They walk among us

by Maria on July 23, 2012

Some time in 2009, I was sitting on a bar stool in Dulles Airport, killing an hour or two before a delayed flight back to the west coast. It was one of those horse shoe bars, and I was the only woman. The half a dozen or so suited men were being conspicuously polite about not imposing themselves, but I was feeling quite open to some company for the wait. I raised my glass to the two nearest guys and we got chatting. I was on white wine, and they were on whiskey. After a drink, one of them left to get his flight. The remaining guy stuck around. He was an ex-marine and very good company. He was itching to tell a story, but also kind of averse, so I sat back and let him come to it in his own time.

His old job at the Pentagon had been to sit in a single office and man two phones. One phone was for receiving calls through the public phone system. The other one, he simply picked up and it automatically went through to a blocked internal number. Every so often, the receiving call would ring. It would be a member of the public who wanted to report extra-terrestrial activity; strange lights, crop circles, abductions, whatever. Usually, though, just the strange lights. The guy would write down all the details verbatim, thank the caller for their information, and hang up. Then, he’d pick up the other phone, pass the details along to an unnamed individual, and hang up. And that was it. For two years, he recorded alien-sightings from the public and passed them to someone or other in the military chain of command.

The story tickled me. Not least, because it’s so inconclusive. You can see why the US military would want to keep tabs on sightings of odd-looking aircraft. (I still remember seeing the Stealth bomber parked in Dublin airport a while back and finding it hard to believe it was human tech.) But also, it’s kind of delicious to think the Pentagon is paying a little attention to stuff randomers see and report, just in case it turns out to be aliens.

Of course, the US is not the only country in the world trying, discreetly, to keep an open mind on intelligent, extra-terrestrial life. Recently, the UK’s National Archive opened some files about UFO sightings in Britain. The BBC news story says that between “1950 and 2009, a special Ministry of Defence unit investigated more than 10,000 UFO “sightings” – a rate of one every two days.” The unit followed the same model as my bar-buddy’s; a public hotline and a single staffer whose job was to record and refer. The more you look at the types of things recorded, the more it seems that it’s simply a way to keep track of all-too-terrestrial unexplained happenings in the sky.

All the same, I’m with Stephen Hawking on this; if more intelligent and inter-galactically mobile life exists out there, I very much hope they neither discover nor take any notice of us.

{ 72 comments }

1

Randy McDonald 07.23.12 at 11:34 am

“All the same, I’m with Stephen Hawking on this; if more intelligent and inter-galactically mobile life exists out there, I very much hope they neither discover nor take any notice of us.”

How likely is it that a sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial civilization, or its agents, haven’t noticed the existence of life on Earth, maybe even our current technological civilization?

A civilization even a few thousand years ahead of us technologically would be able to determine quite easily, via remote sensing and via Bracewell probes, that the Earth is a living planet and that it may be inhabited. The present state of our observational astronomy just isn’t sufficiently advanced to preclude the existence or non-existence of extraterrestrial civilization in our stellar neighbourhood. The Fermi Paradox may not be a paradox at all.

2

Katherine 07.23.12 at 11:34 am

Now, if we could get the story of the person on the other end of the blocked internal number…

3

Fred Cairns 07.23.12 at 11:54 am

There is another, more prosaic reason why the Air Forces might want track observations of “strange lights in the sky”. In the UK, the story goes, the UFO sightings centred around the American Air Force base in Scotland, where stealth aeroplanes were based. For years the USAF had been sending off flights that did not look like regular aeroplanes, and were difficult to spot either on radar or using the naked eye. However, people did see something. It makes sense to keep track of what people claim to see, and when, and match it with the pilots’ own debriefing record. For a long time the UK puzzled over these strange sightings in Scotland, and then the U.S.A. went public with the information about “stealth aircraft”. All of a sudden the UFO sightings dried up. You can draw your own conclusions. Anyone want to borrow Occam’s razor?

4

Data Tutashkhia 07.23.12 at 12:08 pm

Now, if we could get the story of the person on the other end of the blocked internal number…

Why, it’s just the MIB office secretary.

5

David J. Littleboy 07.23.12 at 1:19 pm

“How likely is it that a sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial civilization, or its agents, haven’t noticed the existence of life on Earth, maybe even our current technological civilization?”

Uh, real likely. If you think about Japanese or Chinese vs. English, or about spread spectrum communication technologies (Heddy Lamar!), you’ll realize that there’s no way to differentiate noise from conversation the vast majority of the time. (Really: I used to go down to Chinatown in Boston when I was a kid, and the music was amazing. Then I took one lousy term of Chinese in college, and suddenly, the music was gone. Just folks arguing in a language with a somewhat more complex tone system than the one I was studying.) The spread spectrum bit is also important: if you don’t understand the frequency hopping sequence, there’s no way to differentiate it from noise. So I think the SETI folks are barking up a completely hopeless tree.

