Do Intelligent Civilizations Across the Galaxies Self Destruct? For Better and Worse, We’re The Test Case

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The Eastern Seaboard as seen from the International Space Station in 2012.    (NASA)

In 1950, while working at Los Alamos National Laboratory,  renowned physicist Enrico Fermi was lunching with colleagues including Edward Teller, Herbert York an Emil Konopinski.  The group talked and laughed about a spate of recent UFO reports during the meal, as well as a cartoon about who might be stealing garbage can tops.  Was it aliens?

A bit later in the meal Fermi famously asked more seriously, “Where are they?”  Sure, there were many bogus reports back then about alien flying saucers, but Fermi was asking what has turned out to be a significant and long-lasting question.

If there are billions of exoplanets out there — as speculated back then but proven now — why have there been no bona fide reports of advanced extraterrestrials visiting Earth, or perhaps leaving behind their handiwork?

Many answers have been offered in the following decades — that we are alone in the universe, that the distances between solar systems are too great to travel, that Earth became home to life early in the galaxy’s history and other planets are only now catching up, that life might be common in the universe but intelligent life is not.

I would like to focus on another response, however, one that came to mind often while reading a new book by the former holder of the astrobiology chair at the Library of Congress, planetary scientist David Grinspoon.

This potential explanation is among the most unsettling:  that intelligent and technologically advanced beings are likely to ultimately destroy themselves.  Along with the creativity, the prowess and the gumption, intelligence brings with it an inherent instinct for unsustainable expansion and unintentional self destruction.

I should say right off that this is not a view shared by Grinspoon.  His “Earth in Human Hands,” in fact, argues with data and conviction that humans are more likely than not to ultimately find ways to work together and avoid looming global threats from climate change, incoming asteroids, depleting the ozone layer and myriad other potential sources of mass extinction.

But his larger point is the sobering one:  that the fate of Earth is, indeed, in our hands.  We humans are a force shaping the planet that is as powerful as a ring of volcanoes, a giant impactor from space, the long-ago rise of lifeforms that could, and did, dramatically change our atmosphere and along the way caused near global extinction.

It may sound odd, but as he sees it we are now the planet’s most powerful and consequential force of nature.

Since the Industrial Revolution and the spread of technology over the past 200 years, humans have become the dominant force on the planet, says David Grinspoon, the first Chair in Astrobiology at the Library of Congress.  (Credit:  Tony Steele)

“What I’ve sought to do is describe what is reality on our planet,” Grinspoon told me.  “Some people have been hostile and told me it’s arrogant to say humans have so much control over the fate of the planet, and I agree that it’s a sobering thing.”

But the Earth has been and will be dramatically changed by us.  The big question for the future is whether change can be for the better, or will it be unsustainable and for the worse.”

While Grinspoon’s major themes involve competing paths for the future of our planet, they consistently are based on and informed by knowledge gained in recent decades about planets in our solar system and those very far away.  The logic and track record of the search for intelligent life beyond Earth (SETI) also plays a role, as does the author’s relationships  — initially via family in childhood — with Carl Sagan and some of the scientists he mentored.

For instance, Grinspoon has studied Venus and the evolution of its atmosphere. He says that an understanding of its carbon dioxide-based runaway greenhouse effect, which has created surface temperatures of 800 degrees Fm  has been instrumental in the study of climate change on Earth.

David Grinspoon is a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute, and the author of “Earth in Human Hands.”

Similarly, the disappearance of much of the Martian atmosphere left the once warmer planet frigid and likely lifeless.  Sagan’s work on the dust storms of Mars, which have the effect of making the planet colder still, was an early scientific foray into understanding the importance of atmosphere and climate on a potential biosphere.  So was Sagan’s work on the possible effects of atomic war — the globally life-destroying “nuclear winter.”

The clear inference:  Planetary atmospheres can change substantially, as ours is doing now with major buildups in carbon dioxide.  Atmospheres can protect and nurture, or they can destroy.

And Exhibit A is the three rocky solar system planets in what is a slightly expanded habitable zone.  But only one supports life.

The buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and oceans since the onset of the industrial revolution, Grinspoon writes, is a prime example of how intelligent people and their technology can unintentionally have a huge impact on nature and the planet.  The jury remains out as to how humanity will respond.

