Aug 15, 2017

Where are the aliens? The question that lives in the midnight voids

There are moments when the noise of regular reporting falls quiet and other issues are heard

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

NASA impression of Pioneer 10 on its way to the stars

What might you read in the long nights in a cancer ward, when your mind wanders briefly from family and friends? When the deeper reaches of the harbour city glow with neon islands in the dark, when the distant roads seem empty, and no jets fly over the briefly sleeping metropolis?

The other night, for this curious patient, it was two reports on New Atlas, both by David Szondy. The longer, Calling all Aliens: What’s the best way to contact our galactic neighbours? sets up the logical, and to an extent confronting sequel Are We alone?

The arguments within each will be well known to many science researchers and curious lay readers but I cannot recollect them having been previously reported so lucidly or compellingly, and usefully.

They also helped fill the current void in industry news likely to be of interest to most readers of this site.

New Atlas manages to often combine longform, thoroughly researched journalism with the parched landscape of on-line publishing. For this avid reader, and former longform or classic school reporter,  its survival is much hoped for.


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15 thoughts on “Where are the aliens? The question that lives in the midnight voids

  1. comet

    Astronomers ask… Why would we send messages to alien civilisations?
    Another question: Why would alien civilisations send messages to us?

    I like Stephen Hawking’s response, that if Earth is an example of what life is like, you wouldn’t want to meet alien life like that. You wouldn’t want to meet beings that behaved like Kim Jong-Un or Donald Trump or other Earthling leaders.

  2. Tango

    I think that is seriously negative.

    What got us where we are is curiosity, innovation, invention.

    Any intelligent life form is going to have those same qualities, or they will just be planets of the Lizards, Dinosaurs , Birds or whatever.

    From Planet of the Apes we have gone to Planet of the Humans (with both its bad and good)

    Now it may kill all of us off, or it may get us off planet and onto the starts someday. Without it, we dies off on the planet.

    I often look at the Dark Ages and the 100 years war, somehow civilization kept alive and bounced back.

    As abhorrent as it is, if good old Kim managed to drop a Nuke on Anchorage or LA, we would survive. He would not.

    We survived Hitler and Stalin. People survived the horrors of the Gas Camps and even maintained their humanity and made lives for themselves after.

    Never underestimate the tenacity of life.

    1. Deano DD

      What if North Korea drops a nuke 100k off Guam
      Us retaliates
      China and Russia think US response is over the top and we end up in WW3
      What if Hitler was not defeated or ISIS got more momentum

      This planet got lucky so many times and it’s amazing that we got where we are today
      Even the space race was borne out of war and the need to dominate earths orbit with satellites to spy on each other during the cold war
      Would we have nuclear power without Hitler laying the ground work for the atomic bomb ?

      Once life gets a hold, it is hard to wipe out, however a decent size war could well bring us back to the dark ages, humans would still exist but as Spok would say
      I’ts life Jim, but not as we know it”

  3. Tango

    And Voyager 1 and 2 are still working and sending back data after 40 years.

    Now that is an amazing thing.

    1. michael r james

      Yes, but the sheer distance and timescales are kind of numbing. Even the honest scientists involved admit that it is really beyond our imaginations. Voyager is now just beyond the solar system but still the same utterly unfathomable and perhaps unbroachable distance to anywhere else. By the time it gets anywhere we may well not be around anymore.
      And this is the conundrum in the SETI question: there may well be, or have been, alien civilisations out there but we may never know them, or them us.

  4. Dan Dair

    Now that we’re starting to prove the existence of other planets around distant stars, it backs-up the old statistical comment that;
    There are billions of stars in our galaxy & if only 1 in a thousand has planets, the statistical possibility of at least one of those many millions (possibly billions) of planets having some semblance of a similar life-forms to ourselves is real, though as yet, still completely unproven.?

    However, the Stephen Hawking quote is very valid.
    As a disunited, multi-factional planet (although with vastly more in common than divides us), it may seem to an outside observer (if there was one) that we’re an interesting place to visit, but they wouldn’t want to live here.?

    1. comet

      Statistical probabilities are useless when we don’t know how life started. If we can’t get accurate inputs into our equation for the probability of alien life, then the answer will be almost random.

