7 July, 2018, FutureFest, Tobacco Dock, London
How do we know what alien life is? Would we even know it if we found it? And if we did, would we be able to coexist or even communicate with aliens? How can we prepare humanity for such an encounter?
Artist Aleksandra Mir explores these questions with Clara Sousa-Silva, Quantum Astrochemist at MIT tasked with finding alien life on a molecular level and Jill A. Stuart, Space Law expert and director at METI international, working on different scenarios for encounters with intelligent life
Aleksandra: Welcome to speaking with Aliens. My name is Aleksandra Mir, I am an artist and I am here with two brilliant women who work on alien life and alien communication, respectively. Jill Stuart is a Space Law expert at the London School of Economics and on the Board of Directors at METI international, working on different scenarios for encounters with intelligent life. Clara Sousa Silva is a Quantum Astrochemist at MIT tasked with finding alien life on a molecular level.
Five years ago if you had asked me about aliens, I would have shrugged. I have never been interested in science fiction and that's where I thought aliens belonged. But in the last few years, two very intense narratives have been running in parallel in my mind and they converge on the subject of aliens.
The first is about the vast strides made my space science, the technological advancement of far reaching telescopes and probes that are scanning the universe for us, the subsequent discovery of exo-planets, planets on other solar systems than our own, which may have the conditions for life. And that moves the entire subject of alien life from fantasy to a scientific probability.
The other narrative, which I am following with horror every day, is that which refers to the refugee crisis. If you had told me ten years ago that by 2018 over 30,000 people would gave drowned on the Mediterranean sea trying to reach Europe and that children would be forcefully removed from their parents and caged at US/Mexico border, I would not have believed you. ‘Dystopia’, a term so favoured by sci-fi fans does not even begin to describe it.
The question of aliens, how they are created and identified, where they come from and where they are heading, what they need and if those needs complement or conflict with our own, seems to be the question of the day.
So, I thought it would be interesting to collapse these two narratives on each other and see if we can learn anything from the search for extra-terrestrial life to aid us in the refugee crisis and vice versa, can this moment in history prepare us for an extra-terrestrial encounter?
The area of space science is vast, it includes robotics and space medicine, space archaeology, space biology, and space law, even space theology which grapples with the notion whether our presumed God extends to being also the God of alien life forms.
Jill does messaging and Clara looks at molecules but what you have in common is communication.
Clara: Jill considers what an intelligent meaningful message looks like, and I consider our own atmosphere as a planet-sized, unintentional, communication. Our own biosphere inadvertently communicates to the galaxy that we are oxygen-reliant life forms, with rich life cycles, and also that we have at least one technological species, and vast inhabited oceans. Alien biospheres are also sending similar messages into space, we just need the tools to listen in and develop the tools to decipher those messages. My life’s goal is to find a habitable, or even inhabited, planet. Of course, I would be delighted to receive an unambiguous signal of alien intelligence coming down from the heavens but, until then, I am looking for the signals that life doesn’t mean to create.
Jill: Yes! I agree that the key link between us is communication.
So the work that I do is in the area of SETI: the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Within SETI there are two main approaches. The first is what we call passive SETI—which is where we listen and look to ETI. The other is called ‘active SETI’, which is where we actively compose and send out messages in hopes of making contact with ETI. Active SETI is also sometimes called METI, or Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
Who does SETI? Anyone who looks or listens to the sky, be they amateur or professional, can be considered as doing SETI. So if you have a telescope at home and you look out at the cosmos and consider that you might find evidence of ETI, than you are doing SETI! However it is more often associated with formal academic networks that are doing this in a systematic way; some of you may be familiar with the SETI Institute, which is based in California… there are also SETI research networks which often have links to research being done at university, plus other organisations such as the one for which I am on the Board of Directors: METI International. And you can tell by the name METI, that we do active SETI—we compose and send messages.
One of the big debates within my area of research at the moment is whether or not we should be doing active SETI, or METI, at all. Could be it dangerous to make contact. But, and this connects back to Clara’s work, I would highlight that we have already been leaking information about ourselves for a long time. Clara mentioned our biosphere ‘giving away’ information about what kind of life form we are… and we have also been ‘leaking’ radio waves for example, for decades. It is my opinion that if ETI wanted to, and was capable of, finding out information about us they would do so regardless of whether we made attempts to ‘hide’. In the same way that we are looking out at other planets and looking for life, I think we should assume that any intelligent life out there may be doing the same looking back at us. So to reiterate, what connects Clara and I is communication, whether it be intentional or unintentional, passive or active.
