“Fine, I’ll tell you. But I have to warn you, Richard, that your question falls under the umbrella of a pseudoscience called xenology. Xenology is an unnatural mixture of science fiction and formal logic. At its core is a flawed assumption—that an alien race would be psychologically human.”

“Why flawed?” asked Noonan.

“Because biologists have already been burned attempting to apply human psychology to animals. Earth animals, I note.”

“Just a second,” said Noonan. “That’s totally different. We’re talking about the psychology of intelligent beings.”

“True. And that would be just fine, if we knew what intelligence was.”

“And we don’t?” asked Noonan in surprise.

“Believe it or not, we don’t. We usually proceed from a trivial definition: intelligence is the attribute of man that separates his activity from that of the animals. It’s a kind of attempt to distinguish the master from his dog, who seems to understand everything but can’t speak. However, this trivial definition does lead to wittier ones. They are based on depressing observations of the aforementioned human activity. For example: intelligence is the ability of a living creature to perform pointless or unnatural acts.”

“Yes, that’s us,” agreed Noonan.

“Unfortunately. Or here’s a definition-hypothesis. Intelligence is a complex instinct which hasn’t yet fully matured. The idea is that instinctive activity is always natural and useful. A million years will pass, the instinct will mature, and we will cease making the mistakes which are probably an integral part of intelligence. And then, if anything in the universe changes, we will happily become extinct—again, precisely because we’ve lost the art of making mistakes, that is, trying various things not prescribed by a rigid code.”

“Somehow this all sounds so … demeaning.”

“All right, then here’s another definition—a very lofty and noble one. Intelligence is the ability to harness the powers of the surrounding world without destroying the said world.”

Roadside Picnic – Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
Read more

NASA Meets Theologians to Discuss How We Respond to E.T.

The audience was given an update on the current search for extraterrestrial biology including finding chemical signatures in atmospheres of exoplanets that indicate life, direct observation such as Curiosity uncovering layers of carbon strata as it climbs the hills around Mt. Sharp, or detection of radio signals which would indicate intelligent life elsewhere. They were then asked how humanity should handle such discoveries. If we discovered microbial life, what kind of impact would that have on us? If we discovered a technically sophisticated life, what would our reaction be? Further discussions focused on transcending anthropocentric thinking, questioning whether we should assume that all life was built on the same principles as life here on Earth, that our biology wasn’t universal. In the event of coming across life built on chemistry different from ours, would we even recognize it as life?

Theologians were asked to consider the status of alien life within the context of morality. What would be our responsibilities in dealing with extraterrestrials whether microbial or more complex life forms? We humans here on Earth have shown through past behavior little regard for other living things. If we can’t eat them or domesticate them to help us then we often decimate them. It’s only recently that conservation and biodiversity have been adopted as core values within our human existence. So in discovering life elsewhere what would be our behavior? Destroyer or conservationist?

In one session Christian theologians were asked if they would baptize an extraterrestrial A Jesuit in attendance is quoted by the Huffington Post as stating “any entity – no matter how many tentacles it has – has a soul.” So on the question of baptism, if E.T. asked baptism would be granted.

NASA Meets Theologians to Discuss How We Respond to E.T.

Read more "NASA Meets Theologians to Discuss How We Respond to E.T."

In terms of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), it may no longer be a matter of answering the “are we alone” question, some scientists say. Rather, just how crowded is the universe?

And if ET is out there, it may be possible to reach out with direct “radio waving” to potentially habitable exoplanets. This form of cosmic cryptography, called “Active SETI,” involves no longer merely listening for a signal but purposefully broadcasting to, and perhaps establishing contact with, other starfolk.

“It’s a subject of discussion, I’ll put it that way,” said Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. There have been many workshops and symposia over the years to discuss Active SETI, he said, and because it has a highly emotional component, “it’s like a third rail in a way,” he said.

Shostak told Space.com that he feels the topic is not something to worry too much about.

“But there may not be that perception in the broader public … that we have discussed this to death. They haven’t seen these discussions nor participated in them,” he said.

But exoplanet detections are making news around the world, Shostak said. “That’s putting the whole question of life in space in front of the public in a way that perhaps wasn’t true 20 years ago.”

Still, trying to figure out what’s the best thing to do, in terms of Active SETI, is a work in progress, Shostak said. “What is the best way to communicate? What do you do…just ping them with a carrier wave and you encode Wikipedia? If you are going to do it, what’s the best way to communicate?”

“[Hawking]’s right about our immaturity as a species,” Impey told Space.com, “but I think the argument is moot since intelligent civilizations are likely to be so sparsely distributed that communication in either direction is difficult or unlikely.”

Active SETI, Impey said, “makes us feel a little more proactive, but I think it’s a long shot worse than buying a lottery ticket.”

