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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

CHAPTER 4: SEEKING THE LIGHT—SETI (Part 7)

The following continues the serialization of Chapter 4 on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence from SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for Humanity:


The Other Side of the Story


There is the Fermi (Nobel physicist Enrico Fermi of the Manhattan Project) Paradox: Where are they? Why are no aliens or their artifacts evident? Why haven’t we detected even one example of anything resembling intelligent life beyond our own?


A second problem is that two way chats are not feasible, as the more promising stars are just too far away. For example, if the best sites are a hundred light years away, should we receive a signal, send a response, and expect anything back, that would be a 200 year wait. However, some others say that it is possible that we will be able to detect the atmosphere of life-bearing planets within the next decade or two, and some could be as close as 30 light years away. Even then, 60 years between messages would stretch anyone’s patience. The three Alpha Centauri stars are only a little more than 4 light years away, but they do not show any potential for life. In any event, just the confirmation of any signal should be the story of the millennium and the spark compelling religion to be even more creative, or accept the inevitable.


In addition to some in Congress, there are scientific detractors, so, reverting back to the Drake equation:


N = R* Fp Np Fl Fi FcL,


Russian Astronomer Iosef Shklovskii and Carl Sagan assumed R* to be 10 stars/year (that is, 100 billion stars formed over the past 10 billion years), the N and all the F’s to equate to 0.1 and L, the longevity of the average technological society, to be 10 million years, resulting in a million advanced civilizations (0.001% of all stars).


Michael Hart surmised that only spectral class G (such as our Sun) stars had the right properties to support life, reducing star formation (R*) to 0.001 start/year, thus dropping the Shklovskii-Sagan million to 100 civilizations. But only 10% of G stars are single and only 10% rotate slowly enough to have planets. Soon the number magically drops to one…Planet Earth.


Two other skeptics, James Trefil, a physics professor at George Mason University, and Robert Rood, an astronomy professor at the University of Virginia, calculated that the chances of other life in the Galaxy at 3%, and these would become so advanced that within 30 million years they would be able to colonize the entire Galaxy. If so, parroting Fermi, where are they?


Professor Rood, actually, has gone on to conduct SETI research himself, in the belief that, while it is unlikely anything will be found, it is still worth looking for, since theorizing can’t prove or disprove their existence, not unlike the quest for God. Even Professor Trefil appreciates the value of technological spin-offs from SETI.


Finally, people confuse SETI with UFOs, or unidentified flying objects. Those associated with the former loath to mention the latter. Yet, there was a time when even I believed flying saucers were real, maybe even into my college days. This is similar to the Santa Claus Syndrome (read the next chapter), but UFOs can still be believed at a more mature age than the man in red. Some never get over it. About 90% of Americans believe in some afterlife (again, read the next chapter). Think X-Files. At some point, though, the logic should kick-in, and one generally should mature into a non-believer, like the U.S. Department of Defense, with particular reference to Project Blue Book and the U.S. Air Force. Yet, of the 12,618 UFO sightings investigated, 701 remain open to speculation, not much unlike any attempts to scientifically explain religious miracles. UFO, miracles, the afterlife—this mystery, that unknown…they all appeal to the human emotion, and maybe they have a point there. But isn’t this all so obviously deluding?


Stanford engineering professor Ron Bracewell, who, as one of the speakers during Project Orion in 1974, provided convincing arguments why human intelligence could well have had some extraterrestrial origins. Definitely X Files stuff, and counter to classical evolution. Said he, if you travel only at 10% the speed of light, with the universe just so large, it is conceivable that we could have been visited many times, and, perhaps, 3 million years ago, to be fertilized. They might well drop by again, maybe a million years from now, to check on the damage, or good, done. Daily flights? Unlikely. What about the energy to tool around? Well, that is a dilemma, but there are black holes and time warps and immortality and stuff. Who really knows? The best is yet to come.


