Lee Billings on the Search for Life in a Silent Universe

September 27, 2017

It’s a big cosmos out there. It wasn’t too long ago that we couldn’t be sure that any planets existed anywhere outside of our own solar system. But in just the past handful of years, we’ve learned that planets orbiting stars are the rule, not the exception, which suggests that there may be 200 billion planets just in our galaxy alone, and trillions upon trillions of planets throughout the known universe. Surely, many of the planets in the Milky Way must be home to life forms, and even technologically advanced civilizations.

So where the heck are they? Why can’t we find them? Why won’t they talk to us? Would we even know it if they did? To talk about the prospects for life on other worlds, intelligent and otherwise, Point of Inquiry host Paul Fidalgo talks to journalist Lee Billings. Lee is a reporter and editor for Scientific American covering space and physics, as well as the author of Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars.

Billings explains how this quest, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, has become increasingly daunting even as our knowledge of the cosmos grows richer. It is a quest rife with pitfalls, paradoxes, and plain old speculation, and so far, it has proven fruitless. But despite our apparent solitude, we keep looking. We keep listening. And we keep reaching out. Do we have the patience and the will to continue searching and waiting for a sign that may never come?

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Wednesday, September twenty seventh. Twenty seventeen. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, the flagship podcast of the Center for Inquiry, an organization that strives to foster a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry and humanist values. 

I’m your host, Paul Fidalgo. 

I don’t know about you, but I want to find aliens. I don’t even know why, but since I was a kid, I’d been fascinated by the prospect of knowing for certain that there are civilizations other than our own on other worlds. Actually, fascinated isn’t really the right word. I think I felt what you might even describe as an anxiety that I would go my whole life without knowing for sure whether alien life exists, that I’d be dead by the time we detect an extraterrestrial civilization or make first contact. But this anxiety rests on a kind of faith that these beings actually exist. Not a matter of whether they’re there, but how we’ll confirm it. How will communicate. But, of course, there’s no guarantee that there’s anyone out there to communicate with where it might be that there are countless civilizations in the cosmos, but also unthinkably far away, that for our purposes, they might as well not be here at all. So to get a better understanding of what we do and don’t know about the possibility of alien life on other worlds. I talked to journalist Lee Billings. He’s a science writer and editor for Scientific American and the author of the absolutely wonderful book, Five Billion Years of Solitude The Search for Life among the Stars. How do we go about looking for beings who may be nothing like us? How would we know if we even found them? What are the prospects for life on all these recently discovered exoplanets? What do we know about the potential for life on moons in our own solar system? I confess I’m beginning to feel that no matter how far we cast our gaze in search of fellow voyagers on the cosmic ocean, all we find is more ocean. New wonders are discovered, surely, but no one else to share them with. Are we doomed to another five billion years of solitude? Or could we be on the cusp of joining an interstellar community of sentient beings? 

Let’s talk about it. Here’s Lee Billings. 

Lee Billings, thank you so much for coming on point of inquiry. 

It’s my pleasure, Paul. Great to be here. 

As I’ve expressed to you before, I’m a great admirer of your work. I’ve learned a whole hell of a lot that I didn’t know before about all manner of things. Space, extraterrestrial life. So before we get into some of the deeper questions, I’m I want to know how you came to be in the position where you are reporting on space and planets. Did you. Is this a path you specifically chose to cover the cosmos in general, is it as a journalist? 

Not exactly. I guess you could say I’m kind of a P.H. didn’t even though I never even for do you. 

But I wanted to be a scientist. I wanted to be an astronomer. And I just didn’t really have, I think, the quantitative chops, you know, the all the all the 48 transforms and sophisticated Calkin stuff like that really, really rubbed me the wrong way. And I’m not very much of a tentacle person. So I, I end up taking an alternate route, going through journalism. And originally I wasn’t even going to do science journalism. And I just kind of really fell into it when I was trying to find a job after college and move to New York. I got an internship at a at a place and then ended up, you know, kind of working my way up the ladder and just that’s how I got into it. 

