SETI Mania Strikes Again
Another unexplained anomaly has SETI enthusiasts scrambling for their telescopes.
Either it’s fundraising time at the SETI Institute, or something really strange is going on. Just weeks ago, the news media were aflame with news about “Tabby’s Star” as a possible site for an advanced civilization (8/18/16). Now, Russian scientists reported a strong signal from HD 164595, a star 94 light-years away. Will this be the new “Wow!” signal? (Space.com explains the history of that.)
The signal is consistent with something an alien civilization might send out, astronomers have said. But that’s just one scenario, and not the most likely one, researchers cautioned; the signal may also have resulted from a natural celestial event or terrestrial interference of some sort.
Seth Shostak, playing the cautious and dispassionate scientist, warns that we may never know the cause of the signal unless we get a follow-up detection. Even non-detections, though, can serve the SETI community, in the same way bad publicity is still publicity. For instance, SETI enthusiasts still point to the “Wow!” signal of 1977 to keep the dream alive, even though nothing of intelligent origin was ever confirmed.
HD 164595 is called an “earth-like” planet with one known Neptune-sized planet. The signal was phenomenally strong, Live Science says. “Based on the received signal’s characteristics, aliens would have to generate about 100 billion billion watts of energy to blast it out in all directions. And they’d still have to produce more than 1 trillion watts if they beamed it only to Earth for some reason, Shostak said.” Still, without confirmation, it is just “interesting”.
New Scientist is less hopeful. “Mysterious signal unlikely to be aliens after SETI draws a blank,” Shannon Hall writes. The cosmos remains so quiet, “You could hear a pin drop.” The Russians were “either extremely lucky to detect this source in their observations, or that the transient is due to local interference or other calibration issues”, write Steve Croft of the Berkeley SETI Research Center. Nevertheless, various radio telescopes will be watching the star.
Instant Recall: No sooner had we written the above than the claim was retracted:
- That ‘Alien’ Signal? New Observations Are Coming Up Empty (National Geographic)
- ‘Alien’ Signal Had Earthly Cause, Russian Scientists Say (Live Science)
- We’re no strangers to ‘alien’ false alarms – one was caused by a microwave oven (Mark Gallaway, The Conversation)
Party’s over. It was fun while it lasted.
Two Yale researchers have come up with “a better way to learn if alien planets have the right stuff.” Astrobiology Magazine reports on their new model that takes into account the chemical composition of a planet, not just its distance from its host star. The subject of “diamond planets” enters their discussion.
Like mysteries? New Scientist printed the headline, “Mystery object in weird orbit beyond Neptune cannot be explained.” The “rebellious” TNO has a 110-degree inclination and orbits the sun backwards. “It’s wonderful that it’s so confusing,” an astronomer said.
To follow up on our story about Proxima b, the newest “earth-like planet” candidate (8/25/16), New Scientist now says that the star may be blasting away the planet’s atmosphere. Red dwarf stars are notorious for sending out massive flares that would fry any life on an orbiting planet, even if it were in the habitable zone. Despite the probable bad news, Seth Shostak weighed in on the significance of finding life there, even if it is unlikely. In Live Science, he gave the reason why astrobiologists and SETI enthusiasts remain hopeful against the odds. A confirmed detection would do the following:
For one, it would demonstrate that the emergence of life is not a miracle unique to Earth, Shostak said.
“I think that from the philosophical point of view — set aside all the biology and other scientific implications — the philosophical import would be very substantial: sort of like being in Europe in 1492 and learning of the existence of a New World,” Shostak said.
[Astena] Coustenis added that any discovery of life in the universe — even if it’s evidence of past life — would be “mind-blowing.”
“It would turn around all kinds of scientific models and put everything into perspective in a very different way,” she said. “Whether life is found in the solar system or outside it, to me it’s the same thing. And either a positive or negative result would have huge implications for what we understand about the emergence of life.“
Ross Anderson is surprisingly criticial of this enthusiasm in his essay for The Atlantic. “Fancy Math Can’t Make Aliens Real,” he writes. You can’t make a case for anything with a sample size of one. You can’t even make a case for life with 2,000 exoplanets now known. Evolutionary theory does not necessarily guarantee the emergence of intelligence, he argues.
We can’t extrapolate from our experience on this planet, because it’s only one data point. We could be the only intelligent beings in the universe, or we could be one among trillions, and either way Earth’s natural history would look the exact same. Even if we could draw some crude inferences, the takeaways might not be so reassuring. It took two billion years for simple, single-celled life to spawn our primordial lineage, the eukaryotes. And so far as we can tell, it only happened once. It took another billion years for eukaryotes to bootstrap into complex animal life, and hundreds of millions of years more for the development of language and sophisticated tool-making. And unlike the eye, or bodies with legs—adaptations that have arisen independently on many branches of life’s tree—intelligence of the spaceship-making sort has only emerged once, in all of Earth’s history. It just doesn’t seem like one of evolution’s go-to solutions.
At Space.com, Nola Taylor Redd puts out some reality-check facts about habitability. Being in “the habitable zone” is not enough, she says. The temperature of a planet depends on its interior composition as well as its atmosphere and distance from a star. The media spin now? Space.com writes, “Is the Nearest Alien Planet Proxima b Habitable? ‘It’s Complicated‘.”
The bad news is usually outweighed by the hope. Astrobiologists have their evolutionary “scenarios” that are almost guaranteed to popular the universe with life, some of it like ours. On PhysOrg, a “geospatial expert” delivers her post-mortem spin, describing all the wonderful spin-offs that might come from imagining aliens out there.
The thing to note here is the mental attitude of the SETI enthusiasts. Their minds are geared up for a big find. Based on their evolutionary worldview, the universe must be populated by other intelligent beings like us. They really expect to make contact at any time. It escapes their notice, of course, that they must use intelligent-design reasoning to infer aliens as the source of an anomalous signal (see Shostak try to work his way out of that trap, 12/03/05).
So what if they do make contact? Could this be part of the great deception that the Apostle Paul spoke of in II Thessalonians that would precede the coming of the Lord? Jesus warned of false christs and false apostles in the last days who would perform great signs and wonders that might “lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:24). SETI would be the perfect setup for Satan. He could engineer a signal to deceive the world. Most SETI enthusiasts believe that aliens are probably far older and wiser than humans, and have much to teach us. Satan would love to fill that role.
Given the prepared minds of the world’s intellectuals, many could fall for the deception. Satan doesn’t even need to mimic a communication; just evidence of an advanced civilization would be enough to send the secular science community, the media and the world to believe the lie. Then he could indwell the anti-Christ and his false prophet on earth, pretending to proclaim knowledge from the aliens to save humanity. They’ve already rejected their Creator and chosen to live in sin and self-love. “Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness” (II Thessalonians 2:11-12). Satan gets a brief time of glory before the Lamb returns in power like a Lion, destroying Satan along with his lies and his dupes.
“See, I have told you beforehand,” Jesus said to his disciples. The deception may not come in the form of SETI, but it is coming. Be prepared. Watch. Wait. He who endures to the end will be saved, Jesus said. Only the redeemed, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, will have the power to endure. He won’t let a single one out of His hand.