And then there’s the minor problem that they’re in a location that light takes longer to get to than homo sapiens will be around.

6

Matt McIrvin 07.23.12 at 1:38 pm

SETI projects to date have mostly been looking for intentional transmissions by somebody who’s looking to get found. They know they don’t have the capability to detect unintentional signal leakage, except maybe from things like DEW-line military radars (which themselves may not be a long-lived thing in a civilization’s history).

7

Matt McIrvin 07.23.12 at 1:48 pm

@Fred Cairns: Similarly, some large fraction of Soviet UFO reports from the 20th century were actually sightings of treaty-violating ICBM tests. It served the Soviet leadership well to just let them get reported as kooky flying-saucer stories. But I figure somebody in the US Air Force had at least an inkling of what was going on.

8

Anarcissie 07.23.12 at 2:17 pm

A significantly more advanced technology would probably not have much trouble concealing itself from humans, and reasons for invisibility and non-intervention are not hard to imagine. The answer to the Fermi paradox seems pretty obvious.

9

Scott Martens 07.23.12 at 2:30 pm

I don’t know, I suppose the Pentagon may spend some money tracking UFO sightings just in case. But if I was going to speculate, I might guess that sometimes the government tests aircraft and weapons and doesn’t tell people, and I could understand why they might be very interested in knowing if anyone noticed.

10

Scott Martens 07.23.12 at 2:31 pm

My own fault for just skimming quickly through the comments: I see Fred@3 makes the same point.

11

Lord 07.23.12 at 3:58 pm

What is the likelihood they come from a planet having the same gravity, same atmospheric composition, same air pressure, same water content, same humidity, same light intensity,… There may be many, many more intelligent species that be interested in contact and communication but would have little ability or interest in ours.

12

Jim Harrison 07.23.12 at 4:02 pm

Since the time and energy costs of interstellar travel are enormous—if there was an easy way around the speed limit, we’d have been up to our armpits in aliens long ago—it probably wouldn’t make economic sense for another species to visit us for conquest or trade. If we’re lucky, the BEMs will turn out to be tourists. There is one dire possibility, however: they could be space Mormons.

13

cjcjc 07.23.12 at 4:22 pm

“it probably wouldn’t make economic sense for another species to visit us for conquest or trade”

Indeed. Hawking is mad.
There will be billions of resource rich planets between us and them.

14

Manoel Galdino 07.23.12 at 4:41 pm

I see at least one (unlikely) reason: there are only two intelligent species nearby our planet and they’re looking to see if they can find us. It may be a religious search, for instance…

15

Barry Freed 07.23.12 at 4:46 pm

Obligatory link to Paul Krugman’s paper on interstellar trade:

http://www.princeton.edu/~pkrugman/interstellar.pdf

16

Barry Freed 07.23.12 at 4:52 pm

And I see it even has its own Wikipedia page with additional info:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Theory_of_Interstellar_Trade

17

William Timberman 07.23.12 at 5:14 pm

Hawking is mad. Or a precursor. He’s had a lot of time to contemplate the prison he’s been locked up in by circumstance, far more than Tony Judt had.

(Anecdote: as a long-time employee of the University of California, Santa Barbara, home of the Kavli Institute of Theoretical Physics, I used to encounter SH once or twice a year, always from a discreet distance. Astonishing, really, what an effectively disembodied mind can accomplish. Like most reasonably healthy people, I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the inevitable intimations of my own mortality. Having lost a couple of young friends to AIDS in the Eighties, though, and having watched SH do what he had to do, regardless of circumstance, I haven’t worried much since. It’s a very personal debt, one which SH will never be aware he’s owed, but it should probably be on record somewhere anyway — for my sake, if not for his.)

I don’t think Hawking is mad at all. The history of imperialism is a history of the accidents of power, with an emphasis on the accidental. Should some superior race stumble on our planet, why would they not see uses for it that we don’t see, or can’t take advantage of? (The Lakota couldn’t imagine steel mills — thus they had to go. The Prime Directive is a bleeding heart liberal fantasy. Ask anybody.)

No, Hawking isn’t mad, but he is stressed in ways that most of us can’t even imagine. We’ve all suspected now and then that human rationality is less than humane, and some of us have more reason for such suspicions than others. Even so, there’s no guarantee that a visitor from outside our stellar system would be obligated to conform to any of our paradigms. They doesn’t has to be The Predator, ET, the friendly aliens from How to Serve Humanity, or Michael Rennie and his friend Gort. They might very well just make a note and move on, leaving us to puzzle things out for ourselves.

My sense of this is that all the God myths and the ET myths are essentially the same. When all is said and done, we’ll never be able to find or invent anything or anyone to do our dirty work for us as well as we might do it ourselves. Even though I enjoy an inspiring or cautionary tale as much as anyone, I think that when all the marshmallows are finally toasted, and we’ve dumped a bucket of water on the campfire’s last embers, we should call it a day. And when, Lord willing, we all wake up again the next morning, we should just take a deep breath get on with it.

