Galactic Census Report: How Many Civilizations Are in Our Galaxy?

Hello, friends!  Have you heard the news?  Scientists have determined that there should be at least thirty-six alien civilizations in our galaxy right now.

Here’s the actual research paper from The Astrophysical Journal (warning: paywall).  As you might imagine, this research is based on some key assumptions.  And the authors do make it clear that they are making assumptions.  Reasonable assumptions, they argue, but still… ASSUMPTIONS!!!

The first major assumption is this: any Earth-like planet with an Earth-like chemical composition that happens to have an Earth-like orbit (i.e.: habitable zone) and has been around for an Earth-like period of time (approximately 4.5 billion years) has a reasonably good chance of developing Earth-like intelligent life.

The second major assumption is this: once a civilization advances to the point that it can start broadcasting its presence to the rest of the universe, that civilization will also have advanced to the point of being able to destroy itself.  Earth-like intelligent life has a tendency, the authors argue, for self-destruction.  Maybe it’ll be nuclear weapons, or maybe a climate catastrophe of some kind.  Or, I don’t know, maybe an increasingly globalized society will make itself more vulnerable to some sort of global pandemic.

Obviously the authors make other assumptions as well, but those two are the big ones.  When plugging numbers into a modified version of the Drake Equation, the most pessimistic assumptions yield an estimate of 36 civilizations in our galaxy (with a margin of error that could push that number all the way down to 4).  The most optimistic assumptions yield an estimate of 928 civilizations (with a margin of error that could push the number all the way up to 2908).

As I’ve said before, scientific papers should never be taken as proclamations of absolute fact.  That’s especially true for papers like this one.  Scientific papers are part of an ongoing back-and-forth conversation in the scientific community.  What do we currently know?  How much do we still have to learn, and what should our expectations realistically be?  That’s what this paper from The Astrophysical Journal is really about: setting expectations for SETI research.

So what should our expectations be, based on those two key assumptions the authors made?  Well, even under the most optimistic scenarios, our nearest neighbors are predicted to be hundreds (if not thousands) of lightyears away—far enough away that they’d be very, very, very difficult to find using our current technology, and establishing two way communications would be virtually impossible.

So maybe we’re not alone in the universe, but we may as well be.

Sciency Words: CETI vs. SETI

Hello, friends!  Welcome back to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at the definitions and etymologies of scientific terms.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

CETI

On October 10, 1966, scientists from the International Academy of Astronautics met in Madrid, Spain, to discuss CETI: Communications with ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence.  This was surely not the first time the term CETI was ever used, but based on my research, that 1966 meeting seems to be the earliest official usage of the term by the scientific community.

CETI refers to the act of sending signals or messages out into space for the express purpose of making contact with intelligent alien life.  It’s the human race shouting into the void, asking if anybody’s out there.  The most famous example of this is the Arecibo message, which was broadcast from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico in 1974.

The idea of deliberately trying to attract the attention of extraterrestrials has always been controversial.  What if an alien intelligence does hear us?  What if that alien intelligence is not friendly?  But for the purposes of a Sciency Words post, I’m going to skip over that controversy and focus on the controversy about the word CETI itself.

CETI is far too easily confused with SETI (the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence).  CETI and SETI are closely related fields, but there’s one very important distinction between them.  It’s the difference between talking and listening.  CETI is about trying to talk to the rest of the civilized universe (assuming other civilizations exist, of course).  SETI is about listening patiently to see if anyone out there is trying to talk to us.

According to Google ngrams, the term CETI peaked in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s.  Since then, the term METI (Messaging ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) has far surpassed CETI.  And in 2018, a special committee on SETI nomenclature recommended that CETI be dropped from scientific discourse in favor of METI.

And yet CETI still appears, from time to time, in scientific research.  For example, this paper from June of 2020 uses the term CETI extensively.  But we’ll talk about that paper more on Monday.  It makes some rather bold predictions about how many CETI-capable civilizations should exist in our galaxy at this very moment.

P.S.: The authors of that 2020 paper offer another solution to the CETI vs. SETI problem.  They suggest CETI should be pronounced as “chetee.”  I’m not sure how I feel about that.

P.P.S.: Actually, I am sure how I feel about that.  I’d rather use the term METI instead.

