Sunday, April 17, 2011


Just about every popsci show I've seen in the last few years favors the idea of aliens being everywhere. I'm sick and tired of hearing "reputable scientists" utter the stereotypical sentencte: "The Universe is probably teeming with life". Just because a lot of extrasolar planets have been found lately and just because alcohol's been found in deep space (along with other organic chemicals such as aminoacids) and just because bacteria can live everywhere on Earth doesn't mean that life just appears everywhere there's water and heat. And then becomes intelligent. A few decades ago you didn't see this almost-consensus that aliens must exist with high probability. Now everyone's being disgustingly optimistic about "not being alone in the Universe".
There are a lot of problems with the whole extraterrestrial life issue.
First, you can't do statistics on a sample of one. Therefore, you can't scientifically predict anything about life elsewhere. If we were to find life on Mars or Jupiter's moons or wherever, we'd have a sample of 2, which would still be insufficient, but a lot better than 1. To be pedantic, we don't even have a clear, universal definition of life, or a clear method to identify it; we can only speculate that if it existed, it'd be similar to what we see on Earth because the physics and chemistry are the same everywhere.
Second, we are very limited in our capabilities to detect extraterrestrial life. Radio searches have so far yielded nothing and I personally doubt they ever will, because radio "leakeage" from aliens would be too weak to be detectable. The whole "our TV shows have already reached dozens of stars" is bullshit, the signals are too weak to be detectable. A 100 kilowatt radio source on Earth would shine just about 10^-24 watts of power on a generous alien antenna (one square kilometer) placed not very far away (10 light years), for the same reason that distant stars appear so dim to us. If that antenna were connected to an incredibly sensitive receiver, say cooled to a tenth of a degree above absolute zero, the electronic noise due to thermal motion would still be 1000 times stronger. They could probably barely receive Morse code, which takes a lot less bandwith than human speech. Ramp up the distance to 100 light years and the signal gets 100 more times weaker. So in order for the aliens to hear us, either they'd have to have incredibly advanced receiver technology, or our beam would have to be focused and directed towards them. We're faced with the same problem when trying to detect alien radio signals. We could probably detect a signal if it was being intentionally broadcast, but we haven't yet. This raises another problem: how many times, and for how long, did we transmit such signals into space? Not that many, not that long. Maybe the aliens are doing likewise.
What other means of detection could we use? Take artificial lighting for instance. City lights on Earth can be seen from space, and they have a very distinct spectral signature. Aliens would possibly also use artificial lighting at night, but light has the same problem as radio signals. Maybe if we had a telescope powerful enough to see planets around other stars, we'd be able to detect these hypothetical lights. At least we'd know what to look for, given that aliens would probably see in the same frequency range as we do, because their eyes or whatever they have would adapt to the spectrum of their star, which would be similar to ours. If we watched the planet from the right angle, we could possibly even see these lights turning on in the evening and off in the morning. The total power coming out of our lights is much bigger than the power from our radio transmitters, so things might be the same on their planet. Light is also easier to detect than decoding radio signals.
Another thing that comes to mind are nuclear explosions. Any sufficiently developed aliens would do them, even if just for testing. They would be strong enough to be detectable, but did we ever see any sudden flash of light near a star? Did we ever look for one? I have no idea.
Finally, contrary to what some may think, there's not a shred of physical evidence that aliens have ever visited us. That might be due to the difficulty of interstellar travel, but nonetheless it hasn't happened.
So yeah, even if aliens exist, they can't get to us and we can't get to them. Relativity, which is pretty much proven to model this world correctly, while not forbidding faster-than-light travel, predicts that such travel would result in grandfather paradoxes and such. We also can't talk to them, because information, however we send it, radio, lasers, X-rays, whatever, only travels so fast. Maybe in a "parallel reality" we could, but not in this one. So there. We are alone.


Liviu said...

As I've said many times, I sure hope we stop making noise around our planet, and I sure hope there aren't any aliens close to us, 'cause if they are then we shall have the fate of native American Indians... indeed, native American what? My point exactly, there aren't any left... I mean, US & Canada have always been lived by native Europeans, right? :)) riiight?

Based only on human history, when one advanced civilization meets a less advanced one, the latter shall be be assimilated somehow... At this point, we are the less advanced ones, which is a frightening thought, for me at least.

You know what would be cool? To receive a message like: "We can hear your communication, we can broadcast so you can hear our replies from now on almost instantly, although we are at 100 light years away... However, we can currently travel at just 0.1 light years per year, therefore we shall not be able to reach your planet for the time being... We do not mean peace, we want to destroy you, so do be terrified, please! We are working aggressively to improve our traveling capabilities - in fact, it's a competition between 5 species spread on roughly 32 planets... Oh, they shall talk to you also, but we just wanted to be first. Bye bye, humans! Enjoy your next 30-50 years at most!..."

andreiolaru said...

Considering that exoplanet detection is currently done (do my knowledge) by detecting the small changes in the spectrum of the light of a star, I think that detecting lights or nuclear explosions is still pretty much far away.

There's another thing. Because of the size of our sample, we have a very specific expectation of what life should be and look like and act like. But what if there are other types of 'life' that are totally different, that we never thought of? What if it's there and visible for us, but we just don't see it (like stuff in the fridge) ?

Liviu's last paragraph is fun :D In fact, I think it would be especially nice. Humanity is in great need of a clear, common goal, and that would be a great occasion for a few billion people to focus on one great task. And defend the Earth!

also, this:

stud_robo said...

Japan suffered from worst of the disasters this year…
Information Exchange..: What happened to Fukushima in March 2011...?

cartist said...

Very nice article. Would you be so kind and explain why the speed of light is the fastest speed ever achievable? I haven't understood very well at my physics class in high school.

razvan784 said...

@cartist: Thanks. About the speed of light, it's just how the universe works. It's what we see, all experiments we've done confirm this, and it's how we buit our physical theories that describe what we see. Sorry I can't give you a deeper explanation, but I can talk a little bit about the physics. When Relativity was developed by Einstein (and Lorentz before him) they noticed that the speed of light has to be the same regrardless of how fast you're moving, or else the equations that Maxwell wrote to describe all electromagnetic stuff, including light, wouldn't work. This is unlike normal day-to-day business where if say you were riding a bike inside a moving train your speeds would add up. But if you pointed a flashlight while moving, both you and I standing on the ground outside would measure the same speed of light. Einstein added to this the requirement that everything must be described by the same laws of physics from any perspective (independent of how fast any "observer" is moving relative to what they're observing) and came up with Special Relativity. A consequence of Relativity is that c is the maximum possible speed. Light, having no mass, travels at the maximum speed. If you try to accelerate anything that has mass up to c, it just gets heavier as you try more (you put in more energy, you get more mass as per E=mc2, but little speed increase if you're close to c). This is what we see and measure in particle accelerators for example, which have to compensate for the mass increase as they bring the particles closer and closer to the speed of light, and we've never seen any particle go faster. Other tests confirm Relativity, for instance GPS satellites have to have their clocks adjusted because their time runs slower than our time, another consequence of the speed of light being the same both for them and for us - the equations that translate distances and time intervals between moving frames have to be adjusted so that c stays c everywhere. So there's no reason to believe Relativity is wrong and objects can go faster than light. General Relativity on the other hand, which also deals with acceleration and gravity, I don't fully understand, but from what I've read it predicts that faster-than-light travel also means backwards time travel which is probably impossible, and even so you'd need impossibly large amounts of energy. So it might be possible if we discover new phenomena and develop new theories, but for now it's highly unlikely.