Jan 04, 2013
What do a planet-sized, frigid moon and a small galaxy have in common?
The Magellanic Clouds consist of two dwarf galaxies in proximity to the Milky Way. According to astronomers, they are orbiting our galaxy and might have once been part of it.
The Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) is approximately 200,000 light-years from Earth, as astronomers gauge distance, and is no more than a smudge of light to the naked eye. Both galaxies were first seen by the European explorer Ferdinand Magellan during his global circumnavigation in 1519. The people of Australia have known about their existence for thousands of years, however.
According to astronomers from the Spitzer Space Telescope team, the SMC is interesting because it “is very similar to young galaxies thought to populate the universe billions of years ago.” A lack of heavy elements—20% of those found in the Milky Way, for example—leads then to conclude that its stellar population has not had time to transmute the hydrogen in their thermonuclear cores into nitrogen, carbon, and oxygen, the “elements of life.”
In the false-color image at the top of the page, infrared data from Spitzer’s supercooled detectors is highlighted according to light frequencies: blue reveals what are thought to be older stars, green indicates organic dust streams, composed of “tholins” flowing in and around the SMC, and red relates to hypothetical star-forming dust clouds, or proplyds.
Tholins are large organic molecules found outside our planet that arise when ultraviolet light interacts with smaller molecules. They cannot exist naturally on Earth, because the atmospheric oxygen would quickly destroy them. They can be synthesized in laboratory isolation, however, by sending electric arcs through various combinations of methane and ammonia.
Tholins are primarily a rusty color, which could help to explain the reddish-orange hue of Titan’s atmosphere, where there is almost no oxygen. The Cassini spacecraft, currently in orbit around Saturn, detected “large molecules” when it flew within 800 kilometers of Titan’s surface. The molecules remain unknown, however, because Cassini does not carry the necessary instruments to identify them.
It is not a coincidence that electric arcs are used to create tholins in the laboratory. The Huygens probe found high concentrations of charged particles in the lower atmosphere of Titan, so intense electrical activity could have been responsible for the formation of organic molecules there, as well. Perhaps the reddish-brown “soot” that covers several of Saturn’s moons also contains tholins.
The green-tagged material flowing through the SMC belongs to a structure known as the Magellanic Stream. The Magellanic Stream is composed mainly of hydrogen gas, with tholin compounds mixed in.
Close examination of the Stream’s formation reveals it to be filamentary. As has been noted in past Picture of the Day articles, filaments in gas clouds are a sign of electric currents flowing through dusty plasma. The current flow creates vortex structures that gradually morph into distorted wisps and curlicues of glowing matter. The distorted filaments have been observed in laboratory experiments, as well as in Earth’s aurorae, and other planets, such as Jupiter.
Stars, galaxies, and planets are all moving through plasma in space and are affected by electric currents. Whether great streams of intergalactic plasma, electric arcs in the laboratory, or lightning discharges between planets, the observations all point to electricity as the active agent.
I really don’t know alot about the Electric Universe Theory, but from what little I’ve read about it, it makes more sense than the Standard Model. And this article also makes common sense.
But what do I know, I’m not a physicist, just a person who’s interested in how life and the Universe works!
Hat tip to The Anomalist.
From Centauri Dreams:
Stretch out your time horizons and interstellar travel gets a bit easier. If 4.3 light years seems too immense a distance to reach Alpha Centauri, we can wait about 28,000 years, when the distance between us will have closed to 3.2 light years. As it turns out, Alpha Centauri is moving in a galactic orbit far different from the Sun’s. As we weave through the Milky Way in coming millennia, we’re in the midst of a close pass from a stellar system that will never be this close again. A few million years ago Alpha Centauri would not have been visible to the naked eye.
The great galactic pinball machine is in constant motion. Epsilon Indi, a slightly orange star about an eighth as luminous as the Sun and orbited by a pair of brown dwarfs, is currently 11.8 light years out, but it’s moving 90 kilometers per second relative to the Sun. In about 17,000 years, it will close to 10.6 light years before beginning to recede. Project Ozma target Tau Ceti, now 11.9 light years from our system, has a highly eccentric galactic orbit that, on its current inbound leg, will take it to within the same 10.6 light years if we can wait the necessary 43,000 years.
And here’s an interesting one I almost forgot to list, though its close pass may be the most intriguing of all. Gliese 710 is currently 64 light years away in the constellation Serpens. We have to wait a bit on this one, but the orange star, now at magnitude 9.7, will in 1.4 million years move within 50,000 AU of the Sun. That puts it close enough that it should interact with the Oort Cloud, perhaps perturbing comets there or sending comets from its own cometary cloud into our system. In any case, what a close-in target for future interstellar explorers!
I’m pulling all this from Erik Anderson’s new book Vistas of Many Worlds, whose subtitle — ‘A Journey Through Space and Time’ — is a bit deceptive, for the book actually contains four journeys. The first takes us on a tour of ten stars within 20 light years of the Sun, with full-page artwork on every other page and finder charts that diagram the stars in each illustration. The second tour moves through time and traces the stars of an evolving Earth through text and images. Itinerary three is a montage of scenes from known exoplanets, while the fourth tour takes us through a sequence of young Earth-like worlds as they develop.
