New series in production!

Stay tuned.

SCIENCE CHECK: E.T., Phone Earth…If You Can

We all remember how that lovable alien creature wanted to phone home. But could he and his kindred be calling us now? That’s the question being asked after an analysis of light fluctuations from 2.5 million stars indicated that some 234 of the stars showed a strange anomaly that cannot be explained by astrophysics. Published in Solar and Stellar Astrophysics on October 10, 2016, the research paper has been the talk of the town, especially after another recent, supposed space signal turns out to have come from a Russian satellite.

Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer at SETI and all around great guy

Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer at SETI and all around great guy

To investigate the story and sort out the truth from fiction, Recursor spoke with Dr. Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute, author of over 400 articles on popular science, and host of SETI’s podcast Big Picture Science. The TL; DR is this: Starman wasn’t real! But is there alien life among the stars? Yes, but not how you might think of it.

First of all, what’s with the 234 stars? Shostak says the light fluctuations identified in the research paper are not likely to be the results of aliens trying to communicate with us.

Here’s why: The 234 stars “show evidence of sending the same signals into space,” explains Shostak. “That’s like all the AM stations on the radio broadcasting the same piece of music at the same time. To make that happen, it would have to be coordinated.” Yet with the stars so far apart — and no Millennium Falcon to make the Kessel Run — the level of coordination involved would not have been easy. “On the face of it, that sounds a little unlikely,” he says.

On top of that challenge, the signal highlighted by the paper is only a few bits long, says Shostak, the equivalent of broadcasting a single tune into space. “Across the Universe” by the Beatles, perhaps. A message that short doesn’t make sense any more than coordinating star signals across galaxies. “If you were going to send a message to communicate with us, you’d think you would say everything you could.” In other words, you’d send books and symphonies, not a single broadcast of “Space Oddity,” no matter how much you love Bowie.

So, if not aliens, what’s responsible? Shostak says it’s most likely the result of the challenges that come with analyzing large batches of data, a task that is complex, complicated, and hard to replicate. “What you’re seeing [in the data] may be a product of the analysis, not the stars themselves,” he says.

That’s not to say scientists should give up looking for life among the stars and take to driving for Uber. “Just because something seems improbable doesn’t mean it’s not true,” Shostak says. Scientists seek to replicate studies for just that reason. “To follow up on what the researchers found, we should do more observations on five to ten of those stars and use an instrument with good calibration.” If the stars really are acting wonky, further observation will detect it, though Shostak thinks it’s unlikely.

Rock bed at Gillespie Lake outcrop on Mars. Scale bar – 15 cm. Image credit: NASA.

Rock bed at Gillespie Lake outcrop on Mars. Scale bar – 15 cm. Image credit: NASA.

But, are there alien life forms out there? The answer is…possibly. “If there are forms of alien life,” Shostak says, “they would likely be microbial.” That’s why scientists are studying bodies within our own solar system — Mars, as well as the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, which all have had or still have oceans. “A world like Europa has twice as much ocean as the Earth,” Shostak explains. “Maybe there’s some life in it, but there would be very little energy because there’s so little sunlight. Possibly there’d be biota like what you find in the deepest parts of the Earth’s oceans.”

If there are intelligent aliens out there, Shostak thinks they won’t be humanoid. “Any aliens we ever learn about are going to be much more advanced than we are. They’ll have technology far beyond our own. They could be millions of years more advanced than us,” he says. So, no grey aliens with big eyes.

But AI? Possibly. “Once you have machines that can think, they can do this,” he says. “Evolution will no longer be Darwinian but Lamarckian. Alien life, if we encounter it, will probably be some sort of machinery.”

Like Nina_Unlocked, perhaps, if she’s willing to travel.