Aliens might be just like us… greedy, violent and short on resources

Paul Raven @ 26-01-2010

If you’re waiting patiently for saintly extraterrestrials to come and rescue us from our civilisational follies, you might want to reassess your hopes.

Simon ­Conway Morris, professor of evolutionary ­paleobiology at Cambridge University, suggests that aliens (should they ever arrive on Planet Earth, the likelihood of which is another question entirely) may well turn out to be more like us than we’d have thought… warts and all. [image by Markusram]

[…] while aliens could come in peace they are quite as likely to be searching for somewhere to live, and to help themselves to water, minerals and fuel, Conway Morris will tell a conference at the Royal Society in London tomorrow.

His lecture is part of a two-day conference at which experts will discuss how we might detect life on distant planets and what that could mean for society. “Extra-terrestrials … won’t be splodges of glue … they could be disturbingly like us, and that might not be a good thing – we don’t have a great record.

And here’s some soundbite action from Albert Harrison of the University of California, appearing at the same conference:

I do think there’s a risk in active searches for extra-terrestrials. The attitude seems to be they’re friendly, they’re a long way away, and they can’t get here. But if you wake up one morning and an armada of extra-terrestrial spaceships are circling Earth, that prediction won’t necessarily hold,” Harrison said.

If life has evolved elsewhere in our cosmic neighbourhood, we should find out by detecting their waste gases in the atmosphere of their planet or by discovering remnants of extra-terrestrial microbes in meteorites or alien soil samples, he said.

Harrison dismisses fears of public panic if alien life is discovered, of the kind which reportedly followed Orson Welles’ infamous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds in 1938.

“The public reaction was overstated. Most people who thought the broadcast was real took sensible actions to protect themselves,” Harrison said. “Surveys suggest most people think they will be fine, but they worry about others freaking out.”

Yeah, that makes sense. Or it will do, right up until the point when the aliens deploy their HUGE FRICKIN’ LASERS.

Given that the SETI people are somewhat emboldened by the flood of newly-discovered exoplanets [via Mark Chadbourn], perhaps we should keep a contingency plan on the back burner? “Git ’em afore they git ye”, as the saying goes…

Are we alone?

Tom James @ 10-07-2009

saucersTranshumanist blogger George Dvorsky points to a debate between astrophysicist Brandon Carter and a team of Serbian researchers, the core of which revolves around how long complex (and intelligent) life takes to evolve:

Prior to ‘recent times’, universal mechanisms were in place to continually thwart the evolutionary development of intelligence, namely through gamma-ray bursts, super novae and other forms of nastiness. Occasional catastrophic events have been resetting the “astrobiological clock” of regions of the Galaxy causing biospheres to start over. “Earth may be rare in time, not in space,” they say. They also note that the rate of evolution is intimately connected with a planet’s environment, such as the kind of radiation its star emits.

For further discussion of our place in the universe see the Copernican Principle, which exhorts us to avoid assuming that humanity, Earth, and our place in the universe can be assumed to be unique and special.

Further the notion of punctuated equilibrium to describe evolution is interesting: might it be extended to describe other evolutionary phenomena? Eric Beinhocker‘s superb The Origin of Wealth describes both technology and the economy in terms of evolutionary systems, both of which experience a form of punctuated equilibrium.

[image from eek the cat on flickr]

Oddball galaxy discovered

Paul Raven @ 27-03-2009

The Centaurus A galaxySeems there’s always something new to discover in the field of astronomy. The latest nugget of cosmological excitement is a tiny, dark-matter-free and closely-packed galaxy out in the direction of the Sombrero:

“It was only the size of a star cluster – which typically contain about one million stars – but it shone as brightly as a small galaxy. This indicated the object was an ultra-compact dwarf galaxy, a very unusual object, possibly containing 10 million stars,” he said.


“There is much debate in the astronomical community about how these things form. The prevailing theory is that they are dwarf galaxies that have been stripped of their outer halo of stars by the gravitational forces of the large parent galaxy, leaving only the bright inner core of stars. But we think it may be something else: a massive star cluster that has formed independently,” Hau explains.

Another unusual aspect of the ultra-compact dwarf galaxy is that it is very old – perhaps 10 billion years, indicating it was formed in the early stages of the universe, when things were all the more violent and energetic. Furthermore it appears to consist mainly of stars, rather than the still-enigmatic dark matter, which dominates the mass of most galaxies.

Small it may be, but SUCD1 is hardly peaceful, spitting out a powerful stream of X-rays. The team believes this to be the first time that X-ray emissions have been clearly detected from an ultra-compact dwarf object.

So, not your average ball of stars, then. And it may well turn out to be a natural (if freakish) example of the way the universe evolved…

… but indulge me a minute here, OK? An object much smaller than a normal galaxy, but which shines as brightly as one; an unusual topography of stellar density; an absence of the dark matter we’re accustomed to finding in such objects; a fierce source of X-ray emissions. You know that theory that says we’re most likely to find other advanced civilisations by looking for evidence of mega-engineering projects on the scale of Dyson Spheres and so on? Well, if I was one of the guys at SETI, I’d be booking some radio telescope time to scope out that little dwarf cluster.

Just sayin’. 😉

[Yeah, I know it’s probably just the first weird little galaxy of its type we’ve seen. But what can I say? I like Greg Egan novels. Image by thebadastronomer; it’s not of the galaxy in question, I’m afraid, but it is very pretty.]

David Brin guestblogging at Sentient Developments this week

Paul Raven @ 24-03-2009

David BrinThis week, transhumanist blogger George Dvorsky’s site Sentient Developments plays host to no less a science fiction luminary than David Brin as guest blogger. Says Dvorsky:

David will be writing about biological uplift, the Singularity, Active SETI (messages to extraterrestrial intelligences), and how a transparent society might work to help us mitigate catastrophic risks.

Topics that should be of some interest to Futurismic regulars, then; I file David Brin among the group of authors and thinkers with whom I don’t always agree, but who never fail to challenge my thinking.

Dvorsky has taken the time to provide a reading list around Brin’s first topic, namely biological uplift, and that first post is ready to read as I type. Here’s a snippet:

1. Can we replicate – in other creatures or in AI – the stunning way that Homo sapiens outstripped the needs of mere hunter-gathering, to reach levels of mentation that can take us to other planets and invent symphonies and possibly destroy the world? That was one hell of a leap! In Earth I speculated about half a dozen quirky things that might explain that vast overshoot in ability. In my next novel Existence I speculate on a dozen more.

In truth, we just don’t know. I frankly think it may be harder than it looks.

Go read. [Brin portrait from Wikimedia Commons]

Fermi Paradox solved?

Edward Willett @ 02-02-2009

fermi images Enrico Fermi asked a question that has troubled those searching for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations ever since: if the universe is teeming with advanced civilizations (as some solutions to the famous Drake equation would indicate), were are they? (From the physics arXiv blog via Improbable Research.)

Reginald Smith of the self-established Bouchet-Franklin Institute in Rochester, New York state, says in this paper, submitted to the International Journal of Astrobiology, that something is missing from the calculations: how far a signal from an advanced civilization can travel before it becomes too faint to hear. Factoring that in, he finds that:

Assuming the average communicating civilization has a lifetime of 1,000 years, ten times longer than Earth has been broadcasting, and has a signal horizon of 1,000 light-years, you need a minimum of over 300 communicating civilization in the galactic neighborhood to reach a minimum density.

Which means that even if there are a couple of hundred advanced civilizations in our galaxy, it’s quite likely none of them will ever notice the others…and our efforts at searching for extraterrestrial intelligence may be doomed.

(Image: Reginald Smith.)


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