The world’s had what looked like two alien ‘false alarms’ in the last few months.
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:
- They’ll actively want to communicate with aliens (ie: us).
- They’ll build stuff like we might – energy collectors and the like.
- Their civilisation is like ours, demanding ever-expanding energy.
All of which also predicates on another set of assumptions:
- 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.
- 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