Ask Ethan #105: Are we looking for ET all wrong? (Synopsis)

“[W]hat Fermi immediately realized was that the aliens have had more than enough time to pepper the Galaxy with their presence. But looking around, he didn’t see any clear indication that they’re out and about. This prompted Fermi to ask what was (to him) an obvious question: ‘where is everybody?’” -Seth Shostak

When you consider that there are definitely millions of planets in the habitable zones of their stars within our Milky Way galaxy alone, the possibility that there's intelligent life on at least one of them, right now, is tantalizing. But we're in our technological infancy, relatively speaking, having only been broadcasting electromagnetic signatures visible by an alien civilization for around 80 years.

Unsurprisingly, we're looking for exactly the types of signals we're capable of sending, but what if that's totally wrongheaded? Based on how technology is evolving and what the Universe is capable of, perhaps we should be looking not at electromagnetic radiation, but some other signals from the distant Universe to search for alien civilizations?

Could the elusive neutrino could be our savior? Find out on this week's Ask Ethan!


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I think we should be looking at some kind of quantum entanglemnt, string theory form of communications. Not this slow, silly Electro magnetic stuff.

By Todd Adams (not verified) on 11 Sep 2015 #permalink

I think you should get on that right now, Todd.

Let us know what you find.

The solution to the Fermi Paradox seems simple to me. Once a civilization creates explorable virtual universes in its computers, it will be hard to motivate itself to explore the real one with its unimaginable distance barriers and unforgiving environments.

That, and the population collapses brought on by virtual reality sex.

By IckyChris (not verified) on 11 Sep 2015 #permalink

We are ignoring the strongest signals of all - teenage alien females texting en masse about their boyfriends, each other, etc. Overwhelming the EM spectrum, can be seen across the galaxy.

@1 - that's just as slow. In order for us to receive a quantum entangled signal, the aliens must first start with very large number of entangled pairs (one pair for every bit of information they wish to send, at a minimum). They must ship one of each pair to Earth at below the speed of light (i.e., slower than the neutrino signal Ethan prefers). They must guess at when we've got them and put them in some sort of trap where we can observe them without collapsing their wavefunction, then they collapse those wavefunctions themselves; one for every bit in the message. They also have to hope that we didn't look (i.e. collapse) their particle in the meantime, otherwise that bit is essentially unusable by them.
So, your system slower and and a lot more fragile than the other systems. Not good. Though I guess the upside is that if you ship a huge amount of entangled particles to the Earth and let us, the receivers, use half of them, the two civilizations can at least have a conversation with no subjective time delay. So the 'entangled communicator' is probably a better thing to put on a starship rather than beam to unknown aliens; that way, the receiver (i.e. the starship crew) knows what these particles are, is trained on how to preserve the entangled system and use it to communicate.

The way we teach and frame our science gives the impression that our progress is smooth and builds on past progress in a continuous flow. This means that we expect the next big thing to somehow be contiguous with our current understanding. However, the actual progress we make is punctuated by sudden changes of direction. While it is true that the final state of improvement has to in retrospect smoothly fit with all that has gone before, it is not necessarily so in the forward looking modes. As they say, hindsight is 20/20. It is clearly correct to understand that limitations to light speed as the upper wall largely kills the idea of interstellar connections. It is not correct to aver that such a limit cannot be overcome ever by anyone. It is not correct to see science as a system closed by what has already transpired. That sort of opinion held by thoroughly trained scientists as well as informed laypeople has already been refuted many times by what happens next. A conservative betting man may hold and win with the status quo on any given day but the speculator can always be proven right tomorrow.

By Christopher (not verified) on 11 Sep 2015 #permalink

@Ethan: You suggest,

... a specific type of fusion that’s proven to be efficient, abundant, different from what occurs in the cores of stars, and that emits a very, very specific neutrino (or antineutrino) signature as a by-product.

