Spooky Soundlessness

The Eerie Silence by Paul Davies (2010) is a popular science book which “explores the possibilities of intelligent extraterrestrial life, and its potential consequences” (Wikipedia).

The reading we were provided included the end of Chapter 6 “Evidence for a Galactic Diaspora” and the beginning of Chapter 7 “Alien Magic”.

At the end of chapter 6, Davies focuses on how ETI may be responsible for the lack of certain high-energy objects that have been predicted by theoretical physicists but have remained elusive. Most grand unified theories (models where the electromagnetic, strong and weak forces can merge at extremely high temperatures) require a magnetic monopole. These particles would have extremely high mass energies, so maybe ETI is scooping all of them up and annihilating them whenever it needs more energy. Don’t know what to do with that possibility, but I guess it could be true.

At the beginning of chapter 7, Davies talks about alien technology. It is possible that alien technology will be just that, alien. We may not be able to distinguish what it does or even that it is technology at all. Becuase of this, Davies wants technology to be known as “nature-plus”. Technology does now break the laws of nature, it simply arranges pieces of it together in a way to harness these laws to do a useful function (like break rocks, or in the case of art, inspire/express emotion). He suggests that we should avoid our own human biases in trying to think of what ETI may want/is capable of. That being said, the known laws of physics should be used as a basis, because without them, there is only speculation as to what ETI can do, which would be both endless and pointless.

That is a good point to keep in mind I think. It is hard to work in a field where you have only a limited idea of the capabilities and desires of what you are searching for (there might be a connection here to USA/USSR trying to figure each other out during the cold war, but even then they had a lot more information on each other than we have on ETI), but it is still important to not lose sight of reality. We may not like that we only know what we know now, but we just have to live with it and do the best we can. That’s all we can (and should) do.

How to halfway hide a planet (or make it obvious instead)

In Kipping & Teachey (2016), the possibility of using lasers to modify one’s planetary signature from a transiting exoplanet experiment is discussed.

Advanced civilizations may have several reasons for which they might want to modify their planetary signal. You can use lasers to make your transit either more or less remarkable, but it depends on the type of survey you are trying to adapt to. For broadband surveys like Kepler, it can be a lot easier. If you somehow knew the frequency band of the survey you were trying to hide from, you could use a monochromatic laser near the peak efficiency to effectively modify your planet’s signature. For example, we could hide Earth from a Kepler-like mission with ~30 MW of peak power for ~10 hours a year (the duration of our transit). It gets harder to completely hide a planet for missions that take spectra, as you need many lasers (at least a comparable amount to the number of frequency bins the survey uses) and they need to produce the entire spectrum of energy instead of focussing on the most efficient detector energy (which you probably wouldn’t know anyway). For the Earth, this would require ~250 MW of peak power. I don’t really see the point of doing this when the civilization would still probably find you based on RV data or orbital analyses of the rest of the planets in the system.

Something more interesting you can do is to just mask the atmosphere or even just the biosignatures so that Earth looks barren and uninteresting. This would take considerably less power (~1 MW for the atmosphere, or ~160 kW to mask a couple emission lines).

You could also use about 1/100th of the energy of any of these methods to modify only the begging and end of the transit to create an otherwise impossible transit shape. In this way, you could quite effectively broadcast the fact that there is life on your planet. I find it more likely that ETI would use lasers for this purpose than as a glorified invisibility cloak.

LASERS!!1!

 

The Gangrenous Limb of Science: Hard Science Fiction

***It should be stated the author is not a fan of science fiction in general. But there is nothing inherently wrong with the genre until scientists begin to use fiction to address scientific problems***

Is it fiction, science, or an unholy amalgam of both? That is the question this blogger tried to address when reading “Gravity’s whispers”. Gregory Benford is both an astrophysicist and a writer of hard science fiction. Hard science fiction attempts to lead the reader to a fictitious world with an emphasis on scientific accuracy. On his Amazon page, it states:

Often called hard science fiction, Benford’s stories take physics into inspired realms. What would happen if cryonics worked and people, frozen, were awoken 50 years in the future? What might we encounter in other dimensions? How about sending messages across time? And finding aliens in our midst? The questions that physics and scientists ask, Benford’s imagination explores. With the re-release of some of his earlier works and the new release of current stories and novels, Benford takes the lead in creating science fiction that intrigues and amuses us while also pushing us to think.