That’s interesting because I’ve you know, I’ve been listening to, for example, as Reclines podcast, and he was talking about the issue of journalists not necessarily having a hard and fast expertize in the particular area that they’re covering. And and so I’m wondering how much specialization is required for for especially for the kind of science journalism that you’re doing? You know, because I know that people who are doing the space beat, they’re not just covering like rockets or covering rockets and exobiology and physics and chemistry. And it feels like it’s such a vast it’s not like that. Space is not a topic unto itself. I feel like it’s this huge umbrella of stuff. And so how does that how does that how do you manage all of that? 

Well, you know, let’s just keep mind, Paul, it’s really not that much. It’s only everything in the entire universe outside of Earth’s atmosphere. That’s all I did. Oh, never thought a lot less than Chris Mooney. But yeah. How do you handle it? I find that, you know, it is an advantage to not have a really, really fine grained and deep expertize in every aspect of what I’m covering. And that’s because I’m not afraid to ask stupid questions. 

I don’t know yet always what stupid questions are. And it’s really your willingness and ability to ask those questions and ask them repeatedly if you don’t understand the answers. I think that that unlocks what you need for it to be a journalist. So so it’s really about just asking the right questions. Now, of course, it helps a lot. When you do get experience, you do get a little bit of expertize. It helps to to basically judge stories at the outset to say, oh, this is not worth covering because it’s not really news. It’s not very interesting. It’s just a repetition of another study that happened five years ago. So on and so forth. 

But but really beyond that, I, I, I kind of miss not knowing as much as I know now that I’m really an expert. But it’s it makes me jaded sometimes, you know, there’s there’s stories that’ll come along and I will think, oh, who cares about that. This isn’t news. And of course, I’ll see it blow up all over the Internet days later after I’ve declined to cover it. And then I think, oh, yeah, that’s not working. Body count. Yes. Yes. Everyone cared because because I did want is as jaded as I am about this stuff. 

Wow. I really relate to that. I really relate to them. But that’s a whole other conversation. I was introduced to your work from your book, actually. So five billion years of solitude. Highly recommend it. 2013. Right. Is about. That’s right. I came out. Yeah. Do you want to briefly tell folks what that’s about? 

Sure. So it’s the sub. The subtitle is The Search for Life among the Stars. And that’s really what it’s about, with an emphasis in particular upon the search for Earth like planets and the explosive pace of discovery that we’re seeing in exo planets that the discovery and study of planets orbiting other stars. So I got the idea for the book. Years and years ago, it I guess probably about 2006, 2007. And I just noticed that more and more extra plants being found all the time and they were getting smaller and smaller and there ever an ever more temperate orbits around these stars. So, you know, they weren’t just hot balls of gas anymore. They were, you know, rocky bodies. And they weren’t just at the very edge of a solar system or at the very, you know, or in a couple day orbit around a star and burning up. They were closer, closer to the habitable zone, the place that the earth is around the sun, where we can imagine life existed because liquid water can exist. So you could put these pieces together back then and you could see this trend emerging where we were going to be finding Udalls potentially habitable, potentially Earth like planets in the near future. And so I want to write about that. And we did. And we’re still finding them more and more every day. And you think about what’s happened since 2013. Since the book came out. And I think it’s really just validated the you know, that the book’s core thesis that that they’re everywhere. We’re going to keep finding them. And we really need to look at them closer and closer to find out whether or not we’re alone. That’s probably our best chance to do it. 

Yeah. The book was kind of prophetic in that way. But it’s not just a science book. I think people need to understand. It’s not just like a rote history. Like it’s a very kind of it’s personal. It’s got a lot of nuance. There’s a lot of kind of meaningful reflections in there. And also the title, Five Billion Years of Solitude. I have to assume as a reference to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is one hundred years of solitude. Is there any connection there other than just the cleverness of the title? I’ve always wanted to know. 

