Posts Tagged ‘Seth Shostak’

Radio 4 Next Monday on Possible Extraterrestrial Life

March 11, 2020

Next Monday, 16th March 2020, at 11.00 AM, Radio 4’s Out of the Ordinary is covering the subject of what aliens are probably like. The programme, ‘Aliens Are the Size of Polar Bears (Probably), has this brief description in the Radio Times:

Jolyon Jenkins concludes his series by hearing from astronomer Fergus Simpson, who predicts that if aliens exist they will be living on small, dim planets in small populations, have big bodies and be technologically backward.

This looks like a different take on the question of intelligent extraterrestrial life. Way back in the 1990s some of the astronomers involved in the hunt for it, such as SETI’s Seth Shostak, considered that aliens, if they exist, would probably be small, the size of Labradors. It’s also been an assumption of the search for intelligent aliens that the universe is old enough for alien civilisations to have arisen many times over, colonising space. Simpson’s suggestion that the aliens, if they’re out there, are probably technologically backwards, sounds like a solution to the Fermi Paradox. This was first proposed by the Italian-American physicist, Enrico Fermi, and runs: if the universe is old enough to have produced intelligent aliens, then why haven’t we found any? There are several solutions to the problem. One is that they don’t actually exist. Others are that space travel may be difficult, or that aliens don’t feel any need to expand into space. Or that advanced, technological civilisations destroy themselves in catastrophes like nuclear wars before they move outward across the Galaxy. Another solution is that they’re there, but keeping very quiet in case there are other, malign intelligences out there intent on their extermination.

This last solution is explored by the SF writer Alistair Reynolds in his novels Revelation Space, Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap. In this trilogy, humanity has expanded into space, only to be threatened by an ancient extraterrestrial menace – the Inhibitors. This is a machine culture that exists solely to destroy spacetravelling civilisations. Their reason is that millions of years ago, the Galaxy suffered a prolonged series of devastating wars as different species moved out into the Galaxy to claim territory from their rivals. In order to prevent further such wars occurring, the Inhibitors embarked on a long-term campaign of eradicating such civilisations. They aren’t enemies of intelligent life per se. Indeed, the whole policy is in order to protect such life, provided it remains confined to its home planet or solar system. But once it moves out into interstellar space, it becomes a target for eradication. And the Inhibitors themselves are quiet, dormant and so undetectable, until they discover their next prey, and wake up.

If aliens do live on small, dim planets, then they’d be difficult to discover with present astronomical techniques. Planets are too small for telescopes to detect normally, as they’re lost in the glare of their star, although some may later be seen through extremely high-power telescopes using very advanced optical techniques. And the planets that have been the easiest to discover are large worlds orbiting close to their suns. They’ve been detected because their gravitational pull has caused their stars to wobble as they orbit around them. Small planets further out would exert less force, and so caused smaller wobbles that may be difficult to detect. And if they’re technologically backwards, we would not be able to detect signs of their industrial and other activities, like radio or television transmissions, for example. If spacefaring civilisations do exist, at least close to us, then we should have detected signs of them by now. There was a paper in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society suggesting that a light sail used within 30 light years of Earth would produce so much gamma radiation that we would be able to detect it. The fact that we haven’t may mean that such civilisations don’t exist. Simpson’s suggestion for the possible nature of extraterrestrial life is therefore one solution to the problem of the Fermi Paradox.

The Flightless Bird So Good It Evolved Twice

May 12, 2019

Another fascinating piece of news in yesterday’s, for 11th May 2019, was about the discovery by evolutionary scientists that a type of flightless bird had evolved twice on the same Indian Ocean atoll. It reappeared the second time thousands of years after it had first come extinct, in a process biologists call ‘iterative evolution’. The article, ‘Evolution strikes twice for flightless bird on isolated atoll’, by Ben Mitchell, reads

A flightless bird that became extinct when its home island became flooded by the sea “came back to life” when a similar species evolved in the same location, scientists have discovered.

