August 11, 2014 | David F. Coppedge

New Ways to Find E.T.

SETI researchers may not have to wait by the stellar radio dial for their imaginary friends to call in.  They might eavesdrop on their pollution.

Perhaps desperate for proof of life beyond the earth, scientists continue to expand their search resources.  One idea put forth by Avi Loeb at Harvard, with two buddies, is that we could find them by their smog.  Specifically, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) of a certain type would be nearly impossible for natural processes to produce.  If someone on a distant planet is using hairspray, then, we might be able to tell if alien blondes are smarter than their human counterparts.

That’s not much sillier than what Sheyna Gifford wrote, in all seriousness, for NASA’s Astrobiology Magazine:

While primitive forms of life have their own biomarkers – like oxygen and methane – these molecules are too complicated for nature to, as Loeb put it, “do this on its own.” However, at least for the moment, we can’t rush off and start looking for aliens by their hairspray.

The only reason we can’t is we don’t have the detection technology yet.  In principle, it could be done.  This represents a departure from the old SETI program of listening in for signals broadcast intentionally.  Now, it’s eavesdropping.  Maybe the NSA should take up this job.

Loeb’s thesis was published on the arXiv server, awaiting publication in the Astronomical Journal.  On Live Science, Elizabeth Howell thought the idea was just fine.  Instead of portraying aliens as dumb blondes with hairspray, she envisioned purple aliens: quoting Loeb, her article ends, “People often refer to E.T.’s as ‘little green men,’ but the E.T.’s detectable by this method should not be labeled ‘green’ since they are environmentally unfriendly.”

Charles Q. Choi on discussed a related suggestion by Sara Seager of MIT.  Life could be inferred, she argues in a paper on PNAS, by scanning atmospheres of exoplanets for ways organisms might have made alterations that normal physical processes would not make.  This strategy does not assume the organisms are intelligent; even microbes might affect their planet’s atmospheres in unnatural ways.  The “biomarkers” are too difficult to detect right now.  Like Loeb, Seager hopes that the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), scheduled for launch in 2018, will have the capability to eavesdrop on life beyond earth.  Bob Yirka summarized Seager’s views on PhysOrg.

In another stretch of the imagination, researchers are peering into oil drops to divine habitats for life.  Science Daily says, “An international team of researchers has found extremely small habitats that increase the potential for life on other planets while offering a way to clean up oil spills on our own” (paper in Science Magazine; got good press in Nature, too).  Rationale: they found microbes in water droplets in an oily lake, but it was their asphalt.  Megan Gannon launched from that gooey subject into 4 possible places in our solar system where alien life could exist: Mars, Europa, Titan and Enceladus.  She’s forgotten that Texas is being overrun by aliens right now.

Silliness of hairspray aside, there are serious philosophical questions to discuss with Loeb’s theory.  Evolution News & Views, for instance, used the occasion to discuss the design filter and to clarify the limits of design inference.  If SETI researchers seriously believe that we could make an inference to intentional, intelligent causes merely from observing certain rare gases in an alien planet’s atmosphere, what’s the problem with intelligent design reasoning?  If evolutionists use it, why can’t their critics use the same thought processes?  This is a good story to throw back at the atheists who insist, vehemently, that intelligent design is not scientific.  Good grief, Loeb and his lackeys think they can figure out the environmental ethics of aliens, their color and their wisdom, too!  All ID tries to do is separate intelligent causes from non-intelligent causes.  ID advocates are, therefore, the more empirically modest scientists.  Yet the Darwine-drunk guys in SETI get away with outlandish speculations.

Exercise: What do we mean by “natural”?  Atheists will claim that aliens are natural, like they believe humans are products of natural selection.  How would you clarify the difference between natural causes and intelligent causes to someone who thinks intelligent causes are a subset of natural causes?  Cf. 05/11/06.



  • Jon Saboe says:

    Like the phrase: “Specifically, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) of a certain type would be nearly impossible for natural processes to produce.”

    How about other materials (say water, granite, or DNA) which are ALSO nearly impossible for natural processes to produce?

    I don’t think anyone has divined a way of turning swirling clouds of gas and/or dust into water…

  • rockyway says:

    “While primitive forms of life have their own biomarkers – like oxygen and methane – these molecules [CFCs] are too complicated for nature to, as Loeb put it, “do this on its own.”

    – Let’s see; ‘nature’ can produce human beings, but not CFCs? I think someone’s been using too much hairspray.

Leave a Reply