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Is ET calling? | The World Weekly

For over a hundred years, humanity has been inadvertently broadcasting its existence to the rest of the universe, pumping out radio waves into the vast black beyond our sky, the chatter of television signals calling out to the stars. So far, that we know, no one has answered. We have stared into the abyss, but who can tell if the abyss is staring back.

In recent times, humanity’s messages to the universe have been more targeted as we have increasingly entertained the idea of trying to communicate with intelligent species who may live beyond our solar system. On October 9, 2008, for example, Ukraine’s RT-70 radio telescope in Crimea broadcast ‘A Message From Earth’ - a digital time capsule containing 501 messages from politicians, celebrities including Patrick Moore and McFly, and Bebo users selected through a competition on the social network - towards Gliese 581 c, thought to be an Earth-like planet orbiting a red dwarf star.

Travelling at the speed of light, the high-powered digital radio signal passed the moon in 1.3 seconds, Mars in 4 minutes, and left the solar system within 20 hours. A lot has happened since it was sent - Patrick Moore has passed away, Bebo is defunct and RT-70 no longer belongs to the State Space Agency of Ukraine, operating as it does from Russian annexed Crimea - but with Gliese 581 c being 20 light years away, the message will not arrive until 2029. If there are any intelligent, technologically advanced aliens on the planet to receive the message, we would not receive any reply until 2049 at the earliest.

The chances are our digital time capsule will find nothing more than a scorched and barren rock when it arrives in 2029. But what if it doesn’t? What if the alignment of factors has seen an alien civilisation flourish on this not so distant world? 

A comet streaks across the Milky Way

Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute founded by the late Carl Sagan, believes that there is life out there somewhere in the universe. It is Dr. Shostak’s life’s work to find evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence and he is so confident that we will find it in the next two dozen years, he has bet everyone a cup of Starbucks. “I made that bet six or seven years ago, so I stick by that and I’m buying a lot of coffee futures,” he says. “I think there’s a very good chance we’ll do it within that period of time.”

The search

Physicist Stephen Hawking too is keen to find out whether there’s intelligent life out there. In fact, when Breakthrough Listen was launched at the beginning of this year, by far the largest and most comprehensive search for extraterrestrial intelligence ever to be conducted, Professor Hawking was among the leading figures who lent his support to it.

With a budget of $100 million, the 10-year mission will survey the million stars closest to Earth and attempt to discern messages from the 100 galaxies closest to the Milky Way, while scanning the centre of our galaxy and the entire galactic plane. Funded by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, it is deploying technology that can detect a 100 watt laser from 25 trillion miles away. It is said that Breakthrough Listen will receive as much data in a day than previous projects to detect alien signals received in a year.

“In an infinite universe, there must be other life,” Professor Hawking said at the public launch. “There is no bigger question. It is time to commit to finding the answer.”

Recently, it was announced that Breakthrough Listen would be turning its attention towards KIC 8462852, better known as Tabby’s Star, and now best known as the alien megastructure star everyone got incredibly excited about last year.

The largest radio telescope on its first day of use in southern China

KIC 8462852 lies above the Milky Way, between the constellations of Cygnus and Lyra. In 2009, the Kepler Space Telescope identified it as a potential candidate for having Earth-like planets in orbit. But astronomers were struck by the strange light patterns being emitted, unique among the 150,000 stars Kepler had monitored, suggesting the dips they were witnessing were not simply the passage of planets. After ruling out numerous possible natural causes, the scientists raised an astonishing question. Were the objects causing the dips artificial, and if so, who created them?

“Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilisation to build,” Jason Wright, associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State University, told the Atlantic when the story broke in 2015. “I was fascinated by how crazy it looked.”

At this stage it all remains wild speculation, but despite retaining a healthy scepticism, the mere possibility, no matter how remote, is far too delicious for the team at Breakthrough Listen to ignore. They are now devoting hours of their time on the Green Bank radio telescope to see if it can detect any signals from intelligent aliens.

As with all such unknowns, there are a vast array of possible explanations, and most almost certainly don’t involve aliens. But, as the futurist Rohit Talwar, CEO of Fast Future Publishing, tells The World Weekly, “The most exciting is the idea that a distant Mott Macdonald or Nakheel is erecting the kind of superstructure that we can only dream of, or bring to life in a sci-fi movie. If we could somehow make contact and learn from them, imagine what that could mean for the acceleration of development and the tackling of grand challenges on Earth. From climate change to water distribution and food production, we could use our new learning to put society on a more sustainable path.”

