'Extraterrestrials, Ego and Exploration: Mankind’s Search for Alien Intelligence', by Nick Taras

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Illustration by Lucy Roleff.

15th August 1977. Released only a few months earlier, Star Wars ignited America’s imagination unlike anything before. For two hours, audiences are spellbound by aliens, droids, weird worlds and metaphysical forces set in a galaxy far, far away. While the setting and characters of the film are appreciated by the public as fiction, at 11:16pm on 15th August 1977, a computer inconspicuously records six typographic characters onto a print out at The Big Ear radio telescope at Ohio State University. The characters are 6 E Q U J 5. These six symbols are overwhelmed on a single page smothered by thousands of 1s and 2s – two digits that plague all the other pages too.

The calendar reads Monday, and nobody will pay attention to the special print-out until midweek. What is considered, with much controversy, to perhaps be mankind’s first recording of a radio signal from an intelligent, extraterrestrial being, sits on top of Dr Jerry R. Ehman’s desk, waiting to be noticed by human eyes.

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The question, “Are aliens out there?” arises more so from the human ego than from genuine curiosity. If the answer is assumed to be ‘yes’, then the follow-up questions are generally more concerned with humans than the aliens: “How will extraterrestrials be different to mankind?”, “What will aliens do to humanity?”, “What will that mean for humanity’s origins?”, etc.

If any of you have smoked marijuana with a stranger, you will maybe have heard these questions before; any article about aliens is always at risk of becoming infected with stoner hypotheticals. This column, however, is not about UFOs, Area 51, conspiracy theories and what-ifs; this is an investigation of scientific exploration of the extraterrestrial unknown.

Mankind knows life in the universe is possible – Earth is confirmation. Vampires, werewolves, goblins and superheroes are shackled by the boundaries of myth, whereas aliens are the most rational hope for discovery of the supernatural. If their existence is ever confirmed, humanity’s exclusive status would be challenged, and the ego would be confronted like never before.

Mankind’s search for celestial company is incessant: from a mysterious interstellar radio signal, to billion dollar missions in search of life, to a mathematical equation that suggests mankind is not alone, to a controversial Martian meteorite that may be evidence of alien life. But why is humanity obsessed with the question: “Is mankind alone?”

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Dr Ehman begins flipping through the banal print-outs, as was his routine for years, until his eyes glimpse the 6 E Q U J 5 sequence amongst pages and pages of 1s and 2s. Immediately, Dr Ehman circles the six characters with his trembling red pen, and writes ‘Wow!’ in large letters to their left. The radio source would henceforth become known as the infamous ‘Wow! signal’.

The signal, originating somewhere within the Sagittarius constellation, is one of the most fascinating unsolved mysteries in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. The Big Ear radio telescope, prior to 1973, searched for phenomena that produced ‘wideband’ radio sources, such as galaxies and stars. However, in 1973 a decision was made that the telescope would scan the sky for ‘narrowband’ sources, which are almost always intentionally made by intelligent beings. AM, FM, television and radar are all narrowband sources, and 6 E Q U J 5 is a pattern that would be expected of a narrow frequency band.

Dr Ehman phones his colleagues with the exciting news. His team anxiously analyse the data and the oddity of the discovery is confirmed. The group discern where the signal originated from and redirect The Big Ear in its direction. But there’s a problem – a crucial one. The signal never returns. To this day, this signal—one that could very well have come from an alien civilisation—has never been heard again. No matter how profound a discovery, re-testability is not negotiable in science. Replication is a necessity. In ‘The Big Ear Wow! Signal 30th Anniversary Report’, written in 2007, Dr Ehman concludes that the likelihood that the signal originated on Earth has “been either ruled out or seems improbable…the origin of the Wow! signal is still an open question” and that only poor science would “draw vast conclusions from ‘alf-vast’ data.”

