able to travel the interstellar space, the same technology makes colonization unnecessary, as you either will be able to create better artficial settlements or become post-biological.

    Artificial settlements, post-biological beings, non-sentient replicators, anything you can imagine… None of them, given the proper technology, would have to be restrained to a single system. It would be quite impossible to keep at least some of them from moving on.

    Re-creating biological conditions on dead planet or erasing a whole biosphere to replace it with your own is simply too time and resource consuming faced with alternative.

    Then don’t, do something else. Any form of detectable presence by any part or subset of civilization is sufficient for the argument to hold.

    Two worlds don’t make a whole galaxy.

    Clearly you do not understand the impact of deep time, here. Two worlds eventually make four, which eventually make 8, then 16, etc, etc. Not one civilization, but many. It would be impossible to keep them all in line and constrained to a limited region of space for billions of years.

    Humanity didn’t colonize whole Earth, and all Pacific wasn’t colonized. In fact we retreated from colonization of Earth,established natural preserves, and you can find Pacific islands where humans decided to abandon settlements leaving them empty.

    A place does not have to have people trampling on it to count as occupied. You will be very hard pressed to find a single square meter of land that is not claimed by at least one nation on Earth, or apportioned in a treaty. Many of the natural preserves are quite well guarded and maintained, in some cases to the point that you cannot throw away a piece of trash without risking a hefty fine. The Pacific is completely controlled. The US Navy can get a ship to any part of it within a day or so, and aircraft criss-cross it regularly. Satellites survey the entire Earth surface, continuously. Any unidentified ship or aircraft would be detected and challenged very shortly, I am quite certain, if there is any chance of it being hostile.

    I think it is quite fair to say the entire Earth is occupied by us, and there is no way you could miss it, looking down on it from above. Much less when you are trying to visit.

  • Rob Henry November 4, 2014, 19:36

    Wojciech, I will try too explain the problem on a more fundamental level than Eniac has. Allow me to use the concept of ‘phase space’

    Now, wrt colonisation, the phase space of all non-sapient life is to colonise all habitats they have any means to spread to and ability to adapt to. This so becomes the universal default for the most fundamental of all reasons. Now let us look at the phase space for ETI’s

    It is possible to come up with all sorts of reasons that ETI’s do not occupy this default but we know of one intelligent species, and so far, it has not. We have spread everywhere our technology has let us built a viable economy – and even to Antarctica, where it has of yet not.

    Subconsciously we tend to think that all ETI’s will be very different from us and very similar to each other, even if our conscious minds know that as nonsense. The problem is, for radio-SETI to work we need thousands of to exist simultaneously to expect any reasonable chance of receiving one. Unless we live in a privileged era this would have to have been the case for billions of years. If just one of the contained subgroups that occasionally (once every million years or so) whet through a phase where the universal default was popular, then our whole galaxy would be colonised in the blink of an eye.

    The phase space of ETI wrt spreading must be wondrous strange, never shifting into that territory that is the default for all other life.

    Oh, and one other thing. An ETI that is so outward looking, powerful, and in control of its system resources as to be able to produce a signal we can detect, should also be one that is either capable of star travel, or (if we can receive it only after we build colossal space based receivers) expects its receiving civilisation to be so able.

  • ljk November 24, 2014, 9:26

    Communicating Across the Cosmos, Part 1: Shouting into the Darkness

    by PAUL PATTON on NOVEMBER 20, 2014

    Over the last 20 years, astronomers have discovered several thousand planets orbiting other stars. We now know that potentially habitable Earth-like planets are abundant in the cosmos. Such findings lend a new plausibility to the idea that intelligent life might exist on other worlds. Suppose that SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) researchers succeed in their quest to find a message from a distant exoplanet. How much information can we hope to receive or send? Can we hope to decipher its meaning? Can humans compose interstellar messages that are comprehensible to alien minds?

    Such concerns were the topic of a two day academic conference on interstellar messages held at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California; ‘Communicating across the Cosmos’. The conference drew 17 speakers from a wide variety of disciplines, including linguistics, anthropology, archeology, mathematics, cognitive science, philosophy, radio astronomy, and art. This article is the first of a series of installments about the conference. Today, we’ll explore the ways in which our society is already sending messages to extraterrestrial civilizations, both accidentally and on purpose.