18

drs 07.23.12 at 5:24 pm

Note Randy said “A civilization even a few thousand years ahead of us technologically would be able to determine quite easily, via remote sensing and via Bracewell probes, that the Earth is a living planet and that it may be inhabited.”

Picking up radio signals has been the traditional imagined signal, and talking about spread-spectrum and decreasing broadcasts is relevant to that. But we’re having ideas for optical interferometry and hypertelescopes and stellar gravity lens telescopes; turn that around, and you could have aliens looking at our continents and spectra. Or von Neumann probes looking at us close up.

19

MarkUp 07.23.12 at 5:36 pm

That Marine didn’t work in the Office of Strategic Influence -ret. by any chance did he? Was there a bootleg copy of Year Zero on his kindle?

20

hidflect 07.23.12 at 6:35 pm

I would think the classic large eyed alien with the almond face we see over and over is a clever disinfo insert. If so, it immediately exposes hoaxers and wanna-be attention getters who ring up the government with an alien story describing those features. Then, when they get a call from someone describing a totally different alien (one that the government recognizes), they know they are tracking the real deal.

21

Zamfir 07.23.12 at 6:40 pm

How much of this is simply a kind of PR service to the public? People think they should be able to call the Pentagon about UFOs, so the Pentagon has someone to pick up the phone. And bureaucracies beign what they are, they naturally develop some structure to pass on and save the information.

22

Cosma Shalizi 07.23.12 at 6:57 pm

Varying no. 20, you could encode quite a bit of an actual, non-alien related message in a UFO report, even if it is about your classic grey. (Ob. XKCD.) And then if anyone did intercept the message, they’d dismiss it as a nutter, or at most as no. 3 or no. 21.

23

dsks 07.23.12 at 8:12 pm

“Now, if we could get the story of the person on the other end of the blocked internal number…”

Dude, we know that person’s story.

24

Thomas Jørgensen 07.23.12 at 8:23 pm

..If I was looking for extra terrestial intelligence on earth, I would not be wasting time looking for alien craft – Any presence here would almost certainly have been here longer than we have due to the time scales of space travel. No, the thing to look for would be the instrumentation of a truely ancient scientific outpost. So, set off electro magnetic pulses in interesting locations, sweep them (with a broom!) and look at the dust under extreme magnification. – Because the obvious way to cut the energy and resource costs of interstellar travel is to take minutarization as far as it will go, and once you have done that, why would you ever scale your scientific machinery back up to a macroscopic scale? Particularily when keeping it microscopic will allow you a nigh-omnipresent view of an ecosphere without interfering with it at all.

Alternatively, there might be a truely collosal telescopic array on the moon. Not like we would even notice, as long as the individual antennas and telescopes were small.

25

Both Sides Do It 07.23.12 at 8:23 pm

“I’m with Steven Hawking”

I’m with Eric Idle:

Pray that there’s int-ell-i-gent life
Some-where out in space
Be-cause there’s bugger-all
Down here on Earth

26

QB 07.23.12 at 9:03 pm

27

David 07.23.12 at 10:09 pm

See David Brin’s newest, Existence.

28

Meredith 07.23.12 at 10:20 pm

A statement of the obvious needed here? The acronym UFO equals (as yet) Unidentified Flying Object. (Unidentified by whom? That might be an interesting question.) It does not (necessarily) equal (as yet) unidentified ALIEN (to earth) flying object. I spot numerous UFO’s every night thanks to the windows where the screens have some teeny holes (but it’s too damned hot to shut those windows). BFD. I understand that commercial airline pilots spot UFO’s — they can’t identify what they’ve seen — all the time. They respond to these sightings the way I respond to the bugs in my house on summer nights: some arouse my curiosity — boy, can they have curious colors or shapes or habits — but most do not; all are some sort of bug, I assume, even if I can precisely identify most of them.

Still, fun to have met the guy in the way you describe, Maria!

29

NickT 07.23.12 at 10:44 pm

If the presence of Mitt Romney hasn’t tipped the humans off to our presence…. No, no, I’ll come quietly, Galactic Inquisitor. I said nothing, I thought nothing.

30

Phil 07.23.12 at 10:48 pm

“there is a whole branch of modern folklore waiting to be seized upon and catalogued by scholars of popular culture. These are what I call Soldiers’ Tales, or, the Horrendous Secrets I Learned in the Service.”
Jerome Clark (1983)

31

Phil 07.23.12 at 10:49 pm

…although Maria’s contact’s story is prosaic and inconclusive enough *not* to fall into that category, as far as I can see.