This piece hardly makes one think about the science and more about the literary elements forgotten in science fiction. The story begins with a date and a quote popularized by Voltaire: perfection is the enemy of good. It should be noted this piece is neither. An unnamed scientist (this is left unclear, for all we know it could be part of the janitorial staff at the VLA) has tried to decipher a signal received from their date, Sam the Slow. The mysterious protagonist purportedly spent a day trying to decipher a noisy pattern. Their work paid off and revealed “a string of numbers, […] the zeroes of the Riemann zeta function”. Some exposition later, the reader learns Sam is a scientist working on LIGO and this first gravitational wave detection, thought to be a neutron star crust vibration, actual contains a message. Real talk follows:

‘What? A tunable gravitational wave with a signal? That’s im—’ ‘—possible, I know. Unless you can sling around neutron stars and make them sing in code’

The progenitors of the signal even provide a proof for one of the unsolved problems in mathematics. There is talk of a Nobel prize and relief in that humanity cannot answer the SETI signal.

There were various moments of drivel, notably in the discussion of romance between both parties. It neither adds to the plot nor to the purported science. What should have been discussed more was the signal processing. To this blogger, the mysterious protagonists might as well be ETI. They were somehow able to decipher a gravitational wave chirp to reveal a solution to a Millennium Prize Problem. These individuals will apparently win a Nobel for the detection of SETI and a Millennium Prize. Sam notes “the rest of them”, presumably scientists, would laugh at this assertion and this serves to emphasize the delicate nature of the topic.

The actual content of the message should not be too important as it could have been random prime numbers, albeit the discussion of the Riemann hypothesis gives ETI high intelligence. Greater scientific accuracy could have been invoked by using eLISA instead of LIGO and positioning the scientsits somewhere other than the VLA. This particular piece was neither amusing nor particularly thought provoking. The only moment of connection between the reader and scientists would have been at the end (not because the story completed…) with the relief that humanity cannot contact this extremely intelligent form of life. This blogger thinks writings such as this are dubious at best. It is the height of folly to presume scientific accuracy on completely fictitious topics, and melding the two somehow gives disappointment a tangible form.

Is Love Really Stronger Than Gravity?

In fictional story Gravity’s Whispers by Gregory Benford, we follow a nameless data analyzing protagonist (whom I shall call Alex) and a romantically apathetic LIGO scientist named Sam during the discovery of the unambiguous SETI signal.

This story is an example of the science fiction background that has heavily influenced SETI thought. This piece can be seen as using the medium of fiction to communicate new SETI ideas, and is one of the few pieces of common literature with the suggestion of SETI messaging via gravitational waves. While incredibly difficult, gravitational waves could be one of the best ways to send a SETI beacon over the largest distances because the amplitude of gravitational wave signals only decreases as a function of 1/r instead of 1/r^2 like most other methods.

In summary: Sam gives Alex a noisy signal which they decode and find a prominent mathematical sum (the Riemman Sum) and a highly sought after mathematical proof (to the Riemann Hypothesis). On the way to the bar for beers, Alex kisses Sam and he remarks that maybe its a good thing we can’t communicate back to this ETI.

The story was a bit confusing to me. It is hard for short stories to pull the reader into the characters and make them investing, but I feel like the whole romance angle wasn’t well put together. It honestly gave off a creepy vibe for me. Alex has been interested in Sam for a long time, but it has so far been unrequited interest up until this point.

“I wondered whether Sam the Slow had finally decided to make a date with me, in his odd way. I’d been waiting half a year.”

“‘I gave him a smile he didn’t notice'”

The picture of pining, unrequited lover. Even after they discuss the absolutely world-changing signal, Alex’s comment is

“Maybe, just maybe, this could be more important than at last getting Sam to date me.”

Then, they proceed to kiss Sam without solicitation in a car ride where it is “a long drive back to Socorro”. While there is a line where “He kissed back, his eyes flickered, he grinned”, that is the only indication that this type of behavior was okay. It seems like a strange time to make a move on a collaborator and longtime friend (when they are trapped in a car and coming off such a big discovery). The quote continues “but he didn’t look happy. He grasped the steering wheel and peered ahead into the starlit darkness.” Alex believes he is thinking about the aliens, and the author suggests this as well, but the whole romantic interplay throughout the story felt unnecessary and seems to encourage harassment-y behavior.

