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Intelligent aliens won’t be humanoids - astrophysicist

Based on the sheer number of stars in the galaxy alone... The odds that alien life exists out there are high. But how does that affect us here on Earth? We asked Professor Adam Frank, astronomer, physicist and author.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Professor Adam Frank, astronomer, physicist, author, welcome to the show, great to have you with us.

Adam Frank: It’s a real pleasure.

SS: So, in your latest book,“Light of the stars”, you assert that there are millions of civilizations out there, and at least some of it should be visible to us. So why don’t we see them?

AF: Well, the thing, of course, is, you know, the space is big, and there is a lot of stars, so, you know, unless they were going to land on the White House lawn or something, then the other stars are just too large, we have to search a lot of space to be able to see them. So you know, other than people who think that there are UFOs, I am not one of them, then, you know, these other civilizations are across vast distances of space, and it’s going to take a lot of searching to find them.

SS: So all these exo-planets - how much can we find out about them? For instance, our telescopes are too weak to actually see any of them, like we can see Mars or Jupiter; is there any way we could make a telescope powerful enough to have a look at their surface, or it is physically impossible? 

AF: Well, no, you know, as time goes on, we are getting better and better at seeing them, and also, in astronomy, we can use the light that we get, that either bounces off those planets or passes through their atmosphere, to tell a huge amount about them. So we already can tell what the atmospheres of some of these exo-planets are like, whether or not there is carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, or other compounds, and within the next, you know, twenty or thirty years our telescopes are going to get so powerful that we will be able to look at Earth-like planets and tell whether or not, potentially, whether there is life on them by whether or not there is oxygen or methane in their atmosphere. So we’ve gone pretty far and we are going a lot farther in the next few decades.

SS: So, I spoke not long ago to Dr. Douglas Vakoch, president of the Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence organization (METI), and he told me that alien civilizations that are out there may be scared to make first contact. Do you share that idea?

AF: Yes, I think there is a lot to that, Stephen Hawking also talked about this. You know, the idea that… We like to think of advanced civilizations, meaning civilizations that have been around for a hundred thousands years more than we have, as being somehow, you know, they have to be peaceful, they have to be… thinking about our benefit, but there is really no reason to think that. I think it is probably a good idea to be a little careful when we think about actually beaming messages to other civilizations. There may be wolves among the stars.

SS: On the other hand, could this be a matter of security? I mean, there’s the so-called “Dark Forest” concept, right, the idea that a super-developed civilization would want to hide its presence to not get crushed by an even more advanced one.

AF: Yes, the “Dark Forest” idea is a really interesting idea, that Chinese science fiction writer was the gentleman who first sort of gave it that name. I myself think that it’s worthwhile being careful about messaging. But, you know, the problem of course is that you can’t make uniform assumptions about what every civilization does. And we always have to be careful, when we think about other civilizations, not to map our conceptions of morality, our conceptions of behaviour, security etc. onto others. So I think, while we should be careful... What we really can do is look for unintended signals, right? If someone was looking at us right now they would be able to see, that if they looked at the Earth in detail, they, even from a distance, they’d be able to tell that we were here. So that’s the kind of things that we could be looking for, unintentional signals from other civilizations.

SS: Part of the Fermi Paradox is an idea of a Great Filter, an event of some dreadful proportions that prevents intelligent civilizations from developing. You know, like nuclear war, climate change. How would you assess our chances of survival through an event like this? I mean, have we made it through already, or is the great challenge of survival still ahead? 

AF: That’s a great question. I think we have obviously already made it through a number of filters, right? I mean, because it’s not clear whether the great filter is something that lies behind us, meaning, you know, that it is very hard, say, to even evolve life. Or maybe it’s very hard to evolve intelligence. So clearly we made it through those. So, if those things were great filters, we’ve managed to pass through them. Now, what’s in front of us, what lies in the weeds of our future, yes, that’s an open question, and I do think, that’s what my book was about, that climate change is one of those things that any civilization, if you’re basically a civilization building, using energy to build a large-scale planetary civilization, you are going to trigger climate change, there is no way around it. So, like, nuclear war, if you are species that is not war-like, you are never going to build nuclear weapons. But everybody is going to trigger climate change. So climate change could be, maybe not a great filter, but a filter that keeps some civilizations, like, maybe, us, from making it to the next stage in development. 