Anderson’s text is absorbing — he’s a good writer with a knack for hitting the right note — but the artwork steals the show on many of these pages, for he’s been meticulous at recreating the sky as it would appear from other star systems. It becomes easy to track the Sun against the background of alien constellations. Thus a spectacular view of the pulsar planet PSR B1257+12 C shows our Sun lost among the brighter stars Canopus and Spica, with Rigel and Betelgeuse also prominent. The gorgeous sky above an icy ocean on a planet circling Delta Pavonis shows the Sun between Alpha Centauri and Eta Cassiopeiae. Stellar motion over time and the perspectives thus created from worlds much like our own are a major theme of this book.
From Epsilon Eridani, as seen in the image below, the Sun is a bright orb seen through the protoplanetary disk at about the 4 o’clock position below the bright central star.
Image: The nearby orange dwarf star Epsilon Eridani reveals its circumstellar debris disks in this close-up perspective. Epsilon Eridani is only several hundred million years old and perhaps resembles the state of our own solar system during its early, formative years. Credit: Erik Anderson.
Vistas of Many Worlds assumes a basic background in astronomical concepts, but I think even younger readers will be caught up in the wonder of imagined scenes around planets we’re now discovering, which is why I’m buying a copy for my star-crazed grandson for Christmas. He’ll enjoy the movement through time as well as space. In one memorable scene, Anderson depicts a flock of ancient birds flying through a mountain pass 4.8 million years ago. At that time, the star Theta Columbae, today 720 light years away, was just seven light years out, outshining Venus and dominating the sunset skies of Anderson’s imagined landscape.
And what mysteries does the future hold? The end of the interglacial period is depicted in a scene Anderson sets 50,000 years from now, showing a futuristic observation station on the west coast of an ice-choked Canada. The frigid landscape and starfield above set the author speculating on how our descendants will see their options:
Will the inhabitants of a re-glaciating Earth seek refuge elsewhere? Alpha Centauri, our nearest celestial neighbor, has in all this time migrated out of the southern skies to the celestial equator, where it can be sighted from locations throughout the entire globe. It seems to beckon humanity to the stars.
And there, tagged by the star-finder chart and brightly shining on the facing image, is the Alpha Centauri system, now moving inexorably farther from our Sun but still a major marker in the night sky. Planet hunter Greg Laughlin has often commented on how satisfying it is that we have this intriguing stellar duo with accompanying red dwarf so relatively near to us as we begin the great exoplanet detection effort. We’re beginning to answer the question of planets around Alpha Centauri, though much work lies ahead. Perhaps some of that work will be accomplished by scientists who, in their younger years, were energized by the text and images of books like this one.
What I find facinating is a comment by a reader ( kzb ) of this post concerning the Fermi Paradox:
One frequently-seen explanation of the Fermi paradox is that interstellar travel is just too difficult: the distances are so great that no intelligent species has ever cracked the problem.
This article highlights an argument against this outlook. One scale-length towards the galactic centre, and the space density of stellar systems is 2.7 times what it is around here. Two scale lengths in and the density is 7.4 times greater. The scale-length of our galaxy is around only 2.1-3kpc according to recent literature.
Intelligent species that evolve in the inner galactic disk will not have the same problem that we have. Over galactic timescales, encounters between stellar systems within 1 light-year will not be uncommon.
I think you can see what I am saying, and I think this is one aspect of the FP discussion that is poorly represented currently.
And Erik Anderson’s response:
@ kzb: I give an overview of the Fermi Paradox on page 110 and I didn’t miss your point. It was definitely articulated by Edward Teller, whom I explicitly quote: “…as far as our Galaxy is concerned, we are living somewhere in the sticks, far removed from the metropolitan area of the Galactic center.”
Of course this precludes the explanations that there is no such thing as speedy interstellar travel ( be they anti-matter or warp drives ) and UFOs are really just mass hallucinations.
However Anderson’s book is novel in its’ treatment of interstellar exploration over vast timescales and that closer to the Galactic Center, possible advanced civilizations could have stellar cultures due to faster stellar movements and much shorter distances between stars. And I find that novel in an Olaf Stapledon kind of way!
That and the fact as we are discovering using the Kepler and HARP interstellar telescopes multiple star systems that have their own solar systems and many of them could have intelligent life lends credence to Mr. Anderson’s themes.
So I might treat myself to an early Christmas present by purchasing Anderson’s book!
Hairspray might one day serve as the sign that aliens have reshaped distant worlds, researchers say. Such research to find signs of alien technology is now open to funding from the public.
Science fiction has long imagined that humans could transform hostile alien worlds into livable ones, a procedure known as terraforming. For instance, to colonize Mars, scientists have suggested warming the red planet and thickening its extraordinarily thin atmosphere so that humans can roam its surface without having to wear spacesuits. To do so, plans to terraform Mars often involve vast amounts of greenhouses gases to trap enough heat from the Sun, forcing carbon dioxide frozen on the planet’s surface to turn into gas.
If humans might one day terraform planets, aliens with more advanced technology might have already done so. If that’s the case, astronomers could look for telltale signs of such changes to reveal that intelligent extraterrestrial life exists.
“Our hypothesis is that evidence of intelligent life might be evident in a planetary atmosphere,” said astrobiologist Mark Claire at the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, a nonprofit network of scientists across the world.
One group of gases that might be key to terraforming planets are chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). These nontoxic, long-lived chemicals are strong greenhouse gases and were once often used in hairspray and air conditioners, among many other products.
