The question “are we alone in the universe?” is the stuff of NASA debates, science articles and public-relations debates. But, as an agency, it’s not one that NASA can answer.
On Tuesday, a panel of scientists tasked with examining the many questions related to space and extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, published a paper in the science journal Nature. Their starting point: That the answer to the extraterrestrial question is (predictably) probably no.
The purpose of the paper is not to determine the scientific basis for the existence of extraterrestrial life, but to outline a framework for how we may search for it in the future. In the future, the researchers suggested, we should look for civilizations that live in binary systems, like we do. That would allow for the detection of traces of highly sensitive solar power.
The other major topic of discussion is whether we should look for alien civilizations using detection systems like “artificial intelligence” or complex mathematical models. In a sense, both of these are also “unlikely,” according to the scientists.
Here are some of the key points of the scientists’ paper:
There is a belief, on the part of many scientists, that the current search process is flawed. Because of this, the need for new methodologies was “unthinkable.” However, it was (and is) “not unthinkable.” The question of humanity’s future and its interactions with the cosmos “should continue to be debated by the brightest minds in our field.”
What this suggests is that the “silicon society” (whether defined as a human civilization, a planet or a species in general) is significantly more common than previously thought. It’s also much more common than previously thought.
The new approach makes use of the most robust and capable technology available.
Perhaps most importantly, it’s much more robust and capable than previously thought.
Put another way, it’s a lot faster.
How do we know this? We have close to a hundred telescopes and thousands of astronomical images, and we still can’t tell us anything about things like moonlights or the properties of distant supernovae. (Some of this was the result of the political decision to direct NASA toward managing our telescopes rather than developing them in the first place.) The new paper suggests that it’s much more likely we’ll be able to detect a signal than we were just a few years ago.
Finally, our ability to investigate — and understand — space has increased dramatically. Astronomers are much better at organizing massive amounts of data than they were just a few years ago. Thanks to deep-space cameras, it’s now possible to look for planets orbiting distant stars. And because we have better telescopes, it’s much less likely we’ll find that your new glass of red wine is a legitimate (and alien) civilization.
The paper, which describes an A.I. signal detector, notes that this would provide a much more robust test of an intelligent civilization. Which brings us back to the original question.