It’s really mostly just the cleverness. And then actually kind of came really more from my mind, looking into the lifecycle of the biosphere itself on Earth. And. And as you said, it’s not just about the science. It’s about the people who are doing the science. And so a lot a lot of why I wrote the book was I wanted to kind of figure out what makes people like this tick, people who devote their lives to this effort to something that will probably not pay off any time soon. And even if it does pay off, even if we do find out that, hey, this little ball of mud with oxygen in its atmosphere, light years away, that there’s probably something living there. Well, so what? Right. That’s it. That’s a whole nother question. But a lot of people would say, so what? And what does that do for me? How does that change my life? So I was very interested in the people who are dedicate their lives to that. One person has gone. Jim Casting. He’s the you call the Dean of Planetary Habitability Studies. He’s a professor at Penn State. And he’s actually the the guy who really codified this idea of the habitable zone. I mentioned earlier, I don’t think he did on the side, kind of as a side project was figure out how long the biosphere can last on Earth. And without getting too detailed, it has to do with the rate of volcanism and how fast carbon dioxide is transferred between the rocks and the air. But carbon dioxide is really important for sustaining photosynthesis as we know it. And it’s declining over geological time. And if you look at the rate of the decline, you can get to this estimate that essentially we have maybe about a billion years left or so of before before photosynthesis shuts down, the food chain shut down. 

And it’s like the sun even expand. That’s right. Before the sun expands. And Gary Johnson probably. That’s right. Exactly. Yeah. So we’re going to run. The problem was way before them. And if you if you kind of look at that period of time that we have, you know, maybe about a billion years, the future 500 million, if you’re being very pessimistic and you look at the age of our planet, which is about one 1/2 billion years, you get that nice round number of five billion years. 

And the solitude part just comes in where as I was writing this book and I was profiling these people and looking at these projects to to go deeper into the planets we’re finding to not only know there’s a potentially Earth like planet around another star, but to say there is an earth like planet around a star. 

Not potentially, but we know it is and we know it has continents and forests, seas and may be, you know, people on it. Right. The gap between that, as I was writing the book, seemed to get larger and larger and larger as the sorts of ambitious projects, mainly space telescopes, that could deliver that information to us were deferred or canceled or defunded. And so I kind of had this sense that we were on the brink of this kind of age of miracles, Wonder’s discoveries, and we’re just gonna have to defer it indefinitely. And then I started thinking, well, if it doesn’t happen now, what will it happen? Will it ever happen at all? And that’s where the solitude comes in. The idea that that out of the entirety of the biosphere is existence on this planet. We right now have a unique chance to figure out whether or not we’re alone. And we may not take it right. 

And that’s that’s really the theme that I take away from all of this, is and maybe I’m not supposed to. Maybe the ideas that we’re still supposed to be optimistic and we’re supposed to be looking toward the stars and we’re gonna find our neighbors in the cosmos. But it’s still it’s begun to feel to me that this is ever more fruitless, as disappointing that as that is to me. And there’s a few different reasons for that. I want to introduce the concept of the Drake equation into this conversation. Sure. Because I’m going to guess that a lot of our listeners already know what that is. But just to be safe, the sort of algebraic formula where there’s different factors about how many civilizations there could be in the galaxy or in the cosmos at a time. And that’s right. And there and the factors include whether or not they destroy themselves or how close they are to their to their son. And if they’re in the habitable zone and and how many of each of those there are. So considering the state of astronomical understandings about the time that the Drake equation came about, it’s like the 1960s, right? That’s right. This is before the Hubble. This is before we started finding all these exoplanets and stuff. So we didn’t have a lot of variables. That’s right. For this equation. And so what we’re what was the attitude then? Was it was it very hopeful, like, oh, we’re gonna find so many? Because even just even small numbers in the Drake equation, I feel like means lots of civilization. 

That’s right. That’s right. Yes. And that’s a really interesting question. And you know the answer, I think, really, let’s just say that I think that whether or not people are optimistic or pessimistic about the drinks, we back then was really a reflection more of, I think, their emotional state. Subjective opinions about the universe rather than objective facts, and that’s what makes it so interesting, is that it’s kind of a barometer for your own potentially informed, potentially not informed ideas about the whole shebang and why we’re here and what it means and if we’re alone. So so the person who came up with it, Frank Drake, pioneering astronomer who basically started all of observational setit as we know what the search for extraterrestrial intelligence said, he he came up with a cache was sixty one sixty. 