Researchers from the University of Portsmouth and the Natural History Museum found that a species of rail colonised an isolated atoll called Aldabra in the Indian Ocean on two occasions separated by tens of thousands of years. On both occasions, the white-throated rail evolved independently to become flightless. The last surviving colony of the flightless rails is still found on the island.

A University of Portsmouth spokesman said: “This is the first time that iterative evolution – the repeated evolution of similar or parallel structures from the same ancestor but at different times – has been seen in rails. 

The co-author of the study in the Zoological Journal of Lennean Society, Professor David Martill of the University of Portsmouth, said: “We know of no other example that demonstrates this phenomenon so evidently.”

How fascinating! It sounds similar to the phenomenon of parallel evolution, in which unrelatedly creatures develop similar features through occupying similar ecological niches. One example is the way penguins have evolved features similar to other marine creatures like whales and fish, with their wings becoming flippers. Another example is the thylacine, the marsupial wolf, otherwise known as the Tasmanian tiger. This creature is, unfortunately, now extinct, as it was hunted down as a pest by the Australian farmers. Although it was a marsupial, and had evolved independently in Australia over millions of years, it was remarkably like a European wolf. There was speculation at one time that the different human races were also the result of parallel evolution around the world, each evolving separately from common hominid ancestors. This has since been rejected, not least because it’s considered to be more than a little racist, somehow suggesting that the different varieties of modern humanity are biologically different species.

The palaeontologist Simon Conway-Morris has been so impressed by parallel evolution, that he considers that humans would have evolved anyway, even if the dinosaurs had not been wiped out by the asteroid impact at the end of the Cretacious Period 64 million years ago. He also believes that this means that other, extraterrestrial alien races, would also be humanoid. The final chapter of one of his books describes an alien spacecraft landing in southern England. When the aliens leave their ship to make contact with us, they are a humans. So much so that when asked if they want food, not only do they say yes, but they also ask for water for their dog.

Conway-Morris’ views are extreme, and not shared by other biologists. And some researchers into extraterrestrial life, like Seth Shostak, believe that aliens would be radically different from us.

Even so, this piece of science news is fascinating, and makes you wonder about the other possibilities of similar species evolving parallel or iteratively.


Radio Programmes Next Week on Homelessness, Conspiracy Theories and Aliens

February 6, 2019

Looking through next week’s Radio Times for 9th-15th February 2019 I found a number of programmes which might be of interest to some people following this blog.

On Monday, 11th February at 8.00 pm on Radio 4 there’s Beyond Tara and George, about rough sleepers. The blurb for this programme reads

Last year there were nearly 600 deaths on the streets of the UK. In this follow-up to last summer’s Radio 4 series on east London rough sleepers Tara and George, presenter Audrey Gilan catches up with the pair to ask what it would take to prevent the unnecessary deaths of homeless people. (p. 137).

Then a half hour later at 8.30 on the same channel, Analysis covers conspiracy theories. The Radio Times says of this

Professor James Tilley explores the current spate of political conspiracy theories, and examines what belief in them tells us about voters and politicians.

The next day, Tuesday 12th February, at 1.30 pm on the Beeb’s World Service there’s Documentary: So Where Are the Aliens?, which the Radio Times describes thus

Space, to quote the late, great Douglas Adams, is mindboggling big. So huge, in fact, that the probability of there being civilized life elsewhere in the universe is almost a mathematical certainty. This begs an obvious question, to which Seth Shostak – chief astronomer of the Seti institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) has devoted his career. He speaks with fellow scientists Frank Drake and Jill Tarter about their pioneering work chasing extraterrestrial radio signals as well as the new listening and light-based techniques designed to open up the sky like never before. Last year’s tantalizing fly-by of the mysterious cigar-shaped Oumuamua has revived interest in this topic, although in 2019 ET could be forgiven for giving Earth a wide berth. (p. 138).