32

ezra abrams 07.23.12 at 11:35 pm

Pascal’s Wager
1) Aliens don’t exist, or can’t get around faster then light limits, or aren’t interested in us, or are benevolent
2) Aliens are like us – mean, brutish, nasty
Which side of the wager has the largest downside ?
IMHO, the UN should call a meeting, and pass a planetary law – Other then the UN General Assembley, acting on predetermined rules, No human being is allowed to make any deal, of any sort, inany way with any organism. It won’t help, but when they stripmine our planet, maybe we can appeal to the office of alien liberals for some minimal level of relief.
the alternate is expounded by W Tenn, or someone like that – play them off against each other (sort of like crisis one in the Foundation trilogy)

33

Cosma Shalizi 07.24.12 at 12:03 am

It is always a good time to re-read The Liberation of Earth.

34

John Quiggin 07.24.12 at 12:11 am

@Cosma IIRC, no planet was ever as thoroughly liberated as earth

35

Keith Edwards 07.24.12 at 12:55 am

The more you look at the types of things recorded, the more it seems that it’s simply a way to keep track of all-too-terrestrial unexplained happenings in the sky.

If you call it the “random shit in the sky” hotline, no on will call it. We forget that “UFO” doesn’t mean alien spaceship to the military, it means “random shit in the sky that might turn out to be a Soviet spy plane but is probably just the planet Venus.” We let civilians make the categorical error, to perpetuate a mystique about the military, that it is performing the mysterious, necessary and sexy task of defending us from fill in the blank. That the blank is usually filled by a weather balloon or, on rare occasion, a Chinese LEO spy satellite is just one of those trade secrets it’s best not to mention, at least until the paperwork is declassified.

36

ezra abrams 07.24.12 at 2:04 am

@32
@32
Things can’t be all bad, so long as the giant mutant rabbits don’t get us.

37

hardindr 07.24.12 at 2:27 am

38

Omega Centauri 07.24.12 at 3:22 am

I’m a lot closer to Keith’s viewpoint in 34. The airforce thing is part PR, and part finding out what the rubes know. I’m sure they have fun over beer laughing at all the UFO believers. But figuring out how many civilians caught site of the secret flight of a black project so that they can clamp down on the rules for keeping black things black, priceless.

I can’t resist giving my answer to the Fermi hypothesis though. Evolution doesn’t produce intelligent species, it produces clever self destructive species that soon destroy the environment they depend upon. End of story. I know a sample size of one planet with complex life doesn’t qualify as statistically significant. But thats all the data we got.

39

Brett 07.24.12 at 3:56 am

I think distance is the big explanatory factor for no known alien visits, although it could just be timing (i.e. they came through the solar system in 960 C.E. and no one was able to notice it as anything unusual). Interstellar travel requires that you either

1. Somehow expend a gigantic amount of energy, or
2. Design machines that can work for thousands or tens of thousands of years in open space.

Neither is anything resembling easy. It’s one thing to say, “Well, if you combined X amounts of matter with Y amounts of anti-matter, you’d get Z amounts of thrust”, and another thing to actually be able to design such a ship.

40

Randy McDonald 07.24.12 at 5:54 am

drs:

What you said.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Fermi’s paradox since I read Keith Wiley’s paper, released last year (http://arxiv.org/abs/1111.6131), which not only produced compelling arguments as to the survival of a civilization once it dispersed beyond a single planetary system, but calculated that–depending on the numbers fed into the Drake equation–there plausibly be anywhere from hundreds to hundreds of billions of Bracewell probes resident in the Solar System right now. Meanwhile, the contention of Robert Freitas’ 1983 paper (http://www.rfreitas.com/Astro/ResolvingFermi1983.htm) that the current state of astronomical observation does not preclude a past or even a present extraterrestrial presence in the Solar System seems valid.

Do I think that there’s an extraterrestrial presence in the solar system right now? No, I don’t. It’s certainly not proven that there is one–what people have said above about UFOs being, among other things, unidentified flying objects with any number of mundane explanations, deserves to be repeated–and there are other possible answers to the Fermi paradox other than “They’re already here and we just haven’t seen them.” (Life is rare; multicellular life is rare; technology-using intelligence is rare; technology-using intelligence is self-destructive; interstellar travel is impossible; et cetera.)

Can the possibility of an extraterrestrial presence in the solar system right now be precluded, with the information that we have at our disposal? No. The current state of theory seems to suggest that it would be quite easy for a single technology-using species to evolve into a galactic civilization in a relatively short period of time. Making use only of technologies that we can plausibly imagine, it would seem to be fairly easy to detect Earth and to identify it as a world at great distances. If there are Bracewell probes in the Solar System–again, something that we can’t preclude using the information we have at hand–then it would be trivial for a plausibly detailed survey to identify the existence of our species.

What all this means, going back to the OP, is that I expect any intelligent and mobile life nearby to have noticed us already. If such is the case, the fact that we haven’t yet been annihilated or enslaved suggests to me that such life isn’t interested in doing that thing. Why would it need to?

