Part 2 - Aliens: Scientists Search for Extraterrestrial Life
© 2017 by Linda Moulton Howe
“It's almost at the point where there's a race to see where
we will discover life elsewhere first, which is incredible!”
- Jim Al-Khalili, Ph.D., Prof. of Theoretical Physics,
Univ. of Surrey, Guildford, U. K.
Other worlds illustration by 7kfnn.
Return to Part 1.
May 26, 2017 Guildford, England - Prof. Al-Khalili thinks that when the James Webb telescope is launched in October 2018 that it will be a game changer on what we can see and learn about exoplanets having water, elements and temperatures conducive to life as we know it. He also thinks it is inevitable that intelligent machines that we produce in robots, androids and cyborgs will at some point be as smart or smarter than humans. Then the question will be: can humans remain in control of the artificial intelligence creatures they make?
Jim Al-Khalili, 55, Ph.D., Prof. of Theoretical
Physics and Chair, Public Engagement in Science,
University of Surrey, Guildford, Surrey, U. K.,
and author of Black Holes, Wormholes and
Time Machines © 1999; Paradox: The Nine
Greatest Enigmas in Science © 2012; and
co-author Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age
of Quantum Biology © 2014. Prof. Al-Khalili
also hosted in 2017 "Gravity and Me: The Force
That Shapes Our Lives" on BBC; and in 2016 for
the BBC he hosted "The Beginning and End of the Universe."
Jim Al-Khalili, Ph.D., 45, Prof. of Theoretical Physics, University of Surrey, Guildford, England: “I WAS VERY INTERESTED TO LEARN THAT YOU HAVE COSMOLOGIST MARTIN REES IN THIS NEW BOOK, ALIENS. HE IS THINKING ABOUT THE POSSIBILITY OF HUMANS MERGING WITH MACHINE INTELLIGENCE AND BECOMING CYBORGS AND SETTING OUT TO EXPLORE THE UNIVERSE AS A NEW SPECIES OF PART MACHINE, PART ORGANIC CYBORG. WHAT IS YOUR PERSPECTIVE ON WHAT MARTIN REES HAS TOLD YOU IN THIS NEW BOOK?
I think it's very likely, as he says, that as we advance and we develop AI, and we develop robotics, it's almost inevitable that machines are going to become as clever, if not cleverer, than us at some point, the singularity, as it's known. But provided humans can remain in control, it would make a lot of sense if we are to explore space to send machines, robots, cyborgs, artificial intelligence, out to do the job for us. After all, we are made of rather sensitive biological material that wouldn't survive the rigors of space, whether it's radiation, whether it's the length of the journey. So it makes much more sense for us to send robots. But then of course, the reverse is true. If there's an alien civilization out there that's advance enough to travel the galaxy, why would they risk traveling themselves? Why would they not send their cyborgs and their robots to visit us?
WHAT HAPPENS IF WE CREATE CYBORGS AND HUMANS LOSE ALL CONTROL OF THEM?
I think that's something that scientists and technologists do have to think carefully about. And they're beginning to. For me, I see no reason why we couldn't develop machine intelligence that could one day become as intelligent or more so than us and be sentient and be self-aware—what's known as strong artificial intelligence. But I think the reason why we're not thinking about this carefully at the moment is because for most people working in this field, they see it as being decades away in the future, and we have more immediate artificial intelligence issues and ethical problems to deal with. For example, drones and autonomous drone strikes that will make decisions on whether to drop a bomb somewhere without any human intervention. We have to be very careful that we don't allow machines too much control even now. Even things like driverless cars, we're going to have to decide on how do you program a driverless car to decide whether to save the life of its passenger and in doing so swerving and knocking down and killing a pedestrian. We have to build in these ethical and moral issues into robotics.
THAT KIND OF TECHNOLOGY COULD BE WHAT HAS BEEN INTERACTING WITH PLANET EARTH FOR THE LAST, LET'S SAY, THOUSAND, 2,000, 5,000 YEARS.