CFCs are entirely artificial, with no known natural process capable of creating them in atmospheres. Detecting signs of these gases on far-off worlds with telescopes might serve as potent evidence that intelligent alien civilizations were the cause, either intentionally as part of terraforming or accidentally via industrial pollution.
“An industrialized civilization will be one that will use its planetary resources for fabrication, the soon-to-be-detectable-from-Earth atmospheric byproducts of which could be a tell-tale sign of their activity,” said astrobiologist Sanjoy Som of the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science.
Telescopes have currently helped spot hundreds of exoplanets so far and should help detect hundreds more soon. Future observatories could analyze the atmospheres of these worlds, and CFCs should be easy to see, because the way they absorb light is very different from naturally-occurring chemicals.
“We are on the scientific verge of being able to actively look for extrasolar worlds inhabited by technological civilizations,” Som said. “We are about a decade away of being able to measure detailed compositions of the atmospheres of extrasolar planets.”
Using state-of-the-art computer models of atmospheric chemistry and climate, the researchers plan to discover what visible signs CFCs and other artificial byproducts of alien terraforming or industry might have on exoplanet atmospheres.
“We will then test if these features are detectable over interstellar distances, by severely downgrading our computed signal to mimic the signal quality of next-generation telescopes,” Claire said.
Scientists worldwide could then use this data to see if any of the exoplanets discovered so far or to come show evidence of these “technosignatures.”
“This SETI proposal is about looking at atmospheric chemistry rather than other previously proposed technosignatures like radio signals or pulsed light beams,” Claire said.
Claire added that sulfur hexaflouride is another industrial molecule and greenhouse gas that could serve as a technosignature. Other technosignatures may include unusually large amounts of ammonia or carbon dioxide, when observed alongside gases such as oxygen and water vapor, which are often thought to be common signs of life, Som said.
I can see that this is a nice, safe method of the mainstream “discovering” alien civilizations using super-advanced spectrographic measurements of extra-planetary atmospheres.
It keeps the aliens at a distance that is “untraversable” by mechanical means ( which mainstream science and politics deems desirable ) but it satisfies the need to find alien peoples.
And meets the criteria of the 1960 Brookings Report.
Hat tip to The Anomalist.
European astronomers have discovered a planet with about the mass of the Earth orbiting a star in the Alpha Centauri system — the nearest to Earth. It is also the lightest exoplanet ever discovered around a star like the Sun. The planet was detected using the HARPS instrument on the 3.6-meter telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile. The results will appear online in the journal Nature on 17 October 2012.
Alpha Centauri is one of the brightest stars in the southern skies and is the nearest stellar system to our solar system — only 4.3 light-years away. It is actually a triple star — a system consisting of two stars similar to the Sun orbiting close to each other, designated Alpha Centauri A and B, and a more distant and faint red component known as Proxima Centauri . Since the nineteenth century astronomers have speculated about planets orbiting these bodies, the closest possible abodes for life beyond the solar system, but searches of increasing precision had revealed nothing. Until now.
“Our observations extended over more than four years using the HARPS instrument and have revealed a tiny, but real, signal from a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri B every 3.2 days,” says Xavier Dumusque (Geneva Observatory, Switzerland, and Centro de Astrofisica da Universidade do Porto, Portugal), lead author of the paper. “It’s an extraordinary discovery and it has pushed our technique to the limit!”
The European team detected the planet by picking up the tiny wobbles in the motion of the star Alpha Centauri B created by the gravitational pull of the orbiting planet . The effect is minute — it causes the star to move back and forth by no more than 51 centimeters per second (1.8 km/hour), about the speed of a baby crawling. This is the highest precision ever achieved using this method.
Alpha Centauri B is very similar to the Sun but slightly smaller and less bright. The newly discovered planet, with a mass of a little more than that of the Earth , is orbiting about six million kilometers away from the star, much closer than Mercury is to the Sun in the solar system. The orbit of the other bright component of the double star, Alpha Centauri A, keeps it hundreds of times further away, but it would still be a very brilliant object in the planet’s skies.
The first exoplanet around a Sun-like star was found by the same team back in 1995 and since then there have been more than 800 confirmed discoveries, but most are much bigger than the Earth, and many are as big as Jupiter . The challenge astronomers now face is to detect and characterize a planet of mass comparable to the Earth that is orbiting in the habitable zone  around another star. The first step has now been taken .
“This is the first planet with a mass similar to Earth ever found around a star like the Sun. Its orbit is very close to its star and it must be much too hot for life as we know it,” adds Stephane Udry (Geneva Observatory), a co-author of the paper and member of the team, “but it may well be just one planet in a system of several. Our other HARPS results, and new findings from Kepler, both show clearly that the majority of low-mass planets are found in such systems.”
“This result represents a major step towards the detection of a twin Earth in the immediate vicinity of the Sun. We live in exciting times!” concludes Xavier Dumusque.
ESO will hold an online press conference offering journalists the opportunity to discuss the result and its impact with the scientists:http://www.eso.org/public/announcements/ann12072/
It finally happened, an interstellar world, even though it’s not really a “garden” world like ours, it’s the first true earth-mass one discovered – and it’s only 25 trillion miles away!
Not only are scientists excited about the size – prevailing theory claims that there could be more rocky worlds out into Centauri B’s habitable zone waiting to be discovered.
I wonder if James Cameron is planning an expedition now?
