Monday, December 14, 2015

The Implications of Finding Aliens – Example 3

In the first two examples related to the importance to Earth and its population of finding out something about aliens in our galaxy, the amount of information received was started at almost nothing, and then increased. Let us try and continue to explore what implications there might be by constructing another example, with a bit more knowledge about such aliens to be gained, and think through what might happen. These thought experiments are a way of exploring the parameter space of gained information. Different steps along the variable trying to measure quantity of information need to be taken in order to see the changes wrought by a simple increase. Recall that exploring along a parameter line if one of the chief methods of gaining insights about something more or less unknown, but with much associated, useful information that can be coupled into it.

In this example, suppose we continue on as we have, building telescopes on the ground and in orbit, of a great variety, with also a great variety of associated spectroscopic devices, and a great variety of information processing equipment, and a great variety of specialists poring over the data after having devised interesting research programs, mostly to find out more information on every possible thing in the galaxy and beyond, from stars to exo-planets to clouds to nebula to supernova to anything at all. By and large, the research is successful, and our knowledge of astrophysics and astronomy, and some new niches of science, just keeps growing. This is wonderful, both for the scientists involved and those involved in building the toys they need. It is also wonderful for those on Earth who like to learn about these topics.

One solitary scientist, of some renown, is involved with investigating sunspots on other stars, and has published extensively on it. His fame allows him substantial time on one of the larger radiotelescope arrays on Earth, and he is focusing on a star about 107 light years distant. As a matter of course, he runs exhaustive data examination programs on the data he collects. After some long period of collecting data, he notices that one of his extraction programs says there is a modulated carrier at a particular frequency in X-band, but it is buried deep in noise.

Jaw drops.

Eyes open wide.

Un-understandable sounds emitted.

The scientist immediately knows what this might mean, drops all other work, and looks for a terrestrial source that might be causing this, some sort of error in computation, some artifact of engineering, something, anything, that could create this signal. But there is none and the signal continues on. Soon other radiotelescopes have detected it. The strength of the signal slowly increases.

It is recorded everywhere, and every new source on the planet has announced it. The SETI signal has been found, in an unexpected way. Aliens exist! They are talking to us. We only need to decode the signals.

But after ten months, the signal stops increasing, and starts to decrease. In another sixteen months, it has dropped to undetectable values. The aliens have stopped sending us messages. Why? Was it because we did not respond, as we could not? Did they only want to send us some information and we got it all? No decoding progress at all has been made, even of the signals received at peak power level, and in the combined data from all partipating radiotelescopes. But efforts did not stop in that regard. Did Earth miss its chance at meeting the aliens?

The scientist who discovered the signal was the first to notice that what was happening was not that someone was hailing us from his targeted star, but that we had passed through a communications beam, from that star at 107 light years out to another one 88 light years in exactly the opposite direction. It was a triumph of serendipity. He happened to be looking in the right direction when the motion of the three stars, caught in the galactic gravitational field, had aligned themselves perfectly. A one in a million chance had happened, or maybe a one in a lot less chance, if there was a lot of this communication going on.

The realization that the galaxy was a network was the only hot news topic for the over two years it was detectable. It actually dominated discussions and chatrooms and every type of social media, to the exclusion of everything else. Who are they, and what are they saying? But the conclusion was finally reached that the signals were encrypted, and we could not bust them. It looked like random bits initially, and it looked like random bits finally. Efforts continued, but to no avail. We couldn’t find out what the aliens were saying to other aliens. Speculation was rife, and everyone had an idea on it. But as the intensity of the news of the breakthrough subsided, something happened. We decided to get on the network. It was calculated that a dish a kilometer wide needed to be constructed, and it wouldn’t be useful to build it on Earth, nor would it be possible. Nor was this possible to engineer in space, but now money was no object, and the lackluster interest in space things flipped over to intense interest. Mankind returned to being excited about space.

This third example serves to explore what would happen if there was a chance Earth could communicate with aliens. It could not, in the example, soon visit them or expect a visit from them, but with some monumental efforts, it could join in the communications. It might take decades to do the research and engineering on how to build the communications station, but that’s what mankind might do. Would Earth just collectively shrug its shoulders and say that, while it was nice these other civilizations were communicating with one another, we were too busy and didn’t want to get involved? Not very likely.

The implication of finding a way to communicate with other civilizations would affect us at this point in our development. Perhaps if we had more millennia under our belts and had already developed just about everything in technology, we could decide to ignore other civilizations, but at this point, we are still too much of an adolescent civilization to not want to join in. Message return times might be two hundred years, but we still would want to join in.

What would it mean for mankind to start thinking of a future event two centuries or more in the future? Much as in the second example, our habit of not looking very far forward in time would erode, and be replaced with a longer term perspective. Once we started to think about this long, slow communication, we would start thinking about other aspects of our existence, and how they would be two or more centuries out. The difference between the second and third examples is that the collective loneliness, as introduced in the first example, disappears. We find ourselves not alone in the galaxy, but in the midst of a group of communicating civilizations, or at least two for starters. And we know the direction to push technology in order to join in. So, although the second example provided Earth with a direction, the third one provides a much more concrete requirement. We know what to do, and how to do it, at least in a general sense. As far as implications go, they certainly increase at this step of our thought experiments.

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