Anthropomorphic Bacteria? Ohno

The article “The Beautiful Intelligence of Bacteria and Other Microbes” in Quanta Magazine, by John Rennie and Lucy Reading-Ikkanda, is not your typical SETI paper. But maybe studying the behaviour of these “simple” creatures could give us insights about intelligence and anthropocentrism.

The entire point of the article is to explain how some single-celled organisms, individually some of the simplest forms of life, can congregate in biofilms and slime molds that collectively “solv[e] problems and contro[l] their environment” in a form of “cellular intelligence”.

The article is full of beautiful time-lapse photography from the lab of Harvard’s Roberto Kolter. Most SETI papers don’t have such stunning visuals – the “traditional” astrobiologists have us beat there.

Isn’t this expanding bio-film COOL?!

Examples of “cellular intelligence” given in the article include mapping terrain, forming complex wrinkled structures to allow all of the individual cells to have access to oxygen (see the .gif above), the differentiation of edge cells to allow “dendritic swarming” (a means of rapid colonization), and self-recognition / elimination of other strains and species near it. This was surprising to me, as it seems somewhat crazy to me that a ton of single-celled organisms have the capability to organize and accomplish such complex tasks. The analogy to artificial intelligence is made in the article, and that’s the best way that I’ve found to think about it: a lot of simple, single lines of code can form something that executes complex and surprising behaviour (ex. neural networks), so it seems reasonable that biology can do the same thing.

The thing that struck me the most, however, was the description of the way that biofilms repel “freeloaders”, discriminate against adjacent colonies that are too genetically divergent, and even stab nearby intruders with the bacterial equivalent of poisoned spears. The article calls the strategy “kin discrimination”. To me, this feels uncomfortably close to some of the less generous aspects of human nature.

And if mats of single-celled organisms, some of the simplest and most primitive life forms on Earth, show these particular characteristics, why should we be surprised if extraterrestrial single-celled organisms show the same characteristics? These same single-celled organisms might share a last common ancestor with the intelligent alien life that we’re looking for with SETI.

Life itself, thorny definitional questions aside, reproduces and metabolizes. And if something is preventing one of those two things, life needs to defend against that, or die. That brutalism, driven by practicality, might not be some base nature of humanity, but a base nature of life itself at the level of single-celled organisms.

Philosophical ramblings aside, the implications for SETI, to me, are pretty clear: should we be surprised if alien life is tribalistic, hostile, territorial, species-ist, and/or altogether terrible? It’s not like humanity, the only intelligent life we know of, has managed to overcome these tendencies yet.

Something to think on, at the very least.

The Dangers of Sensationalism

I am very critical of yellow journalism, especially when it comes to the topic of the burgeoning search for extraterrestrial intelligence. It seems that in order to draw more traffic to their domains, journalists are often incentivized to throw in more buzzwords or sensational misrepresentations of the primary message of their interviewees. In this department, Andersen’s article in The Atlantic fares moderately well in that he does not go headlong into sensation (though he does participate to some degree, as we shall see). The article provides decent exposition on the astronomical techniques used in the detection of exoplanets and an account of the events regarding Tabby’s star as they unfolded. My primary qualm with the presentation was that they emboldened and enlarged a paraphrase of a quote from Prof. Jason Wright, which seemed to distract from his main message (My secondary qualm is that in their last sentence they suggeste that Tabby’s star might see Earth transit, but the declination of Kepler field stars places them well beyond the range of the Earth transit zone). In the paragraph text, he says: “Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider.” This is what most certainly, if any, should have been emboldened and enlarged. Instead they chose: “… it looked like [something] you might expect an alien civilization to build.” To the lay person who might only read the article in brief and without skeptically-trained eyes, they may come across this latter phrase and then go on to tell all their friends and family a false truth regarding Tabby’s Star due to this choice of emphasis. This is obviously dangerous to the representation of SETI and astronomy in general, and may tarnish the reputation of the field and the authors consulted. I would strongly admonish any deviation from a purely accurate representation of the ideas and phrases of a scientist, especially so in this area. Therefore, it is the role of the scientist to effectively explain the subtlety of their position to the journalist and the role of the journalist to reflect such a position with fidelity in the popular article.