For those who like to read papers, here’s the original text - http://www.eso.org/public/archives/releases/sciencepapers/eso1241/eso1241a.pdf
Again thanks to Greg at the Daily Grail !
From Huffington Post:
Nothing kills a career faster than being branded a kook, and in many circles, that’s what you are when you admit you’ve seen a UFO.
The stakes are raised, of course, if we’re talking about academic communities, and even more so among astronomers — people who study the skies.
With the career suicide stakes for astronomers so high, some UFO researchers believe many of them are hesitant to step forward. Certainly, the Air Force’s Project Bluebook– the last officially announced government study of unidentified flying objects — concluded that five percent of the cases investigated could not be immediately explained away.
Nevertheless, one nationally renowned astronomer, Derrick Pitts, tells The Huffington Post that it might be time for a thorough study of unexplained aerial phenomena.
(Courtesy of The Franklin Institute)
“If you say, ‘Let’s pursue an investigation of UFOs so we can identify where these alien spacecraft are coming from,’ then people go, ‘What? I’m not touching that with a 10-foot pole.’ But if you say, ‘Let’s look at what the possibilities are that, at one time, there were environments where life possibly could have developed on Mars,’ then everybody says, ‘Oh, yeah, I want a piece of that,’” said Pitts, senior scientist and chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia.
Pitts, pictured at right, is also a NASA Solar System Ambassador. He told HuffPost about the idea that most serious astronomers give no credence to UFO reports.
“I can speculate about what many astronomers would say if you ask them that question. Many of them would say, ‘I haven’t seen anything, so I can’t say that they exist. I can’t say that this five percent are alien spacecraft.’ But if you ask them in the same breath, ‘Would you be willing to engage in a research project to figure out what these things are,’ I don’t know what that answer would be.
“I’d say, yeah, let’s find out, let’s take a look at it, because here we have a phenomenon that causes a tremendous amount of interest. Why not try to understand what it is?”
A careful look at historical records reveals how astronomers have, indeed, not only endorsed efforts to study the UFO phenomenon, but in many cases, have themselves seen unexplained objects for which they couldn’t account.
In the late 1940s, astronomer — and UFO skeptic — J. Allen Hynek became the scientific consultant to Project Blue Book. During the nearly 20 years that Hynek was charged with explaining away UFO reports, he prepared a “Special Report On Conferences With Astronomers On Unidentified Aerial Objects.”
Included in the study of 45 astronomers was a general feeling that “if they were promised complete anonymity and if they could report their sightings to a group of serious, respected scientists who would regard the problem as a scientific one, then they would be willing to cooperate to the very fullest extent.”
Watch J. Allen Hynek discussing astronomers and UFOs
Hynek later went on to coin the phrase, “close encounters of the first, second and third kind,” which described the various types of UFO reports made by people. As the director of the Center for UFO Studies, he was also the technical consultant — with a cameo appearance — in Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
Also in 1977, astrophysicist Peter Sturrock created a survey based on responses of members of the American Astronomical Society concerning UFOs. One respondent wrote: “I find it tough to make a living as an astronomer these days. It would be professionally suicidal to devote significant time to UFOs. However, I am quite interested in your survey.”
A year after Sturrock’s survey, Hynek found himself addressing the United Nations, pictured below, on the topic of continuing global sightings of UFOs.
“If it were not worldwide, I should not be addressing … these representatives from many parts of the world,” Hynek told the UN Special Political Committee in 1978. “There exists a global phenomenon the scope and extent of which is not generally recognized. It is a phenomenon so strange and foreign to our daily terrestrial mode of thought that it is frequently met by ridicule and derision by persons and organizations unacquainted with the facts.
“Yet, the phenomenon persists; it has not faded away as many of us expected it would when, years ago, we regarded it as a passing fad or whimsy. Instead, it has touched on the lives of an increasing number of people around the world.”
Joining Hynek at that milestone UN initiative to try and get the world body to create an internal UFO committee was astronomer Jacques Vallee, portrayed by Francois Truffaut in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
“We are beginning to pay the price for the negative and prejudiced attitude with which our scientific institutions have treated sincere witnesses of UFO phenomena,” Vallee told the U.N. delegates in 1978. “Lack of serious, open-minded research in this field has encouraged these witnesses to think that science was incapable of dealing with the phenomena.
“This attitude has led many people to seek answers outside the rational pursuit of knowledge to which science is dedicated. Only an open exchange of information on the subject could now correct this dangerous trend.”
Vallee, pictured above, closed his remarks at the United Nations, saying, “All the great nations of the world are represented on this committee. Let us keep in mind that the UFO phenomenon may represent an even greater reality. It is our choice to treat it as a threat or as an opportunity for human knowledge.”
Watch Jacques Vallee discussing UFOs at the 2011 Global Competitiveness Forum in Saudi Arabia.
Toward the end of his life Hynek pretty much recanted his work with Project Blue Book and adopted the extraterrestrial hypothesis to explain UFOs. Mainstream science ignores this fact and chalk this up to Hynek just getting old and senile.
Hynek might have gotten old, but he was in no way senile.
As for Vallee, he adopted John Keel’s view that UFOs are a form of mass cultural manifestations of collective consciousness – i.e., a form of leprechauns, witches, elves, angels and demons.
Vallee’s ideas might have merit, but so did Hynek’s in my opinion.
