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At the limit of humankind's ability
December 16, 2009 12:29 AM   Subscribe

Scientists at NASA will announce the first findings from the Kepler mission next month. The results have caught scientists off-guard but they aren't giving any hints as to what mission co-investigator David Latham "was not prescient enough to anticipate".

The Kepler team will announce what mission scientists characterized as "quite a few more" extrasolar planet discoveries to add to the more than 400 already cataloged. Kepler is a NASA project designed to look for Earth-like extrasolar planets. It was supposed to be the first of many, including SIM Planetquest (now SIM Lite) and the Terrestrial Planet Finders. These projects have seen their share of delays, mostly due to budget constraints (see p. 225 in PDF for details on 2010 NASA exoplanet budget request) imposed by NASA's "Moon, Mars, and Beyond" initiative. Support for these missions is provided by NASA's Cal-Tech operated Exoplanet Science Institute. (Previously)
posted by IvoShandor (94 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
I played SIM Planetquest once, but my sim's stove caught on fire every time I forgot to walk around it before cooking.
posted by davejay at 12:43 AM on December 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


note: do not post when sleepy
posted by davejay at 12:43 AM on December 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


They found the cookbook, it IS about how to serve humans, and it IS delicious.
posted by hgswell at 1:18 AM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


They've discovered a planet made of... (insert favorite slightly-to-heavily guilty pleasure item here) Camel unfiltered's. Oh, extrasolar planet discovery project, how I love thee...
posted by From Bklyn at 1:20 AM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


All these planets are yours etc.
posted by atrazine at 1:46 AM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


We truly do live in an age of wonders. This is a bit like hanging around the village square in 1492, waiting for that Columbus guy to get back from his trip to the other side of the ocean. In any case, "quite a few more" discoveries sounds really encouraging.
posted by Kevin Street at 1:48 AM on December 16, 2009


Space probes pick up exoplanets galore, beginning with the weirder ones

Always start with the weirder ones. I have it on good authority that there are billions and billions of planets with intelligent life. Most of them play golf on Saturdays, go to church on Sundays, and purchase a pre-cooked chicken for dinner on Monday nights, because they're too tired to cook for themselves.

The universe is vast, but pretty much every sentient being in the universe worries about their weight and their credit card debt. I like that about the universe. Deep down we're all the same.
posted by twoleftfeet at 2:30 AM on December 16, 2009 [14 favorites]


Have they discovered a planet inhabited by 7 foot tall blue human-like beings?

In seriousness, if they have actually discovered hundreds of potentially inhabitable planets that would, quite honestly, blow my mind. I have always assumed that earth-like planets would be extremely rare.
posted by molecicco at 2:35 AM on December 16, 2009


Or they detected evidence of the presence of technology on or near these planets, or significantly sized artifacts like arcologies at the LaGrange points.
posted by Slap*Happy at 2:57 AM on December 16, 2009 [4 favorites]


They have discovered all your base are belong to us.

move

EVERY

ZIG
posted by cavalier at 3:05 AM on December 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


It's truly stunning that we are now realizing that there are multiple planetoids in our own solar system capable of sustaining life, and hundreds across our galaxy. Those empty-universe scenarios seem pretty far-fetched now, much to my imagination's glee.
posted by mek at 3:25 AM on December 16, 2009


The universe is vast, but pretty much every sentient being in the universe worries about their weight and their credit card debt. I like that about the universe. Deep down we're all the same.

#firstearthproblems
posted by crossoverman at 3:27 AM on December 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


Small moves, Ellie. Small moves.
posted by Jofus at 3:40 AM on December 16, 2009 [8 favorites]


Those empty-universe scenarios seem pretty far-fetched now

So, where are they?

If the Drake equation has high values for fp and ne (and we assume fl is 1, ie. all planets capable of supporting life do evolve life), either fi or fc are very low (either life rarely gives rise to intelligence, or intelligence rarely communicates or travels extraterrestrially), or L is low (extroverted technological civilisations do not last very long).
posted by Electric Dragon at 3:42 AM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's also possible this is the beginning of the period of the universe which can support intelligent life. From what we know of the timeline of the universe, this solar system, and our own planet, this isn't particularly unlikely.

The links talk about a proliferation of super-Earths which are likely predominantly waterworlds. If life existed on these worlds it may be less intelligent or simply less disposed to look to the skies, and practically speaking they would have a much harder time getting there. See: dolphins, which seem happy to do what it is they do. At any rate they have much stronger gravity and much less habitable land than our planet.
posted by mek at 3:57 AM on December 16, 2009


If the Drake equation has high values for fp and ne (and we assume fl is 1, ie. all planets capable of supporting life do evolve life), either fi or fc are very low (either life rarely gives rise to intelligence, or intelligence rarely communicates or travels extraterrestrially), or L is low (extroverted technological civilisations do not last very long).

Or, as Calvin once remarked to Hobbes:

“Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us.”
posted by lordrunningclam at 4:16 AM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


So, where are they?

Probably beneath their notice.
posted by WolfDaddy at 4:22 AM on December 16, 2009


"we're"

Thirded
posted by WolfDaddy at 4:22 AM on December 16, 2009


Oh cool! David Latham was one of my undergraduate advisors!

The reason he has a motocross picture in his profile is...thats him! He used to be a professional motocross racer until he had a horrible accident. He still walks with a limp. So, then he became an astrophysicist working in the optical range. I've lost touch with him or I'd ask him what this is all about... :)
posted by vacapinta at 4:54 AM on December 16, 2009 [4 favorites]


So, where are they?

I read somewhere that we've been possibly underestimating the degradation of radio signals in deep space, in which case they might just be too far to find without them making a concerted effort to contact us. Unfortunately, I don't remember where I read that, so take that with a grain of salt. Does this sound familiar to anyone who might know where I could go check my sources?
posted by ErWenn at 5:21 AM on December 16, 2009


*taps foot*

Anytime Vulcan. Anytime. *tap tap*
posted by The Whelk at 5:30 AM on December 16, 2009 [5 favorites]


So, where are they?