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Astronomers at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics have estimated that there are 17 billion Earth-like planets in Earth’s galaxy – and there are 100 billion galaxies in the known universe. But how many planets are likely to harbour intelligent life able to make contact with Earth? In April 1960, Dr Frank Drake at the Greenbank Observatory in West Virginia performed the first modern SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) experiment – he pointed a radio telescope into space and tried to eavesdrop on the whispers of aliens. For perhaps the first time, humanity wasn’t simply waiting for alien contact – people were actively searching for a connection.

Drake was asked by the National Academy of Sciences to try to ground this new, exciting research area in science. The astronomer chaired a meeting with the cognoscenti of extraterrestrial life, including iconic astronomer Carl Sagan and eccentric neuroscientist John C. Lilly (who would go on to perform experiments involving LSD, dolphins and sensory deprivation tanks). Together Drake and his team devised the revolutionary Drake equation – an estimate of the number of current civilisations in the Milky Way galaxy that may be able to communicate with Earth. The equation looks like this:

N = R* × fp × ne × fl × fi × fc × L

The Drake equation calculates that the number of radio-communicable alien civilisations in this galaxy (N) is equal to how many stars are formed every year multiplied by how many of those stars have planets multiplied by the number of those planets that could support life multiplied by how many of those planets that could support life actually develop life at one point multiplied by how many of those planets develop intelligent life multiplied by how many of those planets develop radio technology multiplied by how long those civilisations emit detectable signals.

That year, Drake and his colleagues—based on available information at the time—produced a modest guess of approximately 50,000 planets with civilisations capable of developing radio technology. Modern estimates are hotly debated – many suggest the existence of up 50 million planets, but the number isn’t particularly important. Even though the equation relies on guessing a few unknown variables, the Drake equation was to the imagination of young scientists what Star Wars was to the public. The equation provided mathematical hope, bringing a ridiculed concept down to Earth.

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While efforts like SETI are listening for signals of sophisticated intelligence in the depths of Earth’s galaxy, scientists are planning missions to find microbial life in the solar system. Micro-organisms do not require the complex environments that macro life-forms do. However, repercussions of discovering micro-organisms are just not as broad as finding intelligent life. The implications on humanity’s origins are still wildly fascinating, but alien bacteria can only tell humans about their past – not their future.

Practicality, money and science are the three elements that guide where mankind should search for ET and how. This limits the search for life to a longlist of seven planets and over 100 moons – this solar system.

In order to narrow planetary locations to those that could harbour life, scientists look towards the only place where life is proven to exist – home. The one constant across all known life is water. Frozen water permeates through the universe—from the rings of Saturn to comets—but the difficulty is finding liquid water.

According to NASA’s Dr Jennifer Eigenbrode, the conditions on Mars 3.5 billion years ago were likely very similar to Earth. The Curiosity Rover, and subsequent missions, are attempting to find clues of Mars’ forlorn past in the sediments of its soil. However, just like the Wow! signal, there are scientists out there that believe alien life was actually found here on Earth in 1984 – in, of all places, the arid desert that is Antarctica.

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The Allan Hills meteorite is one of the most contentious discoveries in the hunt for extraterrestrial life. In the Allan Hills region of Antarctica on 27th December 1984, scientists unearthed a meteorite that became one of the most debated discoveries of all time – the Allan Hills 84001 meteorite. Blasted into space 15 million years ago following an impact collision on Mars, the meteorite landed in Antarctica 13,000 years ago. Over a decade after its discovery, researchers announced that the meteorite may have been contaminated by microscopic fossils of bacteria from Mars. The evidence, while inconclusive, galvanised the field of exobiology, which went on to become known as astrobiology.

Out of over 160 planets and moons in Earth’s solar system, Mars’ proximity to Earth means missions there are more practical and financially viable than other celestial bodies. But many researchers don’t consider Mars to be the most likely place for microbial life in the solar system. While some scientists are focused on Mars, many are actually imagining somewhere else, a world of flowing oceans, lakes and rivulets – Europa.