And until the UFO phenomenon is studied with science, that’s all these views are going to be.
Ideas and theories.
Hat tip to the Daily Grail.
Like many geeks of the post-Sputnik generation, I grew up hoping that space travel would be common by the time I reached middle age. Weaned on a youthful diet of speculative fiction by the likes of Ray Bradbury and Arthur Clarke, raised on Star Trek and The Outer Limits, and thrilled by real-life hero Neil Armstrong’s “one small step” onto the gravelly surface of the Moon when I was in elementary school, it never occurred to me that humankind’s manifest destiny in the stars would be undone by changing political winds, disasters like the Challenger explosion, and a mountain of debt to pay for misguided military adventures like the War in Iraq.
It’s true that, in some ways, we’re living in a new golden age for space nerds. Bard Canning’s gorgeously enhanced footage of Curiosity’s descent to Mars — made instantly available by the global network we built instead of a Hilton on the Moon — certainly beats grainy snippets beamed down from Tranquility Base. A newly discovered exoplanet that “may be capable of supporting life” seems tomake headlines every few months. Cassini’s ravishing closeups of Saturnregularly put the fever dreams of ILM’s animators to shame. But wasn’t I supposed to be “strolling on the deck of a starship” by now, as Paul Kantner’s acid-fueled hippie space epic Blows Against the Empire promised me when it was nominated for a Hugo award in 1971?
The problem, it turns out, isn’t just a loss of political will to finance manned space flight. Rocket science turns out to be rocket science — not easy, and constrained by some very real limitations dictated by material science, the physics of acceleration, and the unwieldy economics of interstellar propulsion. Until a real-life Zefram Cochrane comes along to invent a practical warp drive, I may not be sightseeing on any Class M planets anytime soon.
One of the best briefings on the state of the art of interstellar exploration is Lee Billings’ essay “Incredible Journey,” recently reprinted in a wonderful new anthology called The Best Science Writing Online 2012, edited by Scientific American’s Bora Zivkovic and Jennifer Ouellette. I’m very honored to have a piece in the anthology myself: my NeuroTribes interview with John Elder Robison, author of the bestselling memoir of growing up with autism, Look Me in The Eye, and other books. When SciAm’s editors suggested that each author in the book interview one of the other authors, I jumped at the chance to interview Billings about his gracefully written and informative article about the practical challenges of space flight. Billings is a freelance journalist who has written forNature, New Scientist, Popular Mechanics, and Seed. He lives outside New York City with his wife, Melissa.
Steve Silberman: Before we even get into the meat of your piece, I want to mention how impressed I was by the power and lyricism of your writing. Phrases like “the cosmos suddenly becomes less lonely” and “the easiest way the Daedalus volunteers found to fuel their starship was, in effect, the industrialization of the outer solar system” make vast and highly abstract concepts immediately comprehensible and visceral to lay readers. What made you want to become a science writer, and who are your role models for writing, in any genre?
Lee Billings: My attraction to science preceded my attraction to the act of writing, perhaps because, like every child, I was intensely curious about the world around me. Science, more so than any other source of knowledge I could find, seemed to change the world into something at once eminently understandable and endlessly mysterious.
I became interested in science writing, science journalism, at approximately the same time I realized I would make a poor scientist. I was midway through my college prerequisites, thinking I was on a path to a career in neuroscience. I’d been having a lot of trouble with the more quantitative courses — calculus, organic chemistry, and so on. Many of my friends would ace their assignments and tests after sleeping through lectures and rarely cracking a book. I would study hard, only to receive poor grades. Meanwhile I was breezing through courses in English, literature, history, and art. After a particularly fervent all-night cram-session for a final exam that I still almost flunked, I decided if I wasn’t destined to excel within science itself, perhaps I could instead try to make my mark by helping communicate the world-changing discoveries scientists were making. So I switched my academic emphasis from neuroscience to journalism, and became something of a camp follower, scavenging and trailing behind the gifted few at the front lines of research. I’ve never looked back, and have no regrets. The job never gets old: Rather than being at best a mediocre, hyper-specialized bench worker, being a science writer lets me parachute in to varied fields on a whim, and invariably the brilliant individuals I find upon landing are welcoming and happy to talk to me.
As for influences… I still have a long way to go, but if my writing ever comes to possess a fraction of Carl Sagan’s charisma and elegance, John McPhee’s structure and eye for detail, Richard Preston’s depth of focus and cinematic flair, Stanislaw Lem’s imagination and analytic insight, or Ray Bradbury’s lyrical beauty, I will be a happy man.
Ray Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles”
Silberman: Several times a year now, we hear about the discovery of a new exoplanet in the “Goldilocks zone” that could “potentially support life.” For example, soon after he helped discover Gliese 581g, astronomer Steven Vogt sparked a storm of media hype by claiming that “the chances for life on this planet are 100 percent.” Even setting aside the fact that the excitement of discovering a planet in the habitable zone understandably seems to have gone to Vogt’s head at that press conference, why are such calculations of the probability of life harder to perform accurately than they seem?
Billings: The question of habitability is a second-order consideration when it comes to Gliese 581g, and that fact in itself reveals where so much of this uncertainty comes from. As of right now, the most interesting thing about the “discovery” of Gliese 581g is that not everyone is convinced the planet actually exists. That’s basically because this particular detection is very much indirect — the planet’s existence is being inferred from periodic meter-per-second shifts in the position of its host star. The period of that shift corresponds to the planet’s orbit as it whips from one side of the star to the other; the meter-per-second magnitude of the shift places a lower limit on the planet’s mass, but can’t pin down the mass exactly. So that’s all this detection gives you — an orbit and a minimum mass. That’s not a lot to go on in determining what a planet’s environment might actually be like, is it?