I think I've posted this before on MeFi, but at the risk of being a broken record, I'll suggest it again:

We have a tendency to judge the supposed lack of artificial radio signals from space as evidence that nobody is home. There is a problem with this assumption, however: it's not entirely clear that all intelligent species (or, at least, what we would consider to be an intelligent species) are capable of building the high-energy broadcasting antennas needed to transmit interstellar messages.

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that life exists on Gliese 581d, a large Earth-like planet about 20 light years away. Believe it or not, this is actually within the realm of possibility.

Let's say that the planet is rich in incredible alien life. Let's say the dominant species is a massive, but deeply spiritual and peace-loving tribe of individuals who have central nervous systems, intellects and internal emotional states that we would easily recognize as sentient.

But they're horses.

They're horse-people. Not centaurs. They don't have four hooves and then two arms. They only have cloven hooves to better graze across the endless grassy (mossy?) plains of their high-gravity world. How, exactly, are these people going to build antennas with hooves? How are they going to invent high-temperature metallurgy and precision machining without opposable thumbs?

It's easy to say, from our human position, that if they really wanted to, they could find a way. It's also easy for us to say that, since apparently, we really want to. But maybe their culture is more introverted than ours, and they feel no great need to build advanced technology despite having the means to do so. Maybe toolmaking is against their religion.

I think it's possible that our ravenous (instinctive, even) drive to consume, build, explore, expand, conquer may be more a function of our genetic and cultural heritage rather than anything innate to "sentient life" itself. My gut feeling is that the universe is teeming with all kinds of life, much of which we might recognize as being like us, but who lost (or won, depending on your POV) the evolutionary lottery when it came to certain traits which we take for granted. It may be that we, humans, are the "perfect storm" of biological suitability, creativity, intelligence and belligerence needed to become a space-faring race, and that these traits (all together) are blessedly rare in other species across the universe.
posted by Avenger at 5:37 AM on December 16, 2009 [33 favorites]


There was an astronomer I saw on YouTube (whose name escapes me at the moment) who made an apt comparison between humans and other life in space: an anthill by the freeway. Are the people zooming by in their cars aware of the anthill? Why are we so arrogant as to think alien life not only acknowledges us, but would just have to come to us and try to communicate? They may very well know we exist, but that they would care for us enough to establish contact isn't likely. Anyway, that was his explanation.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 5:44 AM on December 16, 2009 [4 favorites]


It may be that we, humans, are the "perfect storm" of biological suitability, creativity, intelligence and belligerence needed to become a space-faring race, and that these traits (all together) are blessedly rare in other species across the universe.

Thank the Gods, cause otherwise they might've put up a fight. *fires torpedoes*
posted by The Whelk at 5:45 AM on December 16, 2009 [3 favorites]


I don't really buy the horse example. I have a hard time seeing how evolutionary forces would produce an intelligent species without the capability of using tools. Surely our "intelligence" only became evolutionarily desirable once we were able to use tools. I mean, bird people, or even octopus people could build an antenna.
posted by molecicco at 5:48 AM on December 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


Square planets?
posted by blue_beetle at 5:56 AM on December 16, 2009 [5 favorites]


It may be that we, humans, are the "perfect storm" of biological suitability, creativity, intelligence and belligerence needed to become a space-faring race, and that these traits (all together) are blessedly rare in other species across the universe.

Great comment. This is something I never understood about one of the assumptions behind the "empty universe" theory. It presumes that, given the age of the universe and of the Earth, any intelligent life out there would be as advanced, and likely more advanced, than ours. That the odds of us humans being on the home planet of an eventual star-faring race would be slim to none.

Why? It seems all very Star Treky to assume that we're somehow behind in this imaginary race to advanced civilization. Maybe we're winning, so to speak? Someone has to get there* first.

* there, being "a state of using advanced technology to reach out to other civilizations"
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:56 AM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


We have a tendency to judge the supposed lack of artificial radio signals from space as evidence that nobody is home.

Between having no life but ours, and some advanced life form existing, I would assume the latter, and therefore the universe is an extremely dangerous place to be broadcasting our location simply because the others don't.
posted by Brian B. at 5:58 AM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


We could be winning, or maybe civilizations tend to exterminate themselves or waste all their resources before they evolve into interstellar space faring civilizations. In that case, we may all be a bunch of losers.

The only thing that surprises me about this is how humanly narcissistic it is to assume that across ~50 billion light years we're the only pocket of life-friendly starshit that ever peered beyond the heavens.
posted by polyhedron at 6:02 AM on December 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


SPOILER ALERT: It turns out the experiment simultaneously disproved evolution, the big bang and global warming. It turns out the GOP was right all along, and science just needed a little time to confirm their hypotheses.
posted by mccarty.tim at 6:03 AM on December 16, 2009 [3 favorites]


I have a hard time seeing how evolutionary forces would produce an intelligent species without the capability of using tools.

Define "intelligence." One could make the case that dolphins, chimps and ravens are intelligent, or at least have some of the hallmarks of intelligence, and yet in 4 billion years of this planet's existence, these three animals are really the only mammals we've seen using tools in the wild. Is a beehive or an anthill "intelligent?"
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 6:04 AM on December 16, 2009


I have a hard time seeing how evolutionary forces would produce an intelligent species without the capability of using tools.

Well, intelligent how? Is it possible to have a species that feels pain, love and enjoys singing and dancing while not being physically capable of building tools? I think it's at least possible.

Surely our "intelligence" only became evolutionarily desirable once we were able to use tools.

This strikes me as a chicken-or-the-egg argument. Was our intelligence a natural fluke that we then took advantage of, or did we develop intelligence to better utilize the tools we were already building? I'm not sure there is an easy way to answer that.

I mean, bird people, or even octopus people could build an antenna.