(Of all the paradigms for human-alien interaction, no one has mentioned _Meerkat Manor_.)

41

joel hanes 07.24.12 at 7:13 am

Human science and space technology are such recent phenomena — a few hundred years since the mathematical end of things really got going. Almost all technological civilizations must be older, because we’re so close to the zero bound for age. It’s probably a good thing that the astonishing scale of the universe seems to impose an effective quarantine.

Or perhaps The Galactics shun us for reasons of their own.

42

joel hanes 07.24.12 at 7:37 am

@35

no no. not rabbits.
It’s giant teleporting, telepathic mutant beavers.

43

Scott Martens 07.24.12 at 8:13 am

As an artistic statement – or maybe anti-homophobic satire – I rather like Doctor Who’s contention that humanity expanded out into the universe in order to have sex with aliens. But the more pragmatic part of me realizes that alien sex is probably as realistic as sex with a cabbage. I rather prefer stuff like Solaris or some of the Strugatsky brothers works – aliens that are actually alien and not just people with weird foreheads or CGI insects.

So: I have the cynical suggestion that since we have shown no ability whatsoever to define intelligence or technology in a way free of even of local human cultural prejudices, we shouldn’t expect aliens to be intelligent or technologically advanced at all, or at least in any way that we would recognize. Seen from a purely computational power standpoint, humans aren’t even the most “intelligent” animals on Earth, and depending on how you look at it, most of the cognitive power available to humans is in their immune systems anyway.

The most likely answer to Fermi’s paradox seems to me to be that there’s nobody out there that we could recognize as a “somebody”.

44

Katherine 07.24.12 at 8:44 am

If an alien species was either (a) advanced enough to have worked out how to break the unbreakable barrier of light speed or (b) dedicated and patient enough to send ships and generations of crew on a sublight journey of many thousands of light years, I highly doubt that they’d then spend their time flying about being highly ambiguous flashing lights, or kidnapping unlikely denizens of North America.

But maybe Douglas Adams was right.

45

Cosma Shalizi 07.24.12 at 11:42 am

To recycle an (old, old) old post, one can write down a very plausible spatial brnaching-process model of spreading across the galaxy in which very large voids are never visited for very long times, even as other regions get densely filled in, all for no particular reason.

46

Jeffrey Davis 07.24.12 at 2:10 pm

When I was 13, I watched something from my bedroom window. A point of light moved from east to west across the sky. Halfway through, it stopped for awhile. Moved east a bit. Stopped. Then moved west until it was lost from sight. While I was puzzling about what I’d just seen, it happened again. Almost the same path. The same pauses. The same retrograde motion. Time for both transits? Around 2 minutes total. No repeats after the first. I faithfully watched for a week, but it didn’t happen again.

It wasn’t a supermarket opening spotlight. It crossed the sky faster than any airplane (which wouldn’t have been able to hover at any rate), and it was much faster than any helicopter. It wasn’t a satellite. We had no Air Force bases nearby.

I’ve been a confirmed believer in alien visitations ever since.

47

Lee A. Arnold 07.24.12 at 2:47 pm

From the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition:

“Lakenheath, England, August 13, 1956, 11:00 PM-3:30 AM. Two RAF ground radar stations detected several objects moving at high speed on a clear moonlit night. One was tracked by the first radar as going at about 3,ooo miles an hour westward at 4,000 feet altitude; simultaneously, tower operators reported a bright light passing overhead toward the west, and the pilot of an aircraft at 4,000 feet over the airfield saw the bright light streak westward underneath him. The second radar station, alerted by the first, detected a stationary target at about 20,000 feet altitude that suddenly went north at about 600 miles per hour. It made several sudden stops and turns. After 30 minutes an RAF fighter was called in and made airborne-radar contacts with the object over Bedford (just north of Cambridge, England). Suddenly the object moved around behind the fighter plane, both being tracked by ground radar. The fighter pilot could not “shake” the object. A second plane was called in but never made contact, and all radar contacts were then lost. A second plane was called in but never made contact, and all radar contacts were then lost. Several other radar targets were tracked in the same area and several other small moving lights were seen, but all disappeared at 3:30 am.

“This is believed to be one of the best established and most puzzling of the unexplained cases.”

48

Lee A. Arnold 07.24.12 at 3:09 pm

I agree that there would be two sorts of aliens: sublightspeed and superlightspeed.

Any superlight aliens are not bothering to materialize after they get here. It will be a brief visit, probably as an occurrence in your dreams. We are a little too boring. There is no time-passage at lightspeed, so they are eternal and probably have already visited everywhere. They are not going to slow down and lose lifetime–though they probably solved that problem too.

Sublight aliens would be much clumsier. They are meat. Earth’s radio transmissions started in the 1890’s and UFO sightings became numerous in the late 1940’s, 50 years later. Therefore, the home planet is well within 25 lightyears away, and given the odds on inhabitable planets, they may be the only other creatures in this neighborhood. They are lonely as we.