    Full article here:


  • ljk November 24, 2014, 9:29

    Communicating Across the Cosmos, Part 2: Petabytes from the Stars?

    by PAUL PATTON on NOVEMBER 21, 2014

    Since it was founded in 1984, the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Mountain View, California, has been a principal American venue for scientific efforts to discover evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations. In mid-November, the institute sponsored a conference, “Communicating across the Cosmos”, on the problems of devising and understanding messages from other worlds. The conference drew 17 speakers from numerous disciplines, including linguistics, anthropology, archeology, mathematics, cognitive science, philosophy, radio astronomy, and art.

    This is the second of four installments of a report on the conference. Today, we’ll look at the SETI Institute’s current efforts to find an extraterrestrial message, and some of their future plans. If they find something, just how much information can we expect to receive? How much can we send?

    The idea of using radio to listen for messages from extraterrestrials is as old as radio itself. Radio pioneers Nikola Tesla and Guglielmo Marconi both listened for signals from the planet Mars early in the 20th century. The first to listen for messages from the stars was radio astronomer Frank Drake in 1960. Until recently though, SETI projects have been limited and sporadic. That began to change in 2007 when the SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array (ATA) started observations.

    Full article here:


    To quote:

    A petabyte of gibberish contains as much information as a petabyte of our world’s greatest art and literature (or tackiest YouTube videos). A petabyte of our world’s greatest art and literature is gibberish to a being who can’t understand it. We could send the aliens truly stunning amounts of information, but can we find some way to ensure that they will understand its meaning? Could we hope to understand an alien message sent to us, or would all those petabytes be for naught? In the next installment, we’ll learn that we face daunting problems.

  • ljk November 25, 2014, 15:33

    Communicating Across the Cosmos, Part 3: Bridging the Vast Gulf

    by PAUL PATTON on NOVEMBER 25, 2014

    If extraterrestrial civilizations exist, the nearest is probably at least hundreds or thousands of light years away. Still, the greatest gulf that we will have to bridge to communicate with extraterrestrials is not such distances, but the gulf between human and alien minds.

    In mid-November, the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California sponsored an academic conference on interstellar communication, “Communicating across the Cosmos“. The conference drew 17 speakers from a variety of disciplines, including linguistics, anthropology, archaeology, mathematics, cognitive science, radio astronomy, and art. In this installment we will explore some of the formidable difficulties that humans and extraterrestrials might face in constructing mutually comprehensible interstellar messages.

    Full article here:


  • ljk December 2, 2014, 11:14

    Communicating Across the Cosmos 4: The Quest for a Rosetta Stone

    by PAUL PATTON on DECEMBER 1, 2014

    On television and in the movies, it’s so easy. Aliens almost always speak English (at least in America they do). If it’s explained at all, we are typically told that they learned it by intercepting communications with our astronauts, or tapping into our television broadcasts. A universal translator device instantly abolishes communication difficulties. Hollywood aliens are, of course, human beings in costumes (these days augmented by computer graphics). They are equipped, as are we all, with a human brain, a human larynx, and human vocal cords; all singular products of the distinctive evolutionary history of our species.

    Real extraterrestrials, if they exist, will be the product of a different evolutionary history, played out on another world.

    They will know no human language, and be unfamiliar with the typical activities of human beings. Here on Earth no archeologist has ever deciphered an ancient script without knowing the language it corresponds to, even though such scripts deal with recognizable human activities. How could we ever devise a message that aliens could understand? Could we ever understand a message they sent to us? Communicating with alien minds may be one of the most daunting challenges the human intellect has ever faced.

    In mid-November, the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California sponsored an academic conference on the problem interstellar communication ‘Communicating across the Cosmos’. The conference drew 17 speakers from a variety of disciplines, including linguistics, anthropology, archeology, mathematics, cognitive science, radio astronomy, and art. In this final installment, we will search for clues to a solution to the daunting problem of making ourselves understood to an extraterrestrial civilization.

    Conference presenter and archeologist Paul Wason believes that the history of archeology provides an important lesson for how we might devise a message that can be deciphered by extraterrestrials. In the early 19th century the French archeologist Jean-Francois Champollion solved one of the great riddles of his field by deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics. The critical clue was provided by an artifact discovered in 1799 in an Egyptian town that Europeans called Rosetta. It became known as the Rosetta stone.

    Full article here:


    To quote:

    There is a glimmering of hope for another kind of Rosetta stone based on another sort of “Greek”. Given the central role that visual images played in the Voyager message, it’s surprising that image based communication strategies didn’t receive greater emphasis at the conference.