Now, get up and walk around the room. You’re moving at about a meter per second. Imagine discerning that same rate of change in the motion of a million-kilometer-wide ball of plasma, a star many light-years away. Keep in mind this star’s surface is always moving, in pounding waves and swirling eddies, in rising and falling convection cells, in vast plasmatic prominences arcing above the surface, often at many kilometers per second. At any particular moment, all that stellar noise can swamp the faint planetary signal. Only by building up hundreds or thousands of careful measurements over time can you get that crucial periodicity that tells you what you’re seeing might be a planet. So the measurement is quite statistical in nature, and its interpretation can change based on the statistical assumptions being used. This is further complicated by the fact that planets are rarely singletons, so that any given stellar motion may be the product of many planets rather than one, requiring careful long-term study to tease apart each world’s contribution to the bulk signal. It’s also complicated by the instability of astronomical instruments, which must be kept carefully, constantly calibrated and stabilized lest they introduce spurious noise into the measurements. In the case of Gliese 581g, not everyone agrees on the putative planetary signal actually being caused by a planet, or even being real at all — the signal doesn’t seem to manifest equally in the handful of instruments purportedly capable of detecting it.
So it’s very difficult to just detect these things, and actually determining whether they are much like Earth is a task orders of magnitude more difficult still. Notice how I’m being anthropocentric here: “much like Earth.” Astrobiology has been derisively called a science without a subject. But, of course, it does have at least one subject: our own living planet and its containing solar system. We are forced to start from what we know, planting our feet in the familiar before we push out into the alien. That’s why we, as a species, are looking for other Earth-like planets — they probably offer us the best hope of recognizing anything we might consider alive. It’s not the strongest position to be in, but it’s the best we’ve got. Calculating the probability of life on an utterly alien world outside the solar system for which we know only the most basic information — its mass, its orbit, maybe its radius — is at this stage a very crude guess. The fact is, we still don’t know that much about how abiogenesis occurred on Earth, how life emerged from inanimate matter. There are very good physical, chemical, thermodynamic reasons to believe that life arose here because our planet was warm, wet, and rocky, but we really don’t yet know all the cogent occurrences that added up to build the Earth’s earliest organisms, let alone our modern living world. A warm, wet, rocky planet may be a necessary but not a sufficient condition for life as we know it to form and flourish.
Lee Billings with planet hunter Geoff Marcy
This is really a chicken-and-egg problem: To know the limits of life in planetary systems, we need to find life beyond the Earth. To find life beyond Earth, it would be very helpful to know the limits of life in planetary systems. Several independent groups are trying to circumvent this problem by studying abiogenesis in the lab — trying to in effect create life, alien or otherwise, in a test tube. If they manage to replicate Earth life, the achievement could constrain just how life emerged on our own planet. If they somehow manage to make some single-celled organism that doesn’t use DNA, or that relies on silicon instead of carbon to build its body, or that prefers to swim in liquid ethane rather than liquid water, that gives us a hint that “Earth-style” biologies may only be one branch in a much larger and more diverse cosmic Tree of Life.
Silberman: Going deeper than the notion of the cosmos feeling “less lonely” – as well as the fact that we all grew up watching Star Trek and Star Wars and thinking that aliens are frickin’ cool (as long as they’re not the mama alien fromAlien) — why do you think people are so motivated to daydream about extraterrestrial life? What need in us do those dreams fulfill?
Billings: I don’t really think most people are necessarily motivated to daydream about just any sort of extraterrestrial life. It will probably take more than a microbe or a clam to excite most of our imaginations, even if that microbe happens to be on Venus or that clam happens to be on Mars.
I do think humans are motivated to daydream about extraterrestrial intelligence, and, to put a finer point on it, extraterrestrial “people.” They are motivated to dream about beings very much like them, things tantalizingly exotic but not so alien as to be totally incomprehensible and discomforting. Maybe those imagined beings have more appendages or sense organs, different body plans and surface coverings, but they typically possess qualities we recognize within ourselves: They are sentient, they have language, they use tools, they are curious explorers, they are biological, they are mortal — just like humans. Perhaps that’s a collective failure of imagination, because it’s certainly not very easy to envision intelligent aliens that are entirely divergent from our own anthropocentric preconceptions. Or perhaps it’s more diagnostic of the human need for context, affirmation, and familiarity. Why are people fascinated by their distorted reflections in funhouse mirrors? Maybe it’s because when they recognize their warped image, at a subconscious level that recognition reinforces their actual true appearance and identity.
More broadly, speculating about extraterrestrial intelligence is an extension of three timeless existential questions: What are we, where do we come from, and where are we going? The late physicist Philip Morrison considered SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, to be the “archaeology of the future,” because any galactic civilizations we could presently detect from our tiny planet would almost certainly be well more advanced than our own. It’s unlikely that we would ever receive a radio message from an alien civilization in the equivalent of our past Stone Age, and it’s unlikely Earth would ever be visited by a crewed starship that powered its voyage using engines fueled by coal or gasoline. Optimists consider this, and say that making contact with a superior alien civilization could augur a bright future for humanity, as it would suggest there are in fact solutions to be found for all the current seemingly intractable problems that threaten to destroy or diminish our species. It’s my opinion that most people think about aliens as a way of pondering our own spectrum of possible futures.
