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An artist’s concept depicts an orbiting swarm of dusty comet fragments as a possible explanation for the unusual light signal of KIC 8462852. (by NASA/JPL-Caltech [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

An artist’s concept depicts an orbiting swarm of dusty comet fragments as a possible explanation for the unusual light signal of KIC 8462852. ( by NASA/JPL-Caltech [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The Great ET Paradox: Why We are Likely to Find Them Before They Find Us

Despite over 50 years of effort, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) enterprise has yet to detect any telltale signs of sentient life beyond Earth. But exciting news of an anomalous star 1,400 light-years from Earth has raised new hopes that we are not alone in the galaxy after all. Using data collected by the Kepler space telescope, astronomers discovered that the distant star—KIC 8462852—flickers in an unusual way, as if some unknown celestial bodies were intermittently obscuring it. Of the roughly 150,000 stars within view of the Kepler telescope, KIC 8462852 is the only one that glimmers in this odd fashion.1 Since it has been observed over the past few years, KIC 8462852 has dimmed dramatically, at times dropping in brightness as much as 22 percent.2 Moreover, the recorded dips have not been regular, but uneven and unpredictable. Tabetha Boyajian announced these amazing findings that she and members of Planet Hunters—a citizen science program launched at Yale University—in a paper recently published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.3

A number of theories have been advanced to explain the anomalous activity of the star. Conceivably, the dips in light could be occasioned by an orbiting a planet, but even a Jupiter-sized planet would only dim this type of star by only 1 percent as it transited across. Furthermore, the irregular flickering associated with the star would not be consistent with a planet making a regular orbit, which would produce predictable dimming. Perhaps fragments from a planetary collision could be responsible for the dimming light, but such events are so rare that we would not expect Kepler to pick up such activity based on probabilities.4 Finally, the star could be surrounded by an accretion disk of dust and rubble that has not yet agglomerated into planets or been gobbled up by the star itself. Such an explanation would be convincing if the star was young, but KIC 8462852 appears to be mature. As Jason Wright, a professor of astronomy at Penn State University, noted, the star is moving too fast to have formed recently, as it fails to show any infrared signs of a big disk that would normally be associated with the material that could cause such dips in brightness.5

Because scientists have yet to advance a convincing natural explanation, attention has turned to more tantalizing possibilities. By far the most exciting is that an alien megastructure is responsible for blocking the light emitted by the star.6 After news of the star’s unusual features was released, SETI scientists quickly began using the Allen Telescope Array in California to examine radio emissions from the area of star for any signs of artificiality.

People have long thought about the prospect of aliens, but it was not until around the middle of the last century that a viable methodology of detecting extraterrestrial intelligence was put forward. In 1959 Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison published an article in which they called for searching for radio signals as a method to detect extraterrestrial intelligence. They argued that radio seemed the logical medium that aliens would use to attempt to make contact with other civilizations.7 The next year, Frank Drake initiated Project Ozma, which used a radio telescope to search for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia.8 He also created the so-called Drake equation as a formula designed to estimate the number of communicating civilizations in the galaxy.9

So far, the SETI Institute has not detected any alien radio signals coming from KIC 8462852.10 The major drawback with assuming that radio would be a detectable extraterrestrial medium of communication is that over time, our own civilization’s electromagnetic footprint has been fading. In the early days of SETI, scientists believed that a relentless rise in radio traffic would develop as wealth and technology advanced. However, just the reverse occurred, as we have come to rely on methods of communications that minimize radio frequency power leakage, such as cable television and submarine telephone cables. Since this has been the trend on Earth, it is likely to be the case for technological civilizations beyond our solar system as well.11 What is more, in order for us to pick up an alien radio transmission, it would have to be beamed directly at us. As the SETI scientist Doug Vakoch opined, “[t]he Klingon version of Gilligan’s Island is not going to reach Earth.”12