      Some just say that God created life. Believe what you may, but that doesn’t answer anything about the complexity of life because it creates an even more difficult question… how did God get there? (That’s a quote from Carl Sagan.)

      And some still believe life started with Adam and Eve, with the universe created in six days, about 7000 years ago. Those people have already rejected the speed of light, as they gaze up to the stars above and view photons that have been travelling for billions of years before colliding with their retinas.

      It’s been 158 years since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, yet I met some religious folk the other day who didn’t believe in evolution. I didn’t argue with them. I let them be. Though I don’t know how they explain that, when they take their antibiotics, it can cause the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria. That’s evolution happening in front of their eyes.

      As we gaze up to the heavens, we don’t really know what’s out there. Maybe there is alien life, but it is rarer than we previously thought. And there is also the possibility that we really are alone.

      1. michael r james

        Exactly. And it’s worse. We don’t know how primordial life started (as catalytic RNA in a chemical soup, blah blah) but it took a series of freak accidents for intelligent life to emerge –and just like the initial life, we still don’t know what makes us different to the other primates (despite knowing their genomes).
        I think the statistical game is weak, or at least not strong. With multiple, either sequential or simultaneous (we don’t know!) extraordinarily rare events necessary, it can quickly add up to “near impossible”. Then they will have had to occur and survive in certain time epochs/windows for us to ever know about each other. Voyager is now just a lump of metal cruising into nowhere–without power to react to anything should it stumble upon it. Let’s face , was a fine thing to do but it ain’t going to resolve any big questions. And, to be selfish, not while anyone reading this will be alive.

        1. comet

          Just a few of the freak events that seemed to be necessary for our existence..

          1. Earth’s collision with a large astroid or other object to form the metallic and magnetic core, shielding the planet from radiation.

          2. The absolutely freakish combining of two different types of microbe to give us mitochondria.

          3. The freezing of the planet and all its oceans, followed by a thawing, which enriched the ocean with nutrients and allowed the development of algea – a vital step for more complex life.

          Even when there are billions of solar systems in the universe, those freak events – in that order – may not have occurred anywhere else.

          But I still hope SETI will find something out there.

          1. michael r james

            Hmm, some of those events are not that freakish and the magnetic thing wouldn’t be that rare for planets in the Goldilocks zone …

            As to #2 “The absolutely freakish combining of two different types of microbe to give us mitochondria.” Nah, probably happens all the time to this day (ie. microbes invading inner-cells of others), for example it also happened to create chloroplasts, and powerful selection for it. We kinda understand how and why it happened. It’s nothing compared to the creation of cells with DNA in the first place which remains a huge mind-bending process. And then the emergence of true intelligence that one small band of primates managed. Of course then we don’t even know what this “intelligence” is really (all this blather about AI but all of it so far, from Go-masters to self-driving cars, is nothing but fast computation, nothing remotely intelligent). Did you see the movie Lucy (Luc Besson directing his usual crazy stuff) last night on the tube? Alas he takes the homunculus approach–ie. modern Lucy (Scarlett Johansen) with the help of some truly funky designer drugs, goes back in time to stare into ancient Lucy’s eyes and imbue her with intelligence (we presume)! But then that was really what Kubrick resorted to in 2001. (Which of course was what Besson was … borrowing.)
            We don’t really have a clue what it is that gives us these abilities but we know it required about 250 million years without another planet-wide disaster to 90% of lifeforms for it to emerge. That is not a huge hurdle to overcome but it is another one. Now we have Donald Trump to survive …

          2. comet

            I can tell you what intelligence is.

            It is a self-programming computer. A computer that writes its own apps. That is what consciousness is. Animals have it too.

            When we do something subconsciously, we’re using an existing ‘app’ in our brain. When we do something consciously we are writing a new ‘app’.

            Google search and Google Translate are using artificial intelligence. The beast is learning as it goes.

          3. michael r james

            Comet wrote: “Google search and Google Translate are using artificial intelligence. The beast is learning as it goes.”

