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  • richardmitnick 3:34 pm on December 30, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , Extraterrestrials   

    From AAAS: “Detecting extraterrestrial life through motion” 

    AAAS

    AAAS

    Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne

    Looking for life on other planets is not straightforward. It usually relies on chemical detection, which might be limited or even completely irrelevant to alien biology. On the other hand, motion is a trait of all life, and can be used to identify microorganisms without any need of chemical foreknowledge. EPFL scientists have now developed an extremely sensitive yet simple motion detector that can be built easily by adapting already-existent technology. The system has proven accurate with detecting bacteria, yeast, and even cancer cells, and is considered for the rapid testing of drugs and even the detection of extraterrestrial life. The work is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

    Giovanni Dietler, Sandor Kasas and Giovanni Longo at EPFL have developed a motion detector that uses a nano-sized cantilever to detect motion. A cantilever is essentially a beam that is anchored only at one end, with the other end bearing a load. The cantilever design is often used with bridges and buildings, but here it is implemented on the micrometer scale, and about 500 bacteria can be deposited on it.

    c
    Example of a cantilever

    The idea comes from the technology behind an existing microscope, the atomic force microscope. This powerful microscope uses a cantilever to produce pictures of the very atoms on a surface. The cantilever scans the surface like the needle of a record player and its up-and-down movement is read by a laser to produce an image.

    a
    An atomic force microscope on the left with controlling computer on the right.

    The motion sensor the Dietler and Kasas developed works the same way, but here the sample is attached on the cantilever itself. For example, a bacterium attaches to the cantilever. If the bacterium is alive, it will inevitably move in some way, e.g. move its flagellum or simply carry out normal biological functions. That motion also moves the much smaller and sensitive cantilever and it is captured by the readout laser as series of vibrations. The signal is taken as a sign of life.

    The EPFL scientists successfully tested their novel system with isolated bacteria, yeast, mouse and human cells. They even tested soil from the fields around the EPFL campus and water from the nearby Sorge river. In each case, they were able to accurately detect and isolate vibration signatures from living cells. When they used drugs to kill anything alive, the motion signals stopped.

    “The system has the benefit of being completely chemistry-free,” says Dietler. “That means that it can be used anywhere – in drug testing or even in the search for extraterrestrial life.” The scientists envision a large array of cantilever sensors used in future space exploration probes like the Mars rover. As it relies on motion rather than chemistry, the cantilever sensor would be able to detect life forms in mediums that are native to other planets, such as the methane in the lakes of Titan.

    However, the more immediate applications of the cantilever system are in drug development. Used in a larger array, the cantilevers could be covered with bacteria or cancer cells and incubated with various drug compounds. If the drugs are effective against the attached cells, the motion signals would decrease or stop altogether as the cells die off. This approach would be considerably quicker than current high-throughput systems used in by pharmaceutical companies when looking for candidate antibiotics or anticancer drugs.

    “This is really the next step,” says Dietler. “But we’re still calling ESA and NASA to see if they’re interested.”

    ###

    This work represents a collaboration of EPFL’s Laboratory of Physics of Living Matter with the University of Lausanne and the Vlaams Institute for Biotechnology.

    Reference

    Reference

    Kasas S, Simone Ruggeri FS, Benadiba C, Maillard C, Stupar P, Tournuc H, Dietler G, Longo G. Detecting nanoscale vibrations as signature of life. PNAS 29 December 2014. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1415348112

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 9:13 am on December 26, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , , Extraterrestrials, ,   

    From Dennis Overbye at NYT: “Do Aliens Know It’s Christmas?” 

    New York Times

    The New York Times

    DEC. 22, 2014
    NYT Dennis Overbye Older
    Dennis Overbye

    A star appeared in the East.

    Following it, so the biblical story goes, three Magi urged on by a nervous King Herod arrived in Bethlehem and discovered the news that many of us celebrate with bells, lights and too much sugar and alcohol every year at this time: The son of God had come to die for our sins.

    Peace on earth and good will to men is fine, as far as it goes. But some astronomers and forward-thinking theologians wonder how the rest of the universe is supposed to get the message.

    If your dog can go to heaven, can E. T.? Astronomers have discovered in the last two decades that there are probably tens of billions of potentially habitable planets in the Milky Way. Only last week, NASA scientists reported that Mars had blown a methane sigh into the face of the Curiosity rover, though whether from microbes or geochemical grumblings may not be known until there are geologists’ boots on the Red Planet.