Instead of listening for radio transmission, some scientists have counseled that an optical methodology could be a more feasible approach for the SETI project. On that note, in 1964 the Russian astrophysicist Nikolai Kardashev propounded a classification of extraterrestrial civilizations based on their methods of energy extraction. His scale has three categories. A Type I civilization can harness all available energy sources on its planet. A Type II civilization harnesses energy directly from the star in its solar system, not merely using solar power, but the mining of energy from the star. A Type III civilization is able to harness the power of other stars beyond its own solar system.13

How would a civilization advance on this scale? A civilization might advance to Type I status by applying fusion power or by producing antimatter to be used as an energy source.14 To advance beyond Type I status, the theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson once theorized that a hypothetical megastructure could be employed to encompass a star as a system of orbiting solar power satellites to capture a star’s energy output. Constructing such a device—a Dyson sphere—would be a gargantuan engineering undertaking, but theoretically possible. Dyson conjectured that an alien civilization could tear apart planets and asteroids to use as the material to build the necessary structures. Almost certainly, a device such as a Dyson sphere would dramatically alter the light spectrum of the enclosed or partially-enclosed star, and in doing so, create a noticeable infrared glow that could be identified by peering astronomers, even on the far side of the galaxy. For that reason, Dyson urged SETI scientists to focus on technology, rather than radio signals.15

If it is a megastructure orbiting KIC 8462852, then the star could be hosting a Type II civilization. The Internet is abuzz with speculation that a Dyson’s sphere is responsible for the star’s erratic glimmering and herein lies the great ET paradox. If we leave aside the extraterrestrial hypothesis for UFOs and assume that Earth has never been visited by aliens, then it is likely that we will discover intelligent extraterrestrial aliens before they discover us, their technological superiority notwithstanding. The laws of physics, as we currently conceive them, add credence to this assumption. If Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity is indeed inviolable, then information cannot be transmitted or received faster than the speed of light. This fact would give us a comparative advantage in a SETI effort vis-à-vis our galactic neighbors. To be sure, using advanced technology and spectroscopy, alien astronomers could probably determine Earth’s atmospheric molecules, such as oxygen and methane, and conclude that our planet has a biosphere. But even if a biosphere is detected, that alone will not automatically imply that an intelligence species resides on the planet let alone has built a technological civilization. It is unlikely that alien astronomers would find any revealing signs of civilization on our planet insofar as we have yet to construct any massive artifacts capable of being detected.

But assuming that their instruments are capable of amazing feats of detection, at a distance of 1,400 light years, alien astronomers in the area of KIC 8462852 would see a snapshot of Earth in the 7th century when Europe was in the throes of the Dark Ages, Mohammed was allegedly receiving his divine revelations in a mountain cave near Mecca, and the Tang Dynasty was emerging in China. It is doubtful that any of these events would be noticed by an extra-terrestrial intelligence. Even the Great Wall of China would go undetected, as much of its construction was not underway until the 14th century during the Ming Dynasty. And contrary to myth, this structure is not visible from space even from low Earth orbit—a mere 100 miles away—at least to the unaided eye, as the Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei discovered to his disappointment. Our city lights might be visible, but because electrification did not really take hold until the early 20th century, aliens might have to wait a long time before they see them. Finally, even if alien radio telescopes were so powerful that they could detect our relatively weak television and radio transmissions, it will be centuries before they will arrive at KIC 8462852. Because Earth has been producing artificial radio transmissions for only about a century, there is a strong possibility that they have not reached any alien civilizations to date. Conversely, by astronomical standards, it is reasonable to speculate that an advanced alien civilization could have preceded ours by over a million years, in which case its radio transmissions could suffuse the galaxy, including our solar system.