But Grinspoon also points to the way that nations around the globe responded to the discovery that the ozone layer was being depleted as an example of how humanity can repair unintentional yet potentially extinction-threatening challenges.

It took a while, but the artificial refrigerants — chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) — causing the damage were ultimately curtailed and then banned, and there are signs that the worrisome holes in the ozone layer are if not shrinking, at least no longer growing.

The Drake equation, created by astronomer Frank Drake in 1961, assesses the probability of how many planets  in our galaxy might have civilizations that can communicate. The last factor — the “L” for longevity — is considered key. Drake was one of the founders of SETI, and its effort to detect signals from intelligent life beyond Earth.

This brings us back to the Fermi paradox, and the apparent absence of signs of extraterrestrial intelligence.

Fermi, and many others, posited that successful, technological civilizations elsewhere would have the desire and ultimately know-how to expand beyond their original planet and colonize others. Indeed, early SETI gatherings here and in the former Soviet Union took that drive to expand for granted, a reflection of attitudes of the times.

This presumed drive to colonize was often discussed as either a kind of biological imperative or an acknowledgement that these “intelligent” civilizations are likely to have seriously damaged their own planets through unsustainable and hazardous growth. Either way, they would be on the move.

Yet after more than a half century of listening for signals from these presumed intelligent and mobile beings, the SETI effort to detect such life via radio telescopes has come up empty.  There are many potential reasons why, but let’s focus on the one introduced earlier.

The pioneering Drake equation, first put forward in 1961, attempts to assess the probability of finding intelligent civilizations beyond Earth based on factors such as rate of star formation in the galaxy, the number of planets formed and then the percentage with life, then the number with complex life and finally intelligent and technologically-sophisticated life.  But it’s the “L” at the end of the equations, says Grinspoon, that is widely considered the most important.

The SETI radio telescope array in Hat Creek, California.

The “L” is for the longevity of a potentially civilized, intelligent world, or “the length of time over which such civilizations release detectable signals.”

Of all the components of the Drake equation, which is filled with unknowns and partially known estimates, L is no doubt the least well defined.  After all, no extraterrestrial life, and certainly no intelligent life, has ever be detected.

Yet as describe by Grinspoon, “L” — which for Earth is about 200 years now — is the key.

“Let’s say that it’s impossible for a civilization with very powerful technology to last for 10,000 years, or even 1,000 years.  That makes the likelihood of ever making contact with them vanishingly small even if life and intelligence are out there.  The chances of them being close enough to detect and communicate with are pretty much nil.”

If the opposite is true, if it’s possible for a civilization to get over their technological adolescence, then they ought to be detectable.   Actually, they could last for millions of years using their technology to enhance and protect the planet.”

Planets face all kinds of dire threats; over long time periods catastrophes and extinctions are the rule.  But if technology can be used intentionally for the benefit the planet — like protecting it from an asteroid or avoiding the next Ice Age – longevity would clearly improve greatly.”

This interstellar view, he says, helps to see more clearly what is happening on Earth.  Now that through our technologies we have become the prime movers regarding the planet’s health and safety, it is really up to us as a species to choose between allowing these “advances” to knowingly or unintentionally harm the planet, or to consciously use technology to make it better.

Grinspoon does not see our current century as one when the effects of technology are likely to be intentionally positive.  But he does see the movement towards a more sustainable planet to be irreversible, whatever blips might come our way.  What’s more, he said, fossil fuels will be largely gone by 2100 and there’s reason to believe the world’s human population will have stabilized — two enormous changes that favor a longer-lived human civilization.

“The long-held view that humans will always expand, that they will maintain that biologically primitive imperative, that growth is always good — it’s interesting to wonder if those assumptions aren’t inherently wrong,” he said.

“I suggest that true ‘intelligence’ able to sustain itself involves an inherent questioning of those values, and that a more measured and strategic growth pattern, or even material stasis might be values that come with a more universal intelligence.”

Whether that intelligence might be on Earth or might be many hundreds of light years away.

