Are cosmic gorillas limiting our search for E.T.?


Originally published at:


Earth didn’t have free oxygen until life started producing it as a byproduct. It’s pretty difficult to figure out the atmosophere of an extrasolar planet, but people are working on that. The transmission spectrum of the planet’s star tends to get in the way.

If we ever find one that has lots of oxygen, scientists are going to go bananas about it because the only explanation for an oxygen atmosphere we have right now is life like we have on Earth. I think that’s going to be more likely than SETI, but even that is remote. SETI at least has the potential to find intelligent life with completely different biochemistry than ours. But I’m in the camp that biology is likely to share many similarities through the universe as convergent evolution.


sending information from star to star on a radio wave is fast and efficient horribly slow and inefficient


(Quantum effects FTW!)


There’s an XKCD for that


Why not pay attention closer to home? With articles like that NYT UFO article I wonder if governements (or rich private individuals) would be best served looking for anomalies closer to home.

Assuming they’re the traditional notion of UFOs (spaceships from outside the universe) and not, say, interdimensional, you’d think on a long enough timeline you’d see them.

With advances in computer vision and photography you could set up remote stations that watch the sky for anomalies pretty easily.


“My own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”


Unfortunately, or fortunately if you like causality, entanglement cannot send information without first sending a classical signal.

Personally, while I think there are probably countless examples of intelligent life (for values of intelligence well outside our narrow experience) scattered throughout our observable spacetime, I’m also pretty sure the article is right, and also that they rarely ever meet and may even be too spread out for two-way communication. It seems more likely that any message we find will be the relic of a long-extinct intelligence.


Just two years after Cocconi and Morrison’s famous suggestion1 that scientists look for signals
from extraterrestrial civilizations at the 21 cm hydrogen line in the radio spectrum, Schwartz and
Townes13,15 proposed broadening SETI to include the optical spectrum.However, lacking the technology to construct sufficiently high-power optical transmitters, it was difficult for SETI researchers to justify building optical receivers; as such, optical SETI was primarily a theoretical exercise. Spurred on by an annual Moore’s law doubling in optical laser power during the last 40 years, and the realization that we could build an optical transmitter capable of signaling across the galaxy today, optical SETI is coming of age.

A little bit more recent:

I don’t know how far optical SETI has gotten. It’s interesting. Seems like it should be on equal footing with radio and microwave SETI. Then consider that if there really are other civilizations in our galaxy, they may be using something like directed neutrino beams instead of optical!


The premise that we are constrained by what we know seems valid. However, it’s hard to get around, because we are constrained by what we know.

There are a few other things we know, that the SETI people don’t seem to let stop them. The most important for this line of searching is that a signal from an exoplanet must be created by a planetary-scale energy source in order to be detectable as even a pixel with our largest telescopes.

I work in radio astronomy, so I am familiar with how sensitive the receivers are. But I’m also familiar with how quickly the Earth’s radio transmitters have been converted from the simple analog megawatt UHF TV signals of the 1900s to the highly modulated, beamed-down-to-Earth signals we use today, that are basically indistinguishable from white noise. In short, we have turned off our outgoing SETI beacons in the name of efficiency.


The most common form of intelligent life in the universe could well turn out to be some kind of microscopic crystalline beings that thrive in asteroid belts but metabolize so slowly that they take eons to complete so much as a single thought. Good luck communicating with them.


I think we’ve already ascertained that there is no intelligent life here.*

*present company excepted


See last line of the above.
(“And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere up in space,
Cause there’s bugger-all down here on Earth”)


I think this is one of the reasons science fiction is important, at least, good science fiction: it helps us experiment with what-ifs and break out of our preconceived notions. Of course, that’s good science fiction, and we all know that 90% of science fiction is crap (because 90% of everything is crap).


Reminds me of the bacteria that live in the deep sea mud and have such slow metabolism that it takes hundreds of years for them to divide. The whole issue with different time scales could well be a major limitation on any communication.

See also:



The space gorillas visited Earth in the 1950ies, but it didn’t work out.





They’d make good interstellar travelers. It would be easy to boost them up to a good speed, and who cares if takes an eon to get there?


i find the boing boing comments quite enlightened personally :wink: