Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Royal Society and the Rising Alien Expectation

"Royal Society meet to discuss if extra-terrestrials are here on Earth"
This headline comes not from a UFO magazine or even the Weekly World News. It comes from the Times of London, probably the most prestigious newspaper in the English-speaking world.

The premise might sound like the film Men in Black, but this week it will consume the great minds of science at a meeting of Britain’s most venerable institution, the Royal Society. Paul Davies, a physicist at Arizona State University, will suggest tomorrow that the search for extra-terrestrial life should be focused right under our noses. His audience will include representatives from Nasa, the European Space Agency and the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs, while Lord Rees, President of the Royal Society and Astronomer Royal, will also lead one of the sessions. 
Addressing the meeting to mark the 50th anniversary of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) programme — a quest that has fallen far short of its objectives — Professor Davies will argue that demonstrating that life has appeared more than once on Earth would be the best evidence yet that it must exist elsewhere in the Universe.
Has SETI really failed, or is it simply a gatekeeper front for a real contact program that doesn't use a ridiculously obsolete technology like radio waves? Why don't they just look for alien smoke signals? 

 Maybe the fact that SETI is so intimate with CSICOP pretty much tells us all we need to know, seeing that the latter organization spends an inordinate amount of its time protecting established belief systems from competition. We have a pretty good inkling from our own networks that not only is radio obsolete, but that the more complex a communications grid becomes, the more difficult it becomes to detect:
Davies' call for alien-hunting scientists to look to their own backyards came as a pioneer in the search for extraterrestrial life in outer space told the conference the job appears to be more difficult than previously thought. 
Frank Drake, who conducted the first organized search for alien radio signals in 1960, said that the Earth — which used to pump out a loud tangle of radio waves, television signals and other radiation — has been steadily getting quieter as its communications technology improves. "Very soon we will become very undetectable," he said. If similar changes are taking place in other technologically advanced societies, then the search for them "will be much more difficult than we imagined."
So, what we do we think of the SETI program now? Becoming undetectable certainly has an evolutionary advantage for an advanced culture. The Telegraph ran the same info under this fascinating headline: Earth becoming invisible to aliens. Which, of course, assumes that aliens exist, a possibility many orthodox (read: 'government') scientists have been dismissing for most of my lifetime. 

 Or maybe it was the usual angry-nerd myopia- anything that can't be put under the microscope does not exist and we will hound you to your grave for saying otherwise. But now we see the reason for all of those expensive telescopes, since no sane person wants to spend all of their time looking a hunks of rock on the other side of the galaxy:
Our chance of finding alien life is greater than ever, says Britain's top astronomer The chance of discovering alien life is greater than ever thanks to improving technology, Britain's leading astronomer said today. Lord Rees, the president of the Royal Society and Astronomer Royal, believes new space telescopes will help us focus our search because they are capable of detecting earth-like planets around distant stars.
Then there's this:
The first Earth-like planet outside the solar system will have been discovered by the end of the year, one of the world's leading astronomers said yesterday. Professor Michel Mayor, the scientist in charge of the team who detected the first extrasolar planet in 1995, claimed that the chance of finding a planet that is habitable for humans is now imminent.
Quite a confident claim. All of the excitement inspired this fevered editorial:
Are aliens out there? Heavens, I hope so! Stars such as Gliese 581 could be home to aliens that are still at the caveman stage, or alternatively aliens which have become extinct a million years ago. Aliens who do not, in other words, have the wherewithal to use radio transmitters. After all, if aliens had stumbled upon the Earth 100,000 years ago they would have found nothing but hairy men and women with spears.
Right. See "Intervention Theory." Then there's this:
Some people claim that our planet was so hostile in its early years that life must have arrived, fully formed, from elsewhere, carried here as 'cosmic spores' by comets or meteors.
Others disagree, like Francis Crick, who discovered DNA, the Tree of Life.
“Is it possible,” I asked Crick, when I reached him at the Salk Institute in San Diego, California, “that our DNA came from another planet?” “I published that theory twenty-five years ago,” said Crick. “I called it Directed Panspermia.” “Do you think it arrived in a meteor or comet?” I asked. “No,” said Crick. “Anything living would have died in such an accidental journey through space. “Are you saying that DNA was sent here in a vehicle?” I asked. “It’s the only possibility,” said Crick.
Let's also go back a few weeks to what Richard Dawkins, the renowned evolutionary scientist said:
It could be that at some earlier time somewhere in the universe a civillization evolved by probably some kind of Darwinian means to a very very high level of technology and designed a form of life that they seeded onto perhaps this planet. Now that is a possibility and an intriguing possibility and I suppose it’s possible that you might find evidence for that if you look at the details of biochemistry or molecular biology you might find a signature of some sort of designer.
Ooh, very naughty of you, Richard! Back to the Royal Society confab, we also have Davies essentially repeating the same cosmology we saw in Mission To Mars:
One suggestion, by the physicist and cosmologist Paul Davies, is that life might have arrived here from the planet Mars, which was once rather more benign than Earth, being smaller and receiving fewer 'hits' from space debris. In which case, we are all Martians and should be looking for fossils of our ancient ancestors on the Red Planet.
Davies, whose new book, The Eerie Silence, comprehensively tackles the question of ET, thinks that perhaps a radio search is not the way to go. Maybe, instead, we should look for direct evidence that aliens have visited our neck of the galactic woods in the past.
OK, stop right there- Davies is now saying what Richard Hoagland has been saying for 40 years, and has been ruthlessly excoriated for, I might add. Why the change of heart? Why are these people discussing all of this? And what could all of this fevered speculation possibly be based on?:
Aliens visiting Earth will be just like humans, scientist claims Governments should prepare for the worst if aliens visit Earth because beings from outer space are likely to be just like humans, a leading scientist is claiming. And while aliens could come in peace they are quite as likely to be searching for somewhere to live, and to help themselves to water, minerals and fuel, Conway Morris will tell a conference at the Royal Society in London tomorrow. "Extra-terrestrials … won't be splodges of glue … they could be disturbingly like us, and that might not be a good thing – we don't have a great record."
That's fascinating, and Jack Kirby would certainly concur- but what is he basing this on? He sounds awfully confident what aliens look like and what they act like. Which brings me to my next point... During the OJ trial, legal observers excoriated Marsha Clark for the glove fitting debacle. The point they made is that a good prosecutor would only have a defendant try on a pair of gloves only if they were absolutely sure they would fit beforehand. So if these people are talking about xeno-Earths and alien psychology and all of the rest of it, is this based on any kind of foreknowledge? Or is this all a big show for the media?