49

tomslee 07.24.12 at 3:15 pm

they may be the only other creatures in this neighborhood. They are lonely as we.

I increasingly think that the answer to the question “Are there other inhabited planets in the universe or are we alone?” is “Yes”.

50

Lee A. Arnold 07.24.12 at 3:32 pm

That’s why they keep showing up at the door. They need a cup of tea.

51

Keith Edwards 07.24.12 at 5:25 pm

Scorr martens@42:
The most likely answer to Fermi’s paradox seems to me to be that there’s nobody out there that we could recognize as a “somebody”.

Right. If we take the biodiversity of Earth as a model and extrapolate to a galactic scale, 90% of Alien life is going to be bacteria and insects. There’s what, only a half dozen great ape species still extant on this planet and only one of them has figured out how to use tools beyond the rock and stick level. It’s not to say there isn’t intelligent life in the universe, it’s just going to resemble more a chimpanzee or dolphin than a human-like intelligence.

And even if we do find a planet relatively nearby with a human-like intelligence on it, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever visit in person, and that’s probably a good thing, what with both our ecosystems containing nasty viruses, it’s probably a good thing that FTL is impossible and we’d be physically quarantined form one another.

It doesn’t preclude sharing information, however, which is ultimately the major benefit of meeting another intelligent species. It might take us a few decades or centuries to say hi and work out a translation of each others languages, but eventually one of us might invent an Ansable, and then we could have real-time interplanetary communications. Get those aliens a Netflix account and start a robust interdisciplinary studies program. I’m keen to find out what Vulcans would make of Pride and Prejudice.

52

Brett 07.24.12 at 6:09 pm

I doubt our viruses and bacteria would affect each other. Just look at bacteria in other animals – it only occasional “makes the jump” to being able to affect human beings, and that’s with creatures that are going to be much, much more similar to humans in terms of physiology and genetics than an alien species.

I’ve never bought into the whole “spam the galaxy with probes in a few million years”. There’s a lot of underlying assumptions in there, including that it’s anything resembling practical to make them and send them out. I wouldn’t be shocked if the vast majority of alien civilizations, presented with the massive energy costs and/or engineering challenge of making starships, said, “Screw this.”

@Keith Edwards

Right. If we take the biodiversity of Earth as a model and extrapolate to a galactic scale, 90% of Alien life is going to be bacteria and insects. There’s what, only a half dozen great ape species still extant on this planet and only one of them has figured out how to use tools beyond the rock and stick level. It’s not to say there isn’t intelligent life in the universe, it’s just going to resemble more a chimpanzee or dolphin than a human-like intelligence.

Or it’s going to be so spread out in the galaxy that contact is unlikely. Imagine if the nearest alien civilization was 12,000 light-years away. You can forget picking up signals in that situation, since the only thing that would be noticeable would be if we got crossed by a tight-beam radar or the like.

53

Lee A. Arnold 07.24.12 at 7:18 pm

@51 — If you take earth as a model, then what happens is diurnal, rhythmic solar radiation puts molecules into alternating energized/de-energized states, and there might evolve some sort of kinetic chemistry between the two states, which then evolves in combination further. So any planet whatsoever — Jupiter, Saturn — may have some sort of “life” on it, though perhaps not recognizable as such to us. More broadly, any two-unit, gravitation/radiation system.

54

bad Jim 07.25.12 at 3:26 am

I was lucky enough to spot a stealth bomber flying to an air show nearby. It was surprisingly quiet.

Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, had this to say about UFO’s:

«So I know that most people misinterpret what they see. But there’s something else too. If alien spaceships are really out there abducting us and playing chicken with our airplanes, then you’d expect that people who spend more time looking at the sky would see more of them. And who spends lots of time looking up?

Amateur astronomers, of course. They are dedicated observers, out every night peering at the sky. If The Truth Is Out There, then amateur astronomers would be reporting far and away the vast majority of UFOs.

But they don’t. Why not? Because they understand the sky! They know when a twinkling light is Venus, or a satellite, or a military flare, or a hot air balloon, and so they don’t report it.

That, to me, is the killer argument that aliens aren’t visiting us. If they were, the amateur astronomers would spot them.»

55

Lee A. Arnold 07.25.12 at 4:13 am

@54 –Okay but what if they were clumsy, but getting better at it? Oh, let’s turn off the lights during descent? I think we must presume they are subject to bad decision-making, and learning curves, and a bureaucracy. And they are communicating policy choices back to the homeworld, so there is also a time lag in official policy. And of course they elected idiots back there. If they are meat, that is. If on the other hand they are superlightspeed, and time reverses when they go faster than electromagnetic radiation, would they have everything already figured out. They will already know what happens! Amateurs will never spot them! Unless they are already identical to all light.