Understandably, astronomers have counseled caution, pointing out that the odds are high that a natural explanation will eventually be found for the star’s flickering luminosity that has nothing to do with aliens. There have been other false positives in the past. For example, in 1968 a group of Cambridge radio astronomers discovered what they called “rapidly pulsating radio sources.”16 Initially, there was excitement that these emissions could have been artificial signals sent by an extraterrestrial civilization, but alas, it was determined that pulsars, which are produced by rapidly rotating neutron stars, were detected instead.17

In any event, searching for the cause of these strange dips will make for some fascinating research because they have defied conventional explanations so far. The discovery of roughly 2,000 exoplanets (planets located outside of our solar system) over the past two decades confirms the existence of possible habitats for alien life. Moreover, astronomers have determined that a number exoplanets have earth-like characteristics and reside in the habitable zones of their star systems.18 By inference, these findings bolster the case for life existing outside of our solar system in which case we may someday discover evidence of an advanced alien civilization. By doing so, this would give us hope that perhaps we too can work through the myriad of problems afflicting our contemporary world and survive. END

About the Author

Dr. George Michael received his Ph.D. from George Mason University’s School of Public Policy. He is an associate professor of criminal justice at West-field State University in Massachusetts. Previously, he was an associate professor of nuclear counter-proliferation and deterrence theory at the Air War College in Montgomery, Alabama. He is the author of seven books: Confronting Right-Wing Extremism and Terrorism in the USA, The Enemy of My Enemy: The Alarming Convergence of Militant Islam and the Extreme Right, Willis Carto and the American Far Right, Theology of Hate: A History of the World Church of the Creator, Lone Wolf Terror and the Rise of Leaderless Resistance, Extremism in America (editor), and Preparing for Contact: When Humans and Extraterrestrials Finally Meet. In addition, his articles have been published in numerous academic journals.

  1. Alien Megastructure Around Distant Star? Interesting Idea, Says Cambridge Astronomer,” Astrowatch, November 1, 2015.
  2. Sarah Kaplan, “The strange star that has serious scientists talking about an alien megastructure,” The Washington Post, October 15, 2015.
  3. T.S. Boyajian, “Planet Hunters X. KIC 8462852 –Where’s the flux? Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (October 2015).
  4. Ross Andersen, “The Most Mysterious Star in Our Galaxy,” The Atlantic, October 13, 2015.
  5. Kelly Beatty, “The Curious Case of KIC 8462852,” Sky & Telescope, October 20, 2015.
  6. See for example, Adam Frank, “Maybe It’s Time To Stop Snickering About Aliens,” NPR, October 27, 2015, and Jason T. Wright, et al., “The Search for Extraterrestrial Civilizations with Large Energy Supplies. IV. The Signatures and Information Content of Transiting Megastructures”.
  7. Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison, “Searching for Interstellar Communications,” Nature, vol. 184 No. 4690 (September 19, 1959), pp. 844–846. Even prior to Cocconi and Morrison’s article, pioneering engineers, including Nikola Tesla and Guglielmo Marconi recommend radio for possible interstellar communication. Seth Shostak, Confessions of an Alien Hunter: A Scientist’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2009), p. 190.
  8. Frank Drake and Dava Sobel, Is Anyone Out There? The Scientific Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. (New York: Delacorte Press, 1992), pp. xi–xii.
  9. Drake unveiled his equation at the first conference on Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence which was sponsored by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in Green Bank, West Virginia in 1961. The Drake Equation is: N = R fp ne fl fi fc L. According to the equation, the number (N) stands for the number of detectable communicating civilizations in space which equals the rate of star formation (R), multiplied by the fraction of stars with planets (fp), multiplied by the number planets that are hospitable to life (ne), multiplied by the fraction of those planets where life actually emerges (fl), multiplied by the faction of planets where life evolved into intelligent beings (fi), multiplied by the fraction of those planets with intelligent creatures that are capable of interstellar communication (fc), multiplied by the length of time that an extraterrestrial civilization remains detectable (L). Drake and Sobel, Is Anyone Out There? pp. 51–52. The bad news for SETI is that even if one of the numbers in the equation is near zero, then N will also be very close to zero regardless of how big all the other numbers are. John Gribbin, Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet is Unique. (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2011), p. 35.
  10. Katrina Pascual, “SETI Researchers Find No Signs Of Intelligent Alien Life Around Strange Dimming Star KIC 8462852,” Tech Times, November 8, 2015.
  11. Paul Davies, The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence. (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010), p. 82.
  12. Ryan Sabalow, “Alien structures near a distant star? Shasta County telescope array listens for life,” The Sacramento Bee, October 26, 2015.
  13. Nikolai S. Kardashev, “On the Inevitability and the Possible Structures of Supercivilizations,” International Astronomical Union, 1985. Michio Kaku, Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and the 10th Dimension. (New York: Doubleday, 1994), pp. 276–280.
  14. Stephen Webb, Where is Everybody? Fifty Solutions to the Fermi Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life. (New York, Copernicus Books, 2000), p. 71.
  15. Freeman J. Dyson, “Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infra-Red Radiation,” Science Vol. 131, no. 3414 (1960), pp. 1667–1668.
  16. Drake and Sobel, Is Anyone Out There? p. 87.
  17. Seth Shostak, Confessions of an Alien Hunter: A Scientist’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2009), p. 45.
  18. Seth Shostak, “Are We Alone? Estimating the Prevalence of Extraterrestrial Intelligence,” in Douglas A. Vakoch and Albert A. Harrison (eds.), Civilizations Beyond Earth: Extraterrestrial Life and Society. (New York and Oxford: Berghan Books 2011), p. 35.