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SETI Reconceived and Broadened; A Call for Community Proposals

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A screenshot from a time lapse video of radio telescopes by Harun Mehmedinovic and Gavin Heffernan of Sunchaser Pictures was shot at several different radio astronomy facilities—the Very Large Array (VLA) Observatory in New Mexico, Owens Valley Observatory in Owens Valley California, and Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia. All three of these facilities have been or are still being partly used by the SETI (Search for the Extraterrestrial Intelligence) program. You can watch the video at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SrxpgUJoHRc
A screenshot from a time lapse video of radio telescopes by Harun Mehmedinovic and Gavin Heffernan of Sunchaser Pictures that was shot at several different radio astronomy facilities—the Very Large Array (VLA) Observatory in New Mexico, Owens Valley Observatory in Owens Valley California, and Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia. All three of these facilities have been or are still being partly used by the SETI (Search for the Extraterrestrial Intelligence) program.

Earlier this summer, Natalie Cabrol, the director of the Carl Sagan Center of the SETI Institute, described a new direction for her organization in Astrobiology Magazine, and I wrote a Many World column about the changes to come.

Cabrol’s Alien Mindscapes – Perspective on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence” laid out a plan for the new approach to SETI that would take advantage of the goldmine of new exoplanet discoveries in the past decade, as well as the data from fast-advancing technologies.  These fresh angles and masses of information come, she wrote,  from the worlds of astronomy and astrophysics, as well as astrobiology and the biological, geological, environmental, cognitive, mathematical, social, and computational sciences.

In her article,  Cabrol said that a call would be coming for community input on how to develop of a Virtual Institute for SETI Research. Its primary goal, she said, would be to “understand how intelligent life interacts with its environment and communicates.”

That call for white papers has now gone out in a release from SETI, which laid out the questions the organization is looking to address:

Question 1: How abundant and diverse is intelligent life in the Universe?

The Virtual Institute will use data synergistically from astrobiology, biological sciences, space and planetary exploration, and geosciences to quantitatively characterize the potential abundance and diversity of intelligent life in the Universe. The spatiotemporal distribution of potential intelligent life will be considered using models of the physicochemical evolution of the Universe.

Question 2: How does intelligent life communicate?

By drawing from a combination of cognitive sciences, neuroscience, communication and information theory, mathematical sciences, bio-neural computing, data mining, and machine learning (among others), we will proactively explore and analyze communication in intelligent terrestrial species. Building upon these analyses, we will consider the physiochemical and biochemical models of newly discovered exoplanet environments to generate and map probabilistic neural and homolog systems, and infer the resulting range of viable alien sensing systems.

Question 3: How can we detect intelligent life?

Using the results (data and databases) of research conducted under Questions 1 and 2, we will consider the design and promising exploration strategies, instruments, exploration strategies, instruments, experimental protocols, technologies, and messaging (content and support) that may optimize the probabilities of detecting intelligent life beyond Earth.

And here is what SETI hopes interested scientists will do:

To support the goals and address the questions outlined above, we seek white papers that will serve as a foundation for the intellectual framework of the Virtual Institute’s roadmap – and that specifically describe: (a) scientific rationales (theories, hypotheses) as foundations for investigations; (b) concepts of experimental designs (methods, protocols, and metrics); (c) universal markers, signals, instruments, systems, technologies for communication; (d) target identification; and (e) ground- and space-based instrumentation, observing scenarios, instrument requirements, and exploration strategies.

To better understand the possible existence of intelligence and technology in the universe, and to learn how to detect it, we expect that proposals may draw from diverse scientific fields. These include astrobiology, astronomy/astrophysics, cognitive sciences, epistemology, geo- and environmental sciences, biosciences, mathematical sciences, social sciences, space sciences, communication theory, bioneural computing, machine learning, big data analytics, technology, instrument and software development, and other relevant fields.

White papers should be submitted in electronic form as PDF files to Dr. Nathalie Cabrol at ncabrol@seti.org. They should be no more than three pages in length, with a minimum 10-point font size. A figure can be included if of critical importance. It is anticipated that there will be an opportunity for interested respondents to present their contribution in person during a planned workshop in the summer of 2017.

Notification of opportunities to present will be made after the white paper deadline of February 17, 2017, and those most responsive to this call will be published in the Astrobiology Journal. Questions related to this call should be addressed to SETI Institute President and CEO Bill Diamond at bdiamond@seti.org

Here is the column I wrote when the Astrobiology Magazine paper came out in August:

Allen Telescope Array
SETI’s partially-built Allen Telescope Array in Northern California, the focus of the organization’s effort to collect signals from distant planets, and especially signals that just might have been created by intelligent beings.  (SETI)

For decades, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI)  and its SETI Institute home base have been synonymous with the search for intelligent, technologically advanced life beyond Earth.  The pathway to some day finding that potentially sophisticated life has been radio astronomy and the parsing of any seemingly unnatural signals arriving from faraway star system — signals that just might be the product of intelligent extraterrestrial life.

