The Spectacle Blog

Are We Alone in the Universe?

By on 5.21.14 | 6:01PM

The recent findings of NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler telescope have revealed that there may be 400 billion stars in our single galaxy, and at least 70 percent of them have planets. One in every five stars may have planets that have the capacity to be “Goldilocks planets” of a suitable temperature and distance away from their suns to foster microbial life. And there are 150 billion other galaxies to search. 

A variation of Murphy’s law—“whatever can happen will happen”—suggests that we are not alone. It would be a statistical oddity, one could say a “space oddity.”

“Finding life would be the most important discovery in human history,” said Congressman Lamar Smith in today’s hearing of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

Smith is referring to microbial or intelligent life in the universe, the subject of astrobiology and a project of the privately funded SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute. Senior astronomer Dr. Seth Shostak and SETI Director Dan Werthimer, who was boasting a midnight colored tie covered in stars and planets, testified at the hearing.

“The history of astronomy has taught us that every time we thought we were special, we were not,” Shostak explained. He acknowledged that SETI, given its close association with UFO sightings, is often characterized by a certain giggle factor. “It’s exploration,” Shostak argued. “It has salubrious consequences. We can calibrate our position in the biological and intellectual universe.”

One of SETI’s most successful projects utilizes the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, a telescope most famously used as the filming location for a fight scene in the 1995 James Bond movie GoldenEye. According to legend, 10 billion bowls of corn flakes can fit inside the telescope. 

Modern telescopes have picked up information about a planet made entirely of diamonds, as well as pulsed signals lasting only a few milliseconds and fast radio bursts. Scientists have hypothesized that these signals are from colliding stars. Others point to extraterrestrial sources. The goal of SETI is to eavesdrop on signals deliberately or unintentionally leaked off of somebody else’s world.

Earth has been sending such signals for decades thanks to broadcasts of television shows like I Love Lucy and The Simpsons. In 2008, NASA transmitted the Beatles song “Across the Universe” into deep space aimed at the North Star 431 light years away. Signals from airport towers reportedly bounce around the cosmos as well.

When a SETI project picks up a signal, is able to discount a new astronomical phenomenon, and corroborate and triangulate its source as non-natural, then we can make assumptions about extraterrestrial life. It will be like tuning into a radio station we do not understand. Given the length of time it takes for signals to travel, we will likely be listening to a hyper-advanced society. Statistically, it is unlikely the life forms will be within 1,000 or even 10,000 years of our own advancement as a species. Shostak points out that by this same analysis it is also likely that such a species has already detected us.

While cosmic eavesdropping does seem like a good idea, what if we don’t like what we find? And more importantly, what if ET doesn’t like the Beatles and decides to take revenge?

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