Regarding the programme on preventing the homeless dying, one way to stop it would be to fix the welfare state so that poor and vulnerable people didn’t become homeless in the first place. Giving more funding and expanding the number of homeless shelters so that they were safe and able to provide accommodation for rough sleepers would also be very good. As would support schemes for those with drug, alcohol or mental health problems. And as Mike’s pointed out in his reports on attacks on the homeless, it would also be very good idea for the right-wing media to stop portraying the homeless, as well as the disabled, the unemployed and those on benefits generally all as scroungers committing welfare fraud and generally demonizing them. But as the Tory party, the Scum, Express and Fail all depend on this for votes and sales, it isn’t going to happen.

The prgramme on conspiracy theories could be interesting, but I doubt it will actually face up to the fact that some conspiracies are real. Not the malign and bogus myths about a Jewish plot to destroy the White race, or that the business and political elite are really evil Reptoid aliens, a la David Icke, or have made a demonic pact with grey aliens from Zeti Reticuli to allow them to abduct us for experimentation while giving them the benefits of alien technology. Or similar myths about the Illuminati, Freemasons or Satanists.

The real conspiracies that exist are about the manipulation of politics by the world’s secret services, and secret big business think tanks and right-wing pressure groups. Such as the various front organisations set up by the CIA during the Cold War, the smears concocted by MI5 during the 1970s presenting Harold Wilson as a KGB agent, and the contemporary smears by the Integrity Initiative, funded by the Tory government, claiming that Corbyn and other left-wing figures across Europe and America were agents of Putin. And, of course, the real conspiracy by Shai Masot at the Israeli embassy to have Tory cabinet ministers, who didn’t support Israel, removed from government. As well as the embassy’s role in making fake accusations of anti-Semitism against entirely decent people in the Labour party.

But I’ve no doubt that the Beeb will shy well away from these real conspiracies, not least because of Britain’s sordid role in the West’s history of regime change in Developing nations that dared to defy the Americans and ourselves. The Beeb has put on similar programmes before, and the person being interviewed or presenting the argument was former Independent journo David Aaronovitch. And his line has always been to ignore these real conspiracies, and concentrate on all the mythical rubbish, which he presents as typical of the conspiracy milieu as a whole. Which you’d expect from an establishment broadcaster, that now seems to see itself very much as the propaganda arm of the Conservative British state.

Moving on to the programme on SETI, Shostak, Tarter and Drake are veterans not only of the search for intelligent alien life, but also of programmes and documentaries on the search. Drake was the creator of the now famous equation which bears his name, which is supposed to tell you how many alien civilisations we can expect to exist in the galaxy. He was one of the brains behind Project Ozma, alias ‘Project Little Green Men’ in the 1960s to listen for alien signals from two nearby, roughly sun-like stars, Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani. Which found zilch, unfortunately. Shostak and Tarter were two of the leaders of the new wave of SETI researchers in the 1990s, and Shostak wrote a book about the possibility of alien life and what they would possibly be like. This concluded that they wouldn’t be anything like us, ruling out aliens like Mr Spock in Star Trek. In size they would probably be the same as Labradors.

It’s been known now that the Galaxy is old enough and big enough, with the right kind of stars and an increasing multitude of known planets, some of them possibly suitable for life, for alien civilisations to have emerged several times. And if they only advanced at the speed of light, they should be here by now. But they’re not. So far we’ve detected no sign of them. Or no absolutely indisputable signs. So where are they? This problem is called the Fermi paradox after the Italian-American physicist, Enrico Fermi. Suggested answers are that life, or perhaps just intelligent life, is extremely rare in the universe. Space travel may be extremely difficult. Aliens may exist, but they may be completely uninterested in talking to us. In this respect, we may even be a ‘protected species’ considered too fragile at our current level of civilization for contact with the rest of the Galaxy. Or perhaps there really are predatory alien intelligences and civilisations out there, who automatically attack any culture naïve and trusting enough to announce their presence. In which case, all the alien civilisations out there are paranoid and keeping their heads well down. One of SF writer even wrote a collection of short stories, each of which gave one solution to the Paradox.