Hmmm. I wish you could give us an example of a possible reaction. There are a fairly small number of "efficient" fusion channels, and they all involve very light nuclei (say, B-11 and below). Fusing heavier nuclei gives back very little energy (as you go up the binding energy curve, the differences get smaller and smaller), and much more input energy (heat or accelerator) is required to overcome the increasing Coulomb barrier.

I also don't see how you get a "specific energy" neutrino signal out. Lepton conservation requires that neutrino production is always a three (or more) body process, meaning that it has a continuous spectrum, with a high-energy cutoff (see the curves in your diagram).

I can certainly see the appeal of using artificially produced neutrinos for communication (see Learned et al., and especially Stancil et al., but those involve crafted beams, not "natural" fusion byproducts.

By Michael Kelsey (not verified) on 11 Sep 2015 #permalink

It could eve be that we are living in some kind of simulator, like in Greg Egan’s book Permutation City.

By Paul Dekous (not verified) on 11 Sep 2015 #permalink

In which case, what are we meant to do about it?

Solipsism is all you're talking about here and the point of that is NOTHING. If we are in a simulator, then your conversation is pointless. If we're not in a simulator then you're wrong. Either case, your post should be discarded and ignored.

Eric, entanglement can't transfer information since neither side HAS information added when they take one side and measure it. It's just "Hey, the other one must be up". How do you send information with that? You can't find one that is down to send a "0" because you don't know which one that is. All you can do is meet up and agree "Hey, did you find 87 of them were down and 94 were up too? Yeah? Cool.".

There is still some debate if entanglement and more specific 'Spooky action at a distance' is real, in the sense that there are possible loopholes for Bell's Inequality tests ... and even some debate if Bell's theorem actually can rule out local hidden variables.

Some say that that the strong quantum correlations we observe in Nature are natural consequences of the topological properties of the physical space itself, who knows?

One thing we know for sure is that if entanglement is all so clear and obvious than a quantum computer should have already been more real. To quote the wiki-page regarding the D-Wave quantum computer:

"The researchers, led by Matthias Troyer at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, found "no quantum evidence" across the entire range of their tests, and only inconclusive results when looking at subsets of the tests."

By Paul Dekous (not verified) on 11 Sep 2015 #permalink

Paul, this is science. EVERYTHING is still up for question, if you put your bar at "being questioned" low enough.

Get to the point or, if you don't know what the point was, stop.

And what else do you have other than JAQing off?

Here;s why this is important. If your posts contains no point and only asks rhetorical questions or makes statements that only end in a question mark so that you can't be considered to have made the statement, then your posts will be learned to contain nothing worth wasting the time reading.

If it contains a point, NOBODY WILL EVER KNOW.

If it contains a query you'd like answered, NOBODY WILL EVER KNOW.

If nobody reads your posts because they've learned that it is a worthless effort, your efforts are worthless and negated by your own lazyness. Yet you're not worried about wasting effort writing stuff, just worried about wasting effort learning.

And if you're not going to put effort into learning, then you've pretty much just dropped off the human list onto the basic animal list.


By Chris Mannering (not verified) on 11 Sep 2015 #permalink

Wow, that is a slippery slope.

By Paul Dekous (not verified) on 11 Sep 2015 #permalink

Dear Ethan, may I enter the 'question of the week' (or day or whatever) with what I've been thinking about today.

imagining better and better telescopes observing further and further back. Does the Standard Model expect to see certain consistent trends with each next further observation?

Do galaxies appear to thin out, or continue to get more numerous?

What about the next further observation after that?: if the trend is 'thinning' do we expect to see just one galaxy eventually? After that do we see only individual stars?

If they get more numerous do individual galaxies get smaller? What about in the case of 'thinning' as galaxies get fewer do they get bigger? Thanks!

By Chris Mannering (not verified) on 11 Sep 2015 #permalink

Ethan, what do you mean that gravity waves don't degrade like EM signals? Gravity waves obey the inverse square drop off like many other things, unless they are beamed.

