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The Search for ET Intelligence

Life (Frank H. Jump)

Life (Frank H. Jump)

Actually, what I’m about to discuss is the search for ET life, but you have to start somewhere and it’s getting more clear by the day that alien intelligence is the best hope for us blog denizens to find someone to talk to.

I’ll back up a bit and explain why I’m so interested in this, since I’m a new blogger here and you’re probably saying, “What? What’s all this?” I’m a biologist by trade, taught college for decades, and my main research specialty is evolution in terrestrial orchids. (Seriously. But that’s not as opposed to extraterrestrial orchids, it’s as opposed to the ones that grow in trees.) On the other hand, I found out a while ago that writing is the most fun you can have (except for the usual exceptions) so I’ve also been writing science fiction, and even selling some. Well, with that background, how could I not be fascinated by aliens?

(Don’t let me fool you, however. I’ll be blogging about anything and everything, whether I know diddly about it or not.)

Giordano Bruno

Giordano Bruno


The idea that we’re not alone has a long and fascinating history, going back to Giordano Bruno who got burned at the stake for it. By the time SETI came along, things had advanced from that point. But not too far. You pretty much got burned at the academic stake for being involved in it, if they could get at you, so the field was heavily populated with tenured professors. By now, the astronomers have found so many planets orbiting other stars (including one, maybe more, exoplanets with evidence of water!) that scientists have gone from thinking SETI was for kooks to looking for the life-bearing planets they know are out there.

Just recently, March 9th to be precise, an article came out with such an elegant method of checking for life that we may be hearing about the first find in a matter of years instead of centuries. Life is peculiar in that it prefers molecules that polarize light a certain way (technically termed chirality). Whether or not light is polarized can be seen right across the universe, and whether that polarization has a given chirality or not, likewise.

Hubble photo of polarized light from a star's protoplanetary debris disk

The only problem is that we’re talking about very, very, very faint light here. The light has to bounce off, or pass through the atmosphere of a life-bearing planet before it acquires that signature polarization. Passing through gives the brightest signal, but for that the planet has to transit in front of its parent star, from our perspective, when for two brief moments (coming and going) the star shines through the planet’s atmosphere. That’s a somewhat rare event, and we don’t have too many candidates to check yet, but we do already have the capability to see the signal if we get it.

They could be looking at, for instance, Gliese 581e in the next few months. We might actually know any day now that there’s life besides ours among the stars. Being a total nerd, I’m wildly excited and waiting with bated breath. What do you think? Fun, huh?

(What, you may ask, has this got to do with politics? Absolutely nothing. That’s why I wanted to talk about it.)

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55 Responses

  1. {{quixote}} Welcome to The Confluence! I’m thrilled that you’ve joined us. And I LOVE talking about space aliens….

  2. Wicked kewl!!! Stuff like this has fascinated me for years, but my career choice basically still has me looking for signs of intelligent life forms on this planet.

    Glad you’re posting here and I look forward to learning a lot more from you! Great first post!!!!

  3. Former astronaut Edgar Mitchell believes we are not alone in the universe. He grew up in Area 51. How cool is that?

    http://www.cnn.com/2009/TECH/04/20/ufo.conference/index.html

  4. I have confessed this before, but one of my guilty pleasures is listening to the Coast-to-Coast AM radio show.

    • OK, so what are those cigars really? Do tell, I found that station when vacationing in Tahoe of all places and our host was shocked! I also saw a bear while out on a walk and that was pretty big event for everyone too.

  5. Lovely graphics-elegant writing-I’ll believe in ET when I see them landing here….

    • You can blame me for the first two pics. Quixote was taken by surprise but said they were OK.

  6. quixote7 ,

    My group attends a yearly conference and some times we all go and other time just one or two of us. Well, this year it was only little Ole me there and when I got my notes together to report the latest findings, developments and leaps I had a laugh all by my self.

    Well, as it turns out, one of the main areas of focus was how to get off this planet. 😯 Another one of interest to you all here is the idea of social networks such as this here, which are being looked at as a living cyber organism if you would (how they interact, what impact they have and how changes occur…etc. and one scientist has a program that is postulating something quite fascinating indeed…) and yes, there is someone (more than one) monitoring what ideas are exchanged here (twilight music …na, na, na, na…). So, the latter would tie into the politics aspect and social norms, etc., and as someone noted there are a lot of hits from D.C. 😯

    So, I for one welcome this exchange of ideas and forward thinking. :mrgreen:

    • one scientist has a program that is postulating something quite fascinating indeed…) and yes, there is someone (more than one) monitoring what ideas are exchanged here (twilight music …na, na,

      Do tell…

      • Artificial General Intelligence: Now Is the Time

        This one is closer to the one (below) is closer to the lecture I attended where he was one of the speakers/presenters. He showed a few Power Point slides that showed the activity on the net and gave his postulations on AGI and what would happen when super computers make the next jump. I can’t find a video with those slides…sorry…closest ones I could find.