Humanity’s Problem Child: The Internet

Before we dissect the recent craze over aliens in the news, it is important to understand there exist strange phenomena that have not been properly explained. Such events require scrutiny and the application of the scientific method to validate. Lee Billings recently published an article in Scientific American discussing sensational events in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) and serves to caution the reader about spurious conclusions with specious data. In the article, Billings has a few sentences that capture the sentiments of this blogger:

Far from being close-minded killjoys, most scientists in the “never aliens” camp desperately want to be convinced otherwise. Their default skeptical stance is a prophylactic against the wiles of wishful thinking, a dare to true believers to provide extraordinary evidence in support of extraordinary claims. What is really extraordinary, the skeptics say, is not so much the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence but rather the notion that its existence nearby or visitation of Earth could be something easily unnoticed or overlooked. If aliens are out there—or even right here—in abundance, particularly ones wildly advanced beyond our state, why would incontrovertible proof of that reality be so annoyingly elusive?

This is especially true in the age of social media where it is easy to scour the underbelly of the internet for a place to validate any claim. For proponents of SETI, who wish to see this field fully embraced by science, any publications and announcements must be well managed. The first topic Billings discusses is KIC 8462852, the star at the center of an “alien megastructure” theory the media latched onto (see Movie 1). The scientists involved began a successful Kickstarter project to raise funds for observations which ultimately revealed the dips most likely due to clouds of submicron-scale dust. This star was first published in 2015 and the possibility of alien megastructures, inadvertently attributed to Jason Wright, was allowed to gain much traction despite its low probability. Wright states that the unwanted sensationalism lured astronomers to study this object “precisely because all the ‘aliens’ talk annoyed them, and they wanted to find a natural explanation”. The second example was of ‘Oumuamua, which was speculated to be a spaceship but later confirmed to be the first detected interstellar asteroid. Billings uses these to show that the media coverage, while perhaps hysterical, was able to mitigate much damage to SETI due to careful guiding of the narrative by the astronomy community.

Movie 1. Alien Megastructures (KIC 8462852)
Nat Geo describes the various scenarios for alien megastructures that have been considered for Tabby’s star.
Movie 2. The Truth Twitch of Conspiracies
Roger is hosting Conspiracy Con for those individuals who want the “truth”. Unfortunately, in the real world conspiracy conventions exist and people believe the government is intentionally hiding information about alien life.

Billings then dives into the lion’s den – unidentified flying objects (UFOs). Conspiracy theories regarding UFOs are rampant and even make cameos on shows (see Movie 2). In fact, conspiracies themselves have long since gained traction on the internet because of the wealth of data on the web itself allows people to draw links between anything (see Movie 3). This particular story was recently published by the New York Times (the Times), a reputable newspaper, and infused ufology with unneeded attention. The Times discussed a formerly classified program run by the Department of Defense to study reports from the armed services about encounters with UFOs. The program was officially canceled in 2012 and included videos of separate UFO encounters (see Movie 4). This article generated over one thousand comments ranging from support to criticism (one scoffed at money going into looking at UFOs but little to no money going into climate change). Perhaps the most pernicious things are the following points a general reader may take from the article, as pointed out by Scientific American:

  1. many high-ranking people in the federal government believe aliens have visited planet Earth;
  2. military pilots have recorded videos of UFOs with capabilities that seem to outstrip all known human aircraft, changing direction and accelerating in ways no fighter jet or helicopter could ever accomplish; and
  3. in a group of buildings in Las Vegas, the government stockpiles alloys and other materials believed to be associated with UFOs.
Movie 3. The Double-Edge of the Internet
The Internet can fuel paranoid thinking. In this video, example include 9/11, lizard people, and aliens. It can be dangerous for science to let conspiracies gain and hold traction, such as in the Times article about UFOs.
Movie 4. The Pentagon and UFOs
Above is a video the Times released in its article showing the purported UFOs. These objects, while unexplained, should not readily be attributed to aliens. They, like all UFOs, must be analyzed from a scientific perspective. The videos from the Times have served to foment more conspiracy theories.

