Over Two Hundred Alien Civilisations Trying To Contact Us - Or Maybe Not
Hot news in science this week (though it's not really science) is the claim by a Canadian astronomer that his search for extra terrestrial intelligence has identified incoming data from 234 alien civilisations. One of the problems in assessing claims like this is in the world of scientific research a lot of the people involved are science fans rather than scientists. This goes double for fields such as astronomy and space travel. Here's a sceptical but objective look at the latest claims.
Earth Calling Enterprise
Four years ago, in 2012, Ermanno Borra, an astronomy research fellow at Laval University in Quebec published a theory proposing that extraterrestrial civilisations might use lasers as a means of sending messages over the mind boggling distances between their solar systems and ours.
If intelligent life forms send pulses of laser light in the direction of Earth, in the way that computer networking devices sends pulses of light along fibre - optic cables, in theory we would be able to capture and decode messages contained in the light streams and, using standard equipment would be able to subject the collected data to mathematical analysis.
“The kind of energy needed to generate this signal is not crazy,” Borra has said, when demonstrating that technology available to us now, the Helios laser at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for example – could generate that kind of signal, should we want to reveal ourselves to the cosmos.
Since then Borra’s and his post - graduate student Eric Trottier have sifted through data from two and a half million stars gathered by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey in search of such a signal in search of something that looks to have been generated by intelligent beings. And they found something, not on thing in fact but 234 stars.
The overwhelming majority of those stars are in the same spectral class as the sun supports the hypothesis that this signature must be the result of extraterrestrial intelligent life, Borra told New Scientist. He believes that 234 alien civilisations are beaming pulses of the same periodicity (roughly 1.65 picoseconds) toward the Earth.
Is The Truth Out There?
The publication of Borra's findings (and the conclusions he draws from them, ) has triggered a lot of discussion in the astronomy business as other academics either jump on the bandwagon or dismiss the claim as premature. Some University astronomy departments have teams working flat out to get to analyze the signals and either demonstrate there is some substance in them or show that, as is often the case with these great scientific advances, Borra’s imagination might be running away with him.
Borra and Trottier rule out alternative explanations (and there are plenty available) for the phenomenon, such as pulsations in the magnetic field of the stars themselves or transitions in molecules.
“We have to follow a scientific approach, not an emotional one,” says Borra, before contradicting himself by adding, “But intuitively – my emotion speaks now – I strongly suspect that it’s an ETI signal.”
Not all astronomers are as eager to be convinced however. Peter Plavchan at Missouri State University said of Borra's theory, “They don’t consider every natural possibility and jump prematurely to the supernatural – so to speak – conclusion. I think it’s way too premature to do that.”
“There is perhaps no bolder claim that one could make in observational astrophysics than the discovery of intelligent life beyond the Earth,” commented Andrew Siemion, the director of the SETI Research Centre at the University of California Berkeley, where professional stargazers have been monitoring incoming radiation for signs of intelligent life for nearly sixty years, “It’s an incredibly profound subject—and of course that’s why many of us devote our lives to the field and put so much energy into trying to answer these questions. But you can’t make such definitive statements about detections unless you’ve exhausted every possible means of follow-up.”
A project headed by Siemion will search the skies for signs of Borra's 234 alien civilisations or any other intelligent life beyond Earth. A project has been set up to observe several stars from Borra’s sample with the Automated Planet Finder telescope at Lick Observatory, California.
Borra is excited to see fellow astronomers are taking him seriously. “At this stage, the signal is so strange, that although our detailed analysis seems to indicate that it is a real signal, it has to be validated with more work,” he says.
Still, Siemeion's team does not yet share Borra’s enthusiasm, they have rated the likelihood of detecting meaningful data at zero to 1 on the Rio Scale for SETI observations, meaning that it is statistically insignificant.
Siemion postulates that the spectral patterns which excited Borra and his team were probably caused by calibration errors in the sensor equipment or sloppy programming in the data analysis software. And at Missouri Plavchan agrees. He highlights several points in the in the data analysis that “scared him” because they didn’t consider how the operation might affect their results - a big no-no in any scientific research (except Big Pharma's clinical trials of new drugs of course). In the end this evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence will probably be found to be down to human error, he says.
“It’s not a bad idea to look for a signal, it’s just that they didn’t do their homework,” Plavchan concluded.
Sorry ET, you can't phone home yet, not from Earth at least. But we're working on it.
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