        Virtual Worlds 2007 – Dr. Ben Goertzel

        • The Hidden Pattern
          The Hidden Pattern presents a novel philosophy of mind, intended to form a coherent conceptual framework within which it is possible to understand the diverse aspects of mind and intelligence in a unified way. The central concept of the philosophy presented is the concept of “pattern”: minds and the world they live in and co-create are viewed as patterned systems of patterns, evolving over time, and various aspects of subjective experience and individual and social intelligence are analyzed in detail in this light.

          Many of the ideas presented are motivated by recent research in artificial intelligence and cognitive science, and the author’s own AI research is discussed in moderate detail in one chapter. However, the scope of the book is broader than this, incorporating insights from sources as diverse as Vedantic philosophy, psychedelic psychotherapy, Nietzschean and Peircean metaphysics and quantum theory. One of the unique aspects of the patternist approach is the way it seamlessly fuses the mechanistic, engineering-oriented approach to intelligence and the introspective, experiential approach to intelligence.
          http://www.amazon.com/Hidden-Pattern-Patternist-Philosophy-Mind/dp/1581129890

          The first paragraph is more attune with the social networking that goes on, on a variety of sites such as this one, where information is exchanged and then you take that information and gain more or formulate your own insights (which you then share).

  7. I am very excited about the two planets. Ever since I read about them, I started wondering: would I go or would I stay? Would they let me take my dog with me? If I go, would this be a forever trip? Is this what makes it so attractive? And other silly questions like that.

  8. Love it! So glad to see your essay, quixote. And hey, my definition of “political” is pretty broad, so not even the possibility of extraterrestrial life escapes it! 😉

    Looking forward to reading more of your work.

    • Mark this day down; April 25th, 2009 The Confluence went into Intergalactic politics. :mrgreen:

    • It can be made political by discussing how the world governments would react. Which country would our dear visitors arrive in first? Would we try to bomb them first and talk afterwards like in the movie The day the world stood still. The original, I haven’t seen the remake. And will they have those cool weapons hollywood predicts they will have. Will we finally have world peace?

      • Another way is that the UFO community is trying to get Obama to release all the classified info on UFO sightings. Apparently some other countries have done it already.

        • Wasn’t it the French?

        • Hillary was for it.

          Hillary and E.T. diplomacy

          Newly confirmed Secretary of State, Hillary Clintonhas long had an interest in UFOs and the existence of extraterrestrial life. She was given an informal briefing in August 1995 by billionaire philanthropist Laurence Rockefeller, on the best available UFO evidence. An August 4, 1995, memo by President Clinton’s Science Advisor, Dr Jack Gibbons, confirmed that the Clintons would be vacationing with Rockefeller at his Teton Ranch in Wyoming that summer, and they would discuss UFOs:
          ———–
          Both Clintons were involved in numerous attempts to force the release of national security files concerning UFOs. According to Grant Cameron, founder of the Presidential UFO website, the “Clintons tried to get UFO documents released as part of President Clinton’s 1995 Executive Order 12958.” Executive Order 12958, was similar to President Obama’s recent January 21, Presidential Memo on “Transparency and Open Government, where he instructed government agencies and departments to relax rules governing the release of national security files.
          ———–

          Hillary Clinton’s subsequent public statements concerning UFOs and alien life show that she was greatly concerned with the negative stereotypes created by Hollywood concerning extraterrestrials. In January 25, 1999 at the White House Fifth Millennium Evening, she said: “Most of the movies about the future show aliens descending from outer space determined to blow up the world, and somehow they always begin or end with Washington, D.C.” Later that same year on June 17, in Paris, she explicitly questioned the rationale behind such movies:

          … often in these movies, for reasons that I question, we have space aliens who are always blowing up Washington, D.C., and the White House.

          http://www.examiner.com/x-2383-Honolulu-Exopolitics-Examiner~y2009m1d24-Hillary-Clinton-favors-diplomatic-response-to-extraterrestrial-life

      • Heh, exactly so. Not to mention whether extraterrestrial bankers would be eligible for a bail-out.

        *ducks*

  9. I believe there is intelligent life out there. We can’t be the only ones in the Universe. I just know. Like Agent Mulder, I want to believe

  10. quixote,

    Where are you…I was hoping for some comments from you, the originator of the topic. 😦

  11. Nice post. The idea that our planet has the only life in the universe is of course very silly. There are bajillions of planets out there. OK, that’s not a real word, but there are lots. And among those are lots that are in a similar zone of proximity to their star(s), and many are likely to have water. I think the universe is teaming with life. And that’s just the kind we recognize as sort of similar to ours (carbon based, etc.). And then among those, there would be various levels of intelligence.