And at yeah. As you said at the time, they didn’t really have a lot of data about. About the various variables that are in this equation. Things like, yes, the number of planets, the number of planets that could be habitable, the number of planets that actually are able to get some kind of life on them back that we didn’t know enough, know of any extra planets. We didn’t even know whether or not planets could really easily form around stars. A lot of people thought that perhaps they couldn’t. We were really, really alone. But it goes from there, like the prevalence of planets to the prevalence of life, habitable conditions. The prevalence of advanced life. So not just single sailor pond scum to something more like a you know, I met a Zoet, an animal. Right. Or a plant or things like a like a second talking and move around and build radio telescopes and rocket ships and write beautiful novels and symphonies and draw pictures, things like that. 

So it’s that big, big collection of all those variables. And back then, we basically do nothing. We still don’t really know anything about, obviously, the prevalence of cosmic civilizations, but we do know a lot about planets. And really now I want to say people are more optimistic in general. But but we really don’t have a lot of reasons to be optimistic in terms of the latter portion of the equation. Does it deal with more sociological or 10 illogical issues? We know there’s lots of planets. We know there are lots of potentially habitable planets. We still don’t know how life gets started. Yeah. On a planet, we still don’t know whether that’s easy or hard. We don’t know how hard it is for life to ascend the evolutionary ladder, so to speak, to become something like us. We have no inkling about the lifetime, the average lifetime of civilizations. And that’s really the most crucial aspect. Both then and now. People realize the most crucial aspect of the Drake equation. When you’re thinking about not only the prevalence of life in the cosmos, but intelligent life and how likely we are to make contact. The key question is how long do civilizations live? How long do they specifically live in an A. Ten illogical state that will allow them to be seen or to communicate across the vast interstellar distances or even intergalactic distances that may separate them. So you can imagine you can just easily imagine scenarios where if the average lifetime of a civilization in this community could have stayed. So, for instance, emitting radio waves or laser pulses or what have you is only five hundred years, which may sound like a long time if the nearest or the average distance between civilizations is a thousand light years or two thousand light years or one hundred thousand light years. Well, you’re never gonna talk to each other. You’re never gonna see each other. Because there’ll be little there’ll be like fireflies kind of, you know, going off in different trees. And you’re just not going to you know, you’re never going to meet. You’re never gonna actually rings. 

Very true to me. Now, I’m a pessimist in most things, so that shouldn’t take that too much of the bank. But that that speaks to kind of the Fermi paradox. Right. Whereas it’s right. There really ought to be a lot of aliens out there. But so far, we don’t have any evidence of them. So what the hell? Where are they? It seems to me like that’s more like a less of a paradox and more like just a complaint element. Like there. There. Yes, there. There are probably a lot of aliens where there might be. But as you were saying, we simply can’t know. We can’t figure out how to reach them. And it’s like, oh, well, shrug. Is that the wrong way to look at it? 

Well, I wouldn’t say it’s half. He’s. I do think that it’s very important. Now, granted, we have a sample size of one here. Right. So we can’t really do comparative studies because we don’t know of any other thing to compare to. But but we do have ourselves to look at. And I think it is worth indulging the exercise. That we might be typical. And then if you do that, then then you can make extrapolations. And and you’d usually that lead you to a pretty pessimistic conclusion, I think. Because then all of a sudden, all of the other typical civilizations in the universe have things like nuclear bombs and unstable demagogs and power and Fox News. Yeah. Global warming. Just all kinds of bad stuff. Fast environmental degradation. So I’ll bet. But, you know, maybe that’s not the right way to look at it. But the point is, is that we do have some information here and we shouldn’t discount our experience here on this planet. This little corner of the Milky Way around this little tiny yellow star as somehow invalid or not relevant to the problem. And so if you really want to understand Earth like planets, if you really want to understand technological civilizations, well, a great way to start is by studying our own our own planet, our own civilization and looking at it. And that kind of astrobiological context. And that’s a that’s a real handwaving thing. 

