Posts Tagged ‘Extraterrestrial life’

It’s silly season: Aliens and global warming “fun” paper picked up by the Guardian and others and the co-author apologises

August 20, 2011

It’s August and the silly season is on us.

Global warming >> detection by advanced aliens >> humanity exterminated

Even a science fiction author would have qualms.

The Guardian carried a headline: Aliens may destroy humanity to protect other civilisations, say scientists saying Rising greenhouse emissions could tip off aliens that we are a rapidly expanding threat, warns a report. They had picked up on a “fun” paper which was a couple of months old. It was attributed – now admitted by a co-author – quite wrongly to NASA.

Though the Guardian actually does say that one of the authors is a “NASA affiliated scientist” and does not explicitly say NASA was behind the paper the report does imply that this was a “formal” NASA paper. This was of course picked up by a number of other media outlets – Svenska Dagbladet among them – which merely carried the Guardian report headline and all. Not one of the journalists who reported the Guardian silly season story actually bothered to read the original paper which is here:

Acta Astronautica, 2011, 68(11-12): 2114-2129. Would Contact with Extraterrestrials Benefit or Harm Humanity? A Scenario Analysis by Seth D. Baum-1, Jacob D. Haqq-Misra-2 & Shawn D. Domagal-Goldman-3

1. Department of Geography, Pennsylvania State University.
2. Department of Meteorology, Pennsylvania State University
3. NASA Planetary Science Division

The third author, Shawn Goldman, who happens to work at NASA organising conferences and workshops, has been forced to explain and clarify that this was just a “fun” scenario done in his spare time and has nothing to do with NASA.

Shawn Domagal-Goldman is currently a postdoc at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. For 3-4 days a week he works in the astrobiology program office, organizing conferences and workshops. The other 1-2 days are dedicated to research focused on exoplanet characterization lessons from the “pale orange dot” that was the Archean Earth.

(Archean Earth was similar to but somewhat warmer than today, existed some 3800 – 2500 million years ago and is thought to have contained no free Oxygen. Bacteria were around. I suppose if you can get your mind around imagining the Archean Earth then imagining aliens picking up on global warming and emissions signals and destroying humanity is child’s play).

Shawn D. Domagal-Goldman

Alien expert?: Shawn D. Domagal-Goldman

He writes:

Yes, I work at NASA. It’s also true that I work at NASA Headquarters. But I am not a civil servant… just a lowly postdoc. More importantly, this paper has nothing to do with my work there. I wasn’t funded for it, nor did I spend any of my time at work or any resources provided to me by NASA to participate in this effort. There are at least a hundred more important and urgent things to be done on any given work day than speculate on the different scenarios for contact with alien civilizations… However, in my free time (what precious little I have), I didn’t mind working on stuff like this every once in a while. Why? Well, because I’m a geek and stuff like this is fun to think about. Unfortunately, there is not enough time for fun. Indeed, I felt guilty at times because this has led to a lack of effort on my part in my interactions with Seth and Jacob. Beyond adding some comments here or there, I did very little for the paper.

But I do admit to making a horrible mistake. It was an honest one, and a naive one… but it was a mistake nonetheless. I should not have listed my affiliation as “NASA Headquarters.” I did so because that is my current academic affiliation. But when I did so I did not realize the full implications that has. …..

One last thing: I stand by the analysis in the paper. Is such a scenario likely? I don’t think so. But it’s one of a myriad of possible (albeit unlikely) scenarios, and the point of the paper was to review them. 

Perhaps the aliens picked up on Archean Earth and actually seeded the progression of the bacteria into humanity.

Oh well! It is August and we are all entitled to be silly – even the Guardian.

Perhaps there is no life on other planets

August 1, 2011

The fundamental weakness of the Drake Equation is that it starts with the assumption that life on Earth is not unique. After that it merely applies a string of probabilities to derive the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible. Fermi’s paradox is the apparent contradiction between high estimates of the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations (such as given by the Drake Equation) and the lack of evidence for, or contact with, such civilizations.

The paradox of course is resolved if there are no other such civilisations except on Earth which would be the case if life (as we know it) was unique to Earth.

