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Astrophysicist Warns: Aliens May Be Boring or Unreachable

Researchers are taking the emissions from the vicinity of exoplanet Proxima B seriously. But if it is truly a technological signal, what would follow?
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Boring? How very un-Star Trek of them! But it’s possible, says Caleb A. Scharf, director of astrobiology at Columbia University (pictured). He worries that, “Perhaps other life in the universe is, in the end, utterly dull.” Why might he think so?

He is reflecting on the recent report of what may be a technological signal at roughly 982.002 MHz, coinciding with the direction of Proxima Centauri. If it is, what might the aliens turn out to be like?

There’ll be some initial oddities, some curiosities that aren’t quite the things we planned for. A dull carrier wave signal for instance. Over time more evidence will show up, until eventually it’s clear that there are lots of species out there, puttering around in their own little neighborhoods and doing nothing truly extraordinary, because those possibilities were, in the end, more the product of our lively imaginations than anything that the universe compels life towards…

Eventually it might all just be a bit of a relief. We’ll neither be alone, nor surrounded by anything particularly extraordinary. Copernican mediocrity will be somewhat restored, and we can go back to worrying about everything else that can go wrong on our speck of rock and water as it sails through the cosmos.

Caleb A. Scharf, “Extremely Boring Aliens” at Scientific American

On this view, it wouldn’t be Star Trek’s “Boldly go” but rather, “Yes, they’re out there but what follows?” That’s at least worth considering. What if we send signals and four years later, the extraterrestrials recognize them as signals but have no way of interpreting them? What if, full of hope, they send back signals that we in turn can’t interpret?

Human groups whose languages are mutually unintelligible can interpret each others’ signals. But that’s because we are all humans. On some topics, hand signals are probably universal (think “up” vs. “down” or “come here” vs. “stay back”). We might not have any such advantage when beginning contact with ET.

So science fiction would be prophetic in the sense that yes, they’re out there. But it might be too optimistic about our chances of making contact.

In the meantime, what about that radio signal that SETI’s Breakthrough Listen project detected from the vicinity of Proxima Centauri, our closest star neighbor at just over four light years from Earth? Our story begins with a leak via Britain’s Guardian newspaper (December 18, 2020) that a signal as significant as the famous Wow! signal of 1977 had been found.

So, what has made astronomers think they have found advanced aliens? They found a signal hidden in some old data from the Parkes Telescope. This signal appears to have come from Proxima Centauri and was a narrow band beam of microwaves at 982 MHz. They were even able to repeatedly observed it over a 30 hour period.

Will Lockett, “We Found Aliens And They Live Next Door (Possibly)” at Medium (February 8, 2020)

But the Wow signal didn’t pan out. What makes this new signal, called BLC1, any different? One difference is that the astronomy techniques have improved:

For one, modern telescopes have filters to remove all local noise, such as mobile phone towers. These filters have been tested hundreds-of-thousands of times as they work really well. So, it is unlikely to have come from the Earth’s surface and been misidentified as coming from Proxima.

Furthermore, the signal is in a spot of sky that appears to have had no man-made satellites above it during detection. So, it wasn’t a misread of a satellite signal.

Will Lockett, “We Found Aliens And They Live Next Door (Possibly)” at Medium (February 8, 2020)

The BLC1 signal did not appear to contain any information, more likely a pattern emitted by the movement of a satellite. But from where? There is a rocky planet in the vicinity that extraterrestrials might inhabit:

Though too faint to be seen with the naked eye, Proxima Centauri has come under intense scrutiny from astronomers. At least two planets are known to orbit the star. One is a gas giant and the other is believed to be a rocky world about 17% more massive than Earth. Known as Proxima b, the planet circles its star every 11 days and lies in the so-called “habitable zone”, where the temperature is right for water to flow and pool.

Ian Sample, “Scientists looking for aliens investigate radio beam ‘from nearby star’” at The Guardian

Science writer Will Lockett points out that the signal appears to be coming from the vicinity of the rocky planet Proxima B:

It has some particular properties that caused it to pass many of our checks, and we cannot yet explain it. We don’t know of any natural way to compress electromagnetic energy into a single bin in frequency. For the moment, the only source that we know of is technological. So BLC1 almost certainly came from Proxima Centauri’s planet and is almost certainly technological in origin! How amazing!

Will Lockett, “We Found Aliens And They Live Next Door (Possibly)” at Medium (February 8, 2020)

He suggests,

If a burgeoning advanced civilisation was starting to emerge on Proxima, say one that is one hundred years behind ours, they may have the technology to pick up our TV signals. But only just enough technology to send back a simple narrowband message on a frequency which isn’t an obvious emission spectrum.

Will Lockett, “We Found Aliens And They Live Next Door (Possibly)” at Medium (February 8, 2020)

Well, as always, we can’t really know, can we? But it’s as well to know why it may not be just another flash in the pan. What it means is another story. Stay tuned.

Note: The image of Proxima Centauri is courtesy ESA, Hubble & NASA.

You may also wish to read:

We are warned: Don’t try to colonize super-Earths. Theoretical astrophysicist Ethan Siegel tells us why he thinks it would end in disaster. Our solar system is unusual in having no super-Earths, whose atmosphere would trap volatile gases, unsuited to life. Earth is just the right size to avoid that.

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Astrophysicist Warns: Aliens May Be Boring or Unreachable