    It’s true that here on Earth; animals have evolved a wide variety of non-visual ways to sense their surroundings. Some fishes can sense their environments by generating and detecting electric fields in the water. Many fish can use fields of water flow around their bodies to detect nearby objects. Bats, along with dolphins and whales, have evolved a sonar system, emitting sounds and analyzing their returning echoes. Scorpions can sense ground vibrations, elephants can hear sounds below the range of human hearing, and dogs have a remarkably acute sense of smell, to name just a few examples. Still, almost every Earthly animal has eyes of some sort.

    The main message of the ‘Communicating across the Cosmos’ conference is a recognition of just how hard the problem of making ourselves understood to aliens will be. Kim Binsted ended her talk on a faint note of optimism. Even if all else fails, she supposed, there is something we can still communicate to the aliens.

    She showed a slide of her home doorbell. When it rings, she said, it conveys the message that someone is there, and where they are. It shows intent to communicate, and a benign willingness to reveal one’s presence. Even if it can’t be interpreted, an interstellar message conveys the information that a doorbell conveys. That message, the message that someone is there, would still be of monumental importance.

  • ljk December 29, 2014, 14:38

    Will We Find Extraterrestrial Life In 2015?

    By Caleb A. Scharf | December 29, 2014 |

    Probably not, but just possibly yes.

    One of the reasons that the search for life elsewhere in the universe is so exciting is that it would take only one chance discovery, one lucky break, for all the walls to come tumbling down. But where is that revolution going to come from?

    Perhaps the best news in 2014 came from the Curiosity rover’s apparent detection of a spike in atmospheric methane, discussed in the previous post. It’s far too early to know, but it is possible that this is a sign of extinct or extant life on Mars. Unfortunately, verifying any such claim is challenging.

    Full article here:


    To quote:

    Altogether, 2015 is definitely going to be an interesting year for astrobiology. I also hope that we continue to develop how we frame these efforts; as a crucial part of our species’ growth. Boxing this science up as something that’s independent of the very down-to-earth challenges we face is, I think, foolish. We’ve taken that path of willful ignorance for far too long. On a finite world a cosmic perspective isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity.

    There are now more than 7 billion human minds on Earth. For far too many of these minds, consciousness is tragically, heart-wrenchingly brief. Let’s restore some dignity to our flash of existence by discovering what else is out there, while also working to put the civilized back into civilization.

  • ljk December 29, 2014, 14:40

    The link below corresponds to the text just above. The link in the comment above is relevant, it just doesn’t correspond to the text it is embedded in.


  • ljk December 29, 2014, 14:42

    Bill Nye’s Answer to Fermi Paradox: Be Patient

    Darren Orf

    Yesterday 11:04 am

    The Fermi Paradox is a question that stumps and fascinates scientists (and pretty much everyone else, let’s be real.) The question, originally posed by Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, wonders at why there are theoretically so many habitable planets in the universe, but humanity has yet to make contact with any form of intelligent life.

    Bill Nye decided to tackle the question in a short YouTube video. And for the famous science educator, the answer is simple: be patient. Nye believes that the one of the biggest barriers to making contact with alien life is just timing.


  • ljk January 5, 2015, 15:04

    Review: Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?

    Science and religion often seem in conflict with one another. Jeff Foust reviews a book by two Vatican Observatory scientists that use several astronomy topics to examine if that is really the case.

    Monday, January 5, 2015


  • ljk January 9, 2015, 13:15

    The Search for Starivores, Intelligent Life that Could Eat the Sun

    Written by MADDIE STONE

    January 6, 2015 // 12:45 PM EST

    There could be all manner of alien life forms in the universe, from witless bacteria to superintelligent robots. Still, the notion of a starivore—an organism that literally devours stars—may sound a bit crazy, even to a ​seasoned sci-fi fan. And yet, if such creatures do exist, they’re probably lurking in our astronomical data right now.

    That’s why philosopher Dr. Clement Vidal, who’s a researcher at the Free University of Brussels, along with Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology Stephen Dick, futurist John Smart, and nanotech entrepreneur Robert Freitas are soliciting scientific proposals to seek out star-eating life. Vidal, who coined the term starivore in a paper he wrote in 2013, is the first to admit how bizarre it sounds. Yet he insists that some of the most profound scientific discoveries have come about by examining natural processes through a radically different lens.