            No, it’s not. It is just massive calculation using defined algorithms. We–and most non-intelligent animals–have a whole series of sub-systems such as vision, smell, balance, etc. that still out-perform machines (in number of calculations and quality of output/integration). And even when machines can more or less match our vision they still won’t be intelligent, merely fast at mimicking what we do.
            It may or may not be the case that as machines get ever more powerful and complex, a kind of intelligence might emerge (ie. a sentience with self-created goals), but it will be very different from our own if only because they won’t be “wired” anything like our brain. The other approach to mimicking our intelligence will require that we actually understand what it is and how it is achieved –so it can be modelled in software (algorithms). We don’t so it won’t.
            Self-driving cars or Go-winning computers are not a manifestation of intelligence. Peta-flops of computer power may be necessary but not sufficient for real intelligence.

          4. Dan Dair

            When you two have finished bickering……..

            Who’s to say that ‘God’ didn’t create the Universe & that the times & time-periods the bible & Christian ‘scholars’ refer to are not appropriate to the planet upon which ‘God’ lived & worked.?

            Or who’s to say that it is a Universal-constant that all cells seek to divide & organise themselves into multi-cellular organisms,?
            & that this innate desire dictates that the cells must eventually establish themselves as some semblance of people & animals (& all God’s creatures.!!), which would be tailored to the planetary circumstances on which they developed.?

            Such a perspective would look at what Comet describes as ‘accidents’ & turn that on it’s head;
            saying these leaps-forward are inevitable, because the cellular constructions were at the point where they were waiting for the outside influence to propel them.? (Irrespective of how many minutes or millennia they had to wait for that ‘push’.? )

          5. michael r james

            Dan Dair wrote:

            Or who’s to say that it is a Universal-constant that all cells seek to divide & organise themselves into multi-cellular organisms,?
            & that this innate desire dictates that the cells must eventually establish themselves as some semblance of people & animals (& all God’s creatures.!!), which would be tailored to the planetary circumstances on which they developed.?

            There is life like that on earth; slime molds are the most astounding example that comes to mind (and IIRC they also make claim–well the dominant species on the planet does on their behalf–that they are the largest living thing on our planet). In some ways you could even include some parts of yourself–eg. our muscles . However all these things have to go thru single-cell and multi-cellular forms and sexual reproduction from time to time to survive. And that’s the real reason why many other speculative exotic forms won’t be on the menu.

            Anyway, I’m just posting again because I see that this coming week’s Catalyst has Brian Schmidt putting the case for the aliens. But his Nobel Prize doesn’t intimidate me because he’s a mere astro-physicist so he knows nuttin about life and I’ll bet he just plays the statistical game (which is a bit lazy). I mean he can’t even tell us how the universe began, where it came from or how it will finish ….

            Note about Catalyst: the first ep of the new reformulated show had me cringing and cursing at the tv all the way through. I mean, a Millenial with a stupid $200 haircut doing useless and cliched things with (I’ve forgotten, was it the latest–in a long line of “latest” in this field going back most of my lifetime–in 3D … However the second ep (last week) while having the potential to be equally lite-infotainment with Tim Flannery, at least had some interesting stuff about seaweed/kelp saving us from climate-change. I don’t think this kind of format replaces the original Catalyst and does risk being way too lite, so while I wouldn’t can it, the ABC should not have re-used the same name.

  5. comet

    What is out there in the universe? To understand the bigger things, we may first need to understand the smaller things. Subatomic particles. The building blocks. Gravity. Time, though time is merely motion.

    In fact, the illusion of time and time dilation is one of the most fascinating things about the universe, first postulated by Einstein and since proven.

    What it means is everything we do and everything we are going to do is already set. It’s fixed. There is no means to change anything… controlling our destiny is just an illusion too. Everything in motion follows its path like an algorithm, just like we know the angle a snooker ball will deflect off the table. There is no now, and therefore no difference between past and future. Just points on a timeline.

    And Ben, as you ponder the universe from the cancer ward, it means that everything you did is still out there. Hurtling down the Essendon runway in a Comet IV is happening simultaneously as you read this. Diving into the ocean around Ball’s Pyramid to get the newspaper scoop is still there. All of ‘time’ exists all of the time for all of time.

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