Anthony Beckett

Software Engineer, Videographer and Web Designer

The Scientific Conundrum: “Is There Anybody Out There?”

“Of course it is possible that UFO’s really do contain aliens, as many people believe, and the government is hushing it up. I couldn’t possibly comment!”

‐ Professor Stephen Hawking, at the White House Millennium Council, 2000

Within the paradigm of our western culture, if something cannot be demonstrated and tested by repeatable scientific experimentation, then that something is probably not a real phenomenon. Much of what is termed supernatural for example simply means that it falls outside of the paradigms ability to test it.

Intelligence In Science

For the phenomenon we call intelligence, the scientific community does not have a clear definition of what the phenomenon actually is. Whether we are looking at natural intelligence or artificial intelligence – the question of what intelligence is cannot be defined beyond a set of rules more akin to economics – where an organism attempts to allow itself to survive.

An additional problem in searching for the signs of intelligence is that the method of philosophical reasoning used in science is deemed incompatible with deciding if a phenomenon is intelligently caused:

“The statements of science must invoke only natural things and processes.”

‐ Rule of Methodological Naturalism, National Academy of Science, Donald Kennedy et al., 1998

From this perspective the concept of seeking out the signs of intelligence in scientific data can only be an arduous if not impossible task.

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

In a culture that relies of the philosophical reasoning of science to tell us what is real, how are we to identify whether a signal is the result of extraterrestrial intelligence and not some natural phenomenon?

Geoff Marcy is an astronomer at the University of California at Berkeley. He is looking through the vast amount of data returned from the Kepler Space Observatory to look for signs of an advanced extra‐terrestrial civilization.

While NASA’s Kepler mission itself is concerned with looking for evidence of exoplanets, Marcy is searching through the data in the hope of finding large objects radiating energy in the infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum.

It was British theoretical physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson who first considered that “within a few thousand years of its entering the stage of industrial development, any intelligent species should be found occupying an artificial biosphere which completely surrounds its parent star”.

This hypothetical artificial structure is known as a Dyson Sphere. Variants of this idea include a mega structure in the form of an orbiting solar‐powered array of satellites meant to completely encompass a star, capturing most, if not all, of its energy output.

The question one has to ask is, what happens if Marcy finds an object fulfilling that criterion?

At what point will he be free to publish his findings, if he believes he has found evidence of a Type II Extraterrestrial Civilisation?

Pioneering Radio Astronomy

In 1899 Nikola Tesla built his Magnifying Transmitter in Colorado Springs, Colorado. This device was designed to conduct experiments in the wireless transmission of electrical power and telecommunications. That same year he began hearing signals from it that he eventually came to believe emanated from an intelligent civilisation on the planet Mars:

“Twenty‐two years ago, while experimenting in Colorado with a wireless power plant, I obtained extra‐ordinary experimental evidence of the existence of life on Mars. I had perfected a wireless receiver of extra‐ordinary sensitiveness, far beyond anything known, and I caught signals which I interpreted as meaning 1‐‐2‐‐3‐‐4. I believe the Martians used numbers for communication because numbers are universal.”

– Nikola Telsa, 1922

It has been argued that Tesla may have mistaken the origin of the signals as being from Mars when it is likely that he was listening to singlet, doublet and triplet signals from periodic HF radiation that is known be emitted by Jupiter.

The Rise of SETI

The origin of the SETI program goes back to the work of radio astronomer Frank Drake at the Green Bank observatory in West Virginia in 1951. His “Project Ozma” was the first systematic attempt to detect artificial radio signals from nearby stars.

Drake used the 21‐cm spectral line of hydrogen which he considered to be the best natural frequency to with which intelligent species may try to communicate with and he listened to two nearby, Sun‐like stars epsilon Eridani and tau Ceti for six hours a day using an 85ft radio telescope at Green Bank.

“Ozma”, incidentally, was a reference to the character Princess Ozma in L. Frank Baum’s the series of books about the Land of Oz, appearing in all the books except the first – The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Drake is most well‐known for formulating a mathematical equation to estimate the number of detectable extra‐terrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy. It is an often citied equation that he first came up with while at the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center in the US in 1961.

The Drake Equation: N = R* x fp x ne x fl x fi x fc x L

  • N: The number of civilizations in our galaxy that communication might be possible
  • R*: The average rate of star formation per year in our galaxy fp: The fraction of stars with planets
  • ne: The average number of planets that can possibly support life (per star with planets)
  • fl: The fraction that can go on to support life
  • fi: The fraction that can go on to support intelligent life
  • fc: The fraction of civilizations that develop technology detectable from space
  • L: The length of time a civilization goes on to release detectable signs into space

The value of N is highly uncertain given that our civilisation is not in a position of know most of the variables with any degree of accuracy. Until recently the only variable that could be estimated with any degree of confidence was R (rate of star formation in the Milky Way) which is thought to be in the order of one star per year.

Recent discoveries of extra‐solar planets have reduced the uncertainty in other factors: fp (fraction of stars with planets) and ne (avg. no. planets per star that could support life). As of October 13th, 2013, 998 exoplanets have been discovered in 759 planetary systems including 169 multiple planetary systems.