This is pouring lighter fluid on conspiracy theories. To a layperson, this may seem as concrete evidence UFOs exist. The government has spent millions to search this phenomenon and has been secretive in releasing information, only fomenting ideas that the government knows “the truth” but is hiding it. The release was so sensational it wormed its way to the OVNI section on Univision and other reputable news sources. The rate at which this spread caused immediate backlash with some trying to make sense of the information and to mitigate conspiracies. Billings himself argues one should be careful with these extraordinary claims showing a dearth of high-quality evidence. Aliens and UFOs should never be the first conclusion to unexplained phenomena until all other natural phenomena can be thoroughly excluded. A quote from Bruce Macintosh makes a great point on UFOs:

UFO detections have remained marginal for decades; they’ve just gone from being blurry shapes on film cameras to blurry shapes on the digital infrared sensors of fighter jet gun cameras. This, in spite of the fact that the world’s total imaging capacity has expanded by several orders of magnitude in the past 20 years.

Movie 5. Scientist Fending off Conspiracies
Above is a video from the Washington Post where David Morrison, from the NASA Ames Research Center, strives to debunk the conspiracy theory of Nibiru. Even this blogger was asked questions about this object last year while apartment hunting. The person asking was under the impression I was hiding information. It is important for scientists to publicly fight disinformation!

This blogger agrees that to assume aliens are the answer to UFOs and adamantly cling to that conclusion is not science and warrants intense scrutiny from scientists. Astronomy itself is no stranger to conspiracy theories about many things, such as Armageddon. It is incumbent on scientists, particularly proponents of SETI, to get their narratives out to the public and fend off conspiracies (see Movie 5). This may place a heavy burden on scientists, but it is necessary to fend of disinformation and ridicule that has plagued SETI. While we know UFOs exist, even as chicken coops (see Movie 6), it is important to be able to draw the line between science and fiction that can set back research endeavors.

Movie 6. The Real UFOs
Real UFOs have chickens! Above is a video showing modifications done to a chicken coop to add lights and sounds in the name of sensationalism.

Bacteria, the Bane of SETI

Jason Wright, in a recent post on Scientific American, argues that NASA should fund the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) as part of its astrobiology program. Since 1993, SETI has not been funded by NASA. However, the recent Release of Annual Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences 2018 (ROSES–2018) Omnibus NASA Research Announcement has conflicting remarks regarding SETI research. Under the “Evolution of Advanced Life”, it states “[p]roposals aimed at identification and characterization of signals and/or properties of extrasolar planets that may harbor intelligent life are not solicited at this time” while under “Biosignatures and Life Elsewhere” it states “… research focused on understanding or characterizing nonradio ‘technosignatures’ from extrasolar planets that may harbor intelligent life are included in this area”. NASA itself appears to be unsure about SETI. Wright, in an attempt to bolster why SETI should be considered for funding, remarks:

… there is no a priori reason to believe that biosignatures should be easier to detect than these technosignatures. Indeed, intelligent, spacefaring life might spread throughout the galaxy, and therefore be far more ubiquitous than planets that have only microbes. Life might be much easier to find than the NASA strategy assumes. Indeed, it has been noted cynically, but not untruthfully, that NASA eagerly spends billions of dollars to search for “stupid” life passively waiting to be found, but will spend almost nothing to look for the intelligent life that might, after all, be trying to get our attention. This is especially strange since the discovery of intelligent life would be a much more profound and important scientific discovery than even, say, signs of photosynthesis on the nearest exoplanet to the solar system, Proxima b

In many ways, this simplistic view on life hinders progress for SETI. Only a small number of all microbial species have been described. There are estimates suggesting that more than 1 trillion (1012) species of bacteria, archaea and microscopic fungi exist on Earth, orders of magnitude more than eukaryotes (some have argued these are a few million), particularly any “intelligent life”. There are perhaps orders of magnitude more prokaryotes in space which have yet to be detected. NASA has considered the search for biomarkers as an indirect detection of life and has also considered the impact of bacteria. Furthermore, on Earth we know bacteria (i) predate complex, intelligent life, (ii) played an important role in altering the composition of the atmosphere, and (iii) have left stromatolites and other geochemical features as the oldest record of life on Earth. In short, if we cannot find traces of the most common form of life, a form incapable of masking its signature from us, then how can we expect to find extraterrestrial intelligence?

