Close Encounters mothership.jpg

It’s strange that, living on a planet that teems with millions of different species, humans wonder if we’re “alone in the universe”.

The question usually refers to conscious, thinking beings like ourselves, not just any form of life. But the first step to knowing if there are other sentient beings in the cosmos is to find out if there is any kind of life beyond Earth at all. That’s not an easy search.

For one thing, it’s only in the past few decades that we could say for certain there are planets orbiting stars other than our own sun. It didn’t make sense that our sun would be one-of-a-kind, but it took modern astronomical equipment and detection methods to confirm the existence of extrasolar planets. Now astronomers speculate that most stars probably have planets, and most likely have one or two planets in the so-called habitable zone, which we define as habitable because their orbits should provide surface temperatures that allow for liquid water. It bears saying that the liquid water temperature range is what we humans and similar life forms require for survival, but even here on Earth we’ve discovered life forms that exist in hellishly extreme conditions, like deep-sea volcanic vents and under Antarctic ice. Plus we can imagine life based on elements like silicon instead of the carbon molecules that construct Earth organisms, increasing the number of planets that might be inhabitable by some kind of life. Given that there are hundreds of billions of stars in a galaxy and hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe, the number of possibly-habitable planets is… really, really high! And let’s not forget that uninhabitable planets, like gas giants, might have habitable moons. (Jupiter’s moon Europa is a strong possibility for hosting life.) That multiplies the numbers yet again.

All of this should give a boost to science fiction writers because, in all the vastness of the universe, every one of our stories about strange alien species and civilizations could be reasonably plausible.

The skeptic will ask, “So where is everybody?” (known as Fermi’s Paradox.)

Which brings me to my second point, that signs of life are really hard to identify as such because they could have other causes. For example, living species are known to have provided Earth’s atmosphere with oxygen, but it can be produced by other chemical processes, too—oxygen markers in the spectral analysis of a planet’s atmosphere are no guarantee of life. So when it comes to basic life in general, we can identify places that have conditions we believe would support life, but we can’t know it’s actually there until we go and take samples. Look how challenging that’s been on Mars, and it’s the planet next door!

It should be easier to find signs of advanced alien life-forms because we expect civilizations to give off indications of high energy use, or even radiate electromagnetic transmissions like the TV and radio signals we’ve been shooting off into the void for decades. Except we have no reason to expect that an alien species would have senses comparable to our vision and hearing—they might not even be able to detect our TV and radio signals, much less interpret them, and we might not be able to detect their forms of communication. There could be lots of civilizations relatively near to us, yet communicating and using energy in ways so different from our own that we don’t recognize what we’re looking at. Or we’re not using the right instruments to distinguish them at all.

The difficulty is made many times worse by the vastness of the universe. In a recent study published in The Astronomical Review, the researchers wondered how much of the local galactic neighbourhood had actually been searched by SETI efforts (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), listening for potentially alien radio signatures. They picked a zone of space roughly 33,000 light years across, comprising a good portion of our galaxy’s densest part plus nearby globular clusters, and they determined that, proportionally, the area that had been effectively searched was the equivalent of a bathtub of water compared to all of Earth’s oceans. I guess there’s a chance we could have missed something!

SETI was relegated to a back burner for a few years, but has now been welcomed back into the astrobiology fold, and there’s no doubt we will continue to expand the areas of space that we’re searching and improve our search methods.

Technology can be great. But will we put as much effort into the implications of all this? There are lots of big questions to be answered. How will our society cope with the knowledge that life exists elsewhere, especially if it’s an advanced species? How will we, as a race, behave when we encounter such life?

I’ll get into those things a little more in my next post. So keep your fingers crossed that ET doesn’t show up before then!


Continuing analysis from the data gathered by the Kepler space telescope shows that of all the stars in our galaxy that our similar to our sun, possibly one out of every five has an Earth-size planet orbiting in the habitable zone—with temperatures that permit liquid water. That could mean billions of planets out there capable of supporting life that wouldn’t be completely strange to us. We don’t have to imagine unrecognizable life forms that breathe chlorine or methane or are made of silicon (although those are still possible, I suppose).

Why does this news excite us? Unless we manage to make an end run around the laws of physics—inventing warp drive, harnessing wormholes, or something equally exotic and improbable—we’ll never be able to get to more than a handful of those planets. They’re just too far away. Perhaps we could found a colony or two, but it’s really the thought of other intelligent life that’s the compelling part, isn’t it? Is there something comforting in the thought that we’re not alone in the universe—that somewhere “out there” others are looking back in our direction and asking the same questions? Even if we will never meet?