    NASA Mars Curiosity Rover
    NASA/Curiosity

    So it’s not so crazy to imagine other living creatures scattered through the billions of years and light-years of cosmic history.

    Did Christ come to die for their sins, too?

    Or as Geoffrey Marcy, an exoplanet explorer and holder of the Watson and Marilyn Alberts Chair in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence at the University of California, Berkeley, said not long ago in an email, “But do they know it’s Christmas?”

    Surely, earthlings were not the only beings in the Milky Way blessed in God’s eyes, he elaborated, saying that he liked to tease public audiences with the question. “Conversations about religion with intelligent beings from an exoplanet might jolt humanity into realizing how parochial our beliefs are,” he said.

    Pope Francis suggested in a homily in May that he would baptize Martians if they landed in St. Peter’s Square and asked for it.

    How, you may ask, might E.T. have sinned? On Earth, violence and suffering are embedded in the Darwinian struggle for survival that produced us, says Ted Peters, a professor who runs a group on “astrotheology” at the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley. If aliens are made of the same stuff we are, Dr. Peters wrote in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 2011, “might they also share the ambiguity between good and evil that we are familiar with?”

    But what if they are computers or other forms of artificial intelligence that futurists say might ultimately supplant us as masters of the universe?

    Christian scholars like Dr. Peters and indeed the pope agree that the possibility of redemption probably extends to all of creation, even perhaps the inanimate world.

    “How could he be God and leave extraterrestrials in sin?” asks the Rev. George V. Coyne, the former director of the Vatican Observatory and now a Jesuit priest who holds the McDevitt Chair of Religious Philosophy at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, in the 2000 book Many Worlds: The New Universe, Extraterrestrial Life and the Theological Implications, edited by the astronomer Steven J. Dick, a former chief historian for NASA. “After all, he was good to us. Why should he not be good to them?”

    This has engendered a sort of how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin argument about whether Christ died for the entire cosmos, or whether the son of God or the metaphysical equivalent has to be born and die on every populated planet.

    Each alternative sounds ridiculous on the face of it. The first alternative would make Earth the center of the universe again, not just in space but in time, carrying the hopes for the salvation of beings that lived and died millions or billions of years ago and far, far away.

    The second alternative would be multiple incarnations, requiring every civilization to have its own redeemer — “its own adventure with God,” in the words of Professor Peters. That is hardly better. As the old troublemaker Thomas Paine wrote in The Age of Reason, “In this case, the person who is irreverently called the son of God, and sometimes God himself, would have nothing else to do than to travel from world to world, in an endless succession of deaths, with scarcely a momentary interval of life.”

    Distinguished theologians have come down on different sides of this issue; after all, it’s not up to us to say what God could or could not do. “God doesn’t seem to be limited by history and communication,” Dr. Peters said in an interview, playing the devil’s advocate, so to speak, for the notion of a single incarnation for the entire cosmos. In that case, the consequences would not be limited to “people who get emails about it.”

    “Every sentient being is blessed by God’s grace whether they know about it or not,” he said.

    Seeking scientific as well as spiritual guidance, I dialed up Guy Consolmagno at the Vatican Observatory. He is a Jesuit priest and a co-author, with his fellow Jesuit Paul Mueller, of Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? … And Other Questions from the Astronomer’s In-box at the Vatican Observatory.

    Vatican Observatory
    Vatican Observatory Interior
    Vatican Observatory

    Brother Consolmagno spent 10 years working and teaching as a planetary scientist, specializing in meteorites, before joining the Jesuits. Last year, he was awarded the Carl Sagan Medal by the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society, for communication in planetary science. He said that Christmas for aliens could be a wonderful story, but that he didn’t have any answers and that that was part of the fun.

    “One incarnation seems absurd but not inconsistent with the data,” he said by phone from Florida, where he was watching manatees.

    There is no data, I pointed out.

    “Exactly!” he responded, laughing.

    Contrary to popular perception, he said, religion, like science, is not a closed book. “Science,” he said, “is stuff we understand about truths we only partially grasp. Religion is trying to get closer to truths we don’t understand.”

    The more you know, the more you know you don’t understand, he said. “That’s called progress.”

    The challenge in any person’s or species’ life, he added, is how to learn others’ truths without giving up your own.

    Dr. Marcy, with tongue fairly firmly in cheek, evoked what he called “the multigod model of the universe.”