    To me the only question is when we’ll know. And this new light based approach looks very promising. I think by the time we find it, people will have been used to the idea enough that they’ll just kind of say, “yea, whatever.” At least if the life is a long way off. If something’s close then people might say, “um, hope they don’t want to eat us.”

  12. Re where am I: generally under a rock or in the woodwork, hibernating. Honestly, I can’t begin to keep up with this live wire community, neither the front-pagers nor the commenters!

    Re the probability of intelligent life. In the Good Old Days (which I just now noticed acronyms out to GOD, not that that has anything to do with anything) when the Drake equation was first brought up, it was assumed the probabilities of all the elements was incredibly low. I.e. Earth-like planets were terribly rare, those in the water zone around a star even rarer, the likelihood of life appearing infinitesimally rare, and so on. All those probabilities have to multiplied, so the final number of the chance of finding ET was always a decimal point followed by hundreds of zeroes.

    But every time we find out enough to do more than guess at the probabilities, it turns out they’re not so small. There are lots of planets. We’ve already found some earth-like ones, which means they’re very common. Life actually seems to appear more often than not so long as there’s water plus a few organic compounds, and those are so plentiful they’ve even been spotted in interstellar space. And so on.

    At this point, not finding life would be the amazing thing. As for intelligent life, well, based on our experience here, I’m a lot less sure of that ….

    • I heard a guy on NPR talking about extraterrestrial life a couple of weeks ago. He was saying that we are much more likely to find “unintelligent” forms of life. That’s why I loved the idea of extraterrestrial orchids. He also said if there are highly advanced civilizations out there, they might be avoiding us. LOL!

    • The silent cyber type aye? 😳

  13. All I know is I’d much rather read interesting posts like this than “news” on the Obama’s dog. (Not that I have anything against dogs.)

  14. Quixote: Great post on one of my favorite subjects, life on other planets. Recently a former astronaut, Edgar Mitchell, was back in the news on this subject when he stated, unequiovocally, that there is intelligent life on other planets, that earth is being visited and that the world governments are fully aware of it, but keeping it secret.

    Obviously the keeping it secret part isn’t tough to imagine, because the truth of intelligent ET life undermines or calls into question many of the teachings of organized religion. So the fix is in, UNTIL IT IS NO LONGER POSSIBLE. Poor Copernicus & Galileo, paid a heavy price for daring to suggest that the planet earth wasn’t the center of the universe. I’ve never seen an ET (that I recognized 🙂 ) but it is my contention that it only makes sense because:
    1. What a waste of planets and distant galaxies to have them serve only as stars for our night skies or Hubble photos.
    2. More people have seen ET’s than god, or at least there are more people willing to talk about it.

    This is a great subject, thank you for writing about it and I hope you write more about it in the future. By the way, I love the Orchid (face) photo, magnificent.

  15. CarolynKB, Absolutely. Intelligent ET life would undermine the teachings of most organized religions. (Does Scientology count?) The truth that the earth isn’t the center of the universe is much less unsettling to homo sapiens’ than the notion that we are not the center of the universe (and god’s most cherished creation). Most organized religion merely plays to this self-absorption that serves as its foundation.

  16. This was a fun post and a nice break from the standard faire. Not to mention, it’s right up my geek alley!

  17. This is a great post, Quixote – very interesting, something I’d like to see more of. Thanks!

  18. Yes, gxm, I always thought that the God I believe in has a sense of humor and loves innovation – therefore would like to manifest many forms of “life”

    What ego maniacs to believe we are the only “intelligent lifeforms” – intelligent – wow – if this is the best there is the whole universe is in trouble.

    • Doctor Who The Hell Are You?


      “the whole universe is in trouble”… no worries, Doctor WHO will fix things 😆 Any excuse to slip in a Scott. 😉

  19. This site doesn’t talk about ET but AI. Some here might enjoy the topics.

    http://www.sentientdevelopments.com/

  20. Linda,

    I found a topic on ET:
    http://www.sentientdevelopments.com/2009/03/rare-earth-delusion.html
    Quote “March 2, 2009
    The ‘Rare Earth’ delusion
    In my experience, the most common solution given to the Fermi Paradox is the Rare Earth hypothesis — the idea that life in the Galaxy is exceptionally rare and that planets like ours are freakishly uncommon…”

    • I was grumbling about the Drake equation in an earlier comment. I won’t repeat it here, but enough to say that the probabilities we now do know about were too low by orders of magnitude.

      (So, hah! to all those sneering skeptics ;-D )

  21. Quixote, Good post. Thank you; what a fascinating community we have here.

    BTW, I grow a few terrestrial but more epiphytic with a few lithophytic orchids for fun. No interesting mutants so far that I’ve noticed.

    • Yeah, the lithophytic ones always take people by surprise, but really it’s no different from being an epiphyte, except that rocks get much hotter, usually. They’re also *really* hard to grow, most of them, so you must be pretty damn good at it.

  22. Late to the game but I loved this post and the comments. Non-political is good for a change!

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