Mr. Talwar presents a wholly more optimistic vision of a post-contact planet from Professor Hawking’s dire warnings of alien subjugation or extermination. But back on a 21st century Earth that has yet to realise such utopian or dystopian possibilities, Seth Shostak is holding a bucket of cold water.

“It’s definitely true that the observations by Kepler show these dips of up to 22% in brightness in Tabby’s Star,” he says. “But when you find something strange in the sky, there’s a tendency by some to immediately think it’s alien activity. Well, that was said of the pulsars and the quasars, but it’s never turned out to be aliens, it’s always turned out to be nature. In the case of Tabby’s Star, my suspicion based on history is in a year or so there’ll be a couple more examples of stars that are doing this. There already seems to be a second one actually. And by the time you find a third one, you think well doggone it, again, this can’t be coordinated.”

Indeed, Dr. Shostak’s team looked at KIC 8462852 over a year ago and found nothing. But Breakthrough Listen has access to more powerful equipment than the SETI Institute and Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Centre and co-director of Breakthrough Listen, points out it can look at the star “with greater sensitivity and for a wider range of signal types than any other experiment in the world”.

Public consciousness

While planet Earth waits with bated breath for news from Breakthrough Listen, another similar announcement from a pair of scientists in Canada recently broke through to the public consciousness on a wave of sensationalist headlines. 

The widely reported story goes that hugely unusual signals coming from a cluster of stars have scientists so intrigued they think it is “probably” aliens trying to make the universe aware of their presence. The study, published in the journal Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, found curious modulations in 234 out of 2.5 million stars observed in a sky survey.

“We find that the detected signals have exactly the shape of an [extraterrestrial intelligence] signal predicted in the previous publication and are therefore in agreement with this hypothesis,” write EF Borra and E Trottier of Laval University in Quebec. “The fact that they are only found in a very small fraction of stars within a narrow spectral range centered near the spectral type of the sun is also in agreement with the ETI hypothesis.”

If the claims seem outlandish at this stage, it’s probably because they are, according to Dr. Shostak, who knows people who were asked to be referees on the paper. That they went through, he says, six referees “before they found someone who would be willing to publish the paper unmodified” points to the extraordinariness of the claim. 

“They were looking at 2.5 million stars, when you look at a data set that large, the slightest systematic effects, either an instrument or the data reduction scheme will show false positives that show effects that are not actually there,” Dr. Shostak tells The World Weekly. “Maybe it’s real, maybe it’s not. On the face of it, it looks a little odd. Why would all these star systems that are separated by hundreds, even thousands of light years all be doing the same thing at the same time? While it’s very interesting and these are competent people, one shouldn’t be too excited until that’s confirmed.”

A Soyuz TMA-19M spacecraft attached to the International Space Station is seen on June 16, 2016

But what such stories do, sensationalist as the headlines they generate may be, is generate a tremendous amount of public excitement over the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Today, more and more people are treating the possibility of detecting signs of alien life as seriously as it deserves. Planets outside our solar system that may be suitable for life are being discovered thick and fast now - as many as one in five stars may have an inhabitable planet - and Dr. Shostak believes this is sinking into the public consciousness. People see aliens on television and in the cinema and increasingly, they accept that it’s probably not just in fiction that such beings exist.

“This new wave of Silicon Valley-style innovators and their counterparts around the world are imbued with a pioneering spirit and a Tony Stark complex – believing they have the vision and ability to change the course of history,” explains Mr. Talwar. “Being the first to find extraterrestrial life is right up the on the scale of moon-shot-like achievements.”

Why haven’t we found anything?

And yet still we stare up at the vast majesty of the universe with not a hint that someone out there is looking back at us.

Among the most famous attempts to get to grips with the great silence of the universe is the Fermi Paradox. In 1950, physicist Enrico Fermi casually posited that with billions of sun-like stars in the galaxy, many of which are billions of years older than Earth and many of which will have Earth-like planets in their orbit, some might have developed intelligent life and some such civilisations might develop interstellar travel. Interstellar travel might be painfully slow, with so many potentially habitable planets out there that are so much older than Earth, even if it took a million years to cross the Milky Way, some of those civilisations should have spread out and someone should have reached our world by now. So, asked Fermi, “Where is everybody?” Could it be there’s no intelligent life out there?