    There might be room in the universe for more than one truth, he said, if every inhabited planet had its own gods. The inhabitants might be as certain of their beliefs as we humans are of ours.

    “The deities have carved out their operating galactic territories, like so many cosmic Corleone families,” Dr. Marcy said.

    “Only with SETI research,” he went on, referring to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, “will we learn whether our particular God is alone in the universe.”

    His point was echoed, if less ironically, by Nancy Ellen Abrams, a lawyer, philosopher and author of a forthcoming book, A God That Could Be Real: Spirituality, Science and the Future of Our Planet, which argues that God is an emergent phenomenon, a result of the complexity of the universe and human aspirations rather than the cause of them — although no less real for that. “Our god is the god of humanity; it has nothing to do with aliens,” she said in an interview.

    In the best of all possible universes, all these truths and gods would mysteriously and perhaps revelatorily overlap. But maybe that is wishful thinking and there is another, more chilling answer to Christmas.

    Take that star in the East; it was the subject of a classic story by Arthur C. Clarke, a science fiction author and space visionary.

    In The Star, published in 1955, an expedition to the site of an old supernova explosion discovers the remains of an ancient civilization, carefully preserved because its members knew they were about to be obliterated. The story is told through the eyes of the astrophysicist onboard, a Jesuit. He is able to figure out exactly when the explosion that doomed this race took place, and exactly what it would have looked like 2,000 years ago from Earth.

    “There can be no reasonable doubt,” he concludes, “the ancient mystery is solved at last. Yet, oh God, there were so many stars you could have used. What was the need to give these people to the fire, that the symbol of their passing might shine above Bethlehem?”

    Brother Consolmagno, who was a science fiction aficionado as an undergraduate at M.I.T., knows the story.

    “That’s not the kind of god I’m happy with,” he said.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 1:35 pm on December 23, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Extraterrestrials, ,   

    From SPACE.com: “Would Finding Alien Life Change Religious Philosophies?” 

    space-dot-com logo

    SPACE.com

    October 10, 2014
    Megan Gannon

    The discovery of extraterrestrial beings — be they slimy microbes or little green men — would dramatically change the way we humans view our place in the universe. But would it shatter religion? Well, that depends on what you believe.

    In his new book Religions and Extraterrestrial Life (Springer 2014), David Weintraub, an astronomer at Vanderbilt University, takes a close look at how different faiths would handle the revelation that we’re not alone. Some of his findings might surprise you.

    Public polls have shown that a large share of the population believes aliens are out there. In one survey released last year by the company Survata, 37 percent of the 5,886 Americans who were polled said they believed in the existence of extraterrestrial life, while 21 percent said they didn’t believe and 42 percent were unsure. Responses varied by religion: 55 percent of atheists said they believed in extraterrestrials, as did 44 percent of Muslims, 37 percent of Jews, 36 percent of Hindus and 32 percent of Christians.

    a
    The nonprofit Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute’s Allen Telescope Array in California has been listening for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations. So far, no aliens have tried to get in touch.
    Credit: SETI Institute

    Weintraub found that some religions are more accommodating to the idea of E.T. than others. Those with an Earth-centric spiritual point of view are the most likely to be made uncomfortable by questions about the discovery of aliens. Certain evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, for example, are of the opinion that God’s sole intent was to create people here on Earth. Some believe that if God created life anywhere else, it would say that in Genesis, Weintraub said.

    But some Christians who interpret the Bible quite literally might actually have an easier time incorporating the existence of aliens into their spiritual cosmology. Many Seventh-day Adventists, for example, are creationists who believe the Earth was literally created by God in six days some 6,000 years ago and that humans descended — and inherited original sin — from Adam and Eve. In that line of thinking, life could exist on other planets, but beings that didn’t descend from Adam and Eve on Earth wouldn’t be inherently sinful, and effectively, they wouldn’t need Christianity to be saved, Weintraub told Live Science.

    Seventh-day Adventism’s flexibility with regard to aliens might be a product of the time in which the religion was founded (the 19th century). During the 1700s and 1800s, there was a strong popular belief in extraterrestrial life, Weintraub said. The telescope (a relatively recent invention) finally allowed astronomers to peek at other planets and moons in our solar system, but scientists didn’t yet fully understand that these celestial bodies were barren. And perhaps it’s no coincidence that the religions that began at that time — Mormonism, Seventh-day Adventism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Baha’i Faith — all have a strong belief in extraterrestrial life, Weintraub said.