SS: On other side of the debate, there are people like Paul Hellyer, he is a former national defence minister of Canada, or the American ufologist Dr. Steven Greer, and they claim that aliens are not just there, they’ve actually been visiting Earth. Is this too radical of an idea for you?

AF: It is just, yes, it is really ridiculous in a lot of ways, I mean, you know, here is the thing about UFOs, right? Everybody thinks about UFOs, and what do you think about? Saucers with lights on, right, that’s “I saw lights in the sky”. And here is the thing, if these are aliens who are coming to Earth, and they want to hide their presence, they don’t want to make themselves known, why don’t they turn off the lights on their spaceships? Right? So there is so much about UFOs just turns out to be bad observations or people being mistaken. As a friend of mine Jason Wright likes to say, no one looks at the sky with more detail and with better instruments than astronomers. And we see things that are unidentified all the time and, you know, in the vast number of cases we can figure out what they were. A rocket booster moving across the sky, you know, a particular atmosphere phenomena, so there is just not really any science or not much science in UFOs. It always ends up being a science fiction story that they are here, but they don’t want us to know, because they want us to develop, or, you know, and that’s just, there is no science to do there, whereas there is a lot of interesting science to think about how civilizations might have evolved on other planets, and whether or not we can detect signals from them.

SS: Alright, so in terms of pure statistics, alien life is basically a given, but is that the same for a civilization like ours? I mean, the Earth is almost miraculously suited for life, from atmosphere and tectonics to its positioning in the Solar system. I mean, just so many aspects come together. What makes you think that success like this could be replicated somewhere else in the universe? 

AF: First, if you don’t mind, I want to step back a little bit, we talked about the Fermi paradox, but I want people to understand, that... People think that Fermi paradox can be phrased as, like, well, we have gone out, we have looked for signals from other civilizations and we haven’t found them. And that’s just not true, we... There have been very few SETI searches, so really, we haven’t even begun to look at the sky, someone just did a recent calculation where they showed that, basically, if the sky was like the ocean, we have basically looked at a hot tub verse of sky. So we just haven’t really looked yet, to know. But to your point, or your question, I was sort of, I pulled back a little bit, because even life, I mean, the statistics for life, as you say, overall they are pretty good, they are, we calculated… I did a paper where we calculated that there were ten billion trillion planets in the universe where life and civilizations could have formed. So, that’s the whole enchilada for both life forming and civilizations forming. So I think, I don’t think we can say what, if we think life is common, I don’t think we are in a position to say that civilizations aren’t common. So both of those are big question marks, but the number that we do have from all of our studies of exo-planets is 10 billion trillion planets in the universe. Those are 10 billion trillion experiments that nature has run in the possibilities of life and civilizations. 

SS: So, you’ve touched upon climate change briefly, you believe that climate change is something all alien species have to deal with. Why? Is there no way around ruining your own planet and then frantically trying to fix it?

AF: Well, when you say “ruining the planet”, I mean, I think “changing the planet” is something, I think, that is going to be very difficult to avoid, because, basically, what is a civilization, right? A civilization means that you have one species that has become very successful, right? You know, it’s made a lot of babies. And they have also been able to harvest energy from the planet to build things, right, so, a civilization is just a mechanism for harvesting energy on a planet and doing work with it. And what we understand about planets now, because we have Earth, and Mars, and Venus, and all the moons that we visited – we understand how planets work. And we understand how climate works on all of these different planets, right? Venus has a climate, it has super greenhouse effect that makes the surface temperature 700 degrees, Mars has a climate. So we understand climate pretty well. And what I would argue is, you can’t build a planetary scale civilization without changing your planet’s climate. Now, what happens next is the thing that we talked about with the great filter. If you are smart enough, you recognize what you are doing and you come to learn how to live cooperatively with your planet. If you are not smart, which, right now, it seems that human beings are not being very smart, then you don’t even acknowledge the changes that are happening, and the planet will just go ahead and change under your feet. and it will make your civilization very difficult to achieve, to continue. But one way or the other, I think a civilization is going to end up triggering a change in its planet. 

SS: So, Adam, among your studies is the so called exo-biology, and a study of exo-civilizations. What is an exo-civilization? How can you study such a thing - is there any way you can run a simulation of it?

