My Quest – Our Search for Life

Every one of us has atleast for once wondered that Are We Alone? Or Is There Someone Watching us? Thanks to a couple of Sci-fi movies I wasted a lot of my time thinking about aliens and ET when I look at it now calling it wastage of time would be a bit harsh. Looking for ET life is now trending and I must say there is lot of money and technology which is being allocated to this search. I would like to point a project which is huge and pretty famous – SETI (The search for extraterrestrial intelligence)

If you ask me, do you think life exists elsewhere?? I would strongly say YES.  Even if I think of life and earth as a 1 in a million or even 1 in a billion possibility there is a strong chance of we not being alone. There are more stars in the universe than all the grains of sand on every beach on Earth, and countless planets orbit those stars. So it would be arrogant to think that we are the only creatures in the cosmos. I think it’s easy to imagine life on other worlds, and I’m not alone.

The basic way to look at things is to compare the life of earth. Life on Earth can survive in extreme environments, but can life survive on other worlds? It’s a mystery set in space… And that makes it tough to investigate because the human race has barely left Earth. Searching for clues is incredibly difficult. But we are lucky……

A couple of clues came to us.

  1. In 1969 A piece of a 220-pound meteorite crashed into Murchison, Australia. The Murchison meteorite was more than just a piece of rock floating through space. It was a doorway to alien life. It was as old as the solar system, and yet it contains the building blocks of life — things like amino acids and other sorts of chemicals that we use to make our own bodies and all life on Earth.
  2. In 1977, a SETI astronomer picked up a signal from the constellation Sagittarius. It lasted 72 seconds. The full duration, the radio telescope was pointed at it. The signal looked like the kind of engineered pulse that we expect will come from an alien civilization.

Will talk about the second clue first….
SETI after that all has just silence to show to the world. What SETI has to say is that the things have been ridicously silent. SETI astronomers have this age old defensive statement, ‘The Universe to is too large to wiretap it’ There can be many conclusions that we can draw from this silence will talk about it later.

About the first clue, I think this clue has more relevance with the origin of our life than any other ET life. Agreed, that we found the building blocks of our life but how can we be sure whether they are the building blocks of an alien life.

We have been looking for a planet like EARTH; we are trying to find WATER in short we are trying to find things which have made us what we are now. Now I think this doesn’t make sense. On one hand we expect aliens to be different yet we are trying to find them based on similarities to our life and our planet.

Reasons why Astrobiologists are so keen on finding WATER and another EARTH:

If we look at enough Sci-Fi movies, there are all sorts of weird and wonderful aliens out there, but what are these organisms are built from is the main reason for the scientists to believe what they believe. Look at life on Earth, we’re all built on a form of carbon chemistry called organic chemistry, and this seems to be the language of human life. If you look out into the interstellar medium, the same compounds are there as on Earth. If you look at what we’re made of secondarily, it’s water. So in terms of our biochemistry, life everywhere would be very similar to Earth. Hence we should find a planet with water Ergo find another EARTH.

The point is strong enough so let’s think about a few things. Suppose we find a planet just like earth but not exactly earth so how would the aliens look like? If the scientists can assume their biochemistry I surely can assume how they would possibly look right?
Gravity can have a say in the way they could possibly look. This is a crazy situation worth imagining how we look is under 1G if the gravity on that planet is 2G, 3G or more then their legs would be much wider inorder to handle their weight if it’s not enough they couldn’t have legs in the first place. Contrary to this if the gravity on that earth is 1/2G then they would have thin long legs (avatar-like).

It’s not that so many people are stupid, they have a good enough reason to believe that but I think they are going for the obvious. And concluding things related to life by the looking at the obvious. This isn’t ideal because when it comes to life nothing is obvious.

I have a different view on all this and i may sound a little pessimistic.

SETI scientists have wiretapped the stars for 50 years hoping to hear something, but there are still no sign of extraterrestrial life. The great silence remains. To me that’s not surprising. SETI according to me really is a needle-in-the-haystack search without any guarantee that there’s a needle out there. The approach to SETI is to scan the skies with the radio telescope in the hope of picking up a message from some alien civilization that’s been deliberately beamed towards Earth. I don’t think that’s credible, and here’s why.

One of the big problems in this whole SETI business is the vast scale of things. The universe is really, really big. By human standards, it’s just stupendously big.

It’s often said that the because our radio and television signals have beamed into space for 80 years now, aliens should have figured out that we’re here and have sent us a message. But this argument overlooks a basic law of physics. Another way of thinking about this is in terms of the speed of light, which travels at 186,000 miles every second. It takes light about 100,000 years to cross our galaxy, and it takes 13.7 billion years for it to cross the universe. Our first radio signals, which leaked out into space about 100 years ago, have gone about that far by comparison.

Here comes my favorite part, it just took me a couple of hours to figure this flaw out when I first heard about SETI.

Suppose there’s a civilization 1,000 light-years away, and that’s actually pretty close by even SETI optimist standards. Well, they don’t see Earth as it is today. They see it as it was 1,000 years ago. There were no radio telescopes here then, so it would make no sense for them to start sending messages to us until they knew that we were on the air. And they’re not going to know we’re on the air until our first radio messages reach them, and that’s going to be in another 900 years.