It's certainly possible. Birds do use tools, admittedly. The thing is, though: I think any technology developed by Octo-people is going to look and function radically differently than anything built (literally) by human hands. It's also possible that they could be relatively technically advanced in, say, biological machines (perhaps the Octo-people have a knack for genetics and breeding programs and are able to manipulate the lesser species around them into various useful roles), but have little to no knowledge of the EM spectrum, which they would need if they wanted to talk to us. Assuming they had any desire to talk to us or say anything other than SEND DELICIOUS CRABS.
posted by Avenger at 6:06 AM on December 16, 2009 [5 favorites]


A corollary of the anthill metaphor mentioned by MSPTP is the question of whether we would even recognise the signs of alien life that is sufficiently, well, alien and/or advanced.
posted by Jakey at 6:07 AM on December 16, 2009


Plenty of non human species use tools and don't build antennas. We're also starting to crack some of their languages:
* Chickadees, true to their name, make a chick-a-dee-dee call, but the number of 'dees' at the end signify the threat level and how close it is. One or two dees means it's good for the others to come have a bite to eat. Cats behind glass panes get 4 or 5 dees but the lead scout will stay put while the others leave. Add a human and even the scout flies off with 15 or 20 dees. Great fun once you know of it. Nuthatches are even cribbing it.
* Cambell's monkeys mix and match "words" for similar purposes.

So language, at least for survival, doesn't even trigger the need to build a nice hut with running water and a fireplace. Some scientists have put the divisor down to when the first human asked a question. Why am I hungry/cold/tired tends to lead to how to solve those problems. Before you know it you're trying to convince your primate cousins that animals can talk and use tools so that's a very likely form of life. It's all downhill from here.
posted by jwells at 6:22 AM on December 16, 2009 [4 favorites]


What about the issue of gravity and technology and space exploration on a superearth? if the planet is 10 times the size of the earth, and has 10 times the gravity, you'd have a gravity well 10 times deeper. Because of that gravity, it's possible an intelligent civilization on that planet would view space exploration as a difficult thing to do with low returns because of the difficulty of getting a sizable payload in orbit. Maybe a spacefaring civilization needs a sweet spot with a planet large enough to develop civilization, but small enough to have a relatively shallow gravity well.
posted by Mcable at 6:27 AM on December 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


If the Drake equation has high values for fp and ne (and we assume fl is 1, ie. all planets capable of supporting life do evolve life), either fi or fc are very low (either life rarely gives rise to intelligence, or intelligence rarely communicates or travels extraterrestrially), or L is low (extroverted technological civilisations do not last very long).

Two things to remember, in increasing order of importance:

First, there has been life on earth for four billion years. For about 3.5 billion of those years, it was entirely single-celled organisms. For all but the last 50,000 or so of those years, it has lacked a species we would recognize as 'intelligent.' My guess is that life in its simplest forms is incredibly common throughout the universe, but the frequency of progressively more complex life decreases exponentially as complexity increases.

Second, the universe is freakin' huge. According to wikipedia, there are over 100 billion galaxies in the universe. The nearest one to the Milky Way, the Andromeda, is 2 million light-years away. Think of all the history that has happened since the dawn of civilization, say roughly 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia. It would take 200 spans of human history just to get to the Andromeda galaxy, and that's traveling at the speed of light. What this means is that any sci-fi show, book, or movie with 'intergalactic' armies, governments, confederations, trade routes, etc. is just not possible for humans to ever partake in. Since the human lifespan is long compared to terrestrial animals in general, our best guess should be that any intelligent alien races also face this problem--that it would take thousands of generations to leave the galaxy. Sure we could do it, but the thought of sacrificing thousands of generations to a life contained in a spaceship, with such an uncertain payoff (what are the odds, when we actually got to the Andromeda, of knowing where to go?), strikes nearly every human as both not worth it and morally repugnant; I assume most aliens would at least find it not worth it as well.

So we are essentially restricted to looking for life in one one hundred-billionth of the universe. Luckily there are about one hundred billion stars in the Milky Way. But even the intra-galactic distances are mind-bogglingly huge. The galaxy's diameter is 100,000 light years. If it were scaled to the size of the United States, a 100 light year trip would be the rough equivalent of the distance between ground zero and Times Square. So even 'short' trips would take longer than the average human lifespan. And communications, too: anyone who sent a message to an alien planet 100 light years away would be dead by the time the response arrived at Earth.

My guess? Plenty of intelligent life in the Milky Way, tons of it in the universe. And for the simplest forms of life, they may be practically everywhere. But it's all probably too far away to ever observe or communicate with in any way.
posted by notswedish at 6:30 AM on December 16, 2009 [15 favorites]


All this has been posted before and will be posted again, but it is so apropos I cannot let it pass.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:33 AM on December 16, 2009 [3 favorites]


When did NASA start doing these constant cliffhanger-esque "TUNE IN SOON FOR A FANTASTIC REVELATION" announcements? They should just announce the findings, and leave the gaudy PR to the media.
posted by slater at 6:38 AM on December 16, 2009 [4 favorites]


But wait, if you consider how many potentionally habitable planets would have so far be able to hear our Radiowaves. (ie none i expect) the high chance that humans will actually self destruct in the next millenia. pollution, toxic destruction of the earth.

then perhaps every 20 millions years or so there is a single blast of 100 years of radio waves. We have only been listening for say 100. so its not that surprising is it that we've missed them?
posted by mary8nne at 6:48 AM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Personally, I think we should start Internet Rumors so outlandish and preposterous that everyone gets worked up on the impending destruction/colonization/deification of Earth and NASA is forced to announce the news immediately.

Otherwise, my guess: apparently manufactured superstructures.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 7:10 AM on December 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


A complete copy of the Earth, now, at present day, orbiting another star. Everything is exactly the same, as far as we can tell, except for one thing. This other Earth resides in ...


The Twilight Zone.

posted by The Whelk at 7:17 AM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think David Latham just has very low levels of prescience. I picture him going through life doing constant double-takes; at the sky, a tree, his shoes.
posted by Phanx at 7:21 AM on December 16, 2009 [13 favorites]


So, where are they?

