by David Cassel December 10, 2017 (thenewstack.io)
• China is building the world’s most powerful radio telescope, with the hopes that it could find evidence for life on other planets. The five-hundred-meter (five football fields wide) Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (or FAST) will also be able to hear aircraft-radar waves. This is but one of a growing number of radio observatories in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa that will cooperate on space research.
• What happens if the Chinese actually do hear something? International protocols require the disclosure of first contact, but this is a non-binding protocol. China could make such an alien signal a state secret.
• If we do get an alien signal, how should we reply? Stephen Hawking says that we should be wary of answering back at all. NASA has already been broadcasting signals out into space. The most recent was on September 5, 2017 which stated: “We offer friendship across the stars. You are not alone.”
• Quoting from the original article from The Atlantic, “No civilization could last tens of millions of years without learning to live in peace internally.” “Anyone we make contact with will almost certainly be older, and perhaps wiser.” “We may be humbled to one day find ourselves joined, across the distance of stars, to a more ancient web of minds, fellow travelers in the long journey of time.”
China is well underway on building the world’s most powerful radio telescope, with the hopes that it could find evidence for life on other planets, noted a new article in the Atlantic, “What Happens If China Makes First Contact?”
The facility’s chief scientist has pointed out proudly that “We look for not only television signals but also atomic bomb signals. We’ll give full play to our imaginations when processing the signals… as we don’t know what an alien is like.”
China’s Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (or FAST) will also be able to hear aircraft-radar waves, according to the Atlantic, or another “fading artifact of a civilization’s first blush with radio technology” in its ongoing search of “tens of thousands” of star systems.
The Atlantic describes the telescope, nestled in the Karst mountains, as “a radical expansion of the human search for the cosmic other.” The site’s senior science and technology editor ponders the massive human construct that would listen for aliens: “Five football fields wide, and deep enough to hold two bowls of rice for every human being on the planet, it was a genuine instance of the technological sublime.”
Of course, China isn’t the only country involved in the hunt for alien life. The article cites a growing number of radio observatories that will cooperate on research, including new space observatories in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Russian billionaire Yuri Milner also invested $100 million in a new program in 2015. The article suggests that through this ongoing effort, “we may come to know a new metaphysics,” as it reaches its grand conclusion. “We may be humbled to one day find ourselves joined, across the distance of stars, to a more ancient web of minds, fellow travelers in the long journey of time.”
The Atlantic piece argues that researchers from SETI Institute, an organization entirely dedicated to searching for life elsewhere in the universe, have taken the search to the next level, becoming “philosophers of the future.”
They have tried to imagine what technologies an advanced civilization might use, and what imprints those technologies would make on the observable universe. They have figured out how to spot the chemical traces of artificial pollutants from afar. They know how to scan dense star fields for giant structures designed to shield planets from a supernova’s shock waves.
Although not everyone is so optimistic we will find anyone out there…
The Fermi Paradox
The SETI Institute also has a whole page dedicated to “the Fermi Paradox,” named after the nuclear physicist “best remembered for building a working atomic reactor in a squash court.” Given the age of the universe — ample time for leaving some sign of existence — Fermi had asked the question: where is everybody? Why are there no signs, anywhere, of alien lifeforms, given this vast universe, and a vast scale of time?
Counter-arguments have been proposed — for example, that “early extinction could be the cosmic default for life in the universe” because the earliest habitable conditions for any planet also tend to be unstable. Another theory says we’re just too early in the dawn of the universe to see other advanced civilizations. Others argue we’re too late — that advanced civilizations invariably extinguish themselves. Or maybe the relics that aliens left behind are the laws of physics embedded in our reality.
There’s even been some discussion of a “postbiological artificial intelligence that had taken control of its planet.” (The Atlantic argues that “Maybe the self-replicating machinery required to spread rapidly across 100 billion stars would be doomed by runaway coding errors.”) And this is where theories become indistinguishable from science fiction.
It might have transformed its entire planet into a supercomputer, and, according to a trio of Oxford researchers, it might find the current cosmos too warm for truly long-term, energy-efficient computing. It might cloak itself from observation, and power down into a dreamless sleep lasting hundreds of millions of years, until such time when the universe has expanded and cooled to a temperature that allows for many more epochs of computing.
Famed Chinese science fiction writer Liu Cixin shares a similar theory with The Atlantic: that the absence of signals just means extraterrestrial civilizations are really good at hiding. An older civilization would, after all these years, surely know by now the risks of making contact. Cixin believes that no alien civilization would ever send a beacon — unless it was a “death monument” announcing their civilization’s impending extinction.
Can we even be sure we’d recognize signals from a civilization that’s had billions of more years to evolve?
And yet, we search…
So what happens if these researchers actually do hear something? First, there’s the prosaic answer. “International protocols require the disclosure of first contact,” reports The Atlantic. But then there’s an important caveat: these protocols “are nonbinding.”
Maybe China would go public with the signal but withhold its star of origin, lest a fringe group send Earth’s first response. Maybe China would make the signal a state secret. Even then, one of its international partners could go rogue. Or maybe one of China’s own scientists would convert the signal into light pulses and send it out beyond the great firewall, to fly freely around the messy snarl of fiber-optic cables that spans our planet.
But beyond that, there’s already a surprising amount of serious consideration being given to the inevitable follow-up question: if aliens do contact us, how should we reply? Science fiction writer Cixin advises humankind not to detail our own history to the aliens, because “It’s very dark. It might make us appear more threatening.” The Atlantic editor counters that aliens may already have spotted the flash of our atomic weapons, adding “The decision about whether to reveal our history might not be ours to make.”
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