AF: Yes, so that’s the thing, so, you know, as time goes on, and we do more and more searches, we are hoping that we will find what we call techno signatures, that we’ll eventually find some indication about life, civilizations on other planets. But even right now, we have learned so much about how planets and life work, that we can actually do modelling, we can actually begin to use the laws of physics to constrain our imaginations and our thoughts to try and get an understanding for certain questions, right, like... I don’t think there is anything we can do about exo-civilizations and their politics, right? Are they capitalists, are they environmentalists, I mean, there is no laws of physics or chemistry or biology to tell us those things. But what we can do, is we can look at how a civilization and a planet would evolve together. As I said before, civilizations are just a way, an engine for harvesting energy and doing work with that energy. And the planet is going to respond, so we can look at how different kinds of energy will feedback on a planet, which kind of energy use, would it be solar, or fossil fuels, which one will have the strongest impact on the planet, how rapidly will that impact manifest itself, what strategies in terms of switching from one kind of energy to another might be able to allow the civilization to survive. So in many ways, the question that is most important to us, which is are we going to make it through climate change, is the one question that we really can do some science, can do some mathematical, physical modelling of, to understand in general how a civilization and a planet go together.

SS: So, you seem to be very optimistic about civilizations surviving the ecological disaster they inflict on their worlds. But there are examples in our own history, like the people of Easter Island, an isolated world, where a series of unfortunate decisions of humans led to ecological disaster and destruction of the civilization. Are we the Easter Island of the universe?

AF: Well,I always like to say, I get asked this question a lot, and I always like to say, you know, I am hopeful and optimistic, because what is the choice? What’s the alternative? But I think… This is what I believe, is that climate change, as we’ve been talking about, climate change shows us that we are really cosmic teenagers, right? We are adolescence as a species, and when it comes to exo-civilizations, we are one of the young ones. And as we know with adolescence, adolescence is not something you can stop, you cannot stop your kids from becoming teenagers, but what you can do is help them with knowledge become mature, navigate their transition to maturity, and adulthood, and wisdom. And I think that is possible for us, I don’t know if we are going to do it, right? Adolescence is always a dangerous transition, but some make it through, some kids make it through to become adults. I think some civilizations will be able to have the wisdom to make it through. The question for us is, are we one of those civilizations? So, I absolutely think it’s possible, I absolutely think that younger generation is ready to take on this challenge. And in some sense, we just have got to get out of the way and let them solve the problem. 

SS: So, people like Elon Musk or the late Stephen Hawking believe that this planet is doomed, and we will really be better off if get off it. If that is so, is it better to send out giant generation ships, or terraform other planets? 

AF: Yes, I would say that’s a crazy idea. We are not getting off Earth for a… In terms of, like, huge numbers of us, for a long, long time. The Solar System is really amazing, and I think we are poised to begin settling the Solar System. I can easily imagine, in 200 years, that there are millions or maybe even billions of us living on Mars in settlements and such… But you know, Earth is the only place that we have where we can walk outside and just, you know, without a spacesuit. And so, you know, the idea that there is a planet B… No way. And in fact, this idea of a generation ships and interstellar travel… You know, that may just be science fiction, it is not clear that you could build a ship that would really function for a hundred years, crossing interstellar distances. So I think really, our future is the Solar System, and Earth will always be the ground for that, so… And also in learning how to live, even learning how to live in a generation ship, you know, or a hollowed-out asteroid, you have to understand how complex ecosystems work. So that means learning how to live in space demands that we learn how to live on Earth, it is the same problem, if you are going to build an ecosystem with human beings in it in a dome on Mars, you are going to use the lessons you learned from how ecosystems work on Earth. So I don’t think we are doomed at all. We may not make it, and then Earth will just go on without us, but Earth is really… Earth is our future, so we are going to have to, sort of, work that one out.

SS: Do you believe alien species will be based on carbon like us, humans, or another element could work as a foundation of life under different conditions? Do you think there can be life based on crystals, for instance? 

AF: Yes, that is a really great question, and I think the answer is we don’t know. There are reasons why carbon ended up being the basis for life on Earth, carbon is a molecule that is very social, or an atom. Carbon loves to bind with things, that the structure of the carbon atom makes it sort of very easy for it to make complex, interesting kinds of biological machines. And it’s hard to find another element in the universe that works so well. Silicon, people talk about silicon, yes, but it doesn’t have quite the same properties. So just like we think that water is, there is good reasons to think that water is going to be really important for the formation of life. And I think carbon is, you know, if you are going to put your bets down, you put it on carbon. But, you know, the Universe is very clever. And as someone once said, anything that is not forbidden by the laws of physics is probably going to happen. So, yes, I think we have to remain very open-minded, and scientists are being open-minded, we are even calculating the properties of life that might form from other kinds of molecules, because we want to go look for that life on exoplanets with our telescopes. So it is good to remain open-minded. 