By Douglas Natelson (not verified) on 11 Sep 2015 #permalink

wow says "Eric, entanglement can’t transfer information since neither side HAS information added when they take one side and measure it. It’s just “Hey, the other one must be up”. How do you send information with that? You can’t find one that is down to send a “0” because you don’t know which one that is. All you can do is meet up and agree “Hey, did you find 87 of them were down and 94 were up too? Yeah? Cool.”."

I know you are correct in what you say (theory & inline logic alike). I was just wondering though...if there might be ways to - for all intents and purposes - get information through...without violating the law.

It's sill I guess. But here's an example of what I mean. Let's say we entangle two particles and send one to the edge of the galaxy, and along with it a technology - say a star destroying bomb like in Star Trek Next Generation the motion picture (the first one).
So, if the entangled particle turns out to be spin-up or whatever, the bomb is armed and sent off to blow something up. If it is spin-down the bomb is disarmed and sent off to be a fail.
So then when we observe the particle our end, no information is passed in reality, but we still know something...we have knowledge and that knowledge is dependent on the observation, and the outcome in terms of which particle is spin-up or spin-down.
just a thought

By Chris Mannering (not verified) on 11 Sep 2015 #permalink

the questions & suggestions link above might be more appropriate for your enquiry. ;)

Just to mention....if the situation above is trivial because we can't change or influence what happens at the edge of the galaxy. It is possible to construct non-trivial examples, in which we can change what happens.
Let's say we entangled multiple pairs and sent one side of the set off the edge of the galaxy with that same technology but with the modification that the state of the entangled pair that decides the bomb, is the last pair in the sequence where a sequence has to happen within an hour of the first observation of the first pair.
So if we want to arm the bomb, and the first pair sets the bomb to disarm, we observe the second, and so on, until we get the command we want.

By Chris Mannering (not verified) on 11 Sep 2015 #permalink

@13 - thanks I was thinking there had to be a better way to do it

By Chris Mannering (not verified) on 11 Sep 2015 #permalink

"I was just wondering though…if there might be ways to – for all intents and purposes – get information through…without violating the law. "

Well get to thinking of one, then Chris.

"So then when we observe the particle our end, no information is passed in reality, but we still know something…we have knowledge and that knowledge is dependent on the observation, and the outcome in terms of which particle is spin-up or spin-down."

However, we COULD have sent the bomb to blow up when it got there and then no information passed along.

Sure, but in the 2nd scenario we actually make the decision whether to arm the bomb, and follow a sequential logic and send the command instantaneously to the edge of the galaxy.

I just whacked it onto Brief Ideas tee hee

By Chris Mannering (not verified) on 11 Sep 2015 #permalink

"Sure, but in the 2nd scenario we actually make the decision whether to arm the bomb"

And making the decision makes you arm the bomb, but you still have to send "Bomb be armed!" message.

You can't send that message by measuring an entangled thingy, because you can't decide what you are going to measure.

So you send the message at the speed of light by something else.

Then it has a 50-50 chance of working, since you can't ensure that the measure goes one way.

If you're claiming you're NOT sending a "Bomb be armed" message, then you're not sending a message FTL.

All you're doing is the same thing as "Send the bomb to blow up when it gets there" bomb that moves slower than light.

PS don't bother sending it to the edge of the universe. Nearest star is PLENTY distant.

I concede everything except the next star thing

By Chris Mannering (not verified) on 12 Sep 2015 #permalink

What about the star?

Why is that a dealbreaker? What on earth do you think you're getting by insisting on the "edge of the universe"?

The Fermi Paradox isn't a no-brainer in itself..a lot of assumptions are getting built in, that we can't really vouch for as true. Like...building technology capable of populating a galaxy. To just assume it, is like saying it's inevitability of any scientific society. We're just no where near that level ourselves, and that probably means our estimations don't begin to approach what it really takes. Like the 19th century future fantastic genre. There were some headline features about right, but the picture they had didn't come close.