It has been a lonely five decade search by now, with some tantalizing anomalies to decipher but no “eurekas.”  After Congress defunded SETI in the early 1990s — a Nevada senator led the charge against spending taxpayer money to look for “little green men” — the program has also been chronically in need of, and looking for, private supporters and benefactors.

But to those who know it better, the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California has long been more than that well-known listening program.  The Institute’s Carl Sagan Center for Research is home to scores of respected space, communication, and astrobiology scientists, and most have little or nothing to do with the specific message-analyzing arm of the organization.

And now, the new head of the Carl Sagan Center has proposed an ambitious effort to further re-define and re-position SETI and the Institute.  In a recent paper in the Astrobiology Journal, Nathalie Cabrol has proposed a much broader approach to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, incorporating disciplines including psychology, social sciences, communication theory and even neuroscience to the traditional astronomical approach.

“To find ET, we must open our minds beyond a deeply-rooted, Earth-centric perspective, expand our research methods and deploy new tools,” she wrote. “Never before has so much data been available in so many scientific disciplines to help us grasp the role of probabilistic events in the development of extraterrestrial intelligence.

“These data tell us that each world is a unique planetary experiment. Advanced intelligent life is likely plentiful in the universe, but may be very different from us, based on what we now know of the coevolution of life and environment.”

The galaxay as viewed by the Hubble Space Telescope
With billions upon billions of galaxies, stars and exoplanets out there, some wonder if the absence of a SETI signal means none are populated by intelligent being.  Others say the search remains in its infancy, and needs new approaches.  The galaxy as viewed by the Hubble Space Telescope. (NASA/STScI)

She also wants to approach SETI with the highly interdisciplinary manner found in the burgeoning field of astrobiology — the search for signs of any kind of life beyond Earth. And in a nod to NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, which has funded most of her work, Cabrol went on to call for the establishment of a SETI Virtual Institute with participation from the global scientific community.

I had the opportunity recently to speak with Cabrol, who is a French-American astrobiologist with many years of research experience working with the NASA Mars rover program and with extremophile research as a senior SETI scientist.  She sees the SETI search for technologically advanced life as very much connected with the broader goals of the astrobiology field, which are focused generally on signs of potential microbial extraterrestrial life.  Yes, she said, SETI has thus far a distinctive and largely separate role in the overall astrobiology effort, but now she wants that role to be significantly updated and broadened.

“The time is right for a new chapter for us,” she said. “The origins of SETI were visionary — using the hot technology of the day {radio astronomy} to listen for signals.  But we don’t exactly know what to look and listen for.  We don’t know the ways that ET might interact with its own environment, and that’s a drawback when looking for potential communications we might detect.”

Cabrol foresees future SETI Institute research into neural systems and how they interact with the environment (“bioneural computing,”) much more on the theory and mechanisms of communication, as well as on big data analysis and machine learning.  And, of course, into how potential biosignatures might be detected on distant planets.

The ultimate goal, however, remains the same:  detecting intelligent life (if it’s out there.)

Nathalie Cabrol, director of SETI's Carl Sagan Institute, wants to expand and update SETI's approach to searching for intelligent life beyond our solar system. (NASA)
Nathalie Cabrol, director of SETI’s Carl Sagan Center, wants to expand and update SETI’s approach to searching for intelligent life beyond our solar system. (NASA)

But with so much progress in the sciences that could help improve the chances of finding evolved extraterrestrial life, she said, it’s time for SETI to focus on them as a way to expand the SETI vision and its strategies.

“The purpose is to expand the vision and strategies for SETI research and to break through the constraints imposed by imagining ET to be similar to ourselves,” she wrote. The new approach will “probe the alien landscapes and mindscapes, and generally further understanding of life in the universe.”

The Institute will soon put out a call for white papers on how to expand the SETI search beyond radio astronomy, with an emphasis on “life as we don’t know it.”  After getting those white papers — hopefully from scientists ranging from astronomers to evolutionary biologists — the Sagan Center  plans a workshop to create a roadmap.