So I wasn’t bothered about SETI anymore because it’s just a long shot calling it a project relying on a hunch would be a compliment. As I type this SETI scientists continue to wait for the mysterious “We are here you stupid Humans” signal. I have nothing against the scientists, neither their knowledge nor their dedication towards solving this mystery. But wiretapping the UNIVERSE? Come on!!!!!

So what else was happening in order to find an answer to this question except for listening to the stars?

Find planets!!!! Simple as that.
But there were a lot of problems until recently there was no proof that there are planets outside our solar system. Our technology (telescope or even space satellites) wasn’t good enough to spot planets all we could spot was Stars, Stars and Stars.

The reason is simple. Planets don’t shine. They don’t reflect very much light from their host star. Hence it is difficult to detect them. Initially even I thought we can’t detect them but thanks to Astronomer Geoff Marcy we were able to track them down (51 Pegasi B was name of the first planet). And it was such a beautiful and an intelligent way to detect them. Planets may be able to hide from our eye but they cannot hide from the stars they orbit. Astronomers call them host stars. As the planet revolves around the start due to the gravitational pull the star starts to wobble and using the Doppler shift we can detect the wobbling star and hence we can detect the planet revolving around it. It eventually was clear that finding planets was pretty simple and till this date there are about 450 confirmed planets but having said that 450 is just out of the billions present. But for smaller planets this is a bit tricky considering the fact that they generate less gravitational pull hence causing very minimal wobble. So coming to our search for ET life out of this planet we need find the one which is habitable and has WATER. This is a way to go about finding life by finding habitable planets all across the universe. This search is was revolutionized in 2009 when NASA launched the Kepler Space Telescope which is solely meant to find planets similar in size and shape to that of earth. The thing is love about this telescope is its simplicity the basic principle is finding the transit and depth of light measured. This was the most simple and the most effective project I have ever seen. This is a great step and in a next decade we can know about a planet which is similar to earth in size, shape and even temperature (if there is any). If there isn’t anything like that then we would have no where to go and there would be no Star Trek (Bad Joke?)

After a few years we would know the chemical composition of the detected planet’s atmosphere. Now that we can analyze atmospheres, we can start looking for the unique environmental signatures of alien civilizations. Every form of technology leaves a footprint on its environment. For example, if you’re looking at Earth from a long way away, you see global warming. That’s our footprint. Well, we can imagine a civilization that might have been around for an immense period of time would leave a much bigger footprint, maybe not just on its planet, but on its entire astronomical environment. So we should look for anything out there in space, any anomaly, anything that looks like it could not have a natural explanation.

So far, our investigation hasn’t turned up any aliens. What if we’re looking in the wrong places for the wrong things? What if a real-life alien isn’t anything like the creatures of our imagination?
As I pointed out at the beginning of the post, we’re hunting for Earthlike planets and Earthlike life, and maybe, we hope, alien civilizations. But what if they aren’t Earthlike at all? What if the aliens don’t need things like bodies? Looking for life as we know it could be a mistake. Life as we know it will soon be an artifact of the past.

It may be possible that what we are trying to search maybe a mechanical civilization. In my view, biological intelligence is just a transitory phase in the evolution of intelligence in the universe. So after millions of years, you’ll be dealing with something that might be distributed across the whole surface of a planet. It wouldn’t be a living organism, but it’d be a sort of gigantic, throbbing mega brain. It’s possible these alien super beings, whatever they may be, are sending us messages right now, but we aren’t advanced enough to detect them. Then again, maybe that’s for the best.

There are many sci-fi scenarios that go down this path. I love thinking about them just because they are very fascinating. Here are a few….

  1. The intelligences that are out there trying to talk to everybody else are the ones that get eaten first. And that’s why everybody else is being really quiet. Maybe the aliens aren’t friendly.
  2. The aliens may not even think we’re worth contacting. Particularly if they’re ancient throbbing mega brains. I think it’s very unlikely that some super intellect that’s been the product of millions of years of design is going to have very much interest in traveling around the universe. It would long ago have sent probes out and gathered all the information it needed. I think it’s much more likely that something that has been around for such a long period of time and has such enormous intellectual power is going to retreat into a sort of inner cyberspace, probably lose interest with its immediate surroundings.
  3. And there’s another even bleaker possibility. What if there was other intelligent life in the universe, but now it’s gone? SETI’s been going for about 50 years now, and all the astronomers have got to show for it is a silence. I would say an eerie silence, because many people feel that there should be intelligent life out there, there should be other civilizations, and if so, they’re ominously quiet. Maybe the reason they’re ominously quiet is because they’ve all died out. They’ve wiped themselves out, or some horrible fate has befallen them.

We come back to your question Are we alone?
I would find it incomprehensible that the answer would be NO. If the answer was NO that would be an amazing bit of information to have. I mean, even understanding how rare we are, that maybe intelligent life like we might understand it is very, very far away from us puts an incredible responsibility on us.

– Ravi Sadrani

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