I’m inclined to believe some of the things Billings has to say in that it’s doubtful we’ll build anything like a starship in the near future and folks ( taxpayers ) just won’t fund those kinds of projects. Entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk, James Cameron and Peter Diamandis could in the future fund projects such as starprobes and starships – only if they prove profitable.
IMO it looks like stronger telescopes both on Earth and in space will be the only human built machines exploring the closer solar systems for any signs of life and extant civilizations because they can be economically constructed – and if they found anything interesting, the items are still a safe distance away.
From YouTube via Red Ice Creations:
“Clouds of alien life forms are sweeping through outer space and infecting planets with life — it may not be as far-fetched as it sounds.”
Also tune into Red Ice Radio:
Michael Mautner – Panspermia, Seeding the Universe with Life
Lloyd Pye – Human Origins, Intervention Theory & Genetic Experimentation
Mike Bara – Dark Mission, The Occult NASA Moon Mission
Marcel Kuijsten – Julian Jaynes, the Bicameral Mind & The Origin of Consciousness
Maybe Sir Ridley Scott wasn’t too far off the beam?
For some reason, 60 years seems to be enough time for SETI to scan the local star neighborhood for radio signals, a sign mainstream science believes will be the way we’ll prove there’s ET intelligence in the Universe.
And as Mankind hasn’t received any radio signals from Out There yet, the famous “Fermi Paradox” is invoked.
The following abstract gives yet another possible explanation of the “silence” and one I have heard of before, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it tossed out into the mainstream:
The emerging science of evolutionary developmental (“evo devo”) biology can aid us in thinking about our universe as both an evolutionary system, where most processes are unpredictable and creative, and a developmental system, where a special few processes are predictable and constrained to produce far-future-specific emergent order, just as we see in the common developmental processes in two stars of an identical population type, or in two genetically identical twins in biology. The transcension hypothesis proposes that a universal process of evolutionary development guides all sufficiently advanced civilizations into what may be called “inner space,” a computationally optimal domain of increasingly dense, productive, miniaturized, and efficient scales of space, time, energy, and matter, and eventually, to a black-hole-like destination. Transcension as a developmental destiny might also contribute to the solution to the Fermi paradox, the question of why we have not seen evidence of or received beacons from intelligent civilizations. A few potential evolutionary, developmental, and information theoretic reasons, mechanisms, and models for constrained transcension of advanced intelligence are briefly considered. In particular, we introduce arguments that black holes may be a developmental destiny and standard attractor for all higher intelligence, as they appear to some to be ideal computing, learning, forward time travel, energy harvesting, civilization merger, natural selection, and universe replication devices. In the transcension hypothesis, simpler civilizations that succeed in resisting transcension by staying in outer (normal) space would be developmental failures, which are statistically very rare late in the life cycle of any biological developing system. If transcension is a developmental process, we may expect brief broadcasts or subtle forms of galactic engineering to occur in small portions of a few galaxies, the handiwork of young and immature civilizations, but constrained transcension should be by far the norm for all mature civilizations.
The transcension hypothesis has significant and testable implications for our current and future METI and SETI agendas. If all universal intelligence eventually transcends to black-hole-like environments, after which some form of merger and selection occurs, and if two-way messaging (a send–receive cycle) is severely limited by the great distances between neighboring and rapidly transcending civilizations, then sending one-way METI or probes prior to transcension becomes the only real communication option. But one-way messaging or probes may provably reduce the evolutionary diversity in all civilizations receiving the message, as they would then arrive at their local transcensions in a much more homogenous fashion. If true, an ethical injunction against one-way messaging or probes might emerge in the morality and sustainability systems of all sufficiently advanced civilizations, an argument known as the Zoo hypothesis in Fermi paradox literature, if all higher intelligences are subject to an evolutionary attractor to maximize their local diversity, and a developmental attractor to merge and advance universal intelligence. In any such environment, the evolutionary value of sending any interstellar message or probe may simply not be worth the cost, if transcension is an inevitable, accelerative, and testable developmental process, one that eventually will be discovered and quantitatively described by future physics. Fortunately, transcension processes may be measurable today even without good physical theory, and radio and optical SETI may each provide empirical tests. If transcension is a universal developmental constraint, then without exception all early and low-power electromagnetic leakage signals (radar, radio, television), and later, optical evidence of the exoplanets and their atmospheres should reliably cease as each civilization enters its own technological singularities (emergence of postbiological intelligence and life forms) and recognizes that they are on an optimal and accelerating path to a black-hole-like environment. Furthermore, optical SETI may soon allow us to map an expanding area of the galactic habitable zone we may call the galactic transcension zone, an inner ring that contains older transcended civilizations, and a missing planets problem as we discover that planets with life signatures occur at a much lower frequencies in this inner ring than in the remainder of the habitable zone.
The mention of inner rings or zones smacks of the Anthropic Principle, so I’m not too impressed with this abstract, but it looks like it’s a very well written hypothesis.
But my question is this; “Why does the mainstream consider 60 years enough search time for ET activity to be detected?”
Are we really that convinced we’re on top of the local Galactic food-chain?