A related mode of thinking was offered by Fred Hoyle, the coiner of the “Big Bang,” who, in his book, Intelligent Universe, speculated that panspermia is the origin and evolution of life on Earth, that is, we were seeded from space; not spaceships, but the building blocks of life, and maybe even bacteria. At around 450 BC, Greek philosopher Anaxagoras paved the way for the atomic table and thought of these space seeds, but Aristotle prevailed for two millennia with his spontaneous generation theory, that is, frogs came from mud. It took Louis Pasteur in the late 19th Century to disprove Aristotle. A few years later, British physicist Lord William Thomson Kelvin and German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz extended Pasteur’s logic with the notion that microbial life might be ubiquitous in the universe, and in the early 1900’s, Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius (yes, the same scientist who suggested that a doubling of our atmospheric carbon dioxide would lead to a temperature increase of 5°C) theorized that bacterial spores propelled through space by light pressure were the seeds of life on Earth. More recently, comets have drawn attention as particularly good hosts for these biological seeds.


Can panspermia or the Bracewell supposition explain what happened in a period of 10 million years between 500 and 600 million years ago when, suddenly, after only bacteria, algae and plankton for the first 3.4 billion years of life, creatures appeared representing the beginnings of the entire animal kingdom? This was biology’s Big Bang.


The key point being made by Bracewell and Hoyle is that, while evolution, of course, has been occurring, the seeds of life might well have been initiated by biological remnants and higher evolution by intelligent control from extraterrestrial civilizations. There are two critical leaps:


o The formation of life from chemicals and energy is maybe the most difficult, so bacteria from space conveniently skips that most intricate of steps, and we all know that bacteria can survive extremes of temperature, pressure and irradiation.

o Intelligent life from bacteria is quite a jump, so, perhaps a few bridge species, including humans, were planted by advanced civilizations. Maybe reptiles were first tried (which says something about some aliens) 100 million years ago, which did not develop well, so a later invader looking like us planted an early form a couple of million years ago, or, maybe as recently as 100,000 BC. There might have even been an extraterrestrial Noah’s Ark, for there is no foolproof way to determine that bacteria came before, say, dinosaurs, as carbon dating does not function beyond 62,000 years.


Cosmic ancestry, as articulated by Brig Klyce, could well be at the heart of extraterrestrial theories, and, while mostly antithetical to current science, nevertheless has been strengthened by science:


o Two scientists at Cal Poly in 1995 showed that bacteria can survive without any metabolism for at least 25 million years, and are probably immortal (see CHAPTER 2 on Eternal Life).

o A team of biologists and a geologist on October 19, 2000, announced the revival of bacteria that are 250 million years old.

o A NASA working group on December 13, 2000 demonstrated that Mars meteorite ALH84001 showed biological evidence.

o Geneticists in June of 2002 reported evidence that the evolutionary step from chimpanzees to humans was assisted by viruses.

o On August 2, 2004, NASA scientists showed evidence of fossilized cyanobacteria in a meteorite.


Details can be found in the panspermia web page identified above. Whether from natural biological evolution or intelligent control from aliens or, horrors, a supreme being, both theories can support the existence of extraterrestrial life.


However, David Morrison of the NASA Ames Research Center informed me that suggestions of extraterrestrial interference in evolution are incompatible with modern genetics. I would tend to agree with him. That is probably not an official NASA position, for he also indicated that NASA has not officially taken a position on the evidence of biological life in the Mars meteorite, even though the operative scientific consensus is that there was no life in that rock. I did suggest that to remain silent is as good as confirming the possibility, for the media play is overwhelmingly pro-life. But, then, that might well explain how NASA works.

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The Dow Jones Industrials dropped 49 to 10,452, and world markets were mixed. The Japan Nikkei rose to 10,207. After innumerable delays, the Boeing Dreamliner finally flew today, and successfully landed. However, the stock dropped because there are indications that Boeing will need to pay compensation for late deliveries. Gold dropped $2/toz to $1126 and crude oil is now approaching $71/barrel.

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Tropical Cyclone Laurence is up to 130 MPH, moving south southwest, and will impact the Kimberly coast of Australia. Tropical Cyclone Mick, now at 40 MPH, killed 4 on Fiji and is heading east southeast for Tonga, but weakening.

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