For Jason Wright, the answer is quite stark. As he tells The World Weekly, either interstellar spaceflight is so difficult to achieve that it hardly ever happens, or intelligent life is very rare. In either case, it does not bode well for our chances of one day meeting aliens.

But Dr. Shostak thinks the implications of the Fermi Paradox are too pessimistic.

“The Fermi Paradox is making a very big conclusion based on a very local observation, which is we don’t see anybody,” he says. “Well, I could go up to the highlands of Scotland and not see anybody, but that doesn’t mean Britain is uninhabited. There’s all sorts of things we didn’t detect for most of human history that were there, like Neptune for example.” 

“The other thing,” Dr. Shostak adds, “is if you accept the Fermi Paradox’s conclusion, that they’re just not out there, that makes Earth a miracle, that makes us a miracle. I find that harder to believe than that aliens are widely distributed but we just haven’t found any evidence yet.”

Rohit Talwar looks to take the boundaries of imagination even further: “They may well have visited and left their imprint or sown seeds for future generations to benefit or suffer from. Could it be that the highest intellects on the planet have been and are aliens? Could we be living inside an alien simulation? Might we be so boring or unworthy that they’ve bypassed us for other more interesting planets?”

But, he concludes, the problem is that once we start thinking about more advanced intellects, or societies sufficiently more advanced than our own that they have developed interstellar capabilities, it becomes impossible to apply our own limited sets of reasoning to their mindsets. In Star Trek, for example, the human-led United Federation of Planets has at its core a prime directive that forbids making contact with other species until they achieve faster than light travel.

Why hasn’t E.T. phoned earth yet?

A much darker conclusion is reached by Mr. Talwar’s fellow futurist, Nick Bostrom, who sincerely hopes we never find evidence of extraterrestrial life. Why? Because, in his view, either there is a Great Filter, or enormous probability barrier, in our past meaning life in the universe is extremely rare and Earth is one of the very few planets that has benefited from a series of highly improbable evolutionary steps that allowed it, almost uniquely, to develop here, or there is a Great FIlter in our future and that is much more worrying. A Great Filter in our future would imply that most advanced civilisations wipe themselves out before they become capable of interstellar travel.

“I appreciate his sunny view of intelligence,” counters Dr. Shostak, “but all civilisations have to wipe themselves out in order for us not to find any. I can believe that a lot of them do it, maybe even 90% of them, I’m not so pessimistic myself, I could be wrong, maybe we’re destined to destroy ourselves. But it’s hard to destroy ourselves. Even the plague couldn’t do that. Aside from that, they would all have to do that to have a universe free of any signalling. And at the moment in history you develop the means to self destruct, say atomic weapons, that’s the same time you invent rockets. When you do that, you start to colonise other parts of your solar system within a few centuries. Then it becomes even harder to get rid of everybody. I think this is an unduly sombre view.”

It should be noted that The World Weekly asked Dr. Shostak the question of whether or not advanced civilisations can wipe themselves out before the election of Donald Trump as his country’s president. 

Nevertheless, Professor Wright agrees, pointing out that such conclusions are probably projections of our own species’ fears. “In order for this to happen, it must be true that every intelligent civilisation that arises inevitably causes its own permanent extinction in the narrow window between its ability to do so and the development of self-sufficient colonies in space,” Professor Wright tells The World Weekly. “That seems like a implausibly specific sort of natural law of sociology, especially when applied across every form of alien life.”

So is there life out there and might it avoid blowing itself up long enough to make contact with us? Nothing we have seen so far seems to suggest it has already tried to contact us. But we have barely scratched the surface of our universe. We have barely begun to even explore the depths of our own oceans. Our galaxy contains around 300 billion stars. It is thought 2 trillion galaxies have spread out across a universe 91 billion light years in diametre. When dealing with such mind boggling numbers, it seems near inconceivable that one tiny speck of rock in all of space and time could have produced life. Every day we gaze further and further into the black, our rapidly improving technology opening up the secrets of new regions of space. In a couple of dozen years Dr. Shostak expects we will have surveyed 1 million star systems. By then, he’s confident that we’ll find something.

Gaze long enough into the abyss, sooner or later the abyss gazes back into you.

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