    “Newton did not discover new gravitational bodies: He took a different perspective on a phenomena and discovered new things exist,” Vidal told me. “It might well be that extraterrestrial intelligence is already somewhere in our data. Re-interpreting certain star systems as macroscopic living things is one example.”

    Simple forms of life may be strewn all over universe, but if we ever discover intelligent aliens, they’ll probably vastly outstrip us in technology and intellect. It’s impossible to say exactly how a hyper-advanced civilization would live, but one very likely feature—according to the handful of scientists who ponder such matters—is their ability to harness tremendous quantities of energy.

    “Our civilization produces minuscule amounts of energy—a trillion times less than the power produced by the sun,” Avi Loeb, chair of Harvard University’s astronomy department, told me. “You can imagine that some advanced civilization would be able to harness the entire energy of its host star. The question is, how would they do it?”

    Full article here:


    To quote:

    Strictly speaking, Vidal’s idea is not entirely new. In the 1953 novel The Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon envisioned an advanced civilization that feeds off the energy of an artificial star, in a binary system constructed to fuel an endless journey through space. Vidal also takes inspiration from Dyson spheres, hypothetical megastructures that encircle stars and soak up nearly all their energy.

    But intriguing as it sounds, the notion of advanced life masquerading as a star faces a major hurdle: Some way of empirically proving or disproving the presence of intelligence.

    “The difficulty with this idea, like any other idea for advanced intelligence, is in finding signals,” Loeb said. “If we knew what to look for, we would have found it already.”

    Vidal agrees. “Obviously, the confirmation or refutation of this idea is over my head. It needs to be a team effort, composed of high energy astrophysicists and astrobiologists.”

  • ljk January 19, 2015, 16:06

    January 19, 2015

    Snapshot of cosmic burst of radio waves

    A strange phenomenon has been observed by astronomers right as it was happening – a ‘fast radio burst’. The eruption is described as an extremely short, sharp flash of radio waves from an unknown source in the universe. The results have been published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

    Full article here:


    To quote:

    Further investigation

    So now what? Even though they captured the radio wave burst while it was happening and could immediately make follow-up observations at other wavelengths ranging from infrared light, visible light, ultraviolet light and X-ray waves, they found nothing. But did they discover anything?

    “We found out what it wasn’t. The burst could have hurled out as much energy in a few milliseconds as the Sun does in an entire day. But the fact that we did not see light in other wavelengths eliminates a number of astronomical phenomena that are associated with violent events such as gamma-ray bursts from exploding stars and supernovae, which were otherwise candidates for the burst,” explains Daniele Malesani.

    But the burst left another clue. The Parkes detection system captured the polarisation of the light. Polarisation is the direction in which electromagnetic waves oscillate and they can be linearly or circularly polarised. The signal from the radio wave burst was more than 20 percent circularly polarised and it suggests that there is a magnetic field in the vicinity.

    “The theories are now that the radio wave burst might be linked to a very compact type of object – such as neutron stars or black holes and the bursts could be connected to collisions or ‘star quakes’. Now we know more about what we should be looking for,” says Daniele Malesani.

  • ljk January 21, 2015, 14:42
  • ljk January 23, 2015, 15:01

    Mixed messages

    Our latest message to ET could be full of LOLcats and celebs. We should try to do better, or keep quiet altogether

    by Sarah Scoles

    January 16, 2015

    This summer, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will reach the highlight of a journey it began back in 2006. When the probe flies by Pluto at approximately 11.49 am UTC on 14 July, it will snap a series of detailed, intelligence-worthy pictures of the former planet’s surface. Once the mission is complete, NASA will download New Horizons’ data, wipe its memory, and wave goodbye as the shuttered spacecraft continues on into deep space, forever.

    But the craft will then take on another kind of cargo: memories of home. Engineers plan to upload the ‘One Earth’ message, the first crowd-sourced portrait of biological Earth, to the New Horizons’ hard drive some time in 2016, after all the data from the Pluto flyby have been downloaded. In the meantime, anyone with an internet connection can submit prospective images, audio, video, text and 3D renderings for the message, and a crowd will vote on what makes the final cut. It’s the most cosmic of subreddits.