Sciency Words: Colony

Hello, friends!  Welcome to another episode of Sciency Words.  Normally on Sciency Words, we talk about those strange words scientists use, but today we’re going to talk about a word scientists—or at least some scientists—would prefer to stop using.  And that word is:

COLONY

Mars is so eager for humans to come visit and maybe even stay permanently.  And plenty of humans are eager to do just that!  We’ll bring life to Mars.  Not only that, we’ll bring civilization and culture.  One might say it is humanity’s destiny to colonize Mars.

But is this language of “colonization” and “destiny” too evocative of European imperialism?  Some think so, and they would ask that we stop using such colonialist language when we talk about space exploration.

Now I want to be clear about where I’m coming from on this: I try my best to call people by the names and terms they prefer to be called, and if I find out that the language I use offends somebody, I’ll do may best to change.  Some would accuse me of being too P.C., but I think it’s just good manners.

And I have found that if you make an effort to be respectful and accommodating to others, others will make an effort to be respectful and accommodating to you, and in general they’ll be more willing to forgive you if/when you do slip up and say something unintentionally hurtful.

So a few years back, when I came across this article from National Geographic, I started reading it with an open mind and a willingness to change.  But by the end of the article, even I felt like this was an example of political correctness run amok.  The word “colony” is offensive.  So are the words “settlement” and “frontier.”  Okay.  What words should I use instead?  Even that National Geographic article seems to concede at one point that we don’t have many workable alternatives to these terms.

But this concern does seem to be coming up more and more.  Plenty of people in the scientific community are shying away from words like colony and colonization.  Bill Nye (the Science Guy) says he avoids the word colony, and this official glossary of SETI terminology warns that “settle” and “colonize” may have certain negative connotations for some people.

So at this point, I’m not sure what to think.  What about you?  Do you think this is much ado about nothing, or should we really start looking for alternatives to words like “colony” or “settlement” in our space exploration vocabularies?

Next time on Planet Pailly… I actually don’t have anything planned yet for my next blog post.  We’ll probably just talk about more space stuff.

Sciency Words: Dial Tone

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today’s Sciency Word is:

DIAL TONE

Some of you may be too young to know what a dial tone is, so here’s an instructional video explaining the concept.

According to this article from Teletech Services, it was German engineer August Kruckow who invented the dial tone back in 1908.  A dial tone is a buzzing or humming sound that landline telephones make to let you know they’re connected and working.

It’s hard to say when “dial tone” became a SETI term, but the earliest usage I was able to find is this 1995 paper by Steven Dick entitled “Consequences of Success in SETI: Lessons from the History of Science.”

In that paper, Dick draws a distinction between extraterrestrial signals that communicate information vs. extraterrestrial signals that serve essentially the same function as a dial tone.  The general public, Dick argues, would react quite differently if we picked up some sort of intergalactic dial tone instead of a “Greetings, Earthlings, would you like to learn more about calculus?” type of message.

Later papers (like this one or this one) continue to use this dial tone metaphor, and in 2018 a special committee on SETI nomenclature adopted the following as the official definition for the term: “A content-free beacon, i.e. one that communicates only the existence of technological life.”

That same committee goes on to note some concern that the conventional meaning of “dial tone” may soon become obsolete; if so, the committee worries, then the continued use of “dial tone” as a SETI term might become problematic.  I’m not sure I agree with that concern, though.  Lots of terms and phrases have stuck around even after their original meanings have faded into history.

In the near future, maybe it won’t be obvious to everyone that “dial tone” originally had something to do with telephones, but if SETI scientists keep using the term, I don’t think it’s that hard for people to understand what the term means… is it?

Sciency Words: The Rio Scale

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today’s Sciency Word is:

THE RIO SCALE

The Rio Scale is a classification system used by SETI scientists.  Let’s say someone’s detected possible evidence of an alien intelligence.  How significant is this discovery?  How seriously should we take that news?  The Rio Scale is a tool to help answer those questions.

The Rio Scale was created in the year 2000 at the International Astronomical Congress, which was held that year in Rio de Janerio. Mathematically speaking, the Rio Scale is expressed as:

(Q1 + Q2 + Q3) * ∂

You have to look through a chart in order to plug numbers into those variables.  I’m not going to reproduce that whole chart here, but if you’re interested here’s a Rio Scale calculator where you can learn more.

The quick version is that Q1 is the “what” of what we’ve discovered.  Q2 represents how we discovered it, and Q3 represents how far away from Earth it is.  So as an example, let’s say aliens are transmitting a message straight at Earth.  Let’s say the message was detected by a radio telescope and confirmed by subsequent SETI observations.  And let’s say the message is coming from Proxima Centauri, the star nearest to our own Sun.  This scenario would score very well on the Rio Scale.

