Friday, January 24, 2014
WHAT ARE THE PROSPECTS FOR EXTRATERRESTRIAL INTELLIGENCE?
It was 40 years ago when I first got professionally involved with the notion of extraterrestrial intelligence. Click on:
for this background.
In the mid-70's the key question facing astrophysicists and their ilk was: Are we the only solar system in the Universe? I was in the first group of faculty members convened by NASA in 1976 at the Ames Research Center to develop an instrument to find the first extrasolar planet. Till today, NASA, with good reason, has felt that the answer would not be found in the optical spectrum (what we can see), but in the microwave region.
Yet, with the encouragement of Nobel Laureate Charles Townes, I drew up the Planetary Abstracting Trinterferometer (PAT, of course), which theoretically would be able to detect and track discrete wavelengths of coherent light (Townes' idea was that if a planet has an atmosphere, chances are that the emission would be the equivalent of a laser) that would stand out despite the overwhelming density of the star light. Plus, knowing the wavelength, you could determine the composition of the atmosphere. Click HERE to appreciate the difference between the traditional extrasolar detection techniques and mine. (For the record, I since have passed on this concept to a series of Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence specialists at the Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, and I'm disappointed that no one found time to respond.)
In any case, NASA went down the microwave pathway and my proposal was ignored. However, it was not until 1988 that the first extrasolar planet was found...which was finally confirmed in 2003. The Kepeler Space Telescope (2009-2013, but it is now not functioning) detected 2700 alien planets using the transit method, and when the costs are finally added up, the sum just for this project will approach $1 billion. There are several replacements being considered by NASA, and one, the James Webb Space Telescope slated for launch in 2018, will cost $8.8 billion. Yes, sour grapes, but for "only" $100 million in the '70's I could have done all that and found real Earth-like exoplanets in the 1980's.
Anyway, talk about overkill. Science has now proven that there are extrasolar planets. In fact, there could be up to 10 trillion planets just in our Milky Way Galaxy. One estimate has 1, followed by 24 zeroes, as the number in our universe. Why spend ten billion dollars to find more? We now know they are there.
Certainly, don't waste my tax money sending humans back to the Moon or, especially, Mars. These types of adventures are a millennium away. Do make an effort to detect signals, as Jodie Foster did in CONTACT. There is that Allen Telescope Array in Hat Creek, California. However, this is a low-level $30 million attempt. If NASA needs to spend a billion dollars on anything, this is where those funds should be placed.
So, is there alien life out there somewhere? Almost surely, with those numbers. However, bacteria cannot communicate with us. Oh, forgot intergalactic space travel for now, and perhaps forever. It takes light 100,000 years just to travel from one end of our galaxy to the other. Homo sapiens haven't been around that long yet.
Is life on Earth unique? First, some form of micro-life will need to evolve. Then, some higher life with the equivalent of a brain. Yet, a chimpanzee cannot design a spacecraft, except in Planet of the Apes (Can you believe that was in 1968? And by the way, Dawn of Planet of the Apes will be released in May), a movie. How much will it take to develop intelligent life? And will this intelligence want to send signals?
The matter of time becomes a factor, for we have been able to possibly detect and interpret alien signals for maybe half a century, since Frank Drake. The Universe has been around for 13.8 billion years. The odds for an advanced exo-civilization in a nearby galaxy to mesh in time with us are iffy. Finally, the distances are disheartening, when you consider that this signal from a planet in our neighboring Andromeda Galaxy would take 2.2 million years to reach us. Thus, while the prospects for intelligent life on one of those septillion planets in our Universe must be high, the prospects for actually detecting an extraterrestrial signal before I pass away are probably low.