Clara: I’m always a little amused when I hear people suggesting we should collectively go quiet, just in case some nefarious alien species is listening in. They would be able to tell we’re here, even if we go shhh! It’s the galactic equivalent of a toddler covering their face and thinking no one can see them. For Earth to go unnoticed, all life on Earth would have to simultaneously literally hold their breath forever, and never fart again. We produce gas therefore we are detectable.
Aleksandra: Right, first lesson of today, don't fart! But Jill, The very fact that you are working with an assumption of intelligent alien life makes your inquiry somewhat fantastical and therefore easily dissmissable. You have said yourself that it is unlikely, that in the vast time and space of the universe, we would develop concomitantly and manage to contact another alien civilization, and yet you are devoted to the subject, why?
Jill: For me and the group that I work with, we are assuming that intelligent life either has evolved elsewhere in the universe at some point, or will do so in the future. It’s my personal opinion that its arrogant to assume that we are unique. However it is also my personal belief, as you say Aleksandra, that the likelihood that we will exist in the universe at the same time, and develop technology to make contact with each other at the same time, is very low. As such, intelligent life probably has evolved or will do so, but I doubt we will actually make contact.
However I still think it worth making efforts at contact for two main reasons. The first is in case we do overlap. In which case, what I am seeking to do is contribute to the effort at both listening and looking (in case they are discoverable), and also to proactively send messages out.
And the second reason is because I think that composing and sending messages is an end in itself, even if we don’t make contact. Thinking about composition requires us to work through practical and philosophical questions about what we should send and what we should say about ourselves. I think that these are discussions worth having, even if you don’t believe in ‘little green men’! The conversations we have about what to send and how to say it are a worthwhile endeavour on their own. We are searching the universe to find ourselves.
If we take it that composing and sending messages is a worthwhile endeavour, the question then becomes what to put into those messages?
This includes two major areas.
Firstly: thinking practically about inter-species communication—how do we distinguish our message to them as being intelligent and not just galactic noise? How do we let them know this without using language, which they may not have? (Spoiler alert: we tend to use things like prime numbers and patterns, maths) What if they have evolved to become largely robotic rather than organic—does that change our strategy for them understanding us?
And secondly are the really interesting ethical and philosophical questions: how do we represent ourselves in these messages? Should we white wash our history, or include full details about us? Should we include things like music and art? Ultimately this forces us to ask: who are we? How do we see ourselves? Who even gets to decide these answers and determine what goes into these messages?
Aleksandra Mir: Taking the scenario even further by way of metaphor, I have found it incredibly useful to follow this conversation in space science to understand how we create our local identities, and the identities of aliens here one earth. With the recent Windrush scandal we have seen the incompetence of a government in identifying its own long-term, well-documented citizens. So how can we even begin to identify extra-terrestrial life?
Clara: In the field of astrobiology, we have spent decades considering what alien life could look like. My group and I like to focus not so much on what life is, or might be, but on what life must do. Alien life may be very different from ours, but it will still have to make use of the same physics and the same chemistry we do. On Earth, all life metabolizes and produces byproduct gases, and these gases are made up of literally thousands of molecules. Alien life would similarly be expected to produce thousands of molecules. My work is about figuring out what these thousands of molecules look like so we can detect them on alien planets.
Aleksandra: So how do we find Aliens?
Clara: The easiest to explain how we find aliens is to imagine aliens trying to find us. Imagine aliens were looking in our general direction say, from the edge of our galaxy, the milky way. From there, our Sun, so special to us, is not special at all, just one of 300 billion bright white lights. But it is this white light, seemingly so fundamental and pure, that holds the key to unlocking the secrets of all the planets hidden around these stars. I’ll explain how. White light is only pure until you crack it open.
With a drop of water, or a prism, white light shows what really is within it, the rainbow. But the rainbow is not just made of seven colours. With a powerful enough prism, you spread the rainbow so that you can see all the reds, all the violets, and all the infinite colours in between them and beyond them. If that alien species was looking at our galaxy, and pointed their very expensive prism at our Sun, they would be able to split our sunlight into its full rainbow. And if they did this, they would see that our Sun’s rainbow isn’t perfect. In fact, there are millions of tiny bits of the rainbow missing, thin little shadows peppered all over it. That’s because some of the sunlight would have been absorbed by molecules at the edge of the Sun, where it is slightly cooler and so molecules can survive. Now, every molecule in existence behaves uniquely, and will absorb different colours of the rainbow, no matter where in the universe that molecule is. Because each molecule only does this to extremely specific portions of the rainbow, it leaves a unique fingerprint on the light from a star.