One of Jupiter’s 67 confirmed moons, Europa is covered in a layer of kilometres-thick ice. What’s remarkable about Europa is that despite residing outside of the Goldilocks zone (‘just right’: not too far and not too close to the Sun), astronomers still calculate the existence of liquid water. As Europa orbits Jupiter, the gravitational pull from Jupiter stretches and compresses Europa, and the heat produced from this tidal heating may be enough to melt underneath the ice. If life can thrive on the purgatorial bottom of Earth’s ocean floor, then life can survive in Europa.

In 2012, the European Space Agency announced that a $1.3 billion mission to explore Jupiter’s icy moons—named the Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer (JUICE)—will launch in 2022, with an estimated arrival date of 2030. Ganymede, Callisto and Europa will have their surfaces studied, and most importantly, their potential for harbouring life will be analysed. In the near future, the hope is for a rover to explore the icy world, to taste ice-cold other-worldly water for the very first time.

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Following on from Drake’s equation, and the estimate that there are so many thousands of planets likely to harbour intelligent life, Fermi’s paradox asks one simple question: “Well then, where is everybody?” How can there be such high estimates of advanced extraterrestrial life yet no evidence of aliens?

The most popular answers to the paradox seem to be filtered through the human ego. Many lean towards science fiction more so than science, such as the Zoo hypothesis (stoner hypothetical alert) which suggests mankind is unknowingly living in a zoo. After all, the perfect zoo is that where the captives aren’t aware of the existence inside said zoo. Other answers suggest that the lack of alien contact reveals the future of mankind – once a civilisation develops the technology to annihilate itself, the technology is soon used. Of course, the ego is protected from the obvious: human beings are too barbaric, primitive and stupid for aliens to bother visiting.

These are examples of anthropocentric explanations to the silence of the universe. The very question “Is humanity alone?” is the wrong question. The question implies solitude, and while humans are naturally social animals, the comfort of company can be found in each other and in the mysterious high intelligence of other animals such as dolphins and whales. Human beings don’t really seek the companionship of advanced, extraterrestrial intelligence. Human beings are interested in what aliens can teach mankind, reveal about themselves and their future. The ego is truly why humanity asks, “Is anybody out there?”

Consider science fiction and how depictions of aliens mostly seem to reflect the same bipedal, binocular appearance that defines the human species. Strangely, aliens also seem to have human intentions, such as the colonisation and slavery of worlds due to the exhaustion of resources. Such is the power of the ego over the imagination that human evolution and histories are often portrayed as identical.

Why does humanity want to discover extraterrestrial life? Why do humans even explore? Since human beings advanced from Africa about 60,000 years ago, Earth has been traversed all over. Homo sapiens are the only species that migrates in search of new land despite possessing all the required resources in its current location. Fossils suggest that Neanderthals—widely considered to be an extinct species of human—were comfortable in their own relatively small living radius. Extraterrestrial life is the next unknown for humans, and its exploration is irresistible.

According to a National Geographic article, scientists have found a gene, DRD4-7R, encoded into the DNA of about 20 per cent of humans, that is associated with curiosity and restlessness. Studies have suggested those with the gene tend to take more risks and explore new phenomena. Follow-up studies have analysed the gene through the lens of migration, and found that the gene is more common in people whose ancestors moved greater distances from Africa.

Of course, curiosity and an exploratory predisposition can’t simply be the result of one gene, but what’s certain is that humans have evolved to seek new and better opportunities. Humanity’s ancestors migrated in the hope of better lives (not sure what the Eskimos were thinking) but in the modern first world, where the most basic human survival needs are generally met, the mind is stimulated by more complex matters. Just like the Wow! signal, there are teasing hints of the unknown waiting to be discovered. Space is an unmapped territory, and the implications of what humanity may find is the most profound mystery of all.

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When writing for The Age, Beat Magazine and more, every time Nick Taras finishes a paragraph, he takes a bath and listens to Montell Jordan's This Is How We Do It.

‘Extraterrestrials, Ego and Exploration: Mankind’s Search for Alien Intelligence’ is Nick Taras’s second Astronomy column for The Lifted Brow. It originally appeared in The Lifted Brow #23.