It might not be what I would want to or like to believe but it is the simplest resolution of the apparent paradox. And if that is so then Drake’s equation starts with a false premise and is irrelevant and invalid. The existence of extraterrestrial life is still in the realms of belief and hope and is not (yet) science.

Now Bob Yirka of PhysOrg reports that

Astrophysicists apply new logic to downplay the probability of extraterrestrial life

David Spiegel and Edwin Turner of Princeton University have submitted a paper to arXiv that turns the Drake equation on its head. Instead of assuming that life would naturally evolve if conditions were similar to that found here on Earth, the two use Bayesian reasoning to show that just because we evolved in such conditions, doesn’t mean that the same occurrence would necessarily happen elsewhere; using evidence of our own existence doesn’t show anything they argue, other than that we are here.

…….. Spiegel and Turner point out, basing our expectations of life existing on other planets, for no better reason that it exists here, is really only proof that we are more than capable of deceiving ourselves into thinking that things are much more likely than they really are. ……

When taken at face value, some might conclude that such arguments hold no more logic than arguments for the existence of God, i.e. it’s more about faith, than science. At any rate, most would agree that the only concrete way to prove whether there is life out there or not is to prove it, by finding it.

Another form of life based on Arsenic?

December 2, 2010
The Arecibo message as sent 1974 from the Arec...

The Arecibo message as sent 1974: image via Wikipedia

The Telegraph  has an eye-catching headline (naturally):

‘Life as we don’t know it’ discovery could prove existence of aliens

But even without the exaggerations and the splash headlines, the possible existence of a form of life intimately connected with Arsenic would have enormous consequences on the definition and abundance of life in the universe and on how to go about searching for extra-terrestrial life.

NASA has sent the internet into a frenzy after it announced an “astrobiology finding” that could suggest alien life exists – even on earth.

The discovery could prove the theory of “shadow” creatures which exist in tandem with our own and in hostile environments previously thought uninhabitable. The “life as we don’t know it” could even survive on hostile planets and develop into intelligent creatures such as humans if and when conditions improve. In a press conference scheduled for tomorrow evening, researchers will unveil the discovery of a microbe that can live in an environment previously thought too poisonous for any life-form to survive.

The bacteria has been found at the bottom of Mono Lake in California’s Yosemite National Park which is rich in arsenic – usually poisonous to life.

Somehow the creature uses the arsenic as a way of surviving and this ability raises the prospect that similar life could exist on other planets, which do not have our benevolent atmosphere. Dr Lewis Dartnell, an astrobiologist at the Centre for Planetary Sciences in London, said: “If these organisms use arsenic in their metabolism, it demonstrates that there are other forms of life to those we knew of. “They’re aliens, but aliens that share the same home as us.”

The Brisbane Times reports:

The US space agency has created a buzz with its announcement of a press conference early tomorrow morning (Australian time) to discuss a scientific finding that relates to the hunt for life beyond the planet Earth.

“NASA will hold a news conference at 2pm EST (6am AEDT) to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life,” it said on its website.

But Nasa has declined to elaborate further on the topic, other than to say astrobiology is the ”study of life in the universe, including its origin and evolution, where it is located and how it might survive in the future”. The vague announcement has sent the blogosphere in a flurry of speculation about its potential meaning.

Blogger Jason Kottke tipped NASA would announce the discovery of arsenic on Titan, or possibly chemical evidence of bacteria utilising it for photosynthesis.

That speculation was quickly picked up and repeated by a number of other bloggers and internet sites. However Kottke theory has been rebuffed by Alexis Madrigal, senior science writer for The Atlantic, who tweeted that he had read the Science article relating to the Nasa announcement. ”I’m sad to quell some of the @kottke-induced excitement about possible extraterrestrial life. I’ve seen the Science paper. It’s not that,” he tweeted.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, which publishes the journal in which the research will appear, told ABC News in the US that it had received numerous inquiries about the “mostly erroneous online and/or tabloid speculation about the forthcoming research”.

For NASA TV streaming video and downlink information, visit: at 2pm EST today (2nd December).

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