They may have various political systems that deem space travel a low priority and instead spend most of their resources on war.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:26 AM on December 16, 2009 [16 favorites]


Someone has to get there* first.

Yeah, I'm kind of hoping it's not *us* that first encounters a trusting, technologically low-level, defenseless intelligent species. Our record of treating other intelligent beings who are less advanced is not so good. Especially if we discover their world is rich in something we want.

One of the more interesting reasons I've heard as to why interspecies contact via travel is impossible is because it's not the atmosphere we need to worry about as much as the foreign microbes. The Native Americans didn't do so hot when they met smallpox, a terrestrial disease, for the first time; what would happen to one of us who set foot on a planet full of alien viruses that our immune systems have no defenses against?
posted by emjaybee at 7:36 AM on December 16, 2009


they aren't giving any hints as to what mission co-investigator David Latham "was not prescient enough to anticipate".

Hopefully not a fleet of alien battleships headed towards the Earth. Because I could have seen that a mile away.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:38 AM on December 16, 2009


I think it's silly to try to quantify "intelligence" for an extraterrestrial species. Any neurologist will say that I am way smarter than my computer, but I definitely cannot do math anywhere near as fast. By one benchmark (SAT math equations), I'm above average, but a computer would be done with no errors in well under a second. Of course, if you were to ask both of us to try to tell appart tomatoes and apples, I would win that contest. In addition, although it has a much smaller brain, a pigeon would probably be better at navigation than me.

Intelligence, as we know it, is a collection of anthropocentric abilities that we benchmark each other by. If we find life, it'll be hard to quantify how intelligent it is if they haven't developed in a way similar to Earth animals. Intelligence is the ability to dynamically make beneficial decisions in your environment. If you don't need to be doing euclidian math, writing literature or developing stable economies, it'll be hard for us to judge you. Hence, the horse aliens are so hard to understand.
posted by mccarty.tim at 7:49 AM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Nasa Blue?
posted by garlic at 7:55 AM on December 16, 2009


Our record of treating other intelligent beings who are less advanced is not so good.

Conversely, they might be more advanced than us, and I don't think we'd enjoy being on the wrong side of an Outside Context Problem for once either.

what would happen to one of us who set foot on a planet full of alien viruses that our immune systems have no defenses against?

Probably very little. Most pathogens on Earth have co-evolved with the particular biochemistry life here has - we can catch viruses off pigs and birds because our physiology and biochemistry is similar enough due to our common ancestry. Alien life may well be so different from us as to make it impossible for us to share pathogens - or food for that matter. That's not to say that they couldn't be harmful to us (or vice versa) in some way we can't yet predict.

On the other hand, the laws of physics are the same across the Universe, the super-Earths will be dominated by their stars (which radiate strongly in various bands of the EM spectrum) so it's reasonable to assume a certain amount of convergent evolution in terms of sensory perception.
posted by Electric Dragon at 8:11 AM on December 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


Sorry - should have clarified, of course "intelligence" is a difficult-to-define term. I mean the sort of intelligence required for the previous description that I was commenting on:

Let's say that the planet is rich in incredible alien life. Let's say the dominant species is a massive, but deeply spiritual and peace-loving tribe of individuals who have central nervous systems, intellects and internal emotional states that we would easily recognize as sentient.

So yeah, sure, beehives are complex, but they are not developing-philisophies-and-building-internets-and-spaceships complex. So what I'm saying is that I find it unlikely that the type of being that we would recognize as sentient, one capable of understanding what peace is and being able to articulate its preference for it, would be incapable of using tools. I don't see any reason for higher order thinking to evolve in a species that cannot use tools.
posted by molecicco at 8:14 AM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


a ricochet biscuit! you beat me to it.
posted by molecicco at 8:15 AM on December 16, 2009


This strikes me as a chicken-or-the-egg argument. Was our intelligence a natural fluke that we then took advantage of, or did we develop intelligence to better utilize the tools we were already building? I'm not sure there is an easy way to answer that.

Well, if we are not physically capable of using tools, then there is no chicken or egg to discuss, right?
posted by molecicco at 8:16 AM on December 16, 2009


hexapodia is the key insight
posted by Justinian at 8:48 AM on December 16, 2009


Avenger: "Assuming they had any desire to talk to us or say anything other than SEND DELICIOUS CRABS."

See? Some things are universal!
posted by brundlefly at 8:54 AM on December 16, 2009


what would happen to one of us who set foot on a planet full of alien viruses that our immune systems have no defenses against?

Our AmericaN immune systems would kick their ass, FUCK YEAH!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:54 AM on December 16, 2009


Well, if we are not physically capable of using tools, then there is no chicken or egg to discuss, right?

In their world, entry level positions in industry start at the management level.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:56 AM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


molecicco: "I don't see any reason for higher order thinking to evolve in a species that cannot use tools."

I don't see any reason for thinking this other than the fact that we're the only example we have access to. Not snarking, just curious.
posted by brundlefly at 8:56 AM on December 16, 2009


The percentage of telluric planets seems to be low. Yes, I know they're harder to spot than other kinds.

Our sun is thought to be a third-generation star. It's been around for about 5 of the 15(?) billion years the universe has been here. So while the universe is gradually turning to iron, it's not there yet.

Telluric planets rich in iron, copper, and other metals (required for E-M transmission and reception) are really only just starting to come into the picture. As it stands, our presence here can be seen as the product of an accident. The collision that produced the current Earth-Moon system contributed a decent amount of mass (and minerals) to proto-Earth. The Moon provides tides and helps maintain an active climate. There's also the habitable zone for a given star, the possibility of a telluric planet of sufficient makeup forming in that region, etc. Oh, and you probably need a Jupiter; a gas giant/failed binary star big enough to sweep up all the cataclysmic asteroids left over after planet formation.

You can argue about how long intelligent life has been here, and what constitutes such. Humanity really began to flower when we discovered networked information: first spoken, then written language. But whalesongs are incredibly complex, and before we started raising such a racket in the oceans, it's thought that they carried information around the circumference of the world. Communication is vital to intelligence, or at least a key signal, but whales have never and probably will never build radio antennae. They don't need them.

