Science with Sam: Do aliens exist?


Do aliens exist? It’s a question that has spawned countless films and TV series, books, podcasts, artwork and conspiracy theories, but the question of whether or not we are truly alone in the universe remains unanswered. In this episode of Science with Sam, we explain the ongoing hunt for extra-terrestrial life and whether or not they might already be here.

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Video transcript

We humans are obsessed with the idea that we’re not alone, that somewhere out there in the universe, there are other life forms intelligent enough to communicate with us.  Or maybe even destroy us. But if there is life out there, why haven’t we heard from them yet?  Or have we?

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In 1961, the astronomer Frank Drake devised a calculation that predicted the existence of millions of civilisations out there among the stars. His Drake Equation used some fairly speculative assumptions, but it ignited our curiosity.  Are we just one small part of a vast, cosmic zoo?

For physicist Enrico Fermi, the contradiction between this prediction and reality made no sense, and it came to be known as the Fermi Paradox. “Where is everybody?”, he wanted to know. There could be an infinite number of answers to this question. Here are a few:

There is no paradox and we really are alone in the universe

Depressing though it may be, sometimes the simplest answers are the most plausible.

They’re ghosting us

Maybe aliens have a policy not to interfere with less advanced cultures.  A bit like the “prime directive”, on Star Trek.

They don’t live long enough to get in touch

This idea, known as the Great Filter, says that no advanced civilisation survives long enough to still be around when its neighbours are thriving. For us, threats like nuclear war, climate change or pandemics might spell our doom.

They’re already here

From Roswell to The Lubbock Lights, there have been plenty of UFO sightings on Earth. Is the government hiding the evidence? Or is it fake news?

If there are any aliens watching, why not say hi in the comments below? Better yet, click like and subscribe. You might learn a lot about human behaviour from our videos. And, both Aliens and earthlings can get 20 per cent off a New Scientist subscription by using the code SAM20.

The silence from other civilisations is not for want of looking on our part.  In 1960, Drake pointed a radio telescope towards two nearby stars, and waited for that hotline bling. Instead of intelligent messages he got a load of static, and interference from a secret military experiment. Nevertheless, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, was born.

Then, on 15 August, 1977, another SETI program recorded a brief radio signal coming from the direction of Sagittarius. Jerry Ehman, the astronomer analysing the data at ‘Big Ear’ telescope that day, was so excited that he wrote “Wow!” in the margin of the print-out. So far, that ‘Wow!’ signal stands as our most hopeful sign of alien communication yet.

But listening for ET to phone home is a bit like standing by the payphone, waiting for the phone to ring. Maybe we have to make the first move.

Drake tried this too, sending a radio message towards globular star cluster M13. Known as the Arecibo message, it showed potential aliens our DNA structure, solar system and some of the biochemicals of earthly life. We also tried sending aliens a greeting onboard space probes Pioneer 10 and 11, which included images of humans and directions to our planet.

Then, in 1977, we sent a more ambitious message, full of audio and images, on board the Voyager probes. We even included a mixtape of some of our favourite tunes, including Bach, Beethoven, Louis Armstrong and Chuck Berry, to impress any friendly lifeforms – or at least the ones with ears. And if that didn’t entice them to get in touch, maybe this illustration of humans eating, licking and drinking might?!

By now aliens might know quite a lot about us – including what we need to survive and how to reach us. And you might be wondering whether it’s such a good idea to be broadcasting our location all over the galaxy, when we don’t know who’s listening.

“It’s like shouting in a forest before you know if there are tigers, lions, and bears”, says Dan Werthimer, a SETI researcher. Worse still, these bears might have planet-destroying interstellar missiles.

Putting aside the question of whether we should try to contact aliens, are we even doing it right? These alien societies might be millions of years old, so to them our radio messages might look as outdated as flip phones, pagers, and, well, radio.

Plenty of other ways to look for life have been tried or suggested. Here are a few options:

Look for biosignatures

Over time, the biochemistry of billions of creatures can transform a world in distinctive ways. By analysing the wavelengths of light that come through the planet’s atmosphere, we can look for gases that suggest the presence of life.

Look for technosignatures

if we do see signs of life on another planet, that won’t tell us whether it is inhabited by mindless green slime or sentient city-builders. A more reliable approach to look for kindred spirits is to look for chemicals that only intelligent civilisations can produce.

City lights

Aliens with night vision as limited as ours might festoon their built environment with artificial lighting. So maybe we could spot cities lit up on the planet’s dark side.

Aliens on the go

Alien spaceships might be easier to spot than their home planets. Maybe, we can look for high-powered lasers used to push optical sails, or intense plumes of light generated by an antimatter engine, like those imagined in Star Trek.

Megastructures

Aliens might have built gargantuan engineering projects like Dyson spheres, named after the physicist and engineer Freeman Dyson, which are swarms of devices around a star that harvest its energy, and nothing to do with vacuum cleaners

The Ozymandias Effect

The ruins of advanced civilisations doomed by their own technology might have their own telltale signatures. If we find dead civilisations before we find living ones, that might not bode well for our own future.

If we do make contact with aliens, it would be a decisive blow to the idea that humans are the centre of the universe. But how much cooler would it be to discover that we’re just one branch of a vast galactic tree of life?

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