    To quote:

    That inner grappling is the real point of interstellar messaging. It has never been about ‘them’. From Druyan’s heartbeat to Bowie’s songs to whatever boards New Horizons, it has always been, and always will be, about us. Sagan and Druyan never expected extraterrestrials to find their contracting aortas and firing axons and understand ‘what it means to be human’. They wanted to say to themselves – and to the world – ‘This is what it means to be us.’ Sometimes, they didn’t even mean ‘us’ in the general sense: after all, it’s not your love that’s immortalised beyond the heliosphere. It’s not Sagan’s, either. The experience is uniquely and impenetrably Druyan’s.

    When we can do actual active SETI, we shouldn’t smugly type out ‘connection’, curate a many-megapixel photo album, or muse about the music that tugs on our brainstems. When we have a real shot at contacting extraterrestrials, we should send only blank broadcasts. Ping, blip, a cosmic dial tone, a blinking cursor on an empty line. After all, the most important information about humans is not that we like Bach, understand quantum mechanics (kind of), or live by oceans. Our most noteworthy quality is that we exist. We are here. You are not alone: that’s all we need to say, and all we would need to hear.

  • ljk January 23, 2015, 15:04


    By Esther Kim in OMNI Magazine

    January 22, 2015


    OMNI magazine sought to know what prominent figures would say to aliens in the January 1995 issue. World leaders, governors of the 50 states in the US territories, and mayors of major cities were all pried for their diplomatic greeting.

    While President Clinton did not respond to OMNI’s intriguing scenario, one Tennessee Senator managed to entertain the question. Politicians were not the only members of society to have their brains dissected.

    Pulitzer prize winners, comedians, and major figures in the arts and sciences responded with both humor and intrigue. George Carlin exclaimed, “Get out! Go back! Save yourselves! You don’t know what you’re getting into. Prolonged contact with our species can only degrade your present standards, whatever they are.”

    It does not take a prominent position in society to know how to converse with intelligent beings born under a distant star. Extraterrestrial visitors could land in anybody’s backyard. What would you say?

    Full article here:


  • ljk January 28, 2015, 13:52

    Finding ET – we’re gonna need a bigger dish

    17:17 23 January 2015 by Jesse Emspak


    The hunt for alien civilisations may need a rethink. A new paper argues that the signals we’re listening for might not be the ones ET would choose.

    Historically, SETI – the search for extraterrestrial intelligence – involves scanning the sky for radio signals that another civilization is deliberately sending. The simplest would be a constant blast in all directions, but in a narrow range of frequencies, similar to early radio broadcasts – like a constant hum that would tell a listener it is artificial. From light years away, we would not be able to get any other information – all we would be able to tell from Earth is that a signal was there and where it was coming from, not what it says.

    But David Messerschmitt at the University of California, Berkeley points out that such a continuous signal would take a tremendous amount of energy. Assuming aliens have utility bills, he says, they would use a different strategy.

    They would also probably want to say something more than “we are here” by adding information to the signal. All attempts to send messages to ET from Earth have contained information, sometimes a lot of it. One of the most famous, the Arecibo message sent in 1974, which encoded details about humans, DNA, the solar system and more.

    “All our discussions about transmitting ourselves include information, and how to encode it such that ET can understand our message and what to include in the message,” Messerschmitt says.

    To do this most efficiently, instead of a constant, narrow-band signal, Messerschmitt argues that ET would beep out short bursts in a wider range of frequencies – a broadband signal. This would take less energy to transmit, and could encode information.

    Current SETI searches are not designed to pick up information in that kind of signal, notes Seth Shostak, director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute in California.

    “The problem is that… encoding a message; means that any signal would vary quickly,” Shostak says. “To see such variations – to get the information in the signal – requires having enough sensitivity to see changes in a 10th or 100th of a millionth of a second. That requires antennas with collecting areas maybe 10,000 times larger than necessary to detect a steady signal.” No such antennas currently exist that would pick up the variations more than a few light years away.

    But Messerschmitt thinks there’s a workaround. Existing software, such as that used for the SETI@Home project, which processes millions of signals using idle home computers, could be adapted to extract information from a signal. SETI@Home looks at many channels at once seeking narrowband signals, but it could be programmed to look for broadband ones instead.

    He doesn’t think this means the current approach to SETI should be halted, but rather expanded to also look for this alternative form of signal.

    “I would not advocate putting all our eggs in one basket,” says Messerschmitt. “We really don’t know what ET is up to.”