Another matter is a planet in the habitable zone is not an Earth, it's another gasbal, Neptune or venus. To be an Earth seems to require immense convergences or coincidences of features. People talk about water-worlds, with oceans hundreds of miles deep. The water would become stagnant and poisonous, and the greenhouse gases would wash out of the atmosphere in a few thousands years, causing a freeze over. Or it'd go the other way with greenhouse gases pumping into the sky with no mechanisms to wash it out, no rocks and soil. So it's a poisonous black ink with a cyanide atmosphere quickly ending up frozen or boiled over. It's immensely hard to get an Earth. We don't begin to understand how we happened. We might need to fill that knowledge gap before we can say anything sensible about life in the universe. By the same coin, if we can fill that gap and know how we happened, we'll probably derive enough knowledge from that to know exactly where the planets are and how many, and how old too.

By Chris Mannering (not verified) on 12 Sep 2015 #permalink

OK, do you want to answer my question?

Babbling isn't working.

What are you demanding edge of the universe for? Because you've probably got entirely the wrong idea what the hell that means. But until you explain what you think it does for you, there's no way to work out what you're getting wrong.

Look, it was stipulated from the beginning we would take it to the edge of the galaxy. You bought in, and now it's like everyone else has a problem because you're getting cold feet. We want to you come with us, man, to the edge...but if you can't hack it you can get out and walk home.
umm yeah I was just kidding about not conceding the next star thing. Nearest star it is :)

By Chris Mannering (not verified) on 12 Sep 2015 #permalink

"You bought in,"

Compare and contrast with:

"it was stipulated from the beginning we would take it to the edge of the galaxy"

Are you confused about who I am and what is written?

Stop fucking about, you just look like a retard trolling or dribbling insanity juice on the internet. And if that is the conclusion you're going to push for, any genuine inquiry will be meaningless because I won't be bothered trying to work out whether you're wasting time or not.

I daresay you're going a bit far to call option #4 (probes) "literally crazy", Ethan.

Probes can do something that signals of any kind simply cannot: communicate with you on your own terms. Receiving a "we are peaceful" message from another species doesn't mean very much, but receiving a "they are peaceful" message from your own probe is actually meaningful.

Additionally, should the probe report "they are not peaceful" then it offers the additional advantage of being in a position to judge if the species' technology is close to its own, in particular within however many centuries was the probe's travel time. If so, it could be programmed to release its load of grey goo nanomachines to remove the potential threat to its own civilization's superiority (history shows that on Earth, whenever other species pose a non-negligible threat to either us or our ability to use natural resources, they get the short end of the stick. See: current paucity of megafauna that aren't used for our own food supply).

As for the resources required, you only need to build a single Von Neumann probe in order to explore the entire Universe. Our own global economy's self-perpetuation proves that it's possible and so the problem is a matter of shrinking the process to something that will fit on an interstellar probe. How many centuries - nay, even decades - are we away from that?

Wow - I was obviously kidding in the response "I concede everything except the next star thing"

You can't possible be this obtuse. Your point about the next star was presumably tongue in cheek in itself because you were focusing on a totally peripheral or ancillary concept obviously exchangeable with whatever you want.

It's not really very reasonable to be this uptight and obtuse

By Chris Mannering (not verified) on 12 Sep 2015 #permalink

Dear Ethan,

This is more of a thought than a question but I find it quite entertaining, so here it goes:

Assuming the inherent danger of the contact with a more advanced civilization (I think Steve Hawking has touched on this idea before) and adding to this the speculation from your article would lead to a rather unsettling conclusion: once the thermonuclear power technology is reached that would essentially set off the doomsday clock to the first encounter whether we like it or not. Since the signal is limited by the speed of light it would probably take many centuries until it finally leads to the detection by other neighboring civilizations. The history teaches us that short interest and greed (certainly so, compared to human life span) always prevails over any other consideration so I'm quite pessimistic that any esoteric argument such as staying stealthy in the interest of the security of longer non-discovery by others will be respected UNLESS the technology of "eternal life" (the means of achieving that are still debatable, whether through AI, uploadable consciousness etc.) is developed first!