Even so, we've only been broadcasting for about a century or two. As notswedish said, that's barely across town in a galactic sense. And the longer it takes for someone to be reached by our signal, well, double that time for us to hear back. If they're 100 light years away, it'll take 200 years to get a signal (at least; this assumes they have the infrastructure in place to attempt interstellar transmission as well as reception). If they're 200 light years distant, you're waiting 400 years to hear back.

And then there's the problem of Stanislaw Lem's "Solaris." Even if we can find and identify alien life, how do we communicate? Sending prime number sequences or other non-random information may identify intelligence and intent, but it's a long way from communication.

So I'm not saying we're the first, but we're probably among the first. You need to have enough dead stars to produce the heavier elements that make up telluric planets. That's obviously an impossibility in the first generation of stars. Probably a rarity in the second generation, as well. But even if it's become commonplace by the third generation, other species that are like us are probably (by the very nature of being "like us") at similar stages of their development. Meaning they've been capable of interstellar contact for a few centuries, maybe millennia at most. Less if their planets are not as rich in heavy metals as ours. The longer ago they developed, the more vital it is that they've reached sustainability if you expect them to still be around. You could argue we've only got this far so fast by burning up what we have (and would we be here without earlier lifeforms like the dinosaurs for petroleum? Oh, and the extinction-level event that got rid of them for us?). If we'd moved slowly and steadily, well, we'd still be a long way from harnessing the power of the atom. Chemical rockets and radio telescopes? Unlikely.

It's just not as simple as the Drake Equation.
posted by Eideteker at 9:07 AM on December 16, 2009 [5 favorites]


Anytime Vulcan. Anytime. *tap tap*

I always thought that Banks' The State of the Art would be a more likely scenario. Aliens approach surreptitiously, observe for a while and decide we're not worth the effort.

Plus I like the idea of a ship with a sense of humor:
'Also while I'd been away, the ship had sent a request on a postcard to the BBC's World Service, asking for 'Mr David Bowie's "Space Oddity" for the good ship Arbitrary and all who sail in her.' (This from a machine that could have swamped Earth's entire electro-magnetic spectrum with whatever the hell it wanted from somewhere beyond Betelgeuse.) It didn't get the request played. The ship thought this was hilarious.'

posted by zarq at 9:10 AM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Errr.... I probably should have put a spoiler alert in that last comment. Sorry. :(


In my defense, the story was written and published in 1991....
posted by zarq at 9:11 AM on December 16, 2009


I think David Latham just has very low levels of prescience. I picture him going through life doing constant double-takes; at the sky, a tree, his shoes.

Well, according to Vacapinta, he's not sufficiently prescient to anticipate motorcycle accidents. So that's my guess. Space is chock full of motorcycle accidents.
posted by Naberius at 9:22 AM on December 16, 2009


I guess that's why they call it "The Final Front Tire".

*runs*
posted by Atom Eyes at 9:30 AM on December 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


Metafilter's own Charlie Stross wrote in his blog recently about this subject. The gist of which is that for most of Earth's history, it has not been hospitable to human life, and even today, only a relatively small patch of its surface area is. To look at it another way: we could be finding exoplanets that aren't hospitable today, but will be in a billion years. Or were a billion years before.

On tool-using as a necessary consequence of intelligence: Some current thinking is that human intelligence emerged only after upright walking did, as it allowed female pelvises to become wide enough to pass big-brained babies. A handy consequence of this is that the two forelegs were freed up to do stuff other than locomotion, such as holding extremely altricial babies, and when those forelegs weren't holding babies, they could hurl rocks and build radiotelescopes. From that perspective, intelligence could be viewed a side-effect of other adaptations.

But the fact that we're born so completely helpless, and take so very long to mature into creatures capable of looking out for ourselves could be a necessary feature of intelligence. Maybe. Could we pop out of the womb already knowing stuff? I don't want to deny the possibility absolutely, but it strikes me as extremely unlikely. Assuming I'm correct, one way or the other, the parents (or someone) of any intelligent species will need to look out for the young. That suggests the ability to provide food, fend off threats, and carry the young, all while not getting eaten yourself, which suggests having hands, tentacles, or what-have-you that could also be used for tools. If those organs can be used for tools, and if doing so provides a fitness advantage (and by the same token, if not using them for tools renders them dead weight except during childrearing), you can bet they will be used for tools. Either that, or evolution is wrong.

I don't mean to suggest that there's anything teleological about intelligence. Just that intelligence may bring with it certain other traits as necessary features, which would also open the door to tool use.
posted by adamrice at 9:39 AM on December 16, 2009 [3 favorites]


So where are they?

Here?

Take a look at the star that Ms. Ghez is pointing at, 10:45 into this TED presentation.
This is the first time that weve seen the star 'SO-2' that is closest to the center of our galaxy, because until recently it was not imagable.

If we are looking at it, it seems only natural that other curious techie, civilizations that arise in the Milky Way galaxy would sooner or later be looking at it, visiting it and possibly inhabiting it.
Well, the last one could be a bit awkward, as it is orbiting rather rapidly around a super-massive black hole - but it would be a great location for the Restaurant at The End of the Universe ® chain to set up shop.
posted by duncan42 at 9:42 AM on December 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


That's really interesting, adamrice. My guess is that hands/tool-use was a big help in the evolution of high intelligence. (Though you need to explain whales/dolphins.)

But it leaves out another key factor: social networks. Social politics requires high intelligence. Which leaves us with a chicken/egg problem: did hands lead to intelligence which allowed social politics? Or did hands plus social politics lead to intelligence?

I would be surprised if there was only one evolutionary path to high intelligence. Especially since we're finding examples of tool use in more and more animals, including birds. Given many generations, could birds evolve human-like intelligence without also evolving hands?
posted by grumblebee at 9:48 AM on December 16, 2009


I think any technology developed by Octo-people is going to look and function radically differently than anything built (literally) by human hands.