Yeah. There’s you know, I’d be first to say that and I think a lot of the research that goes into this is pretty bad. It’s not super rigorous. It’s a little kind of joke. But it’s important because I think it’s laying the groundwork for future comparative studies that could exist. And as we get more data, as we learn more and more about the parameters and what the values are of the Drake equation. We fill those things in. I think they’ll kind of come into their own and mature. They’re just a little premature right now. 

So is that so? Is it the research bad because of the narrowness of the scope? Because this is the only thing we know to look for is something like us. So we haven’t brought in that idea of what we should be looking for. 

Yeah, essentially, I think it’s just that, you know, you’re kind of you’re you’re extrapolating from a sample size of one, and that’s a very perilous and risky thing to do. And it lets you do a lot of things that that inevitably, in hindsight, will will be likely shown to be very silly. But but among all those branching paths that that that exists from this one extrapolation, what some of you are gonna be right. You know, so. So it’s important to to explore all the different branches. 

I think there’s a lot to be pessimistic about, but there’s also a lot to be optimistic about. So when I wrote the book in 2013, I was feeling very pessimistic because I had seen these big projects be canceled or go way, way behind schedule and over budget. An example would be everyone thinks about the James Webb Space Telescope, and it’s a marvelous thing, the six and a half meter mirror, cryogenic cooled giant space telescope that’s going to launch probably next year. It was originally supposed to launch, you know, about 10 years earlier. I think it was only going to cost about a billion dollars. Now it’s going to be more like 10 billion. I think the latest figures are just shy of nine billion. But, you know, that’s going to go up. So that thing can barely even bring home the bacon, so to speak, in terms of looking looking at small, potentially habitable planets and telling us what they’re like. This huge expansion in the cost and and time that it took to make this this facility, this wonderful facility, it’s going to be amazing. I also had the effect of pushing pushing other facilities on the back burner. So while people were developing James Webb, a lot of other folks were talking about what would come next. Things like that. The notional idea back then was a terrestrial planet finder, a TPF is what it was called. NASA spent a lot of money looking at this at this concept to build an even bigger space telescope. It was going to launch, you know, kind of right around now, really. But of course, that did happen. So so this is all just a long prelude to saying that. That’s one reason why I was feeling negative at the time, because this the TPF, the trust for planet fighters, had been canceled. They were in the rearview when I was writing the book and people were sad about that. But now here we are. Four years later, James Webb is about to launch. 

It’s going to be looking at some nearby planets for so-called bio signatures, which are things like oxygen or methane that could exist in the atmosphere that taken together here on Earth anyway are signs of life, signs of things like photosynthesis or anaerobic bacteria. And there’s other reasons to be optimistic, too. It does seem like there is more and more steam building behind the idea that that the search for life in the universe, whether that’s in places like Mars or the sub surface, oceans of icy moons like Jupiter’s Europa or Saturn’s celibates or Earth like planets around other stars. The search for life is a common theme that can that can really sustain a robust exploration program for NASA and other space agencies. 

So we need to start managing expectations, though, about what it is we’re going to find as opposed to finding, you know, Vulcans and cling ons that we’re you know, we’re going we’ll be lucky to find, you know, something that has more than a seller to. 

Well, we don’t know. But I think that’s I think it’s fair to say. And I think one reason that’s fair to say is, as you say, the the Fermi paradox, or as I like to call it, the the great silence, which is something that that the science fiction author and scientist David Brin coined this this idea that we see. The connection for habitability and for life, everywhere we look, we see small planets, right, all sorts of stars. 

We know now from the Kepler mission, NASA’s Kepler mission, which which surveyed a small swath of sky for four extra planets. We know statistically that essentially every star, the Milky Way has least one planet, at least one. And that’s that’s extremely conservative. And we know, moreover, that at least 20 percent or even maybe 25 percent of sunlike stars have a rocky or could be rocky planet in the habitable zone. So we know the planets are out there. They’re a dime a dozen. They’re common as dirt. And we see all this evidence mounting that life should be everywhere. We don’t see it anywhere we don’t want to talk to. There’s no Luke Skywalker and the Death Star out there. There’s no Captain Kirk in Enterprise voyaging through our system. And so that that suggests that, again, maybe life is much more difficult to get started than we think. Or maybe complex life is much harder to get from simple life than we appreciate. Or maybe there’s something fundamentally flawed in our extrapolations here and how we imagine other intelligent creatures with technology, high technology will will will behave. And what the what. 