    In contrast, the notion of extraterrestrial life was for the most part irrelevant to religions that began thousands of years ago.

    “Ideas about extraterrestrial life — if they’re part of the sacred writings — they’re buried a little bit deeper,” Weintraub told Live Science. “They’re not obvious. They’re layered below the top. In Jewish scripture, there’s pretty much nothing there. You really have to over-interpret to find anything that you can marginally say might have anything to do with extraterrestrial life.”

    Of course, aliens have figured into the beliefs of small cults and fringe religious groups. In a famous example, 39 members of the so-called Heaven’s Gate group committed suicide believing they would leave their earthly bodies and reach an alien spacecraft trailing the comet Hale-Bopp in 1997. Weintraub didn’t look at these groups (nor did he analyze Scientology), but he said it’s likely that future religions would spring up and seize on the discovery of extraterrestrial life.

    “There are a lot of so-called UFO religions, and I’m sure that if we discovered that there really was life beyond Earth, there would be lots more of these kinds of things,” Weintraub said. “There undoubtedly would be people who would find this as an opportunity or an excuse to call attention to themselves for whatever reason and there would be new religions.” [UFO Quiz: What’s Really Out There]

    With advances in exoplanet research and astrobiology, scientists could realistically be on the cusp of finding evidence for life far away from Earth — perhaps not intelligent life, but life, nonetheless. That’s why Weintraub thinks the rest of us should be prepared for the spiritual questions that will follow — and that astronomers should participate in that conversation, since the question “Is there life in the universe?” now belongs to the domain of science, not just philosophy.

    “It almost doesn’t matter what kind of life it is,” Weintraub told Live Science “If there’s any kind of life out there it simply means we’re not alone. And knowing we’re not alone, I think, has a lot of meaning.”

    It will likely be millions of years before humans discover and are able to communicate with intelligent alien beings — if they’re out there, Weintraub said. But he thinks it’s worth extending the thought experiment to consider how we would treat aliens of different faiths. Would we repeat the mistakes of European missionaries who converted the “heathens” of the New World to Christianity? Or would we adopt a policy that looks more like the no-interference “prime directive” of the “Star Trek” universe? Would sentient aliens have their own religions? Would they try to preach to us?

    “Once you think about this enough, it’s worth recognizing that if it’s OK for somebody in a different part of the universe to have a different religion, maybe it’s OK for somebody else in a different part of the Earth to have a different religion,” Weintrub said. “Maybe we could figure something out down here that could make us get along a little better.”

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 11:47 am on October 4, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From astrobio.net: “Are the world’s religions ready for E.T.?” 

    Astrobiology Magazine

    Astrobiology Magazine

    Oct 4, 2014
    Source: Vanderbilt University
    David Salisbury

    In 1930, Albert Einstein was asked for his opinion about the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe. “Other beings, perhaps, but not men,” he answered. Then he was asked whether science and religion conflict. “Not really, though it depends, of course, on your religious views.”

    Over the past 10 years, astronomers’ new ability to detect planets orbiting other stars has taken this question out of the realm of philosophy, as it was for Einstein, and transformed it into something that scientists might soon be able to answer.

    Realization that the nature of the debate about life on other worlds is about to fundamentally change led Vanderbilt Professor of Astronomy David Weintraub to begin thinking seriously about the question of how people will react to the discovery of life on other planets. He realized, as Einstein had observed, that people’s reactions will be heavily influenced by their religious beliefs. So he decided to find out what the world’s major religions have to say about the matter. The result is a book titled Religions and Extraterrestrial Life (Springer International Publishing) published this month.

    book
    Credit: Springer

    “When I did a library search, I found only half a dozen books and they were all written about the question of extraterrestrial life and Christianity, and mostly about Roman Catholicism, so I decided to take a broader look,” the astronomer said.

    As a result, his book describes what religious leaders and theologians have to say about extraterrestrial life in more than two dozen major religions, including Judaism, Roman Catholicism, the Eastern Orthodox churches, the Church of England and the Anglican Communion, several mainline Protestant sects, the Southern Baptist Convention and other evangelical and fundamentalist Christian denominations, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), Seventh Day Adventism and Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), Islam and several major Asian religions including Hinduism, Buddhism and the Bahá’í Faith.

    Discovery of planets

    The remarkable progress that astronomers have made at detecting exoplanets gives the issue of extraterrestrial life a new sense of immediacy. In 2000, astronomers had detected 50 planets orbiting other stars. Today, the number has grown to more than 1,000. If the rate of discovery keeps up its current pace, astronomers will have identified more than a million exoplanets by the year 2045.