So that alien civilisation could study our Sun’s imperfect rainbow, and know exactly which molecules are causing these small shadows, as long as they knew every molecule’s fingerprint. But if they were patient and looked carefully, they would notice that, every 12 years, a few additional shadows would appear, due to Jupiter, as it crosses in front of the Sun and the molecules within it absorb some additional sunlight. And every year, a few, much weaker shadows, would appear, due to the molecule’s in our Earth’s atmosphere. That alien civilisation could then see molecules that our life on Earth produces, and figure out we have an extremely lively planet - and also that we pollute a lot. And we can do the same to them
Aleksandra: OK, that sounds doable, you have convinced me and I think both your day jobs are justified. But I know it is not that straightforward so what are the greatest hurdles you both have to overcome to complete your missions?
Jill: One of the biggest challenges we face doing METI is the strong opposition from those who think we shouldn’t be doing it at all. It’s a very emotive subject, and I think it’s likely there will be some people in the audience today who feel that we shouldn’t be trying to make contact as it could be dangerous. Based on our own experiences of evolution and colonisation, the assumption is that ETI would be malicious. Or might not care enough about us to not wipe us out. Or maybe just hungry or in need of something on our planet.
Not only do I not think they would necessarily be malicious, I think that making contact may actually be a necessity: if they are able to reach us, they will presumably have been around longer than we have, and therefore survived through some of the challenges that we are facing now—like climate change. So perhaps they can save us. As such, although I do understand the fears that opponents have, I feel strongly that we need to be doing active SETI (or METI).
Once you accept that we should be doing METI, the main issue is, again, deciding what and how to compose messages. For me, I feel concerned that we source the best ideas from experts on, for example, the scientific side… but I also think it’s important that we involve the wider public. The tricky element is how to do that. But… that’s partly why I’m very happy to be here today at FutureFest, talking to all of you!
Clara: My hurdles are a little different. Until the year 2000, we didn’t even know we could look into the atmosphere of an exoplanet. Hell, we didn’t even know there were exoplanets until the mid 90s. So my field is extremely young, which means it is less plagued by what we call the “pale, male and stale” problem. Being a woman in science, I of course have my share of horror stories, such as having my research being described as “adorable”. But I was lucky enough to have had extremely equitable, supportive mentors and role models.
Which means I am fortunate enough to say that my biggest hurdles are scientific. In particular, the amount of research needed to be able to detect every possible molecule that can be produced by every possible alien life, in every possible planet.
To actually understand an alien biosphere, we need to understand every possible molecule that could alien life could be producing. Our group at MIT currently estimates that there are 16,367 of these molecules. And to detect any molecule in an alien atmosphere, we need to know the fingerprint that a molecule leaves on light, on a rainbow. And for most molecules, we don’t have this fingerprint. In fact, out of those thousands of molecules that alien life could be making, we only completely understand a few dozen.
One of those is phosphine, my favourite potential biosignature – on Earth it is released when life dies and decomposes, and also when animals fart, both important signs of life.
By focusing on this one molecule for my whole phd, I calculated every tiny shadow that phosphine casts on a rainbow – its fingerprint. And there were 16.8 billion of these tiny shadows. It took almost 4 yrs, but now that I know the phosphine molecule completely, we do have the tools to find IT anywhere in the galaxy. Unfortunately, that’s just one of those thousands of molecules. One person, one molecule, one very expensive supercomputer, and four years. So, if I was going to tackle those remaining thousands of molecules at this rate, this would take me over 60 thousand years, which is longer than it takes for light to get from the center of the galaxy to us. So that’s my biggest hurdle – getting to know all of the molecules that could be produced by aliens in a timescale that at least resembles my lifetime.
Aleksandra: When a novice like myself thinks about space, I suddenly have to deal with a vastness beyond the capacity of my human mind that is normally occupied with the problem of where to go on the weekend. Space is simply exhausting! But luckily there is help.
A telescope like Gaia is currently mapping a billion stars for us, and that is only our own corner of our galaxy and there are over a billion galaxies that are also being mapped by another telescope called Euclid. These are two actual missions that humanity currently has working for itself and if you ever needed a benchmark for our collective intelligence, I would say this is it, against of course all our stupidity can also be measured.