This article was published on January 27, 2016.


6 responses to “The Great ET Paradox: Why We are Likely to Find Them Before They Find Us”

  1. Steven Scott says:

    Notice that Dr. Michael had to throw in the “aliens could save us from ourselves” comment at the end, as nearly all writers on the subject seem to feel obligated to do. I would so love to see humanity’s reaction to aliens who had nothing of value to teach us — no revolutionary philosophies or technologies, no profound new insights, no accomplishments significantly beyond our own. Not angels or demons in acceptably modern form, just plain folks, except with scaly blue skin and eyes on stalks. I think the sighs of disappointment among the SETI fans would move enough air to affect the climate.

  2. Steve C says:

    I’m all in favor of SETI’s mission. Indeed, I’m been processing data with the SETI@Home program for years. Science is about searching and the possible discover (if it ever happens) of a civilization completely out of the reach of human travel is pretty benign. At least more benign than fiddling around with the LHC and creating a black hole (according to alarmists) though that seems to be a worst-case scenario.

    Perhaps if we can come up with actual scientific proof of extraterrestrial civilizations in this manner, we might be able to convince the hopelessly religious that they’re wasting a lot of mental energy needlessly. Of course, they’d just call it heaven and start praying to it. Thus, damned if you do and damned if you don’t, as the saying goes.

  3. Dr. Sidethink says:

    If we are watching a Dyson Sphere in formation, you can bet that some guys are watching it too.
    They are waiting until the stage when the interior is around 400 degrees centigrade, then they can harvest all the yummy toasted critters inside….

  4. Herb says:

    I’ve felt for a long time that the odds of SETI detecting any extraterrestrial radio signals was about as close the zero as one can get. We are just too anthropocentric to be objective. And n any case, we can only speculate based on very general parameters for life.

    That’s not to say there is no life out there. I believe the universe is teaming with it. But, as far as I know, we don’t have a way of detecting extraterrestrial dolphins or ravens or elephants or any other species having what we call “intelligence.”

  5. awc says:

    Many small Dyson spheres are a better solution than a single large one. Redundant and scalable.

    The search is novel, enlightening however, not practical at this point. Evolution has made us a victim of discovery and innovation.

    We must learn and make things the value may be good , bad or benign. There will be social ramifications not technical. Like any discovery. Make it and deal with the fallout later.

  6. The_Penguin says:

    However notionally attractive it might be, this search for ‘life’ elsewhere in the universe seems to me to be highly problematic at best and pointless at worst given the vast distances involved (assuming the widely accepted theory of relativity holds, ie the speed of light is an insurmountable obstacle). At best, it might be possible to ‘communicate’ with others in the universe at relatively short distances, tens of light years, but anything beyond, say, 100 light years is surely pointless; at a distance of 1400 light years it is possible to speculate but we will never be certain. I am afraid that as much as I admire the work being done in astronomy, SETI seems to be about as useful as the ‘search for proof of the Godhead’ (whichever one you choose). Of course, if the speed of light is not an insurmountable barrier. . .

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