Rennie and Reading-Ikkanda, in a recent publication on Quanta Magazine, show the complexity of simple prokaryotes and, while not a SETI article, make the case that bacteria are dynamic organisms capable of adapting to their environment. The diversity of these organisms is shown in Figure 1. The authors first mention the discussing the ability of bacterial colonies to synchronize and swarm, much like flocks of birds or schools of fish. Under the microscope, the ability for precise movement is surprising, given the lack of differentiation in the organism (see Movie 1). Bacteria, particularly slime mold, are able to crawl around in search for a nutrient-rich environment with controlled secretion of chemicals to ensure (i) they do not explore a nutrient-deficient region and (ii) they grow asymmetrically. Biofilms, compact societies of bacteria, are able to grow in three dimensions and even on non-solid surfaces. In dense bacterial colonies, there is something analogous to differentiation where bacteria on the inside anchor in place, bacteria at the edges of the biofilm divide for growth, while others in the middle release spores for new colonization.

Figure 1. The Joys of Bacteria
Going counterclockwise from top left: (i) Physarum polycephalum explores an area and leaves behind a chemical trail if the region is nutrient deficient. (ii) Bacteria do not need a solid surface for growth. This B. subtilis culture grows by forming a floating biofilm across the air-liquid interface in a beaker. (iii) Spiral migration is a behavior favored by the soil bacterium Bacillus mycoides. Communities of these cells expand by forming long filaments of cells that coil either clockwise or counterclockwise. (iv) In this powdery colony of Streptomyces coelicolor, the pigmentation comes from actinorhodin, a molecule with antibacterial effects. Biofilms may use bioactive pigments as signals for controlling the behaviors of other microorganisms in their shared environment. Source: Quanta Magazine

Movie 1: Synchronized motility in bacteria. In a colony of E. coli cells, two silicone oil tracers exhibit synchronized loops. Source: Quanta Magazine.

While the bacteria covered in this article require humidity and warm temperatures around 30°C, this is not the requirement for all prokaryotes. In the 1980s and 1990s, scientists began to discover that bacteria were robust organisms, capable of surviving in extreme environments not amenable to most eukaryotes. These so called extremophiles are capable of living in regions that would be otherwise inhospitable to life. Bacterial spores are also fairly robust and it has been theorized that life on other planets in the Solar System could be seeded from extremophiles ejected from Earth or Mars. Table 1 shows a few examples of extremophiles from the NASA Astrobiology Strategy. There is also genetic evidence that the last universal common ancestor is a thermophile (a subset of extremophiles).

The search for life should begin with the most common organisms known to us, bacteria. If scientists can detect extraterrestrial bacteria (e.g. on other bodies in the Solar System), the case for SETI would be much stronger. If bacteria could exist elsewhere, then presumably they could be the precursors of more complex life. This could then be used as a bolster to SETI’s claim – if there exist simple organisms outside of Earth, why should anything prevent “intelligent life” from evolving? As it stands now, SETI’s focus on “intelligent” non-microbial life seems specious at best. The arguments presented by Wright do little to inform the reader why “stupid life” should be more difficult to detect than tenuous technosignatures. SETI itself is not informed by biology or chemistry and it seems unclear to this blogger why it should even be considered astrobiology as opposed to astronomy. Until SETI can motivate why one should search for rare life when the most common form of life appears non-existent elsewhere, it will remain a commensal offshoot to astronomy.

Table 1. Characteristics of known extremophiles on Earth. Source: NASA Astrobiology Strategy

Talk Show Shenanigans with Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Stephen Colbert

In an interesting (and refreshing for my workload) change of pace, we have been assigned a video in addition to the normal literature readings for this week. See below.

In the clip, we see Neil deGrasse Tyson (NDT) and Stephen Colbert (SC) discussing the discovery of Tabby’s Star, a mature star found by Kepler that exhibits non-periodic dips in brightness, some of which are ~20% of the total brightness. The star also appears to be dimming gradually over time. Currently, we are unsure what is causing these phenomena.

Upon first watching of the clip, I was a little disconcerted but was unable to figure out why.