To a point. But once you start using machines to build machines, the machines will tend to look and behave like they need to look and behave for the function. An antenna or a microchip is a certain size and shape not predicated by the presence or absence of opposable thumbs or suckered tentacles.
posted by pracowity at 9:49 AM on December 16, 2009


My question is : are we the only one made out of meat
posted by denpo at 10:01 AM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Found the guy I was talking about! His name is Dr. Michio Kaku. He makes a lot of sense on the subject of extraterrestrial life, and happens to have one of the most soothing voices on the planet. This video in particular, to me, makes a lot of sense.

Of course, of the numerous planets in the universe with life on them, many of them will have forms of life that are either incapable or uninterested in contacting us. But I have a hard time believing the notion that our planet is the only one in the entire universe that has brought forth intelligent life with an expansionist, technologically advanced, and cosmologically curious nature.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 10:03 AM on December 16, 2009


They're horse-people. Not centaurs. They don't have four hooves and then two arms. They only have cloven hooves to better graze across the endless grassy (mossy?) plains of their high-gravity world. How, exactly, are these people going to build antennas with hooves? How are they going to invent high-temperature metallurgy and precision machining without opposable thumbs?

That's rather thumb chauvinist, don't you think? Even why would there only be one non-technological species on the planet? Certainly, others would evolve with similar brain capacity, but perhaps with different tool-capability. I mean whales are pretty smart, some think very smart. But they don't have any hands and they don't have any technology. But that didn't stop people from evolving.

Also, some birds use tools with their beaks. Maybe these horse things use their mouths to hold tools. Ever think of that?
Define "intelligence." One could make the case that dolphins, chimps and ravens are intelligent, or at least have some of the hallmarks of intelligence, and yet in 4 billion years of this planet's existence, these three animals are really the only mammals we've seen using tools in the wild. Is a beehive or an anthill "intelligent?"
Add octopuses to the list.
posted by delmoi at 10:08 AM on December 16, 2009


Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.
posted by Joey Michaels at 10:18 AM on December 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


Electric Dragon : Alien life... That's not to say that they couldn't be harmful to us (or vice versa) in some way we can't yet predict.

I'll be funny when we finally colonize another planet only to be attacked by alien creatures with acidic blood who want to use our bodies for gestating their young, and the colonists trained by generations of horror movies, calmly fall back to the drop ship, take off, and nuke the entire site from orbit... just to be sure.

The remaining aliens will be thinking "Whoa! They escalated to that really quickly. Damn."
posted by quin at 10:20 AM on December 16, 2009 [9 favorites]


In seriousness, if they have actually discovered hundreds of potentially inhabitable planets that would, quite honestly, blow my mind. I have always assumed that earth-like planets would be extremely rare.

The problem with that assumption (and with all arguments which depend solely on the extreme rarity of events in the universe) is that the universe is so huge and so old that even "extremely rare" things will almost certainly have happened. For example, it's extremely rare to get 100 heads in a row when flipping a fair coin... but if you flip it continuously for a few billion years on 100+ billion planets, you're likely to see it happen.

More convincing are arguments like Eideteker's, which give specific reasons why intelligent life capable of interstellar communication may be a relatively new phenomenon. Even so, the same probability problem applies -- even if it takes a hundred very specific variables to create an intelligence similar to our own, those hundred variables are likely to have come together in just the right way somewhere else, and even on many different planets.

Our existence implies the existence of life elsewhere. I'd even go so far as to say that it implies the existence of similar life elsewhere. I think the proper question is whether that life can overcome the vast distances between stars, as notswedish points out... but, again, if there is any way to do this according to the laws of physics, then the sheer size of the sample space involved suggests that it will eventually be found by some civilization or other, no matter how unlikely its discovery is.

Besides, sure we could do it, but the thought of sacrificing thousands of generations to a life contained in a spaceship, with such an uncertain payoff (what are the odds, when we actually got to the Andromeda, of knowing where to go?), strikes nearly every human as both not worth it and morally repugnant; I assume most aliens would at least find it not worth it as well is nonsense. Sorry. If we really did conceive of such a project, the line would be thousands long, and I'd be happy to kill for a ticket if required -- just gimme the guy's name and number, boss.
posted by vorfeed at 11:22 AM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


the colonists trained by generations of horror movies

If the aliens have also been trained by generations of horror movies, part of their attack plan will be something like "OK, Blorky, there's of course the question of the woman with big, scary, horrible hair and big, scary, horrible breasts who will run through the woods in tall, pointy heels. When this happens, take your time. As we all know, she's going to trip and sprawl helplessly. But here's my idea: instead of continuing to shamble after her -- and try to bear with me while I explain -- instead of continuing to shamble after her, Blorky, this is where you are going to break into a run. And catch her. That's right. I want you to sprint after her and get her and break her neck before she screams."
posted by pracowity at 11:37 AM on December 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


Does anybody else get super freaked out when they think about how big the universe is? You have me imagining a universe billions of billions light years big. And probably still growing. With giant horse-people and octopus-people with 8 knives scattered throughout. And I'm stuck in here with them.

Screw you, I'm scared of the ocean because of how big it is.
posted by dogwalker at 12:18 PM on December 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


...now realizing that there are multiple planetoids in our own solar system capable of sustaining life, and hundreds across our galaxy.

I would say there are millions of them in this galaxy.

There are somewhere between 100 billion and 400 billion stars in the Milky Way. Conservatively, that means that if just one out of every hundred (1%) systems have at least one Mars, Europa, Titan or Earth, that's 1 billion 'potentially habitable' worlds.

If one in a million systems has a full-fledged multicellular biosphere, that puts the number of 'Earths' in our galaxy at 100,000.

-
posted by General Tonic at 12:36 PM on December 16, 2009


I really hope that aliens have come up with something better than radio waves with which to communicate. Otherwise, what is going to inspire us to step up our game?
posted by shownomercy at 12:43 PM on December 16, 2009


I'm scared of the ocean because of how big it is.

