Alien false alarms. Again.

The world’s had what looked like two alien ‘false alarms’ in the last few months.

Into deepest space: Hubble space telescope image of galaxies from the early universe. Public domain, NASA.
Into deepest space: Hubble space telescope image of galaxies from the early universe. Public domain, NASA.

One was a supposed ‘alien megastructure’ picked up in Kepler telescope occultation data from the F3 V/IV class star KIC 8462852. The nature of the light curve was weird and, although the original science paper referred to possible comets, others thought it fitted the concept of large space-borne solar collectors designed to scoop up energy from the star.

The other was a double-banger ‘fast radio burst’ picked up at the Parkes radio telescope in New South Wales. It’s the kind of pattern always anticipated of an alien radio transmission.

Neither, of course, was actually alien. The SETI institute pointed the Allen radio telescope at KIC 8462852, looking for radio transmissions, and found nothing. And in reality, the ‘it’s alien’ idea was the least likely of a raft of natural-phenomenon explanations of which the most likely was the comet cloud. This seems to be the most plausible explanation, and further observations will no doubt clarify the point.

Last time Parkes picked up a ‘this is obviously artificial’ signal, it was found to be just that – produced by a technological artefact. Aliens? No. Leakage from the observatory’s staff room microwave. There are also other possible answers including energy released by a neutron star collapsing into a black hole after its spin has been deteriorated by loss of energy via its magnetic field (‘biggest bang since the Big One’).

It seems to me that, as a species, we leap to the ‘it’s aliens’ answer far too quickly, not least because a lot of the way we frame our idea of aliens is, actually, a reflection of ourselves. Specifically:

  1. They’ll actively want to communicate with aliens (ie: us).
  2. They’ll build stuff like we might – energy collectors and the like.
  3. Their civilisation is like ours, demanding ever-expanding energy.

All of which also predicates on another set of assumptions:

  1. Life always develops into complex forms, leading to one intelligent species that builds a civilisation which does stuff like we do, e.g. explores, consumes energy, broadcasts radio and so forth.
  2. Earth, and our own history and experience (including the ‘survival of the fittest’ concept that drives the animal kingdom), is typical.

Actually, none of these are necessarily true. We currently have a sample size of one, and that’s not enough to generalise. Just as our exploration of our own solar system has produced some amazing surprises – Pluto, for instance, which is nothing like we imagined – I think that our search for aliens will also surprise us in ways we haven’t considered.

One of the points, which concerns me, is the supposition that intelligence is inevitable given time. Actually, it isn’t. It’s not even a very good survival advantage, if our own history is anything to go by.

Put it this way – any aliens, and their whole history and world, will be alien – as in, alien. However they manifest, they’ll be framed by the same laws of physics and chemistry. But the rest of it? Up for grabs. Alien means alien.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


8 thoughts on “Alien false alarms. Again.

  1. “One of the points, which concerns me, is the supposition that intelligence is inevitable given time. Actually, it isn’t. It’s not even a very good survival advantage, if our own history is anything to go by.”

    Indeed, the fact that there’s a lot of stars and planets out there doesn’t argue for life to be anywhere else. Rather, the circumstances of life on Earth argue for life being improbable anywhere, even here. Granted, it is here, but the deck is stacked against getting things rolling not in favor of it. Getting everything rolling the right way is rather unlikely.

    1. I suspect the building blocks of life are common enough – but, as you say, will that add up to life? And then complex life? And then intelligence? I suspect intelligence isn’t actually a survival advantage – turtles aren’t smart by human standards, for instance, but have survived over 200 million years, which is more than we’ve managed. Just this week it seems another extinct species of human was announced (I’d heard about the discovery some time ago but this adds some detail to the picture). These ‘red deer cave’ people died out just 10,000 years ago. Sure, H. sapiens survived – alone and uniquely – and now dominates the planet, but the way we’re using our intelligence to wreck the place and fight each other makes me suspect that we’ve only had a temporary reprieve…I hope I’m wrong about that, of course!

  2. Our survival is assured if alien life is just like us because they’ll never reach this planet. They’ll be too busy consuming Big Macs and watching television. More seriously, as much as intelligence brings with it all the advantages we’d be so quick to cite, it also brings with it a darker side: arrogance, prejudice, superstition, and many other pointless disadvantages. All over-thinking and selfishness that dominates our species causes us to fight amongst ourselves and clamor for self-destruction when we should be advancing. Sure, we have the knowhow, but do we have the will?

    1. You’ve nailed it! We have the potential to overcome all the faults that are driving our civilisation and species to the brink… if we want to. So far, it seems most humans don’t want to – and those of us that that suggest maybe there are ways we can fix our problems either get smiled at politely or just ignored. Sigh…

  3. I’ve always wondered why our search for “life on other planets” meant “life like that here on Earth.” That’s why we get excited when some planet or moon appears to have water and carbon-based molecules, or to orbit a star like our Sun. Has anyone thought there may be life forms we wouldn’t even recognize as such? And if there is any kind of life out there that’s more intelligent than us, it would very likely leave us alone after observing our destructive ways.

    1. Exactly! Alien intelligence may have given up on us already – but in any event, alien life may well be so different we haven’t even figured out what to look for. “It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it”. Why doesn’t anybody remember that point?

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