There is zero evidence for ancient aliens in the Solar System.
OK, now that that’s out of the way…
Sooooo, I wrote a paper and it’s been accepted to the International Journal of Astrobiology. Yay! Astrobiology refused to have it refereed, claiming it was out of scope, which I admit made me grumpy:
Per the editors, the idea of prior indigenous technological species in the Solar System is outside the purview of Astrobiology. @AdamFrank4
— Jason Wright (@Astro_Wright) February 27, 2017
But that’s fine; if they don’t want solar system artifact SETI in their journal, that’s their loss. Perhaps they’ll come around as Breakthrough Listen starts its survey of Solar System objects for radio emission. Anyway, that’s all water under the bridge now.
Normally I would have done a big roll out, a 10-part slow blog of the whole saga, and describe the paper in detail but…
- I was traveling from California to the Astrobiology Science Conference near Phoenix when I learned it was accepted, so I didn’t have time to blog it.
- I wanted to get the preprint out right away, during AbSciCon, since it’s my first astrobiology paper, and I thought having it hit the arXiv during the conference would make for good conversations. Also, Breakthrough Discuss had just finished, so SETI was also on people’s minds.
- A major family emergency had just struck (everyone’s fine now), and I had no time to blog, or even do much of anything at AbSciCon (I have a long draft of a blog post almost ready to go that I haven’t had time to even look at in two weeks).
- I think the paper is very short and readable—an easy register, not too much jargon—so if you’re interested in what’s in it I recommend you just read it. My blog would just quote from it, for the most part, anyway.
- I thought I’d do a slow-blog later—I wasn’t really expecting much in the way of press to scoop me; it’s kind of a fluffy paper (to use Steinn’s term for it)
- That said, I had shown the paper to the great folks at the Atlantic science desk (Ross Andersen asked what I had tweeted about above) and so I knew it would be treated well if it got any press at all.
The Atlantic article was nice, and if that had been the main source of news stories, I think it allwould have gone much better. But somehow, the yellow press found the paper on their own on the arXiv (do they read astro-ph daily?!) and ran away with it without asking me what it was about. The Daily Mail, that British rag of a tabloid, claimed that I “believe the aliens either lived on Earth, Venus or Mars billions of years ago.”
Wow. Things went downhill from there as the NY Post, repeated the article, and USA Today posted a video that was even worse. The only saving grace is that according to the worst of the articles, the irresponsible astronomer posting Ancient Aliens papers on the arXiv wasn’t me:
The silver lining to the cloud of yellow journalism on my PITS paper is that according to them it was written by "James T. Wright"
— Jason Wright (@Astro_Wright) May 1, 2017
Gizmodo got to talk to me after the craziness began, and they were great and helping me to reframe things more appropriately. Universe Today was really careful to get things right, too, as was NBC Mach.
For the record, the premise of my paper is the fact that we have no evidence for any prior technological species in the Solar System. My paper asks, is this a dispositive null result? That is, has our paleontology on Earth and mapping of the larger Solar System bodies basically proven that we are the first such species around? After all, the idea that we are not is very old (read the paper—the earliest citation I got from folks contributing to my Twitter research was 1900 years ago!). This was actually an area of active discussion in astronomy until the advent of robotic exploration showed no canals on Mars, no ruins of cities on Venus.
But is it too soon to rule out the possibility entirely? I thought the idea needed to be formalized, to have a name, because it seemed to me the literature had forgotten about it prematurely. Papers on searches for alien artifacts in the Solar System always seem to implicitly assume such artifacts would have come from an interstellar species—but if Venus was ever inhabited, couldn’t its inhabitants have something to find?
So, I ask, what’s left? Ancient things are hard to find, because planetary surfaces erode and subduct things away. We have a pretty good understanding of life on Earth, and the window between “so old we wouldn’t know about it” and “so recent we couldn’t have missed it” might be very narrow. But is it really closed?
I don’t know, but it seems like the kind of question we have the ability to answer today. Someone should answer it! How long would free-floating artifacts in the Solar System last? How far beneath the surface of Mars would technology have to be to survive billions of years? And how deep can we probe with radar? How long ago could Mars have been inhabited? Venus How wide is the window between technology we could never discover because it has been too long, and technology we know isn’t there because we’ve checked?
That’s the conversation I wanted to have. That’s why I wrote a paper on Prior Indigenous Technological Species: not because I think they exist, but because we’re at the point where it should be possible to say for sure that certain types of them didn’t. The end of the paper is all about the things we can do to start drawing some conclusions.
And that’s a neat SETI (SPITS?) project someone should undertake.
At least I think it’s neat. Your mileage may vary. In that vein, let me use this as an opportunity to address a weird misconception that the SETI grumps in astronomy have. Apparently, the only reason to do artifact SETI (or even mention it in a paper on another topic) is to get attention. Seriously, I’ve had good astronomers I respect make this claim and defend it when challenged. It’s a real attitude out there.
Well, the truth is exactly the opposite. When trying to do artifact SETI, I have inevitably caught all the wrong kind of attention from the yellow press and the ufologists.
And it is mortifying.
So why do I carry on? Certainly not for the attention. I carry on because it’s interesting, and because lots of other colleagues I respect tell me they find it fascinating and worth working on.
Now, I’m not claiming to be some sort of martyr for the cause, here. My point is that it’s a problem worth working on despite the attention, not because of it, and so the SETI grumps that think otherwise should seriously reconsider their assessment of the motives of SETI researchers.
Now excuse me while I answer all these emails from Coast to Coast and ufologists sending me pictures of clouds.