As another example, let’s say we find some anomalous infrared radiation, the possible heat signature of an alien megastructure. Let’s say this was found in archival data from the 1970’s.  And let’s say this anomalous radiation came from the Triangulum Galaxy. This scenario would score rather poorly on the Rio Scale.

Lastly, before I forget, let’s talk about ∂.  That variable is a credibility factor. If information about a possible extraterrestrial signal is presented in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, ∂ will be a fairly high number.  If it’s just a press release, ∂ will be lower.  And if the information is coming from some weirdo on the Internet, ∂ equals zero.

Given the chance, I’m sure SETI scientists would like to follow up on every possible detection of extraterrestrial intelligence.  But SETI research does not have infinite resources.

In my opinion, the Rio Scale doesn’t sound like the most scientifically objective system; however, I imagine it does help when comparing and contrasting different possible discoveries.  That way, given the limited resources available to them, SETI scientists can better judge which detections are worth further investigation and which can probably be ignored.

Sciency Words A to Z: Wow! Signal

Welcome to a special A to Z Challenge edition of Sciency Words!  Sciency Words is an ongoing series here on Planet Pailly about the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  In today’s post, W is for:

THE WOW! SIGNAL

There’s a ton of radio noise in space, coming from stars and nebulae and black holes and so forth.  There’s so much radio noise that it can easily drown out the relatively weak radio and television broadcasts that might be coming from a planet like Earth.

So if aliens want to talk to us, they’re going to have to send a much stronger transmission, something that will come through loud and clear over all that other space noise.  And in 1977, astronomers at Ohio State University picked up exactly that kind of signal.

As the story goes, Ohio State was conducting a SETI search with their “Big Ear” radio telescope.  The telescope recorded electromagnetic emissions coming from space, reporting the strength of those emissions on a scale from 0 to 9. If Big Ear happened to pick up anything stronger than a 9, it represented that with a letter—A represented a 10, B represented 11, and so forth.

On the morning of August 18, 1977, astronomer Jerry Ehman was reviewing Big Ear’s latest data when he saw a bunch of large numbers, and even a few letters.  Famously, Ehman circled those letters and numbers and wrote one word next to them: Wow!

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Appropriately, this is now known as “the Wow! Signal” (the exclamation point is usually included in the name).

In one sense, the Wow! Signal is exactly what SETI scientists were hoping to find.  Even the radio frequency—approximately 1420 megahertz—was consistent with expectations.  In this 1959 paper, physicists Giuseppi Cocconi and Philip Morrison singled out 1420 MHz as the frequency extraterrestrials were most likely to use.

But in another sense, the Wow! Signal was not what we wanted it to be, because it only happened one time, and it has never repeated since. Despite many follow-up searches of the constellation Sagittarius (like this one or this one), where the Wow! Signal originated from, we’ve never picked up a signal like it again.

As I’ve said several times this month, in our search for alien life, we have to hold ourselves to the same standards as a court of law: proof beyond a reasonable doubt.  The Wow! Signal very well might have been aliens… it might have been anything… and that’s the problem.  Unless and until we pick up the Wow! Signal again, we can’t prove one way of another what it was.

Next time on Sciency Words A to Z, you can’t have life without water.  Or can you?

Sciency Words A to Z: SETI

Welcome to a special A to Z Challenge edition of Sciency Words!  Sciency Words is an ongoing series here on Planet Pailly about the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  In today’s post, S is for:

SETI

In September of 1959, Italian physicist Giuseppi Cocconi and American physicist Philip Morrison published this paper, titled “Searching for Interstellar Communications.”  That paper is essentially the founding document for SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, which is now considered a subfield of astrobiology.

The SETI Institute, on the other hand, was established in 1984 by Thomas Pierson and Jill Tarter.  As stated in this report on the proper use of SETI nomenclature:

SETI should not be used as a shorthand for the SETI Institute, which is an independent entity and should be referred to by its full name to avoid confusion.

And let me tell you, this SETI vs. SETI Institute distinction… that really can cause a lot of confusion.

A few years back, I saw a report on the news.  SETI (the Institute, I presumed) had picked up a signal form outer space, from a star located 94 light years away.  According to the news lady on TV, a SETI spokesperson had this to say, and that to say, and some more stuff to say about this amazing discovery.  “Oh cool,” I thought, and I quickly went to the SETI Institute’s webpage to learn more.

There was nothing—absolutely nothing—about it.