    “If even one exoplanet shows signs of biological activity – and those signs should not be hard to detect, if living things are present – then we will know Earth is not the only place in the universe where life exists,” Weintraub points out. “Although it is impossible to prove a negative, if we have not found any signs of life after a million exoplanets have been studied, then we will know that life in the universe is, at best, exceedingly rare.”

    Public opinion polling indicates that about one fifth to one third of the American public believes that extraterrestrials exist, Weintraub reports. However, this varies considerably with religious affiliation.

    Belief in extraterrestrials varies by religion

    55 percent of Atheists
    44 percent of Muslims
    37 percent of Jews
    36 percent of Hindus
    32 percent of Christians

    Of the Christians, more than one third of the Eastern Orthodox faithful (41 percent), Roman Catholics (37 percent), Methodists (37 percent), and Lutherans (35 percent) professed belief in extraterrestrial life. Only the Baptists (29 percent) fell below the one-third threshold.

    Asian religions would have the least difficulty in accepting the discovery of extraterrestrial life, Weintraub concluded. Some Hindu thinkers have speculated that humans may be reincarnated as aliens, and vice versa, while Buddhist cosmology includes thousands of inhabited worlds.

    Weintraub quotes passages in the Qur’an that appear to support the idea that spiritual beings exist on other planets, but notes that these beings may not practice Islam as it is practiced on Earth. “Islam, like other faiths, has fundamentalist and conservative traditions. All Muslims, however, likely would agree that the prophetically revealed religion of Islam is a set of practices designed only for humans on earth,” Weintraub wrote.

    Weintraub found very little in Judaic scriptures or rabbinical writings that bear on the question. The few Talmudic and Kabbalistic commentaries on the subject do assert that space is infinite and contains a potentially infinite number of worlds and that nothing can deny the existence of extraterrestrial life. At the same time, Jews don’t believe the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence would have much effect on them. He quotes a Jewish anthropologist and scholar who has addressed this issue and concluded that the relationship beween Jews and God would not be affected in the slightest by “the existence of other life forms, newly discovered scientific realities or pan-human behavioral changes.”

    Christian debate

    Among Christian religions, the Roman Catholics have done the most thinking about the possibility of life on other worlds, the astronomer discovered. In fact, they have had an on-again, off-again theological debate that has gone on for a thousand years.

    dw
    Author David Weintraub (Daniel Dubois / Vanderbilt)

    The crux of the matter is original sin. If intelligent aliens are not descended from Adam and Eve, do they suffer from original sin? Do they need to be saved? If they do, then did Christ visit them and was he crucified and resurrected on other planets? “From a Roman Catholic perspective, if sentient extraterrestrials exist some but perhaps not all such species may suffer original sin and will require redemption,” Weintraub summarizes.

    The inherent diversity of Protestant denominations, where individuals are encouraged to interpret scripture independently, has led to many conflicting approaches to the question of extraterrestrial intelligence. Weintraub determined that the views of Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich appear to represent a viable consensus. Tillich argued that the need for salvation is universal and the “saving power” of God must be everywhere. At the same time, he maintained that God’s plan for human life need not be the same as his plan for aliens.

    Evangelical and fundamental Christians are most likely to have difficulty accepting the discovery of extraterrestrial life, the astronomer’s research indicates. “…most evangelical and fundamentalist Christian leaders argue quite forcefully that the Bible makes clear that extraterrestrial life does not exist. From this perspective, the only living, God-worshipping beings in the entire universe are humans, created by God, who live on Earth.” Southern Baptist evangelist Billy Graham was a prominent exception who stated that he firmly believes “there are intelligent beings like us far away in space who worship God.”

    Weintraub also identified two religions – Mormonism and Seventh-day Adventism – whose theology embraces extraterrestrials. In Mormonism, God helps exalt lesser souls so they can achieve immortality and live as gods on other worlds. And, Ellen White, who co-founded Seventh-Day Adventism, wrote that Got had given her a view of other worlds where the people are “noble, majestic and lovely” because they live in strict obedience to God’s commandments.

    Are we ready?

    In answer to the question “Are we ready?” Weintraub concludes, “While some of us claim to be ready, a great many of us probably are not… very few among us have spent much time thinking hard about what actual knowledge about extraterrestrial life, whether viruses or single-celled creatures or bipeds piloting intergalactic spaceships, might mean for our personal beliefs [and] our relationships with the divine.”

