For years Hollywood has romanticized the search for life on planets other than Earth—especially the intelligent kind. Since 1960, when astronomer Frank Drake first attempted to deploy a radio telescope to listen for alien radio signals, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has been a key element in many a cinematic story line. Films like Contact, Independence Day, and ET have offered variations on the theme of earnest, if lonely, researchers striving to lead the world to a new interstellar awareness. The reality, however, has been somewhat less inspiring. The maverick—if not entirely mad—scientist heroes of contemporary mythology have, more often than not, been forced to struggle for respect and funding, even while their more conventional brethren raked in the big bucks.
Ironically, even those with more exotic notions of ET life have had their differences with SETI. That includes Richard Hoagland, who, in his 1987 book, The Monuments of Mars, cited as evidence for an advanced ancient alien civilization, the giant, seemingly humanoid, face on the red planet’s Cydonia plain. In an interview with Atlantis Rising (“Artifacts on the Moon,” A.R. #2), Hoagland derided SETI as a “false-front western town”—ignoring real evidence, in order to preserve an entrenched, more earth-centric, way of thinking.
Life for SETI enthusiasts, however, may be about to change, and in a big way.
In July, at a press conference of the Royal Society in London, the world-renowned British cosmologist, Steven Hawking, announced that he had joined forces with Russian billionaire Yuri Milner to launch a new initiative to search for life amidst the stars, on a scale never before attempted. Christened ‘Breakthrough Listen’, the new radio astronomy project is intended to dramatically accelerate efforts already underway. Where earlier researchers have, in order to fund their efforts, scratched for scraps from a few wealthy patrons, like Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, the new plan will lavish a hundred million dollars on the enterprise and, perhaps, bring a new prestige—maybe even glamour—to the field. Whether that will result in actual discoveries, recognized as such by mainstream science, remains to be seen. file://localhost/(http/::www.scientificamerican.com:article:stephen-hawking-and-yuri-milner-announce-100m-initiative-to-seek-extraterrestrial-intelligence:)
As Hawking sees it, “Life arose spontaneously on Earth, so in an infinite universe, there must be other occurrences of life.” In particular he is excited by recent discoveries of so-called exoplanets in faraway star systems, which, at least superficially, resemble Earth. According to Geoffrey Marcy, a University of California, Berkeley, astronomer, given credit for discovering the first exoplanet, “The universe is apparently bulging at the seams with the ingredients of biology.” Still, no predictions about how soon ET may be smoked out are being offered, though the program is certainly expected to track him down eventually. Nevertheless, the campaigners believe, the coming redoubling of effort will increase exponentially the chances of making contact sooner, rather than later. Previous efforts, they believe, have been, at best, anemic.
Milner, says Fortune Magazine, is one of the 50 richest men in the world. His money comes primarily from investments in Internet technology, including Facebook. In 2012 he established the ‘Breakthrough Prize’ to recognize important discoveries in science and math; and while he is making an enormous startup investment, the long-term funding for ‘Breakthrough Listen,’ is expected to come from crowdfunding on the Internet. The enthusiastic public will also be invited to lend the computing power of their Android smart phones to the project.
The Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, and the Parkes Telescope in New South Wales, Australia are also participating. According to the National Science Foundation, ‘Breakthrough Listen’ will scan the nearest million stars both in our own galaxy and in 100 others, nearby. The Green Bank telescope, in fact, is expected devote a full 20 percent of its observation time to the search for telltale radio signals from another civilization.
‘Breakthrough Listen,’ it is said, will generate vast amounts of data, all of which will be available for public analysis, likely constituting the largest amount of scientific data ever made so widely available. The team will use and develop what is expected to be the most powerful software ever for sifting and searching the flood of data. All software will be open source. Both the software and the hardware used in the ‘Breakthrough Listen’ project will be compatible with other telescopes around the world, so any can join the search. Besides using the ‘Breakthrough Listen’ software, scientists and the interested public will be able to contribute to it and to develop their own applications to analyze the data. (https://public.nrao.edu/news/pressreleases/gbt-breakthrough-listen)
Is ET Calling?
The new project comes on the heels of other recent developments that have also excited the SETI community. Some might argue, in fact, that ET is already calling. While most scientists won’t go there yet, they do acknowledge that they have a major puzzle on their hands. An intense burst of unexplained radio activity, it seems, has now been picked up by two major radio telescopes on opposite sides of the globe.
First detected in recordings made at Australia’s Parkes Observatory in 2007 by astronomer Duncan Lorimer and his team at West Virginia University, the signal was very distinct and appeared to be emanating from beyond the Milky Way. Later, when similar signals came in from much closer but were not confirmed by any other receivers, they were written off as some kind of fluke. So the matter had rested. Now, though, a 2014 paper from the Arecibo radio telescope, in Puerto Rico, is reporting detection of the same signal received in Australia.