To sum it up: as a civilization, we must first mature to the status of continuous consciousness (through "eternal life" technologies etc.) and only THEN indulge (or not) in the use of the controlled thermonuclear synthesis power generation, even though the latter may be achievable earlier technologically than the former! We may need to stand the temptation of virtually free power generation for the sake of self-preservation!

Eric, entanglement can’t transfer information since neither side HAS information added when they take one side and measure it. It’s just “Hey, the other one must be up”. How do you send information with that?

Sure I can. All the paradoxes are avoided because the quantum pairs must travel at or below light speed to get to the receiver.
Wow, if you see a message with the character "1" sent within an hour of this message, I'm telling you "you're wrong." If you don't see one, I'm telling you "you're right." And if I send the message 1011, I'm telling you "you really need to think deeper about this before saying it can't be done."

See how easy that was?
Now granted, as I said they are much much easier to use when you're talking about a spaceship of your own people, who have been prepped about what sequence means what. Its (IMO) a really bad form of communication with aliens for this very reason. Let's face it, if you're going to ship them matter constructs larger than single particles (which you probably have to do, to prevent your quantum bits from being 'read' by cosmic radiation), its probably infinitely easier just to send a normal message.

"Wow – I was obviously kidding in the response “I concede everything except the next star thing” "

Obviously kidding is counterproductive. "kidding" further is even more counterproductive. Are you kidding now?

And, frankly, I don't care if you say you're kidding. What is it supposed to change? Next time you ask a question, is it genuine or are you going to be kidding again?

Why should I bother wasting my time if I won't be able to tell if you're kidding or not?

Next time you bring up a question or alternative, is that going to be kidding or a real mistake? Was your question that kidding was kidding about ALSO kidding? The claims after?

"I’m telling you “you really need to think deeper about this before saying it can’t be done.”"

I really have, eric.

And after much deep thought, I wonder if you know what you're talking about. Have YOU thought deeply about whether it's actually possible? Or have you thought "It's up to someone else to prove me wrong?"

If I send you this message, you really need to think deeper AND THEN SAY WHAT THE HELL YOU'RE THINKING.

He already told you what he was thinking, your just not listening.

Eric, read up on Shannon entropy (and zipf law) it's decrease could be essential for the transfer of information thus being a form of intelligent life communication.
About a 1/3rd way through he talks about a study by Laurence Doyle& Brenda McGowan how humans and dolphins communication systems show the same decrease in entropy as you look at longer sequences of sound signals like human communication.
So in essence, aliens trying to communicate already would have a naturally built in prep due to this entropy of information.

By Ragtag Media (not verified) on 12 Sep 2015 #permalink

"He already told you what he was thinking, your just not listening."

No, I was listening. The reply I gave proved it.

You just didn't want to understand.

Because bitch is in your nature.

"Because bitch is in your nature."
I am work in progress, and You?

By Ragtag Media (not verified) on 13 Sep 2015 #permalink

You're just not listening, are you.

Part of the assumption WRT electromagnetic communications being detectable is that they resemble 60s-era broadcasting: a relatively small number of high-powered transmitters. But we already have reason to know from our own experience that that's not an effcient use of spectrum.

Maximal efficieincy is with enormous numbers of very low-power transmitters, which at any distance blend into (literally) incoherent hash. And not especially bright hash, at that.

Good luck picking out a source like that in a sky full of stars.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 13 Sep 2015 #permalink

Just guessing based on todays technology but...

Sending out an electromagnetic message is a lousy idea after spreading out over astronomical distances with the inverse-square law more or less guarantees your signal will be undetectable, even if you hit the sweet spot where there is some civilisation there to read it when it arrives.

A much better idea if you have the time to wait would be to send out probes. Now you would be looking for a message, and also knowing what and when to look for it. You can code a lot into a a stable molecule and send many copied of it back in the hope one might be intercepted and decoded. That won't spread out in an inverse-square fashion, so the message would be intact when it arrived. You would have to be quite cunning to catch a single molecule, but if you are sending out self-replicating probers to explore the galaxy for you, you have probably picked up a trick or two.

By Richard Kirk (not verified) on 13 Sep 2015 #permalink