Another day or two went by, and then this article was posted on the SETI Institute’s website.  Some Russian radio astronomers had picked up what they thought was a SETI signal (it eventually turned out to be a satellite).  Somehow the media picked up on this story and ran with it, apparently without contacting the SETI Institute—or speaking with any actual SETI Institute spokesperson—to find out if any of this were true.

I should probably mention that in my day job, I work in the T.V. news business.  This sort of sloppy journalism infuriates me, but I’ve found that it’s quite typical of how the popular press handles science news.

However, to be fair, prior to that misleading news report, I didn’t know to make a clear distinction between SETI and the SETI Institute myself. But I’ve tried to be more careful about this ever since.  Language can be a messy way to communicate, so it’s important to try to be clear about what we mean.  Otherwise, someone (perhaps even someone from the media) will get the wrong idea and run with it.

Next time on Sciency Words A to Z, the first astronauts on Titan may find themselves in a very sticky situation.

Sciency Words A to Z: METI

Welcome to a special A to Z Challenge edition of Sciency Words!  Sciency Words is an ongoing series here on Planet Pailly about the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  In today’s post, M is for:

METI

In a sense, SETI researchers are just sitting by the phone waiting for somebody to call.  Maybe that’s the wrong way to go about it.  Maybe it’s time to pick up the phone, start dialing numbers, and see who picks up.

This idea is sometimes called active SETI, but it’s more common (and according to this paper, more appropriate) to use the term METI: the messaging of extraterrestrial intelligence.

Earth has been broadcasting TV and radio signals for over a century.  This has led to a common misconception that even now, aliens on some far off planet might be gathering around their equivalent of a television set, watching old episodes of Howdy Doody  or The Honeymooners.  Or perhaps, if the aliens live nearby, they’re currently listening to our more recent music.

But Humanity is only a Type 0 or Type I civilization, depending on which version of the Kardashev scale you’re using. Either way, our broadcasts are not actually that strong.  As David Grinspoon explains in his book Earth in Human Hands:

Our television signals are diffuse and not targeted at any star system.  It would take a huge antenna, much larger than anything we’ve built or planned, to pick up on them.  From a radio point of view our planet is not completely hidden, but it is hardly conspicuous.  This could easily change.  Targeted messages sent directly toward nearby stars would cause Earth suddenly to turn on like a spotlight, becoming an obvious beacon announcing, for better or worse, “We are here!”

Of course we’ve already done this.  Several times, in fact.  But not with enough consistency to truly make our presence known.

The first attempt was in 1974, when Frank Drake and Carl Sagan transmitted a message from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, aimed at the M13 globular cluster.  But according to Grinspoon, if aliens ever do pick up that signal, “[…] they might dismiss it as a momentary fluke.  We would.”  That’s because the Arecibo message was a quick, one-time thing.  By itself, it’s hardly proof beyond a reasonable doubt that life exists on Earth.

If we really want to get somebody’s attention, we have to send a sustained, repetitive signal, kind of like those repetitive radio pulses Jocelyn Bell detected in the 60’s.  We have the technology.  We can make METI a reality.  But should we?  Some say yes, others no.  After all, we have no idea who might hear our signal, or what form their response might take, and there is no guarantee that the aliens will be friendly.

METI is a discussion and a debate that maybe we all, as a species, should be part of.  Perhaps we should take a vote, because in the end, we all have a stake in what might happen.  And while we’re at it, there are some other issues we all, as a species, should vote on.  Or at least that’s what Grinspoon says we should do in his book.

Next time on Sciency Words A to Z, we’ll go back in time and check out the oceans of Mars.

Sciency Words A to Z: Kardashev Scale

Welcome to a special A to Z Challenge edition of Sciency Words!  Sciency Words is an ongoing series here on Planet Pailly about the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  In today’s post, K is for:

KARDASHEV SCALE

In 1963, Soviet scientist Nikolai Kardashev published this paper concerning the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Kardashev seems to have been primarily interested in how much information aliens might be able to transmit to us across the vastness of space.  This, in turn, relates to how much energy an alien civilization is able to produce, because the more energy you have, the stronger your radio signals can be.

Kardashev summarized his thoughts on this by devising a scale—now known as the Kardashev scale.  In Kardashev’s original system, there were only three types of civilizations:

  • Type I: a civilization that has harnessed energy on a planet-wide scale.  Kardashev considered Earth to be a Type I civilization.
  • Type II: a civilization that has harnessed the energy of an entire star, perhaps by building a Dyson sphere or some other megastructure around their own sun.
  • Type III: a civilization that has harnessed the energy of an entire galaxy.  Kardashev doesn’t offer any examples of this, but I might point to something like the Galactic Republic/Galactic Empire in Star Wars—they’re approaching Type III status.