According to Drake, the average of people’s “best estimates” suggested that there are about 10,000 technically advanced civilisations spread across our galaxy.

This concept gave rise to the SETI program.

The WOW Signal

During the 1960’s, spurred on by Drakes work, Soviet scientists began using unidirectional antennae to listen to a large region of sky rather than narrow regions used by the western astronomers.

In the early 1970’s NASA’s Ames Research Center began looking at the technology required to implement an SETI search and by the late‐1970’s programs had been established at both NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

In a 1955 issue of Scientific American, astronomer John Kraus described a concept to scan the cosmos for natural radio signals using a flat‐plane radio telescope equipped with a parabolic reflector. Two years later his concept had been approved for construction by Ohio State University. The radio telescope built in Delaware, Ohio was called Big Ear and it later began the world’s first continuous SETI program.

It was this Ohio State University SETI program that became well known when, on August 15, 1977, a project volunteer witnessed a startlingly strong signal received by the telescope. Volunteer, Jerry Ehman quickly circled the indication on a printout and writing the phrase “Wow!” in the margin. The signal did not repeat and has never been detected since.

Could the “Wow” signal have been a radio signal from an artificial, extra‐terrestrial source?

Attempting to resolve this question using only the tool of science alone leaves us forever looking to eliminate “natural” mechanisms as being the source of this signal. Science cannot answer this question alone.

Anyone can attempt answer the question using other tools in the philosophical toolbox. However, if a scientist attempts this they would leave them open to making a mistake; so on the whole they simply do not attempt to make statements like this through fear of personal and professional repercussions.

Signal LGM‐1

A decade before the “Wow” signal, at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory in Cambridge, England, astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell and her colleagues discovered an anomalous radio transmission:

“We did not really believe that we had picked up signals from another civilization, but obviously the idea had crossed our minds and we had no proof that it was an entirely natural radio emission.”

“It is an interesting problem—if one thinks one may have detected life elsewhere in the universe, how does one announce the results responsibly?”

‐ Jocelyn Bell Burnell

The signal became known as Signal LGM‐1, (“little green men”) and the hypothesis was only abandoned once a second pulsating source was discovered in a different part of the sky.

When All Else Fails…

A year later in 1968 astronomer Thomas Gold proposed an alternative hypothesis for the source of LGM‐1 which became known as a pulsar:

“A neutron star emits two opposed beams of synchrotron radiation confined to a narrow cone about the star’s magnetic axis. We then perceive pulses as the beams swing by us if we happen to be in the cone that they sweep out.”

However, at a conference on Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence (CETI) in the Soviet Union, the well‐known astronomer Carl Sagan suggested that certain radio emissions may be potential intelligently caused signals:

“The very serious current energy problems both in quasar and in gravity wave physics can be ameliorated if we imagine these energy sources beamed in our direction. But preferential beaming in our direction makes little sense unless there is a message in these channels. A similar remark might apply to pulsars.

“There are a large number of other incompletely understood phenomena, from Jovian decameter bursts to the high time‐resolution structure of X‐ray emission which might just conceivably be due to ETI.

“Perhaps, in the light of Doctor Marx’s presentation, we must ask if the fine structure of some fluctuating X‐ray sources is due to pulsed X‐ray lasers for interstellar spaceflight. But Shklovsky’s principle of assuming such sources natural until proven otherwise, of course, holds. Extraterrestrial intelligence is the explanation of last resort, when all else fails.” – Carl Sagan

Erring On The Side of Caution

Johannes Kepler (17th century astronomer) wrote in his novel Somnium:

“When things are in order, if the cause of the orderliness cannot be deduced from the motion of the elements or from the composition of matter, it is quite possibly a cause possessing a mind.

“If you direct your mind to the towns on the moon, I shall prove to you that I see them.

“In the spotted parts of the moon the perfectly round shape of the hollows, and their arrangement or a certain equality of the distances between them, are artificial and produced by some architectural mind. For that scooping out into the form of a circle cannot be accomplished by any motion of the elements.”

Kepler however was in error when he suggested that circles, as seen on the moon, cannot be created by natural means. Both meteor impacts and electrical discharge arcing can produce circular patterns.

Eliminating All Natural Causes

The scientific method does not allow inference to intelligent causes until all natural causes have been eliminated. However, exhausting all natural causes is a logical impossibility.

From this perspective science is not able to infer that either Stonehenge or the Great Pyramids of Giza were intelligently caused. It can only continually attempt to eliminate new natural causes as being responsible for the configuration of the stones within the structure.

Regarding Geoff Marcy’s search for “Dyson Spheres”; how does he eliminate all the possible natural causes that could account for a large astronomical object in space found to be radiating perhaps only in the infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum?

Whether the potential extraterrestrial artefacts under investigation are radio signals, physical objects or even alien spacecraft – a scientist would essentially need to ignore the rules and the methodology of science in order to make statements about it. Otherwise they “couldn’t possibly comment”.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt up in your philosophy”
Shakespeare, Hamlet Act 1, Scene 5

By Anthony Beckett B.Sc. (hons) M.Sc.

© Anthony Beckett 2013

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