SS: So, let’s say, if alien life is made from the same bricks as us, and same evolutionary pressures apply to it, do you think an intelligent alien species will resemble the human body in some way? I don’t know, let’s say, upright walking with hands, hot blooded, no fur, just skin? 

AF: Well, you know, that question is… Scientists pose that question as convergent evolution, are there ways that evolution, you know, no matter how crazy circumstances… Circumstances may be different. Does evolution make the same kinds of choices? So for example, I think it’s like, wings, we have seen wings evolve on Earth in a bunch of completely different circumstances. So, does the same thing happen with the evolution of intelligence, and… I don’t think so. I mean, my own opinion is that there is really no reason why upright, you know, hands, opposable thumbs, why those features are going to be necessary for intelligence. You know, octopuses are very intelligent, I mean, they don’t have anything like that. And their brains are kind of distributed. So I think, as I said, nature is very creative. And I would not take the things that happened on Earth, the details of what happened on Earth, in terms of evolution as being some sort of, some kind of a guideline for what happens in Universe. You know, every time we have gone out and we have looked at the Universe in a new way, we found things that totally blew our minds, right? When we first started finding planets around other stars, those planets and solar system were in places that made no sense from our Solar System. We have, in our Solar System, Jupiter and Saturn, the big planets are way out at the edge of the Solar System, or they are the outer parts of the Solar System. Our first solar system we ever discovered had Jupiter in an orbit that was closer to the Sun than Mercury is. So we are going to be surprised, that’s what I would predict. 

SS: So, you also study the interaction of science and religion. Do you believe humankind can do without a religious thought; in your view, has it been rendered obsolete, or it is still a necessary part of, you know, healthy culture?

AF: Well, let’s distinguish for a minute between organized religion, right, which often has a lot of politics and everything else in it, versus human spirituality, the lived sense that there is more than just equations, and in that sense, I don’t think that’s ever going away. I think science is a powerful, obviously I am a scientist, I love science, and it is a powerful way of understanding the world. But the truths that science finds are not the only kinds of truths. In fact, science is one kind of truth that we have learned to understand, but there are truths of art, there is the truth of music, there is the truth of poetry. Those are equally true, and they don’t reduce down to science, it’s not just because you have circuits in your brain that respond to music in a certain way. What I like to say is that scientific explanations don’t exhaust our experience of the world. So, I think the sacredness, in the book I wrote about this, I liked the idea of sacredness, because that is really, sacredness is really about an attitude that you have about the world, the way you… your receptivity to the world and so in that way, I don’t think that’s ever going to go away, nor should it.

SS: So, within the last 100 years, the human population has jumped up to 7 billion people, and it’s growing at the same pace. Even with all the green energy tech (which is really only affordable to advanced nations), how can you sustain planetary ecology with so many people? Or the world population will inevitably have to be cut down?

AF: Yes, that is a great point, many of our problems associated with the climate change are associated with population. However, we do have to note, that, you know, it’s not just population, it’s what the energy use that the population is using, so for example, the U.S. and China, for example, are the main contributors to climate change, right, so it’s… How many people you have, and which people get to use which kinds of energy. But I think inevitably, people are going to… The population… We are going to have to deal with the population explosion. And you know what is the best way you can do, apparently, what they found is by giving women some power, you know, when women get some economic power, they are able to have their own businesses, you will find... This is a research that I’ve been reading, you find that the population rate very quickly begins to… population growth rate very quickly becomes stabilized. So you know, in most of the developed countries now, you don’t see the population exploding, so apparently the best thing we can do is give women some voice and some power in their lives, and actually you’ll see that number… you’ll see that growth rates start to level off.

SS: Dr. Frank, thank you for your insight. It’s been great to have you on our show, we were talking to Dr. Adam Frank, astrophysicist and publicist, discussing the search for extraterrestrial civilizations and future of humanity. That’s it for this edition of SophieCo, I will see you next time.

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