Cabrol was emphatic in saying that the SETI search is not turning away from the original vision of its founders — especially astrophysicists Frank Drake, Jill Tarter and Carl Sagan — who were looking for a way to quantify the likelihood of intelligent and technologically-proficient life on distant planets.  Rather, it’s an effort to return to and update the initial SETI formulation, especially as expressed in the famed Drake Equation.

Drake Equation
The Drake Equatio,, as first presented in 1961 to a gathering of scientists at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, W. Va.

“What Frank proposed was actually a roadmap itself,” Cabrol said.  “The equation takes into account how suitable stars are formed, how many planets they might have, how many might be Earth-like planets, and how many are habitable or inhabited.”

Drake’s equation was formulated for the pioneering Green Bank Conference more than 50 years ago, when basically none of the components of his formula had a number or range that could be associated with it.  That has changed for many of those components, but the answer to the original question — Are We Alone? — remains little closer to being answered.

“I’ve talked a great deal with my colleagues about what type of life can be out there,” she said.  “How different from Earth can it be?”

“Now we’re looking for habitable environments with life as we know it. But it’s time to add life as we don”t know it, too.  And that can help augment our targeting, help pinpoint better what we’re looking for.”

“We think one of the key issues is how ET communicates with its environment, and the great advances in neuroscience can help inform what we do.  The same with evolutionary biology.  Given an environment with life, we want to know, what kind of evolution might be anticipated.”

Connectivity network between disciplines showing the bridges and research avenues that link together space, planetary, and life sciences, geosciences, astrobiology, and cognitive and mathematical sciences. This representation is an expanded version of the Drake equation. It integrates all the historical factors now broken down in measurable terms and expanded to include the search for life we do not know using universal markers, and the disciplines, fields, and methods that will allow us to quantify them.
A diagram of the proposed SETI  “connectivity network” between disciplines showing the bridges and research avenues that link together space, planetary, and life sciences, geosciences, astrobiology, and cognitive and mathematical sciences. Cabrol describes it as  an expanded version of the Drake equation.  (Astrobiology Journal/SETI Institute.)

These are, of course, very long-term goals.  No extraterrestrial life has been detected, and researchers are just now beginning to debate and formulate what might constitute a biosignature on a faraway exoplanet or, what has more recently been coined, a “bio-hint.”

In her paper, Cabrol is also frank about the entirely practical, real-world reasons what SETI needs to change.

“Decades of perspective on both astrobiology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) show how the former has blossomed into a dynamic and self-regenerating field that continues to create new research areas with time, whereas funding struggles  have left the latter starved of young researchers and in search of both a long-term vision and a development program.

“A more foundational reason may be that, from the outset, SETI is an all-or-nothing venture where finding a signal would be a world-changing discovery, while astrobiology is associated with related fields of inquiry in which incremental progress is always being made.”

Whatever changes arrive at the SETI Institute, it will continue with its trademark efforts — most importantly operating the Allen Telescope Array in Northern California and collaborations with numerous other SETI groups.  The array began its work in 2007 with 42 interconnected small radio telescopes, and  continues its constant search for incoming signals.  The SETI Institute had hoped to build the array up to 350 telescopes, but the funding has not been forthcoming.

Cabrol is clearly a scientific adventurer and risk taker.  During her extremophile research in Chile, she went scuba diving and free diving — that is, diving without scuba equipment — in the Licancabur Lake, some 20,000 feet above sea level.  It is believed to be an unofficial altitude record high-altitude for both kinds of diving.

With this kind of view of life, she is a logical candidate to bring substantial change to SETI.  The new primary questions for SETI and the institute to probe are: How abundant is intelligent life in the universe?  How does it communicate? How can we detect intelligent life?

As she concluded in her Astrobiology Journal article:

‘Ultimately, SETI’s vision should no longer be constrained by whether ET has technology, resembles us, or thinks like us. The approach presented here will make these attributes less relevant, which will vastly expand the potential sampling pool and search methods, ultimately increasing the odds of detection.

“Advanced, intelligent life beyond Earth is most likely plentiful, but we have not yet opened ourselves to the full potential of its diversity.”

 

 

 

 

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