Clara and Jill, could you give us a sense of the scale of your respective inquiries?
Clara: My favourite part about the work that I do is its scale. On one hand I am kept in awe by the enormity of the problems I try to solve, the cosmic distances I have to probe, the fact that I’m listening in on a whole planetary atmosphere. But on the other hand, because I see molecules as the key to finding and understanding aliens, I have to use the smallest tools, so small that the laws of physics are not the same as what we are used to, and we have to use quantum mechanics. Bridging those two scales, the quantum scale and the astronomical scale, is what makes my job so hard AND so cool. That’s how I keep myself interested.
Jill: What keeps me interested is that I feel we are doing good work, ultimately… and also that I’m still constantly surprised by new ideas that people suggest or come up with about what to communicate and how. I reiterate that, to me, this is not just a moral project about contacting ETI, but a philosophical one about reflecting on our collective humanity (or lack thereof!). It is most certainly not something we are going to solve! Whatever we decide to put into messages, there will be people who disagree on both scientific and philosophical bases. But at least we are having the conversation.
Aleksandra: Given the enormity of both your problems, I imagine the work itself must be incredibly humbling. At the same time, you are tasked with staking out extreme and extremely personal positions. As Clara has said, if there are two scientists working on the same problem, then one of you is redundant. So what would you say you are you personally contributing?
Clara: Molecules don’t care where you are, or who’s looking, which is a humbling in itself. Molecules will behave the same no matter where in the galaxy they are, be it trying to glamorously escape a black hole, or not so glamorously escaping a fart. The purpose of my work is to use molecular spectra to find alien life, but those molecules exist on Earth also, and there are many reasons to want to detect molecules on Earth. Like detecting a forest fire, or detecting that a government has used biochemical weapons, or monitoring climate change. Which means that, ideally, I would like to contribute to the discovery of alien life but, in the meantime, I am contributing to the discovery of molecules everywhere.
Jill: A lot of people involved in METI are from hard science backgrounds. I would like to think that I can encourage people to think about the philosophical and ethical angle, and to bring those questions to a wider public. Given that I work in the area of outer space law, I have also been able to help raise questions about the potential regulation of what is sent into outer space, and/or if first contact were to be made.
I also bring my own identity to the discussions, as a woman for example. Traditionally those people working in space activity have been from a narrow demographic, although the field is, happily, opening up more and more not just by gender for example but also with more countries around the planet having space programmes. I think it is important to engage with a broad representation of ‘humanity’ in these discussions, given that one of the main things we are working on is ‘how to represent ourselves’!
Aleksandra: Before I met you, and I only started slumming space conferences some 4 years ago, I used to read about scientific progress in the newspaper. There I got the sense of a very orderly scientific community in harmonious agreement where daily work chugs on and occasionally a discovery is made that moves everything forward and the data is there to prove it.
But when I started to follow you on conferences and socialize with space scientists I was amazed to discover how diverse opinions, biases and personal agendas there are on the same subject. The passionate rifts and arguments within both your areas are really extreme, meaning you really have to fight your corner.
This is particularly interesting for me who works in the arts, the Traditional Avant-Garde. I know this is an oxymoron but that is how my field thinks of itself. The controversies I am used to though, simply pale in comparison with what you are dealing with in trying to advance science. Can you describe the main thresholds in your areas that are currently under debate?
Clara: The biggest threshold in my area was realising we may be able to detect alien life even if it isn’t sending out intelligent signals. Our own planet has been teeming with life for billions of years, and we only have been sending signs of intelligence into space for a century or so.
But when we figured out we could look for life, even if it isn’t clever, my field rushed to look for the signs of life that we know and love: water and oxygen.
These familiar molecules would be a promising sign of life, and those are what most of my field is looking for. But, unfortunately none of these molecules on their own would necessarily indicate life, as they are all vulnerable to false positives(e.g. non-biological sources such as volcanos). And also, we would be missing out on life that doesn’t look like ours. And that’s my biggest fight within the field. To get people to consider not just life as we know it, but also to look for life as we don’t know it. Even if we detected the few molecules that we associate with life on Earth, the limitations of our understanding of the local environment, the limitations in our instruments, and models, will mean that the detection of life is most likely going to be probabilistic - we’ll do it with a degree of certainty. I believe that the detection of life will not be with a smoking gun; it will be probabilistic. Which is why my group and I consider all molecules: so we can improve our odds by consider a holistic picture of an alien planet.