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Lee A. Arnold 07.25.12 at 4:25 am

We should look into the light, to find the eternal beings…

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bad Jim 07.25.12 at 5:40 am

When it comes to space travel I’m a pessimist. The distances are too great. More importantly, we’re not doing a good enough job of taking care of Spaceship Earth. One of the terms of the Drake equation is the lifetime of an advanced civilization. We may already be able to put an upper bound on ours, most likely before our exhaustion of fossil fuels.

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Kenny Easwaran 07.25.12 at 11:40 am

Lee Arnold #55 – I think you’re missing bad Jim’s point. It’s not that the lack of amateur astronomer observations means that ETs aren’t visiting – it just means that the UFOs that are reported by all sorts of other people aren’t actually mysterious, or else amateur astronomers would have noticed them too.

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chris y 07.25.12 at 11:40 am

A species bound to another planet might notice life on this one. The odds are that if they did they might be intrigued, but unlikely to sink major resources into communicating with us, since even at light speed such communication would be extremely cumbersome.

Intelligence capable of actually interacting locally with us would almost certainly i. be a self replicating AI, as less constrained by the effects of time and the need to reproduce itself, and ii. be largely unique, in the sense that it would probably be massively networked.

There is no way for humans to speculate meaningfully on what might or might not interest such an entity, and certainly no reason to suppose that it would be analogous to ourselves or comprehensible to us. It might, for practical purposes, be unidentifiable; it might, for practical purposes, be God. Humans have more immediate and important stuff to worry about.

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chris 07.25.12 at 12:11 pm

There’s what, only a half dozen great ape species still extant on this planet and only one of them has figured out how to use tools beyond the rock and stick level.

True, but you’re focusing on a time period only a few thousand years after the rise of the first toolmaking species on the planet.

And you really only need (and maybe only have room for, what happened to the Neanderthals after all?) one true toolmaking species per planet to have lots in the galaxy — *if* they can manage to sustain their technology without exhausting their natural resources and altering their ecology beyond their capacity to survive it. Since we haven’t solved this problem ourselves, I’d consider it the prime suspect for answer to the Fermi Paradox.

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Lee A. Arnold 07.25.12 at 1:40 pm

@58 — You are right, I wasn’t thinking of the continuous reports of UFO stories up to the present time, even though it is logical to assume that the aliens would have fixed any faulty motors, or indiscretions in their arrivals, by now. The current crop of sightings seems inexplicable except as hallucination or some sort of psychological need, informed by the culture of prior imagery. “Ezekiel saw the wheel, a-way in the middle of the air…

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Scott Martens 07.25.12 at 2:45 pm

chris@60: No, you’re not looking at it the way Keith and I are looking at it. Consider a three plausible default hypotheses:

1. Earth is the most representative sampling we have of life in the universe. (Indeed – it’s the only sample we have.) Assume it’s a genuinely representative sample. What do we see on Earth? Lots of unintelligent animals and a very small number of intelligent organisms. Project this on a galactic scale – consider the probability of a planet having intelligent life well-approximated by the probability that, say, any random kilogram of life on earth will be part of an intelligent organism. That lends itself to concluding there probably isn’t any intelligent life anywhere in this galaxy or any nearby one.

2. Assume that the spatial distribution of life in space at any fixed time – which we do not know – is well approximated by the temporal distribution of life on a single planet, about which we do know something. Intelligent life on Earth has existed for, say, 50,000 years out of 4.5 billion. If there are million planets able to support life in this galaxy, that means we should expect 20-30 to have intelligent life, and given that humans have had space travel for just over 50 of those years, we shouldn’t expect any others to be technologically advanced since there’s only one chance in 1000 any one of them has developed space travel. The parameters of this model are highly sensitive to your beliefs about how much future there is for humanity as an intelligent species with spacefaring technology, something about which there is no information. If you think man can go on a billion years like this, then the galaxy maybe should be full of life, but if you think the Singularity is coming and we’ll all upload ourselves directly into space-time as beings of pure energy (or some similar Star Trek crap) in a century or so… then you shouldn’t expect to find much in space. By default, however, it makes sense to assume the future lifespan of man is related to the length of his past lifetime, and the future of industrial civilization is probably proportionate to its age, so the more pessimistic estimates are at least as good as the optimistic ones.

3. Note that despite billions of years of evolution into countless forms that we are far from fully understanding, many of which have complex cognitive machinery comparable or superior to that of people by any objective standard, we are perhaps expecting to share with aliens characteristics that are uniquely human and products of our unique biological imperatives and physical environment. Expecting aliens to want to travel in space and communicate with other species may not be any better than the Star Trek approach to aliens as just people with weird forehead ridges.

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bianca steele 07.25.12 at 2:52 pm

What, we allow people to use astronomical equipment without a license from the government and appropriate legal requirements?