For Impey, the “promising approach” is not conventional SETI or broadcasting, but detection of civilizations by their energy or technology imprints, “and that avoids all the issues of intention and communication and the anthropocentric tangle people get into with that.”

“I am for passive SETI programs, and in fact would advocate for renewed government funding after a 20-year lapse,” Dick told Space.com. “That’s because the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence is one of the great unsolved mysteries of science.”

Dick said that the current NASA astrobiology hunt is centered on microbes, but surely there should be an effort to go beyond micro-organisms and search for complex life with whatever means are available.

“On the other hand, I would not propose government funding for messaging extraterrestrial intelligence. I think we need to find ET first, and then have a period where a team consisting of scientists, social scientists and humanities people consider what the message should be,” Dick said.

“Having said that, it would be very difficult to regulate individual or institutional projects that wish to attempt messaging extraterrestrial intelligence, and I would not advocate attempting to regulate,” Dick said. In his opinion, there is an equal chance that ET will be good or bad.

“We do not yet know enough about the evolution of altruism on Earth, much less among other possible intelligent life forms, to say ETs will all be good,” Dick said. “That is a hope rather than a fact.”

But haven’t we already revealed ourselves with TV signals, military radar and other outputs into the cosmos? Even music is wafting across the universe, purposely directed toward a specific star.

That is true, Dick said, but it’s not the same as sending a directed beam to a habitable exoplanet target.

“Still, the idea of planet Earth cowering and afraid to engage the universe is not a planet I would want to live on. SETI attempts are part of our rising cosmic consciousness, and as such cannot be stifled,” Dick said. “That this is the subject of such controversy…it’s an indication of how seriously the subject of intelligent life in the universe is now taken!”

“But Active SETI is not science,” said Michaud. “It is an attempt to provoke a response from an alien society whose capabilities and intentions are not known to us.”

Those most eager to send high-powered messages want their efforts to have consequences, Michaud said, not just for themselves, but for the entire human species. “There is no scientific or historical evidence telling us that the consequences of contact will be those they prefer." 

Michaud says that an alien society able to detect our signals almost certainly would be more technologically advanced than our own, and might be capable enough and patient enough to send  probes across light-years of space. Scientists and engineers have shown that robotic spacecraft able to reach nearby stars would be feasible for a civilization only slightly in advance of our own.

Michaud takes issue with the old claim that we already have been detected or that detection is inevitable. Experts have shown that the normal signals emitted by Earth are too weak to be heard at interstellar distances without colossal antennas, he said.

"Sending deliberate, unusually powerful signals is a decision that belongs properly with all Humankind,” Michaud said. “We should have an open debate about whether or not to call attention to ourselves by making our civilization more detectable than it already is.”

Read more

fuckyeahdarkextropian:

Jill Tarter: 30 Seconds On Why We Search For Aliens

We should be searching for life beyond the earth because we want to understand what the laws of chemistry and physics have produced in this universe. Are we the only life there is? Are we the only intelligent species, or are we one of many? How do we fit in? It’s a very old question, humans have asked it, and we want to find the answer.

It is that simple and profound.

Cosmic Anthropology for Beginners.

Read more

fuckyeahdarkextropian:

So this acolyte of Nick Bostrom at Oxford writes: Habitable exoplanets are bad news for humanity:

Last week, scientists announced the discovery of Kepler-186f, a planet 492 light years away in the Cygnus constellation. Kepler-186f is special because it marks the first planet almost…

Read more

Discovery of life on other worlds could cause the earth’s civilization to collapse, a Federal report said today.

This warning was contained in a research report given to the National Aeronautical and Space Administration with the recommendation that the world prepare itself mentally for the eventuality.

The report, prepared by the Brookings Institution, said “while the discovery of intelligent life in other parts of the universe is not likely in the immediate future, it could nevertheless, happen at any time.” Discovery of Intelligent beings on other planets could lead to an all-out effort by earth to contact them, or it could lead to sweeping changes or even the downfall of civilization, the report said.

Even on earth, it added, “societies sure of their own place have disintegrated when confronted by a superior society, and others have survived even though changed.”

“Clearly, the better we can come to understanding the factors involved in responding to such crisis the better prepared we may be.”

The agency’s 100-page report, prepared at a cost of $86,000 was for the space agency’s committee on beings-in-space studies. The members, headed by Donald M. Michael also recommended further study of other space activities, including the symptomatic and propaganda effects and the implications of communications and weather satellites.

On the question of life in outer space, the report said that if intelligent or super-intelligent beings were discovered in the next twenty years they would probably be found by radio communications with other solar systems.

Evidence of such existence “might also be found in artifacts left on the moon or other planets,” it said.