    Journal reference: Acta Astronautica, DOI: 10.1016/j.actaastro.2014.11.007

  • ljk February 9, 2015, 14:17

    Come find us! Scientists eye messaging alien worlds 20 light years away

    Published time: February 09, 2015 03:40

    Leading US astronomers are mulling plans to start beaming messages about Earth to hundreds of star systems with potentially inhabitable planets, according to the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in California.

    “There could be many civilizations out there but if they are all listening and no one is broadcasting then nothing will happen,” astrophysicist and SETI’s chief executive, David Black, told the Sunday Times.

    The idea is to transmit regular messages via the radio telescopes. The message would have to be detailed enough to provide information about the human race. One idea is to send the entire Wikipedia database.

    Full article here:


    To quote:

    Drafting such a message would be quite a task and scientists have not yet decided how to go about it just yet. “One question is…if we go ahead, what message should we send? Should it be the work of a few scientists or should we involve the whole world, perhaps through the internet?” Black said.

    If the project is approved, its messages will have the radius of up to 20-light years from Earth. The new initiative is scheduled to be discussed at the annual meeting of the American Association of Advancing Science next week.

  • ljk February 13, 2015, 15:12
  • ljk February 20, 2015, 18:30

    Who Speaks for Earth? The Controversy over Interstellar Messaging

    by PAUL PATTON on FEBRUARY 19, 2015

    Should we beam messages into deep space, announcing our presence to any extraterrestrial civilizations that might be out there? Or, should we just listen? Since the beginnings of the modern Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), radio astronomers have, for the most part, followed the listening strategy.

    In 1999, that consensus was shattered. Without consulting with other members of the community of scientists involved in SETI, a team of radio astronomers at the Evpatoria Radar Telescope in Crimea, led by Alexander Zaitsev, beamed an interstellar message called ‘Cosmic Call’ to four nearby sun-like stars. The project was funded by an American company called Team Encounter and used proceeds obtained by allowing members of the general public to submit text and images for the message in exchange for a fee.

    Similar additional transmissions were made from Evpatoria in 2001, 2003, and 2008. In all, transmissions were sent towards twenty stars within less than 100 light years of the sun. The new strategy was called Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI). Although Zaitsev was not the first to transmit an interstellar message, he and his associates where the first to systematically broadcast to nearby stars. The 70 meter radar telescope at Evpatoria is the second largest radar telescope in the world.

    In the wake of the Evpatoria transmissions a number of smaller former NASA tracking and research stations collected revenue by making METI transmissions as commercially funded publicity stunts. These included a transmission in the fictional Klingon language from Star Trek to promote the premier of an opera, a Dorito’s commercial, and the entirety of the 2008 remake of the classic science fiction movie “The Day the Earth Stood Still”. The specifications of these commercial signals have not been made public, but they were most likely much too faint to be detectable at interstellar distances with instruments comparable to those possessed by humans.

    Zaitsev’s actions stirred divisive controversy among the community of scientists and scholars concerned with the field. The two sides of the debate faced off in a recent special issue of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, resulting from a live debate sponsored in 2010 by the Royal Society at Buckinghamshire, north of London, England.

    Full article here:


    I learned from this article that a group had conducted a METI with the Klingon language aimed at the fictional Klingon homeworld from Star Trek. A harmless stunt or yet another example that trying to contain every signal from human civilization is futile?


  • ljk February 26, 2015, 18:46

    The Father of SETI: Q&A with Astronomer Frank Drake

    by Leonard David, Space.com’s Space Insider Columnist | February 26, 2015 01:50 pm ET

    COCOA BEACH, Fla. — Detecting signals from intelligent aliens is a lifelong quest of noted astronomer Frank Drake. He conducted the first modern search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) experiment in 1960. More than five decades later, the hunt remains front-and-center for the scientist.

    Drake also devised a thought experiment in 1961 to identify specific factors believed to play a role in the development of civilizations in our galaxy. This experiment took the form of an equation that researchers have used to estimate the possible number of alien civilizations — the famous Drake Equation.

    Drake constructed the “Arecibo Message” of 1974 — the first interstellar message transmitted via radio waves from Earth for the benefit of any extraterrestrial civilization that may be listening.

    Full interview here:


    To quote:

    Drake: There are two instruments, really the powerful ones for answering the “are we alone” question … the Arecibo telescope and the Green Bank Telescope. They are the world’s two largest radio telescopes, and both of them are in jeopardy. There are movements afoot to close them down … dismantle them. They are both under the National Science Foundation and they are desperate to cut down the amount of money they are putting into them. And their choice is to just shut them down or to find some arrangement where somebody else steps in and provides funding.