It could have been. But this sort of discovery would be so huge that if we think today how bad politicians are in avoiding leaks that they would not want to have leaked out, one wonders whether something as important as an alien visiting us could ever be kept secret for very long in this day and age.
WELL, I HAVE BEEN DOING SCIENCE REPORTING FOR A LONG TIME, AND I'VE HAD SEVERAL WHISTLEBLOWERS COME TO ME WITH FRUSTRATION AND ANGER ABOUT THE FACT THAT THEY HAVE FIRSTHAND KNOWLEDGE THAT EXTRATERRESTRIAL BIOLOGICAL ENTITIES ARE INTERACTING WITH EARTH NOW AND HAVE IN THE PAST. AND THEY FEEL THAT THE ENTIRE HUMAN RACE DESERVES TO KNOW.
Well, having knowledge is not the same as having definitive evidence. I'm certainly not part of any government conspiracy. I would love for there to be confirmation, but as a hardnosed scientist, I would expect someone to give me evidence that would persuade me.
Infinite Dimensions and Universes?
Our universe may live in one bubble that is sitting in a network of bubble universes in space.
Illustration © Sandy MacKenzie, Shutterstock.
WE MIGHT BE IN A COSMOS WITH A CAPITAL C IN WHICH VARIOUS DIMENSIONS COULD BE NESTED WITHIN EACH OTHER, AND THAT OUR UNIVERSE COULD BE A UNIVERSE IN A DIMENSION NESTLED IN OTHER DIMENSIONS ABOVE AND BELOW US.
Yes. The way I think about it is that our space could be like a page in a book. We are constrained to the words on that page. We are constrained to moving on that page. Other parallel universes are other pages in the book. But you cannot imagine a word jumping from one page to another. And so it's difficult to make contact with those other universes. But that's according to the science we know today.
It may well be that in a hundred years from now, we will have a better understanding of the nature of so-called wormholes that may link universes. We may have a theory of quantum gravity that not only explains dark energy, but explains how the Big Bang happened, and whether our universe is linked to other universes. So I think all of these issues are still up for grabs. At the moment, we're still at a stage where we don't know which mathematical theory is correct. We have things that we can't explain, and we're trying to find ways of testing our theories and designing experiments to do that. It's an exciting time we live in.
Other Life On Other Exoplanets -
What Will the New James Webb Telescope Find?
Artist's impression of the exoplanet Proxima Centauri b shown as of a dry rocky
Earth-like planet that orbits a red dwarf sun, Proxima Centauri. The other two Alpha
Centauri binary stars in the 3-star and exoplanet system are the small twin white dots
near the Proxima Centauri sun. Illustration by European Southern Observatory (ESO).
IT REALLY IS. IT'S REVOLUTIONARY. NOW, OF THE SCIENTISTS THAT YOU INTERVIEWED, WHO ELSE DO YOU THINK PROVOKED YOU THE MOST ABOUT THIS WHOLE QUESTION OF EXTRATERRESTRIAL LIFE IN OUR UNIVERSE?
Well, what I think I find the most fascinating are the astrobiologists looking at exoplanets. Sara Seager at MIT, who has developed the updated version of the Drake Equation, the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere, and other astrobiologists who are looking now at the possibility that the new James Webb Telescope, which is the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, will be able to see not only extrasolar planets going around their star systems, but possibly detecting whether or not they have an atmosphere.
The James Webb Telescope will not actually orbit the Earth. Instead it will sit at the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrange point (far right red), 1.5 million km away! Because Hubble is in Earth orbit, it was able
to be launched into space by the space shuttle. Webb will be launched on an Ariane 5 rocket
in October 2018, and because it won't be in Earth orbit, it is not designed to be
serviced by the space shuttle. Image by NASA.