    See the full article, with video, here.

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  • richardmitnick 2:40 pm on September 26, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , Extraterrestrials, ,   

    From Seth Shostak at SETI Institute: “So What Really Goes Down if We Find the Aliens?” 


    SETI Institute

    September 26, 2014
    By Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer and Director of the Center for SETI Research

    SETI Seth Shostak
    Seth Shostak

    If we trip across life that’s not of this world, do we blast it or befriend it? What impact would it have on our society?

    This was the topic of a two-day symposium held at the John W. Kluge Center of the Library of Congress last week. Several dozen researchers — astronomers, philosophers, theologians, biologists, historians, and other tweed-jacketed specialists — opined on what might happen should we find we’re not alone.

    A lot of the discussion, unsurprisingly, was about discovering life that’s intelligent. This prompted a symposium leitmotiv that was dished out repeatedly: when thinking about aliens, beware of anthropocentrism. In other words, don’t assume that they will be similar to us ethically, culturally, or cognitively.

    Well sure, I can get down with that. I agree that we tend to view everything in the universe through the prism of our own natures. Mind you, I note that the squirrels in my front yard seem to do the same. They’re awfully squirrel-centric. That ensures that they attend to activities that are truly important (mostly acorn management). I don’t think less of them for that.

    Where this leitmotiv became more than a neo-Greek caution against hubris was when it was used to argue that SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is fatally flawed. We were told that our hunt for aliens assumes that they are like us. That kind of provincial attitude, it was said, will doom SETI to endless frustration. If we don’t think outside our own biological box, we’ll fail to find any company in the cosmos.

    But wait a minute: That’s akin to arguing that the 1976 Viking landers — with their complex instrumentation for sensing microbial Martians — were a clear non-starter because they were sensitive to carbon-based metabolism; in other words, life as we know it. Well, that’s true, but it was really hard to design experiments that were good at finding life as no-one-knows-it.

    Actually, when it comes to SETI experiments, we try not to make assumptions about the aliens’ cultural, ethical, or even biological makeup. We don’t assume they are similar to us. Rather, we assume that their physics is similar to ours — that they use radio transmitters or lasers to send information from wherever they are to wherever they need it. That’s no more anthropocentric than assuming that — if aliens use ground transportation — at least some of it is on wheels.

    Anthropocentrism is always a bugaboo, but to say that it might irretrievably cripple our efforts to find evidence for intelligence elsewhere is certainly arguable. So let’s consider that SETI experiments are not as myopic as some would aver. The big question then becomes, what happens if we pick up a ping?

    First, allow me to dispense with the false, but nonetheless ever-popular idea that the public wouldn’t be told. That’s goofier than Big Bird, and easily disproved by a cursory reference to SETI’s occasional false alarms. This paranoid idea probably derives from the widespread claim that 67 years ago some wayward aliens made a dismaying navigational error, and piloted their craft into the dirt near Roswell, New Mexico. The fact that this event is not the subject of much investigation by research scientists is often explained as the consequence of a government cover-up. The feds don’t want you to know about extraterrestrials.

    One could make the same argument about the lack of academic interest in leprechauns. Maybe the Irish government is hiding the bodies. I don’t find that a compelling argument. But I think the popular notion of secret evidence sparks the mistaken belief that a SETI detection would be hushed up. It won’t be.

    Of greater relevance to the subject of this symposium — preparing for discovery — was what would the signal reveal? What could we learn about the senders’ construction or culture?

    The most plausible answer is “not much.” Just as hearing a rustle in the forest provides precious little information on the flora or fauna that caused it, so too would an alien ping be largely uninformative, at least at first. There might be an accompanying message, but new and different instruments would be required to find it.

    What we could learn quickly are a few, mostly astronomical facts, to wit: (1) How far away is their solar system; (2) What type of star do they orbit? (3) The length of their day and their year.

    That might be it for a while. And “a while” would be years, at minimum.

    If we find intelligent beings elsewhere in our galaxy, you’ll not be quickly confronted with complex philosophical problems of understanding their mode of thinking or their biological blueprint — or even knowing whether they are biological. You won’t be misled by anthropocentric thinking, because there will be precious little information about whether they’re like us or not. For years, all we’ll be able to say is that there’s something out there that’s at least as technologically competent as we are.

    But of course, that’s still saying a lot.

    See the full article here.

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