  In order to answer that question you need to look at what people are doing and not what they're saying. Dubai's seen-from-space firework displays were so startling to me not because they were banging on about putting them on for orbiting spacecraft, but because they weren't. But the fact remains they spend vast sums of cash entertaining the stars with productions that were just a mess of smoke and noise for anyone on the ground- or even up in some of those Flash Gordon skyscrapers. 

 In that light, this story certainly caught my eye - NASA is creating a wireless Internet that will span the lengths of the solar system:
NASA's overhaul aims to boost space communication by as much as 50 times faster than today's data transfer rates, so that a Mars mission squeaking by on a few megabits per second might someday get as much as 600 megabits per second, if not more. By doing a wholesale upgrade of a unified space communication network, Younes can offer mission managers capabilities that they would otherwise have never dreamed of. He has already targeted 2018 as the latest date for integrating the three existing space networks. But one of the biggest communication revolutions will come from laser-driven optical communication, as opposed to current space communications based on radio frequencies.
That's fascinating, but why? Nothing we have out there now will be able to use it. I guarantee you they're not doing all of this for giggles and grins. There's a huge fleet of spacecraft- both public and private- ready for missions we can only guess at. Not only that, but private companies are now developing space stations and space habitats. Why? For who? 

Read this
Bigelow is now eying 2015 as the year when the larger human-rated habitats will be in Earth orbit, ready for boarding. All that is predicated, however, on launch availability — be it on an Atlas 5 or the yet-to-fly Falcon 9 rocket under development by private booster builder Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX). It will take seven rocket flights, he said, to hurl the elements for the first Bigelow Aerospace complex into space. 
The mission of Bigelow Aerospace "is to build the be occupied by geniuses that can do really interesting things in those buildings...and these buildings just happen to be in space," Bigelow explained. "We want to facilitate what the dreams of people are, whether they are national dreams or corporate ambitions."
"These buildings just happen to be in space." Fascinating. So taken separately the Royal Society shindig, the new Space Rush, the seizure of the ancient texts from the Iraq/Babylon museums, and the massive sci-fi blitz at the multiplexes may not mean much. Or the fact that the Vatican- which, after all, just recently got around to admitting Galileo's theories were sound- is all of a sudden so fascinated with ET

Taken together? That's a whole different story.