The first thing I noticed was NDT’s comment on the Kepler mission. Kepler was launched “to find Earth-like planets orbiting Sun-like stars”. Sounds good so far. “And there is a catalog of nearly 2000 of them now”. Aaaaand that is misleading as heck. I feel like I can confidently claim that a lot of people would interpret that as “We have found over 2000 Earth-like planets around Sun-like stars” instead of the actual fact that while Kepler was proposed to do one thing, it ended up finding exoplanets of all sorts (with a natural bias towards larger and smaller period planets). While this might be viewed as a nitpick, science communicators like NDT are often criticized heavily for misleading comments and errors in their appearances, and, it could be argued, rightfully so. Scientific communicators are the filters that bring the complicated and nuanced ideas (both new and old) within a field to a significant portion is the public. In this way, they have an incredible influence on the public perception of science. A power that is quite enticing (to me anyway). A good science communicator can drive public interest to a field (or science in general) for decades (eg. Carl Sagan, Bill Nye, Jane Goodall, and Steve Irwin are a few I could think of). It is important that they be correct and precise as often as possible. I understand when they, as fellow humans, make mistakes (I can’t even type a line of this post without having to hit the backspace key), but they have to be very careful because, to many, their word is gospel. They are the experts, after all. If you can’t trust them to get things right, who can you trust? It is hard in that people who become popular end up being asked to comment on broader and broader topics. As smart as they are, no one can be expected to have infallible knowledge of astronomy, physics, biology, climate science, anthropology, and every other topic of scientific inquiry.

The comment that started this whole line of thought could’ve been worse, but it reminded me of this topic.

The second bit that irritated me slightly was how SC makes his joke about how Tabby’s Star is definitely a ringworld (he has a picture!), and interrupts NDT when he tries to respond. While I understand that SC has a job to do and is making a joke (sidenote: I chuckled), I am always uncomfortable watching something like this happening. Just the fact that NDT is there makes it seem like the scientific community as a whole stands by this opinion at some level (“Yeah, I was watching SC last night, and NDT was on and they said we found alien megastructures around a star!” (not trying to create a strawman, but to illustrate a possible outcome)). This type of thing can make the scientific community seem less credible and can impact the subconscious way that people view scientists and research. Now, I haven’t seen the full show this is from so I don’t know if they discuss it later afterward, but at least with this level of context, it is frustrating to see.

I mean, it is also just a 2-minute segment from a late-night comedy show. Nothing in this clip is particularly awful. Nonetheless, it may act as a barometer of current societal trends and give insight to where these trends might take us.

Response to “Seeing the Beautiful Intelligence of Microbes”

I especially enjoyed this reading, because it comes from a vastly different perspective than the majority of the other readings we have done for this course. In particular, it encourages an expanded view of what intelligence and awareness can mean, opposing the common SETI pitfall of an overly-anthropocentric perspective. This paper is not specifically explicitly related to SETI, but contributes a valuable scientific perspective to the broad question of extraterrestrial intelligence.

The authors discuss the collective behavior of individual cell organisms and present a variety of examples where the cells work together in a group (biofilm) in intelligent ways. The cells within a biofilm often differentiate to perform a variety of functions that serve to benefit the collective group. For example, the cells in some biofilms organize themselves in elegant structures so as to maximize oxygen intake and waste release. Other biofilms expand out in spiral or filamentary patterns to explore the surrounding environment for nutrients. These explorations sometimes leave behind a slimey residue, effectively “marking” the path and building a collective memory of areas that are rich in nutrients or areas that should be to avoided.

While this concept of life is very different from what likely first comes to mind as intelligent or aware, there are a number of reasons why such a form of intelligence may flourish. The authors suggest that the betterment of the whole may outweigh the sacrifices of its individual members. Additionally, the differentiation of tasks could allow for individual benefits to go along with the sacrifices. For example, cells on the outer part of a biofilm may have to divide frequently for growth, but may have the best access to oxygen, while cells on the inner part may have to release spores to seed new biofilms, but may enjoy longer lifetimes than their counterparts on the outer reaches.

It is important to keep an open mind about what extraterrestrial intelligence may be like as we conduct our search for its evidence. Making overly strong assumptions about the nature of a supposed extraterrestrial intelligence (in particular, its similarity to us) may lead us to overlook signatures that we are not receptive to finding.