    So this is the worst moment for SETI. And if they really pull the rug out from under the Green Bank Telescope and Arecibo … it’s suicide.

  • ljk March 2, 2015, 11:11

    Do we really want to know if we’re not alone in the universe?

    By Joel Achenbach

    February 28, 2015

    It was near Green Bank, W.Va., in 1960 that a young radio astronomer named Frank Drake conducted the first extensive search for alien civilizations in deep space. He aimed the 85-foot dish of a radio telescope at two nearby, sun-like stars, tuning to a frequency he thought an alien civilization might use for interstellar communication.

    But the stars had nothing to say.

    So began SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, a form of astronomical inquiry that has captured the imaginations of people around the planet but has so far failed to detect a single “hello.” Pick your explanation: They’re not there; they’re too far away; they’re insular and aloof; they’re zoned out on computer games; they’re watching us in mild bemusement and wondering when we’ll grow up.

    Now some SETI researchers are pushing a more aggressive agenda: Instead of just listening, we would transmit messages, targeting newly discovered planets orbiting distant stars. Through “active SETI,” we’d boldly announce our presence and try to get the conversation started.

    Naturally, this is controversial, because of . . . well, the Klingons. The bad aliens.

    “ETI’s reaction to a message from Earth cannot presently be known,” states a petition signed by 28 scientists, researchers and thought leaders, among them SpaceX founder Elon Musk. “We know nothing of ETI’s intentions and capabilities, and it is impossible to predict whether ETI will be benign or hostile.”

    The petition here:


    Full article here:


    Love this photo of Dr. Drake looking at a stained-glass window of the Arecibo Message. Where is this, in his house?


  • ljk March 20, 2015, 12:46

    Search for extraterrestrial intelligence extends to new realms

    Mar 20, 2015

    New instrument will scan the sky for pulses of infrared light

    Astronomers have expanded the search for extraterrestrial intelligence into a new realm with detectors tuned to infrared light. Their new instrument has just begun to scour the sky for messages from other worlds.

    The NIROSETI team with their new infrared detector inside the dome at Lick Observatory. Left to right: Remington Stone, Dan Wertheimer, Jérome Maire, Shelley Wright, Patrick Dorval and Richard Treffers. Photos by © Laurie Hatch

    “Infrared light would be an excellent means of interstellar communication,” said Shelley Wright, an Assistant Professor of Physics at the University of California, San Diego who led the development of the new instrument while at the University of Toronto’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics.

    Pulses from a powerful infrared laser could outshine a star, if only for a billionth of a second. Interstellar gas and dust is almost transparent to near infrared, so these signals can be seen from greater distances. It also takes less energy to send the same amount of information using infrared signals than it would with visible light.

    The idea dates back decades, Wright pointed out. Charles Townes, the late UC Berkeley scientist whose contributions to the development of lasers led to a Nobel Prize, suggested the idea in a paper published in 1961.

    Full article here:


    To quote:

    The group also includes SETI pioneer Frank Drake of the SETI Institute and UC Santa Cruz who serves as a senior advisor to both past and future projects and is an active observer at the telescope.

    Drake pointed out several additional advantages to a search in this new realm. “The signals are so strong that we only need a small telescope to receive them. Smaller telescopes can offer more observational time, and that is good because we need to search many stars for a chance of success.” he said. The receivers are also much more affordable that those used on radio telescopes.

    “There is only one downside: the extraterrestrials would need to be transmitting their signals in our direction,” Drake said, though he sees a positive side to that limitation. “If we get a signal from someone who’s aiming for us, it could mean there’s altruism in the universe. I like that idea. If they want to be friendly, that’s who we will find.”

  • ljk May 8, 2015, 10:14

    SETI: Real vs Reel

    Lunar and Planetary Institute

    Published on Feb 26, 2015

    Astronomer Dr. Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute discusses the accuracies and inaccuracies of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence as portrayed in the 1997 movie “Contact.” Tarter uses specific clips from the movie to illustrate her points.

    This presentation was part of the Lunar and Planetary Institute’s 2014–2015 Cosmic Exploration Speaker Series — “Science” on the Silver Screen.

    NOTE: Due to copyright law, the movie clips do not appear in this recording. Instead, they have been replaced with a screen showing the beginning and end time of each clip that is discussed. cription