Later scientists have expanded on the Kardashev scale.  Humanity has been demoted to a Type 0 civilization, because we don’t really use all the energy available to us on our planet.  Not yet, at least.

We can also talk about Type IV civilizations, which can harness the energy of the whole universe, and Type V civilizations, which can harness all the energy of the multiverse, or perhaps all the energy of alternative timelines, or something like that. Examples?  I don’t know, maybe the Timelords from Doctor Who or the Q-Continuum from Star Trek. Or maybe these people.

So which of these civilizations should we expect to find out there? What sort of transmissions do we expect to see?

The problem with Type IV and V civilizations is that their activities would be, to us mere mortals, virtually indistinguishable from nature.  As for Type 0 and Type I, their radio signals (if they’re sending any) may be too weak for us to detect over all the background radiation of the cosmos.

But the Type II and Type III civilizations… Kardashev was pretty optimistic about our chances of finding them.  In his 1963 paper, Kardashev argues that it’s absurd to think Earth is the only planet with intelligent life, and furthermore most alien civilizations should be far older and far more advanced than we presently are.  You may recall Enrico Fermi made a similar argument.

So there should be plenty of Type II civilizations out there, and perhaps a few Type IIIs as well, all chattering away in loud, easy-to-detect radio transmissions.  Or so Kardashev claims.  “In any case, the deciding word on this question is left to experimental verification,” he wrote.  But after fifty years of trying to detect something… anything… what has the experimental evidence shown us?

That’s a fair question.  And yet I have to agree with Kardashev: it is absurd to think Earth is the only planet with intelligent life.  So once again, in the immortal words of Enrico Fermi, where is everybody?

Next time on Sciency Words A to Z… wait, did we detect a signal?  Nope.  False alarm.

Sciency Words A to Z: Intelligence

Welcome to a special A to Z Challenge edition of Sciency Words!  Sciency Words is an ongoing series here on Planet Pailly about the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  In today’s post, I is for:

INTELLIGENCE

In 1959, this paper by Giuseppi Cocconi and Philip Morrison appeared in the journal Nature.  The ideas Cocconi and Morrison laid out in that paper were bold, and maybe a little presumptuous, but they became the foundation for a very important subfield of astrobiology: the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI for short.

The A to Z Challenge being what it is, it’s too early for us to start digging in to the subject of SETI research.  But we can talk about part of it.  Specifically the I part—“intelligence.”  It’s fairly obvious what “search” means, and “extraterrestrial” simply refers to something that’s not from Earth. But what is the definition of “intelligence”?

What does it mean to be intelligent? How would we recognize an extraterrestrial intelligence if and when we find one?  Are we sure we humans are a good example of what an intelligent life form is like?  (No, wait, maybe don’t answer that last one!)

In this article from Space.com, the famous SETI scientist Jill Tarter is quoted as saying:

SETI is not the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.  We can’t define intelligence, and we sure as hell don’t know how to detect it remotely.  [SETI]… is searching for evidence of someone else’s technology.  We use technology as a proxy for intelligence.

This reminds me of a joke from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, that humans think we are the most intelligent creatures on Earth because we built cities and nuclear weapons and things like that, while dolphins believe they are more intelligent than us because they chose not to do those things.

So it is time we change SETI to SETT—the search for extraterrestrial technology?  It sounds like Tarter would support that change.  She calls the SETI acronym “problematic” and suggests that we “talk about a search for technosignatures” instead.  But as regular readers of Sciency Words should know by now, once a word gets embedded in the scientific lexicon, it’s really, really, really hard to change it, no matter how problematic it might seem. Don’t believe me?  Click here or here or here or here or here.

And I suspect that Jill Tarter knows this.  In this report on SETI nomenclature, which is co-authored by Tarter, it says, “Definitions of intelligence are slippery […]” however, “[the word’s] use in the acronym SETI is sufficiently entrenched that we recommend against a more precise rebranding of the field.”

So what does it mean to be intelligent?  For the purposes of SETI, no one knows.  The term is vague to the point of being unusable for official scientific discourse.  But scientists have been talking about and writing about this for decades—remember, that Cocconi-Morrison paper came out in 1959—so at this point we’re sort of stuck with the I in SETI.

Next time on Sciency Words A to Z, we’ll get the latest juicy gossip from the moons of Jupiter.