What's wonderful and really thought-provoking for me is that you can study the chemistry of their atmosphere just by studying the nature of the light from the star when the planet moves in front of the star and blocks part of the star's light. Not only does the light get dimmer because some of it's being blocked, but if some of that light skims through the atmosphere of the planet on its way to us, it'll carry within it the signature of what chemistry is going on in their atmosphere, and that might tell us whether there's photosynthesis taking place, whether there's life-producing oxygen in the atmosphere, organic molecules. So we may not yet see life directly, but we might see the really persuasive evidence that life does exist just by looking at the chemistry of the atmosphere.
IS IT TRUE THAT IF THE JAMES WEBB TELESCOPE GETS LAUNCHED IN OCTOBER 2018 AND EVERYTHING IS WORKING THAT IT WOULD BE ABLE TO AIM FOUR LIGHT YEARS AWAY AT ALPHA CENTAURI AND SEE PLANETS?
What it will be able to do is analyze the light from the star much, much more precisely. Even now, we're learning about whether planets are Earthlike, you know, what their mass is, what their orbit is, simply by seeing how long it takes them to transit in front of their star. That tells us their orbital speed, which tells us their mass. The James Webb Telescope is going to be able to do a lot of that, but I'm not sure it will ever be able to detect directly a planet and look at a planet and give us an image of the planet itself.
DO YOU THINK THAT THE LAUNCH OF THE JAMES WEBB TELESCOPE COULD BE THE DEFINITIVE NEXT INSTRUMENT THAT WILL CONFIRM LIFE CONDITIONS IN OTHER SOLAR SYSTEMS?
I think so, yes. Absolutely. I think the only thing that would steal the headlines from it is if one our missions either to Mars or the gas giants discovers some form of life within our solar system. That will then become the headline, and because it's much closer to home, many would regard it as an even bigger discovery. It's almost at the point where there's a race to see where we will discover life elsewhere first, which is incredible.
50/50 Odds We'll Find Other Life
in Universe by Fall 2019
WHAT WOULD YOU PUT THE ODDS THAT BY THE FALL OF 2019 WE WILL HAVE THE WORLD HEADLINES, "WE ARE NOT ALONE IN THIS UNIVERSE?"
Wow. Now you're putting me on the spot. I think I would say 50/50. That's far more optimistic than I would have ever thought I would say just a few years ago. We still don't know how hard it is for life to form. We still don't understand how life first began on Earth, how chemistry became biology. But given that, I think we are getting much, much closer to understanding many of these questions. I would say the odds are even in a year or two from now that we will have discovered life elsewhere. And that will be pretty big stuff.
IT'S EXCITING, AND IS THERE SOMETHING GUARANTEED THAT IF THE WEBB TELESCOPE SEES WATER IN AN ATMOSPHERE AND SEES SPECIFIC ELEMENTS, THAT WE WOULD KNOW THAT IT'S LIFE? IS THERE A TWO PLUS TWO EQUALS FOUR EQUATION THAT THE WEBB WILL BE LOOKING FOR?
I think so. I think there are several indicators. Certain isotopes of carbon only formed by life or oxygen. But actually, for me I think the really exciting thing is whether we can see evidence of photosynthesis. Now, we know all plants and certain bacteria use photosynthesis here on Earth to convert sunlight into chemical energy to grow, to create biomass.
We have no reason to think that this is unique to Earth. And there is a way of detecting the signature of photosynthesis on an exoplanet. If we see in the atmosphere more absorption of certain wavelengths of light than others, because we know the reason why the leaf of a plant is green is because it is reflecting green light and absorbing red light. So if there is a change in frequency of light that we see from the star as it skims through the planet's atmosphere, it might tell us that something in that atmosphere is carrying out photosynthesis. I think that will be a really good, persuasive argument that there's some form of life on that planet.
IF WE DO DISCOVER OTHER PLANETS WITH SIGNATURES OF LIFE, WHAT WOULD YOUR THOUGHTS BE ABOUT OTHER BEINGS IN THE COSMOS THAT ARE INTELLIGENT AND WAY BEYOND US?
