We speculated yesterday that categorizing civilizations on the basis of their power use may not be a given, though it is the basis of the familiar Kardashev types. It seems natural to a rapidly changing technological society like ours that the trend is always upward, a clear path toward harnessing the energies of the home planet, then the Sun, then the galaxy.

That this may not be the case seems to go against the grain of ‘Dysonian SETI,’ which looks for, among other things, artifacts as large as Dyson spheres and other astro-engineering projects on massive scales. Or maybe not, for some engineering involving adjustments to planetary environments may well produce observables. We just have to be aware of the range of possibilities here, and recognize our own limitations in trying to figure them out.

For we’ve learned something else from technology, and that is that its components grow ever smaller. Working at nanotech scales to create things from the ground up isn’t beyond the imagination, and engineering that recedes into the background so as not to be visibly apparent is even now gaining traction. The kind of voice recognition and rudimentary intelligence built into my Google Pixel hides its complexities in a small package. I speak into the air and tap the resources of computer clusters that are located who knows where.

What would a stable, space-faring civilization that has gone through its own version of the Anthropocene and reached a societal maturity look like when viewed from afar? Working these themes in Earth in Human Hands (Grand Central, 2016), David Grinspoon is anxious to reconcile our human activities through technology with the long-term survival of the planet, an outcome he believes, with a refreshing optimism, is likely to occur.

As we’ll see, it’s also an outcome made possible by going off-planet, for we cannot turn our back on the technologies that have the power to transform and heal our world. These invariably involve studying our globe with new space-based tools and analyzing other planets to understand what can go wrong and right about planetary evolution. So the question becomes, how does a civilization get through its early stages to harmonize its technologies with the planet that gave it birth, becoming a ‘planetary intelligence’? And from the SETI perspective, how would we go about finding a civilization that had succeeded?

A Different Kind of Biosignature

We’re entering the era when space-based resources will be able to analyze the atmospheres of exoplanets, looking for the kind of imbalances that suggest constant replenishment in a life cycle of some kind. The same technologies allow us to look for what we can call ‘technosignatures,’ which are signs not just of life but of a civilization. One way to look at this is through terraforming, the adaptation of a planet to make it hospitable for living beings. Grinspoon believes that we will eventually be terraforming our own world, in the sense that we will acknowledge the need to engineer and reverse ecological damage and emissions.


Image: Can we detect not just biosignatures but signs of technological civilizations through analysis of an exoplanet’s atmosphere? Credit: IAU/L. Calçada

One thought is to look for signs of imbalance suggestive of technologies like ours, producing air pollution that can be measured by spectroscopic analysis. Because we don’t know what we may eventually stumble across, it makes sense to study the potential signatures of a planet in transition. I can point you, for example, to Henry Lin (Harvard), who in collaboration with Gonzalo Gonzalez Abad and Abraham Loeb has produced “Detecting industrial pollution in the atmospheres of earth-like exoplanets,” a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters (Volume 792, Number 1 — preprint here).

The authors of the Lin paper are interested in anthropogenic pollution as a technosignature (though they don’t use the term), a marker of intelligent life and technology. It turns out that the James Webb Space Telescope will be capable of picking up atmospheric tetrafluoromethane and trichlorofluoromethane, which are the easiest to detect chlorofluorocarbons produced by industrial activities. But Lin et al. are talking about detections involving Earth-like planets transiting white dwarfs and levels of pollution ten times as strong as Earth’s.

Even so, this gets intriguing. One thought is that a civilization in a highly polluted environment is transitory — it is either going to solve its contamination problems or else go under, and this must occur in a tiny window on the scales of astronomical time. But perhaps there is another possibility, as the paper argues:

Coupled with the fact that the half-life of CF4 in the atmosphere is ? 50, 000 years, it is not inconceivable that an alien civilization which industrialized many millennia ago might have detectable levels of CF4. A more optimistic possibility is that the alien civilization is deliberately emitting molecules with high GWP [global warming potential] to terraform a planet on the outer edge of the habitable zone, or to keep their planet warm as the white dwarf slowly cools.

Now we’re hunting a terraforming signature, an environment being deliberately manipulated. David Grinspoon points to this kind of signature as a more enduring observable:

If we find an exoplanet with a strange climate that is being controlled by unexpected atmospheric compounds such as chlorofluorocarbons, that should get our attention. Or if we find a world with a suspiciously unusual pattern of albedo (reflectivity) or day/night pattern of brightness, we might suspect planetary engineering with mirrors or surface alteration. We should take notice if such a world seems to be in a climate state that preserves or extends an early evolutionary stage, stabilizing against the aging of its star.

Global engineering on a scale that would ward off, say, a runaway greenhouse should throw a signature; it’s our job to figure out what it would be, on the off chance that we someday see it. It’s clear enough, and Grinspoon makes the point repeatedly, that we can’t anticipate what advanced alien societies are going to do, so maybe the best approach is to be on the lookout for what we can call ‘unnatural’ planetary states that tip us to some kind of management. This theme — that we have to avoid being doctrinaire because we are bringing all too human judgments into matters that involve aliens, about whom we know nothing at all — is significant not just for analyzing our SETI observables but for extending SETI into other arenas.