The big question is, what is it? So far there are several schools of thought. Some think it may be caused by pulses from the collapse of supermassive stars. Others believe it may be generated by solar flares from nearby stars. Arguments have been made that it could be some kind of signature for the long sought Dark Matter. And, yes, some scientists have even begun to speculate about extraterrestrial civilizations. That kind of talk clearly causes heartburn among the scientific elite, but nobody has yet ruled it out. (http://www.npr.org/2014/07/26/335335653/close-encounters-of-the-radio-kind-mystery-bursts-baffle-astronomers?ft=1&f=1007)
In August 1977, Jerry R. Ehman, working on a SETI project for Ohio State University, picked up an unexplained signal with an apparently intelligent origin. Ehman famously wrote, “Wow!” on the computer printout, and ever since it has been called ‘the Wow! Signal.’ The event never recurred and was also written off as a fluke, but it has never been satisfactorily explained to orthodox astrophysicists.
Physicist Paul Laviolette, however, has speculated that the “Wow! Signal” was, indeed, the work of an extraterrestrial civilization. In his book, Decoding the Message of the Pulsars, (Starlane Publications, 2006), LaViolette argues that since 1967, astronomers have been analyzing very precisely timed signals coming from radio-emitting beacons termed “pulsars.” Pulsars, believes LaViolette, are immense navigational beacons created by an ancient spacefaring civilization. (See “The Pulsar Mystery,” in A.R. #24.)
LaViolette is not the only scientist who thinks the unmistakeable signs of ET civilization may have already been available to us, and could be hidden in plain sight in our own back yard.
Crop Circles and Other Dimensions
As a case in point, a 2009 study of British crop circles by researchers in England and America pointed to some kind of plasma discharge behind the phenomenon.
A team formed by New York businessman John Burke, Michigan biophysicist William C. Levengood, and British Crop Circle researcher Nancy Talbott (BLT Research) has analyzed the microscopic changes made in the stalks of crop circle plants and has demonstrated that something very unusual is at work.
In the 1990s multiple plant abnormalities—including the elongation and stretching of plant nodes, holes blown in the nodes, the distinct bending of nodes, and inhibited seed-head development—were documented at various laboratories in both the United States and Great Britain. Such commonly reported effects, however, accompanied only “genuine” crop circles and were not found in the mechanically flattened creations of various hoaxers.
“We were curious to know,” said Talbott in the report, “if some of the recent British formations continued to exhibit these same visible plant changes.”
After careful comparison between affected plants and controls taken in similar conditions outside the circles, the BLT team concluded that the only known method which could possibly produce the observed effects would be a plasma discharge of some kind.
To the delight of skeptics everywhere, a pair of British pubsters, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, famously claimed in the 1990s to be the creators of all crop circles. Like roosters claiming credit for the sunrise, however, they also had their doubters; and the question of who or what—terrestrial or otherwise—is generating the many immense and astonishing images appearing regularly in fields throughout the world, and especially in the Wiltshire of the U.K., remains a mystery, Doug and Dave notwithstanding. (http://www.bltresearch.com/fieldreports/uk2009.php)
Then, of course, there is the notion that extraterrestrials may inhabit other dimensions on other planets, as well as this one, and may be able to navigate in nonphysical ways, which we do not presently understand.
The eighteenth century Swedish polymath Emanuel Swedenborg wrote a great deal about ETs, which he said, he had personally encountered. His first experience with a “nonhuman” personage, he claimed, came in 1744, when he was the head of the Swedish Board of Mines.
One of the most advanced thinkers of his, or any other, time, Swedenborg wrote on virtually every area of scientific investigation, including physiology, invention, and brain neurons, about which he made some of the earliest known observations. He was a friend with Immanuel Kant and other celebrated thinkers. More recently, William Blake, Arthur Conan Doyle, Carl Jung, Honoré de Balzac, Helen Keller, William Butler Yeats, and many others have written that they were deeply influenced by him. The author of more than 20 books, Swedenborg served in many official capacities and, despite his claims of having personally communicated with extraterrestrials, was much celebrated throughout his entire life.
Described in detail in his books were beings from Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Saturn, Venus, and the Moon, as well as from planets beyond our solar system. From his many ‘encounters’ Swedenborg concluded that the planets of our solar system are inhabited and that such an enormous undertaking as the universe would not have been for just one race; nor could only one ‘heaven’ be derived from it.
Beings from other worlds, he wrote, were in contact with him for over a decade and had appeared physically before him. Coming at many times and places, they provided many details about the universe, which later became part of conventional thinking. Swedenborg’s Nebular Hypothesis is still widely accepted, and it is believed that in developing the theory, he preceded Immanuel Kant, widely considered the originator of the hypothesis, by many years. In Earths in the Universe (1758) he wrote that the majority of planets in the universe were inhabited. Gradually he came to realize that those beings he met resided spiritually on other planets but could become instantly present on Earth if they chose.
Swedenborg’s works were immensely popular in his own time and have been subject to much discussion and study ever since.
Extraterrestrial Intervention on Earth
Even on the mundane material plane, though, strange new evidence might indicate a previously unappreciated link between this world and others. Consider the case of a minute, metallic sphere recently captured by a high-altitude balloon in the U.K. Scientists say it has led them to reconsider the possibility of intelligent intervention in the life of Earth. In fact, astrobiologist Milton Wainwright at the University of Buckingham thinks his team may have found concrete evidence indicating what they call ‘directed panspermia.’