That's actually a pretty apt example to use because most people can understand how big the ocean is. It's really, really big. But it's big in a way that you can wrap your mind around. You can look at it on a map and see how it's constrained, and I think that helps.

Most people try to consider the solar system and the picture it the way it is usually represented, with big planets a few tens of thousand miles away from one another, but when they see an actual scaled view, it becomes scary and hard to understand.

And that's just the back yard, when people start to think galactically and actually considering and trying to comprehend what kinds of distances are involved, they tend to get creeped out.

At least I know I do. It's the fastest way for me to go from feeling ok to completely nihilistic.
posted by quin at 12:44 PM on December 16, 2009


I agree General Tonic. What really puts things in perspective for me is Gliese 581. Here is a solar system a mere 20 light years from us, basically right in our backyard, with five planets discovered so far, including a super-Earth. From that we can reasonably extrapolate that there are a fuckton of planets out there, many of which may be habitable.

It's important to note that our technology isn't good enough to detect Earths or Europas, some of which may be located even closer than that.
posted by mek at 1:02 PM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think it's possible that our ravenous (instinctive, even) drive to consume, build, explore, expand, conquer may be more a function of our genetic and cultural heritage rather than anything innate to "sentient life" itself.

Even if your horses start out too saintly to be mean to any other beast and too passive to bother evolving -- "I think we should stay just the way we are, don't you? I mean, not to brag, but look at us. Were the dominant species!" -- that planet's other incredible alien life is going to evolve pointier teeth and stronger poisons and sharper claws and faster legs and a stronger appetite for horse flesh. A peaceful horse is a big, fat source of easy protein.

So the horses build or die. To keep out the little nasties with the ever sharper teeth, maybe they have to build walls or moats or houses. Or maybe it's poisons and infections that they need to fight, and then it might be handy to develop antibiotics and antidotes. The smart horses with more drive will do things to survive and reproduce, and the smart horses with less drive will become stubs on their family trees.

But drive creates conflict, and so the horses also challenge one another. And so on.
posted by pracowity at 1:22 PM on December 16, 2009


I think alien-to-human pathogens are just science fiction, unless we somehow share a large part of our genetics with them (which would call for some Star Trek/2001: A Space Odyssey/Biblical level hand-waving). The threat we'd really face the most would be on the chemical level. We'd want to make sure the alien planet, right down to the soil, vegetation, and bodily fluids of the aliens, do not release any dangerous chemicals or molecules.

Consider how nanotech can be a threat to humans if poorly made, like with powders so fine it can pass through your skin. The powder may have been formed for a defined purpose (like cleaning or for making solar pannels), but now it's on your insides, causing unforseen problems. Same thing could happen with nanobots, in theory, but chances are they wouldn't so much act like a pathogen as much as a very confused parasite.

The ship's doctor would probably face situations mostly comparable to people getting exposed to chemicals or having foreign objects inside their bodies. It's not like we'd get person-to-person transmission of these ailments, so once the patient is cleaned off, a quarantine would be silly, and space zombies are even more ridiculous.

Remember kids, there's no such thing as space zombies, now quit being scared and go back to bed.

(By Murphey's law, I just invited space zombies. You're welcome.)
posted by mccarty.tim at 1:42 PM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


> If the Drake equation has high values for fp and ne (and we assume fl is 1, ie. all planets capable of supporting life do evolve life), either fi or fc are very low (either life rarely gives rise to intelligence, or intelligence rarely communicates or travels extraterrestrially), or L is low (extroverted technological civilisations do not last very long).

I've always wondered why anyone assumes that all planets capable of supporting life do. My value for fl is more like .10.

But my value for fp is more like 1.3 because I think there are plenty of 'rogue planets' with no star to call home. The continuum from Jupiter to brown dwarf is going to be very interesting. Good luck detecting those interstellar wanderers.

The fact that 99.999 of the history of life on Earth generated a value of 0 for fi may indicate how rare 'intelligence' is. And the 75 years of radio communication compared to 3 million years of 'intelligent' human beings gives a value very close to 0 for fc.

When I play with NOVA's Interactive Drake Equation, I come up with somewhere between 1 and 100 living radio civilizations. I suspect we will never meet an alien civilization (though we may find their leftovers). But I also suspect that there are many, many worlds where its nice enough to build a log cabin.

-
posted by General Tonic at 1:52 PM on December 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


Chickadees, true to their name, make a chick-a-dee-dee call, but the number of 'dees' at the end signify the threat level and how close it is. One or two dees means it's good for the others to come have a bite to eat. Cats behind glass panes get 4 or 5 dees but the lead scout will stay put while the others leave. Add a human and even the scout flies off with 15 or 20 dees. Great fun once you know of it. Nuthatches are even cribbing it.

Chickadee Dictionary, First Edition

Chicka ['chik-a] interjection, noun, verb
–interjection
1. (used as an expression of surprise, pain, disapprobation, etc.)
–noun
2. the exclamation “chicka.”
–verb (used without object)
3. to utter or exclaim “chicka.”

Dee [dee] interjection, noun Vulgar.
-interjection
1. Slang. (used to express disgust, disappointment, frustration, contempt, or the like).
–noun
2. excrement; feces.
3. an act of defecating; evacuation.
posted by davejay at 2:23 PM on December 16, 2009 [4 favorites]


I was going to call it Chickadictionary, but it sounded a bit NSFW that way
posted by davejay at 2:26 PM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


I really dig that we're talking about intelligent superhorses in this thread.
posted by Greg Nog at 2:49 PM on December 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


Hmm, I wonder if there's a point where a group of herbivores would be intelligent enough to think "Screw these predators, let's go mess them up." And wipe out all the things that will eat them in an area. If you think about it, many of the big, dangerous animals are herbivores. A herd of elephants could probably wipe out a pride of lions if it were a straight up fight rather than the usual hunting situation, which relies on the predator attacking when they have the upper hand.
posted by Zalzidrax at 4:03 PM on December 16, 2009


I bet they discovered either a discword, or a ringworld

Oh please, oh please, oh please
posted by nonspecialist at 7:53 PM on December 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


Question: Do creatures capable of motion require an atmosphere with high levels of oxygen? It seems to me that an atmosphere with free oxygen is not common at all, and that it depends on the evolution of photosynthesis. Now, I'll grant that some form of life is extremely likely to evolve, but how 'lucky' was the evolution of photosynthesis?
posted by empath at 7:58 PM on December 16, 2009


The universe is a big lonely place. You'll die of old age just waiting for an echo. Waiting out there in the cold are probably millions of intelligences. Maybe they are like us. Or maybe they are like massive clouds of organic matter who have evolved over billions of years into slow thinking minds. Or they could be ocean sized slushy mud puddles soaking up radiation in the bottom of some crater some where.