It could be. There are trillions of planets. If most stars have planetary systems, if some stars even have many more planets than our sun does, then there could be so many places that there's life, and yet, they're so far that maybe aliens have just not got round to visiting us yet. We've only been broadcasting our existence to the world for the last hundred years as our electromagnetic signals have seeped out into space. So we've only announced our existence to a radius of a hundred light years. Now, that's nothing. That's a tiny, tiny little dot within our neighborhood of the Milky Way Galaxy.”
Return to Part 1.
• 01/05/2017 - “Fast Radio Bursts” of Intense Radiation from Galaxy Far, Far Away”
• 01/27/17 - “Are Color-Modulated Rapid Pulses from 234 Stars E.T. Signals?”
• 04/05/2016 - “Interstellar Travel with Laser Light Propulsion”
• 10/28/15 - “Strangest Star Light Pattern in Milky Way Galaxy — Are There Megastructures Orbiting KIC 8462852?”
• 04/22/2006 — Cassiopeia A Is Not Dying Peacefully. Is It A Rare Magnetar?
• 03/03/2005 — What Made Five Strong Radio Bursts At the Center of Our Galaxy?
For further information about search for life in this universe, please see reports in the Earthfiles Archive organized in chronological order from 1999 to 2017 ongoing of which a few are listed here.
• 01/05/2017 — “Fast Radio Bursts” of Intense Radiation from Galaxy Far, Far Away
• 07/26/2013 — Unidentified Cosmic Radio Bursts Baffle Astronomers.
• 04/05/2016 — Interstellar Travel with Laser Light Propulsion
• 10/22/2016 — Is Our Sun's Mysterious 6-Degree Tilt Linked to A Huge 9th Planet?
• 09/30/2016 — Part 1: Searching for Other Life and Dark Matter in This Universe
• 09/30/2016 — Part 2: Self-Activating Intelligence of Dragonfly and James Webb Telescopes
• 01/29/2016 — Gravitational Evidence of 9th Planet 10 Times the Mass of Earth!
• 06/27/2015 — Is Time An Illusion and the Future Already Written, As Einstein Thought?
• 07/26/2013 — Unidentified Cosmic Radio Bursts Baffle Astronomers.
Project Breakthrough Starshot: http://spaceref.com/interstellar/announcing-breakthrough-starshot-building-earths-first-starships.html
"Scientists Are At A Loss to Explain This Mysterious Cosmic Radio Signal," May 11, 2017, Science Alert: http://www.sciencealert.com/scientists-are-at-a-complete-loss-to-explain-this-mysterious-cosmic-radio-signal
"Could Fast Radio Bursts Be Powering Alien Probes?" March 9, 2017, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics: https://www.cfa.harvard.edu/news/2017-09
"Harvard Theorists: How Sailing Aliens Could Have Caused Fast Radio Bursts," March 10, 2017, The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/03/10/delightful-thought-experiment-sailing-aliens-caused-furious-and-fast-radio-bursts/?utm_term=.264e71bbc214
"Mysterious Cosmic Radio Blasts Traced to Surprising Source," Nature Int'l. Weekly Journal of Science, January 4, 2017: http://www.nature.com/news/mysterious-cosmic-radio-blasts-traced-to-surprising-source-1.21235
Cornell University "Cosmic Source Found for Mysterious 'Fast Radio Burst'," January 4, 2017: http://mediarelations.cornell.edu/2017/01/04/cosmic-source-found-for-mysterious-fast-radio-burst/
"Mysterious Radio Burst Came from A Galaxy 2.5 Billion Light-Years Away, Astronomers Discover," January 4, 2017, The Washington Post:
Project BREAKTHROUGH Starshot: https://breakthroughinitiatives.org/Initiative/3
Alpha Centauri and Proxima Centauri: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alpha_Centauri