First proposed by DNA pioneer and Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick over 40 years ago, ‘directed panspermia’ suggests that some highly advanced galactic civilization could have seeded life on Earth. If Wainwright is right, the process may still be going on. The original nineteenth century Panspermia theory is that the seeds of life could have been carried in a random manner from planet to planet by spores, radiation, comets, meteorites, etc. Crick, however, thought that, unlike such a mechanical process, the transmission of life from one world to another would have required civilized intelligent intervention.
The Buckingham scientists launched balloons nearly 17 miles into the stratosphere. When material from one was collected and examined, a small crash mark was found indicating the spherical object didn’t simply land softly. About the width of a human hair, the ball had filamentous life on the outside and a “gooey” biological material oozing from its center.
The possibility of ET origins, Wainright concedes, would be impossible to prove unless, “we can find details of the civilization that is supposed to have sent it.” In the meantime, there are still those who are willing to speculate. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/02/03/aliens-send-space-seed-to-earth_n_6608582.html)
Would proof of the existence of extraterrestrial life be a problem for religious believers? That question gets a fresh look in a recent book by Vanderbilt University astronomer David Weintraub—Religions and Extraterrestrial Life (Springer, 2014). Knowing (some would say we already know) whether humanity has company in the universe will trigger, Weintraub says, one of the greatest intellectual revolutions in history, and, he thinks, it will pose a significant challenge for only a few terrestrial religions.
While some of the more fundamentalist Protestant faiths may find it difficult to accept something not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, many others are quite comfortable with the possibility. Polls, says Weintraub, indicate that a very large part of society thinks alien life exists, and that includes 32% of Christians, 44% of Muslims, 37% of Jews, 36% of Hindus, and 55% of atheists (Survata polling). (http://www.livescience.com/48208- religion-extraterrestrial-life.html)
Since its beginnings, the privately funded SETI program has been content to train its radio telescopes toward space and simply to listen for anything unusual—keeping an ear out—just in case some other civilization, not unlike our own, might want to strike up a conversation. By all conventional accounts, though—except, possibly, for the “Wow!” signal—our number has yet to be dialed. For some, though, that is not good enough, and they are determined somehow to break the ice with whatever cosmic lonely hearts may yet be out there.
A group of scientists and investors has now created what they call a continuous message beacon to initiate a conversation with whatever extraterrestrial civilization might be willing to talk. For a small fee you can include your own message in the nonstop transmission. To carry out their intergalactic hailing plan or courting dance, Dr. Jacob Haqq-Misra and his colleagues have taken over the Jamesburg Earth Station radio dish in Carmel, California.
Not surprisingly, the project has its critics. Canadian bioethicist, trans-humanist, and futurist George Dvorsky is among those who view the idea as “both useless and potentially reckless.” After all, there is no guarantee that whatever advanced civilizations may be out there are friendly. On the contrary, they could well prove quite nasty. Indeed, who is to say they won’t react to our beacon the way some of us would to the annoying buzz of a fly, by squashing the source? Maybe not, but do we really want to take the chance? (http://io9.com/new-project-to-message-aliens-is-both-useless-and-poten-512863567)
At least one government on Earth, Russia, admits an ET invasion would be too much to handle. According to a report from RIA Novisti, carried by the Huffington Post, the Russian defenses are, admittedly not capable of defending against an extraterrestrial threat. That may seem obvious, given the advanced technology, which any interplanetary invader would require just getting here, but the question came up in a recent press conference at the Titov Main Test and Space Systems Control Center near Moscow.
While declaring that his country’s defenses were sufficient to handle any earthbound threat, center deputy chief Sergey Berezhnoy responded, quite seriously, that the vast array of available weapons would be inadequate for an extraterrestrial attack. The Russians are not alone in that regard. Notwithstanding Hollywood speculations, as in Independence Day, the military capacities of no country on Earth, including the U.S., seem in any way capable of meeting such a threat.
Understandably, military agencies like the U.S. Air Force remain reluctant to concede any reality to the alien threat. That might help explain, some feel, the stonewalling of events like the 1947 Roswell affair.
It is equally clear that inviting communication from unknown worlds with unknown agendas could be unwise, if not foolhardy. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/07/alien-invasion-earth-is-defenseless_n_4046659.html)
Stephen Hawking has said for years that he dreads what an alien civilization could do to Earth, perhaps wiping out humans the way we would an ant colony. Hawking’s curiosity, however, has apparently gotten the better of him, and he is now eager to get on with his ‘Breakthrough Listen’ initiative, anyway.
Oh, by the way, forget about easily identifiable little green men. The aliens may look a lot like us, says a Cambridge University evolution expert. Extraterrestrials that resemble human beings, says Professor Simon Conway Morris, should have evolved on at least some of the many Earth-like planets that have been discovered by astronomers in recent years. In his new book The Runes of Evolution, Conway builds on the principle of convergent evolution—that different species will independently evolve similar features. (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/forget-little-green-men—aliens-will-look-like-humans-says-cambridge-university-evolution-expert-10358164.html)
Who can say the aliens are not here already? After all, how would we know?
Run that through your data processor, SETI geeks.