What ever they are they are isolated by the entire gulf of the universe from each other and from us. What ever means of communication they have evolved it may not be any mechanism that we would recognize it. Even if we could hear it.

And if they were even remotely like us. Gregarious willing and able to communicate it is very likely they have either exhausted their resources, or if they have survived the millennia with enlightened scruples or advanced technologies, they may have then been driven mad by the terrible loneliness of an indifferent universe. The universe may be filled with insane super beings who have been waiting a long time for special little friend. We may not want to find them.
posted by tkchrist at 8:11 PM on December 16, 2009


Do creatures capable of motion require an atmosphere with high levels of oxygen?

No, they just need some source of energy sufficient for whatever motion you're imagining. Other sorts of chemical reactions could provide the energy.

how 'lucky' was the evolution of photosynthesis?

Sunlight is a source of abundant and reliable energy. It would be more surprising if nothing ever came along to use it.
posted by DarkForest at 8:37 PM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


You can often see an interesting pattern of denial all the way down the line when discussing alien civilizations, despite our own evolution (usually denied) and our first hand knowledge of colonialism, genocide and ranching. First, people tend to deny that aliens probably exist. When they get over that thought at some stage, they tend to resist the idea that there's any possible way for them to get here, never mind any robots or pirates looking for the raw materials they might value beyond meat. If we ever do go straight to the visitation scenario, we easily deny that there could be any malevolent intentions by potentially millions of intergalactic interested parties, including those desperate to make a buck on a lucky find to justify the trip. Despite all of the books and movies that feature humans winning the wars between aliens, as if that could ever happen, the problem remains that the universe is a place of expedient survival and we're not so hidden any longer.
posted by Brian B. at 9:00 PM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


I just corresponded with a friend who was involved in Kepler. No aliens. (At least as far as he knows)

But it sounds like they did find some planets, but they are being circumspect-- they want to avoid false positives (binary stars et al.). They are still processing results.
posted by exlotuseater at 9:17 PM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


To paraphrase Anthony Robbns, here is my illusion about reality. FWIW.

One, I think reality in general is an illusion. Ditto infinity. It's just something that happens when any of us looks in any direction. There are limits but not to re-draw.

Two, I think life is permanent. It always exists. Reality reforms around it.

Three, I think that what we call reality can be utterly reinvented. It's like a harddrive that gets over-written. Some of the stuff from before shows up in weird ways. It's all like videogame backstory. Yes, there are no such things as dragons. But that doesn't mean it has always been this way. Reality just re-drew itself. (For whatever reason, at this point its easy to imagine that it did so for *whatever reason*.)

Four, I think what ever any of looks for we find. That's why I don't look for monsters, ufos, bigfeet, sasquatches, loch nessters. yetis, demons, ghosts, orgones, lost worlds, vampires, monsters and especially etc. I look for good stuff. I look for it all to work out.

Five, I think that emotions can do weird stuff to reality. Like C'thulu on vacation coming with friends to terrify and awe the natives then disappear without a memory of it weird. (So) I think that memories can be erased and re-arranged. I think that emotional memory on the other hand remains. I think that reality does weird things, goes wacko, then reforms and that memories get rearranged but many of those who are affected negatively by this weirdness without having actual recall of what *has* happened are left disconnected and disaffected by their still intact emotional memories. I believe this is the cause of mental illness. (I know its ludicrous but all things considered its the best I got.)

And finally what enables me personally to make it through this state of affairs is my certainty in the belief—ie faith—that everything always works out, even and especially contrary to appearances. My own personal sanity detector is that the truth makes me laugh. And, above all else, ignore alien orders.

Oh yeah, and the purpose of life is to love.

This is what I believe. It's what gets me through the night. It's what gives worth to day.

How does that tie-in to extraterrestrials? Well, personally, the way I feel is that unless extraterrestrials can cure that stuff then they may as well stay home. And especially if they can't cure that stuff. Because when it comes to extraterrestrials, if they are not part of the solution there is a better than average chance they're part the problem. And that is a reality in which I am uninterested.

So for the record: cancer AIDS mental illness and congenital disease cures which enable us to retain and better our humanity. along with free energy and meaningful work? Yes. Alternative biologied peoples from somewhere interested in trade? No.

I think that life is an illusion and—after a certain point—the only choice we have is be true to it and go on through it. That's mortality.

I'm not a predestinationist. What I am is a pragmatic traveler who knows to watch out for holes and who always keeps a towel handy. Metaphorically speaking.
posted by humannaire at 9:30 PM on December 16, 2009


Here's a short sci-fi story, written for the occasion:

"Have they discovered evolution?"

"Who cares. Have they discovered Lisp?"
posted by wobh at 10:39 PM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


At least everything is now consistent with a Star Trek scenario, complete with Prime Directive. A nerd can dream...
posted by mek at 2:59 AM on December 17, 2009


NASA's new planet-hunting telescope has found two mystery objects that are too hot to be planets and too small to be stars.

The Kepler Telescope, launched in March, discovered the two new heavenly bodies, each circling its own star. Telescope chief scientist Bill Borucki of NASA said the objects are thousands of degrees hotter than the stars they circle. That means they probably aren't planets. They are bigger and hotter than planets in our solar system, including dwarf planets.

posted by EarBucket at 3:39 AM on January 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


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