It’s fun to remember all of the different ways we’ve imagined alien species. For most of TV and movie history, there were the limitations of makeup, costumes, and puppetry. Think of the green Orion slave girls of Star Trek, or Mr. Spock himself, or Klingons and Romulans, Cardassians and Ferengi. Give them some prosthetics and suddenly they’re children of another star. Aliens from lower-budget shows like Lost In Space were embarrassingly cheesy. Dr. Who brought us dozens of roughly humanoid species, or human-sized robotic entities like Daleks and Cybermen. And then there’s one of the most popular tropes of all: aliens that make themselves look exactly like humans so they can a) hide among us, or b) communicate without frightening us. I hope the guy who thought of that one got a juicy bonus from his producer.

With computer graphics, Hollywood can make aliens look like anything they want, but so much depends on whether they’re meant to be our allies or enemies. Wookies and Ewoks are just teddy bears on different scales. E.T. the Extraterrestrial is ugly but cuddly. And then there are the willowy, large-eyed hairless aliens of The X-Files, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and others: they’re like us but smarter-looking because they don’t have to shave anymore and obviously have machines to do all the work, eliminating the need for actual muscles. But if an alien species is supposed to be an implacable enemy, they look like something from the insect world: the Bugs of Starship Troopers and the Buggers of Ender’s Game, or even the acid-dripping Aliens that made Sigourney Weaver’s life Hell. Somehow there’s never a giant can of Raid around when you need one.

The truth is, even our wildest imaginations couldn’t have come up with all of the bizarre manifestations of life to be found right here on our home planet, from the hidden depths of rain forests to deep-ocean volcanic rifts (though hopefully tube-worms aren’t intelligent). So we don’t have much hope of correctly imagining what’s “out there”. Is it still comforting to think of life on other planets? Give me your answer the next time you wake up from a nightmare about a slimy demon bursting from your chest.

The Kepler Failure and Area 51: Coincidence?

Two science stories linked themselves in my brain this past weekend. The first was NASA’s announcement that they’ve given up trying to fix the Kepler space telescope. The Kepler was launched in March of 2009 with a mission to find planets orbiting other stars. It does this by spotting the almost indiscernible drop in the light from a star when one of its planets passes in front of it. The telescope needs to stay perfectly aligned and absolutely still for long periods of time, and to achieve this it has four reaction wheels that act like gyroscopes to stop wobble. One of the wheels quit in July 2012 and a second stopped this past May. NASA engineers have tried since then to work a fix, but have now officially given up and instead are soliciting suggestions for other missions Kepler could undertake. That’s a real shame for several reasons: for one, it cost $550 million dollars (and no-one wants to see that kind of money wasted), but more importantly because Kepler has confirmed the existence of 135 planets around other stars and identified 3500 other possible candidates—it succeeded brilliantly at its job and we now have better evidence than ever that there are other places in the galaxy where life might exist.

The other story of the week for geeks is that the CIA finally confirmed the existence of its secret base in Nevada, the infamous Area 51. Unless you’ve been living in a cave you’ll know that Area 51 has been at the center of one of the most enduring of all conspiracy theories, involving the supposed storage and testing of an alien spacecraft from a crash in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. A Freedom Of Information request by George Washington University National Security Archive resulted in the de-classification of a report called “The Secret History of the U-2” revealing not only the existence of Area 51 in the Nevada desert, but the fact that it had been used for the testing and development of the ultra-high-flying U-2 spy plane, which had resulted in an increase in UFO reports at the time.

Why do we want so badly to believe in alien life from other worlds? Is it because we’re actually not all that fond of our fellow human beings? Is it the innate love of imagined monsters and things that go bump in the night? Are we yearning to have our deepest questions about existence answered by someone who might know more than we do—maybe even find God, whatever we imagine God to be? Or is it that we’re desperately hoping for someone to help us out of this deep hole we’ve dug for ourselves (climate change, pollution, nuclear proliferation—name your poison)?

I’ve never believed the stories about Area 51 and aliens. (A government keeping a secret like that for so long? Please.) But it seems unthinkable that Life wouldn’t have arisen anywhere else in this vast universe, and some places are much older than our neighbourhood. It’s a stretch to accept that any race could have bridged the distances between stars, but as a big Star Trek fan I obviously hope that it’s possible. Heck, one-time Canadian Defense Minister Paul Hellyer has testified in public that "at least four species" of alien have been visiting Earth for "thousands of years." He’s a former defense minister—maybe he does know something we don’t.

Then it hit me—the reason my brain linked these stories together:

Maybe the aliens got together and subtly sabotaged the Kepler spacecraft because we were getting too close to discovering their home worlds.

Now there’s a conspiracy theory for you!