Signaling to the Stars

There is a photo in Earth in Human Hands that shows author David Grinspoon standing with Alexander Zaitsev, who was chief scientist at the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute of Radio Engineering and Electronics, and whose name has become synonymous with broadcasting to the stars. Zaitsev has, in fact, been the driver behind several messages beamed from Earth as a deliberate attempt to raise the interest of any nearby civilizations. In 1999, the first Cosmic Call message was transmitted to four different stars, with a second Cosmic Call sent out in 2003 to five Sun-like stars between 30 and 45 light years away.

Long-time Centauri Dreams readers know that Dr. Zaitsev was a frequent contributor to the comments in these pages as the discussion over so-called METI (Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence), also known as Active SETI, flared into life. And I do mean ‘flared’ — nothing polarizes people more than the question of whether or not we should deliberately brighten our radio signature with such targeted messages, given that we know absolutely nothing about what kind of alien civilizations may exist. It’s ‘shouting into the dark,’ at a time when we don’t have a clue what may be out there.

David Brin was also a frequent participant in those discussions, which often referred to the 1983 Brin paper “The Great Silence” and speculated on reasons why advanced civilizations might want to keep a low profile. While METI proponents argue that reaching out to announce our presence is a means of exploration, and one that is necessary because if all civilizations are listeners, there will be nothing to receive, the Brin contingent argues that inclusive international discussions are needed so that we make this decision by consensus.


Image: At the heart of the Messier 13 globular cluster in Hercules, toward which a simple pictorial message was sent from Arecibo in 1974. Credit: Credit: ESA/Hubble and NASA.

This is a serious debate with a history that I don’t have time to get into this morning other than to say that Grinspoon’s book presents the background. There is plenty to talk about — the development of guidelines for Earth broadcasts at Valencia in 2006, a strong editorial response in Nature, the resignation of Michael Michaud and John Billingham from an IAA SETI study group because of changes to the Second SETI Protocol, the AAAS session in San Jose in 2015 — and the often acrimonious debate continues to flourish.

Brin has often held up the ‘Asilomar process’ as a model. The reference is to the agreements within the DNA research community to work out voluntary guidelines for experiments and containment procedures, while banning particularly dangerous experiments involving hard to contain pathogens. The Asilomar guidelines became incorporated into laboratory practices as the field of biotechnology began its growth. It was a form of self-policing that effectively kept research alive while minimizing associated risks. Can we adapt such a process to METI?

METI is filled with arguments and counter-arguments, most of which have been rehearsed in these pages many times over. But I found Grinspoon’s take on the matter refreshing because he’s one of the few involved in the debate who have actually changed sides over time. Beginning with a position not so far from Alexander Zaitsev’s, that SETI demanded both a listening and a sending component, Grinspoon now says he is swayed by those who advocate caution and a moratorium on broadcasts until the matter can be fully assessed.

I’m taken with the fact that the author stresses how much we don’t know. It’s easy to use our human experience to generalize about what aliens might do, something that occurs all the time in discussions on METI. How likely is it that an alien culture would see us as a threat? How reasonable is it to assume that an advanced civilization will have given up war? Shouldn’t we expect a species more advanced than us scientifically to be morally advanced as well? Wouldn’t they, in fact, be inclined to help us elevate our own society to their level?

Grinspoon has been down this road, and he goes through these are other reasons why broadcasting to the stars could be beneficial. But the reasons simply aren’t enough:

Still, I must also admit that these are just my opinions, semi-informed at best. We absolutely can’t know any of this. Maybe it’s all wishful thinking. There certainly are logically valid arguments for the possibility of great dangers. So how do we proceed, if the risks seem absurdly low, but the cost of being wrong is everything we have, everything we love?

Which means that the author remains in favor of active SETI but only with appropriate precautions, and supports a voluntary moratorium. His thinking ties in with the long-term perspective — a millennial outlook — that informs his discussion of geoengineering. We have vast amounts to learn, in other words, about climate before we ever think of active terraforming, either here or somewhere else. Similarly, we need global buy-in to a project like METI that, to be successful, will doubtless also need to operate on long timeframes.

…I would submit that lack of self-knowledge is an existential risk. It may well be that the greatest value of METI will come not from anything we learn in response to a message we send, but from what we learn about ourselves in the process of attempting to reach some common ground and find our global voice. If we decide to send a message to possible extraterrestrials, we are also sending a message to our descendants. We are gifting them with possibilities of both benefit and harm. Such an endeavor requires us to form an alliance with future generations, to enter into a common project with them. That is clearly something we need to learn how to do. So, then, starting the conversation about whether to broadcast, the effort to have a globally inclusive process, becomes a worthwhile goal in itself.

Tomorrow I’ll wrap up this discussion of Earth in Human Hands with the question of sustainability in the context of space. Is a civilization that is working long-term in ways that are hard to spot by our SETI methods one that is invariably planet bound? The answer is no, and we’ll talk about this in terms of interstellar travel. Also in coming days, I want to look at Caleb Scharf’s thoughts on how alien life may prove indistinguishable from physics. More anon.