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Peter Erwin 07.25.12 at 4:53 pm

Scott Martens @ 60:

… consider the probability of a planet having intelligent life well-approximated by the probability that, say, any random kilogram of life on earth will be part of an intelligent organism. That lends itself to concluding there probably isn’t any intelligent life anywhere in this galaxy or any nearby one.

OK, let’s try that: total human dry biomass ~ 100 million tons; total dry biomass ~ 500-1000 billion tons (source: Wikipedia page on biomass); so f(human) ~ 0.0001–0.0002

Total number of planets in the galaxy: ~ 100 billion
Therefore, the total number of planets with intelligent life would be ~ 1 to 2 million in just our galaxy…

(There really are a lot of stars in our galaxy.)

As for the second argument — I’m really skeptical about attempts to define uniform probabilities for processes that are clearly dependent on prior development, especially when all we have is one data point. (For what it’s worth, if you assume that only 1 out of every 100 planets can support life, then you end up with ~ 10,000 with intelligent life right now, using your approach.)

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Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 07.26.12 at 8:10 pm

“As an artistic statement – or maybe anti-homophobic satire – I rather like Doctor Who’s contention that humanity expanded out into the universe in order to have sex with aliens. But the more pragmatic part of me realizes that alien sex is probably as realistic as sex with a cabbage. “

Reminds me of James Tiptree, Jr., short stories.

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Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 07.26.12 at 8:15 pm

“I doubt our viruses and bacteria would affect each other. Just look at bacteria in other animals – it only occasional “makes the jump” to being able to affect human beings, and that’s with creatures that are going to be much, much more similar to humans in terms of physiology and genetics than an alien species.”

Also, it’s assuming that there’s going to be similar biochemistry. The bases for DNA work well in our ambient conditions, but if (say) the ambient pressure was higher and the temperatures were higher (e.g. 60-100 C, with water remaining in liquid form because of the high pressure), a different chemistry for the information-carrying molecule with more hydrogen bonds between bases in that molecule would be needed.

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NomadUK 07.27.12 at 10:27 am

alien sex is probably as realistic as sex with a cabbage.

Hey, don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it.

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ezra abrams 07.27.12 at 3:16 pm

@66
Technical correction
It is a common misperception, even among scientists, that the thermal stability of hte DNA double helix is related to inter-strand hydrogen bonding between the bases, and that the extra bond in G,C pairs is why G,C rich dna is more thermostable.
It has long been known that most of the thermal stability comes not from H bonds but base stacking.
In fact, the latest work (Frank Kamenetskii, Boston University, i think in nuclei acids research, OUP) shows that almost all of the stabilizing force in the double helix is from base stacking, and the hydrogen bonds contribute little, if any.
Base stacking is also why thermal stability is sequence dependent; a GCGC is more stable the GGCC because GC stacks have more stability then GG or CC stacks.

@52
if you do diversity as complexity of nucleic acids (roughly, the amount of unique, nonredundant DNA information) then almost all the information is in bacterial viruses

I think also that the latest reports show that 20% plus, maybe as high as 80% of all life on earth is bacteria living deep in the sediment below the ocean; there is almost no energy there, so these bugs divide sloooooowly.

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Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 07.27.12 at 5:50 pm

68: Ezra, thanks for that correction: I learned something I didn’t know about the interaction of pi-clouds in DNA bases.

Anyway, I think my point still stands: if the physical conditions differ in an alien world, the biochemistries that would evolve would also be different, for instance because of different rates of reactions and hydrolysis rates.

I think that you’d still have the functional molecules having a amide (peptide) bond between monomers though: that seems a better option than e.g. ester bonds. But certainly the range of specific amino acids used as monomers would differ.

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Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 07.27.12 at 6:15 pm

Ezra: Looking at a 2001 paper by Kool in Annu. Rev. Biophys. Biomol. Struct. 2001. 30:1–22, it appears there are several non-hydrogen bonded potential nucleotides with stronger stacking energies than A,C,G,T. So we might expect bases with higher aromacity to be used if the physical conditions on an alien world included higher temperature.

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tomslee 07.27.12 at 8:42 pm

maybe as high as 80% of all life on earth is bacteria living deep in the sediment below the ocean

This is obviously wrong. Danny Boyle has just proved that it’s cows, sheep and grass on top, and chimneys below ground. Until the chimneys come up for air.

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Sgt. Winkhorst 07.29.12 at 2:13 pm

David J. Littleboy said while whistling Dixie:

“And then there’s the minor problem that they’re in a location that light takes longer to get to than homo sapiens will be around.”

You are ignoring the two most obvious places from which they may be coming,

1) Beneath the surface of Mars, where they presumably migrated before their planet got clobbered by something large enough to raise a bump on the opposite side of the planet, and

2) The earth. During the 19th century, there were a number of reports by sea captains and their crews of lighted objects coming out of and going into the ocean. It has been pointed out a number of times that we know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the bottom of the ocean.

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