What If Aliens Are Listening But We're Using the Wrong Signals to Contact Them?

Tuesday, 16 January 2018 - 11:11AM
Space
Technology
Tuesday, 16 January 2018 - 11:11AM
What If Aliens Are Listening But We're Using the Wrong Signals to Contact Them?
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Image credit: YouTube

The hunt for intelligent life is proving more than a little futile.

Throughout the universe, across billions and billions of stars, and countless planets, we have yet to spot anything that looks even remotely like intelligent life—unless, of course, you believe the conspiracy theorists who claim that aliens are even closer than you'd think.

For anyone who's trying to find more concrete proof that we're not alone in the universe, there is nothing even approximating a glimpse at otherworldy sentience. We're beyond the point now where we need to have patience; our ability to observe the stars has evolved to the point that, if intelligent aliens really did exist somewhere out in space, we really should have spotted them already.

There's no end of theories trying to explain the so-called Fermi paradox (the disconnect between the size of the universe and the number of sentient civilizations it appears to contain), but nothing can be confirmed at this point.

Perhaps, ultimately, we're just not looking for the right signs of life. As an article from Forbes points out, there's no use looking for smoke signals when you're in the middle of a sky-obscuring forest.

Thus far, our efforts to detect alien life has come primarily from listening to, and broadcasting out, different types of radio waves.

The logic is straightforward: We assume that if aliens do exist, they'll have developed electromagnetic technology that will work in a similar manner to our own, and as such, our constant broadcasts out into the universe should by now have bumped into someone who can understand them by tuning their radios to the correct frequency.

There's two major problems with this assumption.

First, radio waves have a limited travel speed. It's only been a little more than a hundred years since we first figured out how to send and receive radio transmissions in any context, and it wasn't until the late 1930s that we started broadcasting these transmissions into space.

Radio transmissions from the Earth have been broadcast out into space, but thus far, they've only managed to get around eighty light years away, which, in the grand scheme of things, is not very far at all. To anyone further than eighty light years away, our planet looks like the same kind of quiet, uninhabited rock as any other. As much as we'd like to hope that there are people nearby to hear our broadcasts, it might take longer than we'd like for our transmissions to reach distant stars.




This message travel time is doubled when you consider that it would similarly take aliens on another planet an equal amount of time to respond, assuming their technology matches up with ours. Thus, if our first transmission took fifty years to reach an inhabited world that was tuning in to hear from us, we still have another twenty years to wait before we'll hear a response.

Star Trek, it seems, has misled us. We can't travel vast distances to meet with aliens on the other side of the cosmos, and we can't instantly communicate across all of time and space. Some things take time, which may explain why we haven't yet heard from aliens.

The second problem with our traditional expectations about interstellar communication is that we always expect aliens to have developed a kind of technology that's compatible with our own. Again, this is the fault of fiction like Star Trek, which assumes that aliens will look the same as humans, but with pointier ears or greener skin.

One theory for the silence of aliens is that they might live underwater, buried beneath a thick crust of ice, and therefore, would never even bother trying to explore the stars. Similarly, this could mean that an alien race would never develop radio technology, as getting an electromagnet to work in water is probably a real pain in the alien backside.

This is to say nothing of all the other ways that sentient creatures could communicate—many species on our own planet communicate using scent in a way that's entirely foreign to humans, so it's silly to even assume that aliens would have eyes or ears that would allow them to interpret our broadcasts.

Similarly, we can't observe dark matter, which means that the vast majority of possible communication methods from aliens are completely locked off from us based on the tiny fraction of matter in the universe that we're actually able to comprehend.

We probably shouldn't give up hope of the existence of aliens just yet, but if they are out there, they're not necessarily going to be quite as easy to contact as life on Earth. 

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