Jill: Because at METI our ethos is about capturing the breadth and depth of what humanity is, and how to represent our planet, we have a very wide range of people involved. We have artists, dancers, and someone who has looked into how and whether we should try to communicate humour. We have someone on our Board who is very religious; we have people who study communication with animal species on Earth. As such, it’s possible for a very wide range of people to be involved in METI or SETI. In a way I would say that this is about a lack of thresholds: about making sure we have a holistic view of Earth and humanity.
Aleksandra: OK, at this point in the conversation I would like to come clean and give full disclosure:
All 3 of us sitting here are aliens, legal aliens, the kind that Sting sings about. We have chosen to leave our places of origins, moved, been positively received and become ‘productive members of our societies’. And yet even in this benign process of border crossings and professional resettlement, our identities and motives have been questioned to the core. The reason the subject is contagious is of course power.
In the recent discourse on illegal aliens, we have seen populist politicians referring to people who are risking their lives to live amongst us, as insects. When clean freaks like David Cameron scare us with the notion of hostile swarms, or Donald Trump is worried about an infestation, I imagine they have lived too protected lives to ever been camping.
But reducing individuals in dire need for safety to insects does not only reinforce policy and consolidates power, it is also the undoing of the humanist project: The idea that every human life is of equal value and that ultimately all humans, no matter their cultural difference or social standing, are compatible with each other, and God forbid, might even mate!
How does the notion of compatibility play itself out in your areas?
Clara: I think of compatibility more in terms of biology and chemistry. And I don’t just mean whether or not we would be able to breathe on an alien planet. My group at MIT is currently looking into one possible form or alien chemistry that would be just as rich and capable of life as the biochemistry on Earth, but that we would be totally toxic to them, and them to us. If we did meet, we would instantly disintegrate each other, and end our meeting as single pile of goo.
Jill: For me, compatibility comes up in two ways: firstly, in terms of looking out—our potential compatibility with ETI, biologically, ethically, ‘politically’—could we coexist with them? Could we figure out a way to communicate with each other? What if, for example, they were primarily robotic—that is, if ETI had become largely or even entirely robotic after combining itself with technology over time. I know that sounds really ‘scifi’ but if you think about it, it’s not. We are already doing it to ourselves and actually it makes good sense to gradually eliminate our vulnerable biological and organic bits and replace it with sturdier technology. In which case: does that change how we think or feel about them? And secondly, compatibility within our own species and also with other species and the Earth itself. How do we work amongst ourselves to discuss message composition, including how we represent the rest of the planet and the creatures that live on it with us.
Aleksandra: It is all so very romantic, as I experience the entire scientific project around alien life to be. I mean, all this resource invested in searching for somebody out there, in the hope of what? Finding true love? Does it not ultimately boil down to mitigating the biggest fear of them all? The fear of being alone?
Clara: I feel that we may end up alone, not because there are no aliens, but because we, as a species, have a problem of poor tools and imagination. My main concern in the search for like is not whether we will find it. My main concern is that we will find it and not have the tools to know it. Life as we know it now is likely only one island in the vast archipelago of possibilities for life - and we have to be ready for that when we aim our telescopes or we could be staring right into an inhabited planet and not know it. (Aliens effectively waving at us for centuries and us ignoring them.) The equivalent of a big snub.
Aleksandra: The Big Snub! Yeah, we are already good at that.
Jill: Wow, that’s beautifully put. Agreed. And again, I would reflect here on not just listening and looking—in case we do get that ‘wave’—but also reaching out ourselves. There’s something called the Zoo Hypothesis which suggests that perhaps ETI is aware of us but just watching us for now, perhaps until we get to a certain developmental point—like we are animals in a zoo. In which case I would point out that if you are a zoo looking at animals from afar and one does something to explicitly demonstrate intelligent, intentional communication—using a hoof to stomp out prime numbers for example—you are going to react very differently to that species.
And finally I would just return to what you say, Aleksandra, about searching in order to discover that we are not alone… yes, that is part of it and I think it would be amazing to discover that we aren’t alone—but at the same time, coming together to try to reach out could, I romantically hope, help us realise that even if we don’t make contact with something else in the universe, we aren’t alone because we have each other.
Aleksandra: Yes, and for now, that's all we’ve got!