And where does that leave the issue of UFOs? Are they possible manifestations of civilizations who have attained Technological Singularity status?
Hat tip to the Daily Grail.
As this blog enters its sixth anniversary this month, I have never given much thought of it lasting this long. In fact, it almost ended last year when I took a long hiatus due to health issues; both for myself and my wife.
But as time went on and both my wife and I slowly recovered, I discovered I still had some things to say. And I realized the world never stopped turning in the meanwhile.
As I started to post again, the personal site Facebook became a semi-intelligent force unto itself. I say ‘semi-intelligent’ because it is spreading exponentially due to its posting of its games and constant proliferation of personal info unannounced and unapproved by individuals. And people, especially young folks don’t care this happens.
Distributed networks, mainly Facebook, Google and the World Wide Web in general are forms of distributed Artificial Intelligence. Does that mean we are in the early throes of the Technological Singularity?
I think we are IMO.
And if we are in the early upward curve of the Technological Singularity, how would that affect our theories of ancient intelligence in the Universe?
Well, I think we should seriously rethink our theories and consider how the Fermi Paradox might figure into this. Thinkers such as George Dyvorsky have written a few treatises on the subject and I believe they should be given due consideration by mainstream science. (The Fermi Paradox: Back With a Vengeance).
Speaking of mainstream science, it is slowly, but surely accepting the fact the Universe is filled with ancient stars and worlds. And if there’s a possibility the Universe has ancient worlds, there’s a chance there might be anicent Intelligences inhabiting these worlds:
The announcement of a pair of planets orbiting a 12.5 billion-year old star flies in the face of conventional wisdom that the earliest stars to be born in the Universe shouldn’t possess planets at all.
12.5 billion years ago, the primeval universe was just beginning to make heavier elements beyond hydrogen and helium, in the fusion furnace cores of the first stars. It follows that there was very little if any material for fabricating terrestrial worlds or the rocky seed cores of gas giant planets.
This argument has been used to automatically rule out the ancient and majestic globular star clusters that orbit our galaxy as intriguing homes for extraterrestrials.
The star that was announced to have two planets is not in a globular cluster (it lives inside the Milky Way, although it was most likely a part of a globular cluster that was cannibalized by our galaxy), but it is similarly anemic as the globular cluster stars because it is so old.
This discovery dovetails nicely with last year’s announcement of carbon found in a distant, ancient radio galaxy. These findings both suggest that there were enough heavy elements in the early universe to make planets around stars, and therefore life.
However, a Hubble Space Telescope search for planets in the globular star cluster 47 Tucanae in 1999 came up empty-handed. Hubble astronomers monitored 34,000 stars over a period of eight days. The prediction was that some fraction of these stars should have “hot Jupiters” that whirl around their star over a period of days (pictured here in an artist’s rendition). They would be detected if their orbits were tilted edge-on to Earth so the stars would briefly grow dimmer during each transit of a planet.
A similar survey of the galactic center by Hubble in 2006 came up with 16 hot Jupiter planet candidates. This discovery was proof of concept and helped pave the way for the Kepler space telescope planet-hunting mission.
Why no planets in a globular cluster? For a start, globular clusters are more crowded with stars than our Milky Way — as is evident in the observation of the dwarf galaxy M9 below. “It may be that the environment in a globular was too harsh for planets to form,” said Harvey Richer of the University of British Columbia. “Planetary disks are pretty fragile things and could be easily disrupted in such an environment with a high stellar density.”
However, in 2007 Hubble found a 2.7 Jupiter mass planet inside the globular cluster M4. The planet is in a very distant orbit around a pulsar and a white dwarf. This could really be a post-apocalypse planet that formed much later in a disk of debris that followed the collapse of the companion star into a white dwarf, or the supernova explosion itself.
Hubble is now being used to look for the infrared glow of protoplanetary disks in 47 Tucanae. The disks would be so faint that the infrared sensitivity of the planned James Webb Space Telescope would be needed to carry out a more robust survey.
If planets did form in the very early in the universe, life would have made use of carbon and other common elements as it did on Earth billions of years ago. Life around a solar-type star, or better yet a red dwarf, would have a huge jump-start on Earth’s biological evolution. The earliest life forms would have had the opportunity to evolve for billions of years longer than us.
This inevitably leads to speculation that there should be super-aliens who are vastly more evolved than us. So… where are they? My guess is that if they existed, they evolved to the point where they abandoned bodies of flesh and blood and transformed themselves into something else — be it a machine or something wildly unimaginable.
However, it’s clear that despite (or, because of) their super-intelligence, they have not done anything to draw attention to themselves. The absence of evidence may set an upper limit on just how far advanced a technological civilization may progress — even over billions of years.
Keep in mind that most of the universe would be hidden from beings living inside of a globular star cluster. The sky would be ablaze with so many stars that it would take a long time for alien astronomers to simply stumble across the universe of external galaxies — including our Milky Way.
There will be other searches for planets in globular clusters. But our present understanding makes the question of a Methuselah civilization even more perplexing. If the universe made carbon so early, then ancient minds should be out there, somewhere.
Methuselah civilizations eh?
Sure. If there are such civilizations out there, it is because they wish to remain in the physical realm and not cross over to the inner places of shear mental and god-like powers.
As with all things ‘Future’, the answer could come crashing down upon us faster than we are prepared for.
As usual, thanks to the Daily Grail.