Read more

Your Boring, Crowded Universe: The Whisky Rant (Part 6)

Your Boring, Crowded Universe: The Whisky Rant (Part 6)

Read more "Your Boring, Crowded Universe: The Whisky Rant (Part 6)"

My favourite “I’m tipsy” pondering about the Singularity is: Why do we assume we’re the first species to try it? — Kevin Schmidt (@moonandserpent) January 20, 2014 So we uplift ourselves up the scale and when we go to inhabit all matter with consciousness we found out the last Type Omega civ beat us. — […]

Read more

Could this be the year we make contact with aliens? – Telegraph         

The year also saw growing evidence for a puzzling slowdown in global warming (almost certainly explained by the function of the world’s oceans as a gigantic heat sink), the suggestion that our galaxy may be home to a billion or more “Earths” (making the continuing non-appearance of ET ever more mysterious), and China’s further advance into space, with a successful landing on the Moon of a wheeled robotic rover. India, too, has entered the space premier league with the launch of the Mars Orbiter spacecraft on November 5.

Our machines have so far made successful landings on the Moon, the planets Mars and Venus, and Saturn’s moon Titan. Next November a small robotic probe called Philae will detach from the Rosetta spacecraft (a European mission to explore comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko) and land on its surface.

Comets are deeply mysterious objects. Though often called “dirty snowballs” due to their composition of various ices, including water, they are actually lumps of complex chemistry, including organic compounds. It should be stressed here that “organic” in the chemical sense means “contains carbon” rather than “alive”, but that has not stopped some scientists speculating that comets, and objects like them, may act as cosmic dispersal systems for primordial microbes throughout the universe (a hypothesis called panspermia, which sounds crazy yet which has never been entirely discredited). Philae, some of whose components were built in Britain, may answer the question of whether comets supplied the early Earth with the bulk of its oceanic water. And it will provide some spectacular images.

In April 2013 an instrument aboard the ISS called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), a particle detector, picked up an anomaly in the cosmic rays it was analysing – an unexpectedly large number of antimatter particles. This is interesting because one mechanism to explain this involves interaction between high-energy cosmic rays and a good candidate for the “dark matter particle”, the neutralino – a heavy, stable critter that in theory has all the properties needed to explain dark matter.

If the AMS confirms in 2014 that it has indeed found dark matter – a large component of the “missing mass” of the Universe (the other being “dark energy”) – that would be a spectacular triumph for the ISS, and a rebuttal of those critics who have dubbed it the ultimate white elephant. It would also probably mean a second Nobel for the instrument’s lead investigator, MIT’s Samuel Ting.

Nasa’s Mars mega-rover, Curiosity, which landed in Gale Crater in August 2012 and has been trundling around since, has made a number of interesting scientific discoveries. These include finding conglomerate rocks that were probably laid down in an ancient river, and recent confirmation that “life-friendly” conditions (ie, warmish weather and liquid water) pertained on this part of the Red Planet’s surface billions of years ago.

But Curiosity has not found microbial life on Mars, nor evidence of past life. Its critics say it was a mistake not to equip it with a life-detector (such as was fitted to the twin Viking landers of 1976) and that Curiosity represents a missed opportunity. Perhaps, but there is a chance that the nuclear-powered machine could detect something interesting in 2014 as it begins its long ascent up the flanks of 18,000ft Mount Sharp, which lies in the middle of the crater. If Mars was ever home to microbial life, or even something bigger, then Curiosity might – just might – be able to spot the fossil evidence in the rocks. And it is possible – just possible – that it could even spot something alive: a very long shot, perhaps, but Mars is a very strange place and may yet surprise us.

The longest shot of all, and there is no reason to believe that it is any more likely to happen in 2014 than the year after or indeed a thousand years hence. But that said, the more we learn about the universe the more, not less, curious it seems that we are apparently alone. When scientists including Enrico Fermi and Frank Drake first started seriously speculating about the possibility of extraterrestrial civilisations more than half a century ago, astronomers knew of only one solar system in the whole of the cosmos – ours. Now we know of more than a thousand, several containing apparently Earthlike planets, a handful of which may lie in their stars’ “habitable zone”, an orbit in which it is neither too hot nor too cold for liquid water to exist.

All this raises the question: where the heck is everybody? Given that we have the technology today (but not as yet the money) to build telescopes big enough to spot signs of life spectroscopically on nearby “Earth analogues”, if intelligent life is as common as some suspect then it is certain that by now the aliens have used their telescopes to detect us. Maybe a signal is overdue. Or maybe someone is on their way. Or, of course, there is simply no one out there. The wonderful thing is that any of these possibilities is equally awe-inspiring.

Could this be the year we make contact with aliens? – Telegraph         

Read more "Could this be the year we make contact with aliens? – Telegraph         "