Yeah. One of the one of the different ways of kind of looking at this, he wrote about this how long ago, maybe maybe a couple years ago you wrote in Scientific American about this astronomer Jason Wright. I think a Pennsylvania state. That’s right. Was looking for super civilization. So before we even get into that, can you kind of explain what a super civilization is? According to his definition there, Shergar. 

So. So it seems like there is a linkage between things like economic growth and energy use. And if you look at, for instance, some statistics right here on Earth for. For how much electricity we consume in the United States, other countries, we’ve seen a steady increase. I can’t reber exactly how what percentage it is, but every year we know we use a little bit more. 

And if you extrapolate this out somewhat wildly to the the not too distant future, geologically speaking. But we’re talking centuries or millennia. You get really crazy places really fast. You get to the point where if we’re going to continue ramping up our energy usage per year, we’re going to start doing things like paving over most the planet with solar panels or using all of the seawater to drive nuclear fusion reactions or, you know, most grandiosely dismantling a planet or two in our solar system and building these big solar collectors around our star, which would supply us with the energy we need to do. God knows what. Who knows? But that’s that’s it’s basically a little relationship that people have observed. And if they extrapolate it, you get two very crazy places. So the idea of super civilization is some civilization that is very, very far in advance of our own by at least, you know, hundreds of thousands of years, if not millions of years or billions of years, which is a possibility. And you think, well, OK, if that’s the sort of relationship holds for them, which is probably a pretty silly thing to believe, then they’ll be doing things like dismantling planets and using entire stars as energy sources. And those sorts of things have astrophysical correlates that we can observe right now. Did not exist. Yeah, they’d be hard to miss. Yes. And we’d look out and we really don’t see that. And, you know, these ideas, these ideas really came about in the 1950s and 60s, really, when we were at the dawn of the space age and everything was booming. We were going to the moon and we’re going to onward and the planets then beyond the stars. And we had a real can do attitude. There was nothing we could do, Paul. Right. 

So, sure, we’ve, of course, evolved a little bit since then. And I think what it really shows is, again, kind of this reliquaries, thinking of of that time where we we thought there were no limits. We imagine there were no limits and we were we were wrong. So I think that that doesn’t mean that that we won’t that there are no super civilizations. I think it just means that what they look like is against those maybe somewhat naive 1950s, 1960s, early space age expectations. A writer named Carl Schroeder has talked about maybe the right way to look at these things is not to look for civilizations that are extremely profligate in their energy usage. So they need to dismantle and devour whole stars to feed that. Instead, we should think that, you know, maybe the maybe the the more sophisticated and advanced you get, the harder you are to detect because you actually become more efficient. Right. And your energy use. Right. And we see this in all sorts of ways around us. You know, we’re much better at using energy now and using more of it more efficiently than we were 10 years ago, 20 years ago. You can keep going back in time. And similarly, you think about things like our our radio imprint idea that there is this big expanding shell moving outward at the speed of light that is our radio transmissions. You know, you see this in the intro to contact the movie adaptation of Carl Sagan’s book, Right where the beginning, you know, you start out and you’re zooming back in on Earth and you’re going through layer upon layer of transmission. So you hear things like Hitler’s addressing the Olympics. You hear I Love Lucy. You hear Neil Armstrong saying that’s one small step for man. You finally end up on Earth today with a cacophony of noise. And so we’re surrounded by this shell of emissions, electromagnetic emissions from chiefly things like early warning radars for nuclear weapons. That that’s one of the strongest pulses that we have out there. And the thing is, it’s dissipating now because we’re we’re not really broadcasting as strongly, wirelessly anymore. We’re sending everything through, you know, coaxial fiber optic cable. So our light bubble, you could say, is kind of it’s kind of diminishing. So you can extrapolate that to the future. And you can imagine maybe all the super civilizations just kind of quiet because they’re pretty parsimonious with how they use energy and how they communicate. 

That’s fastening fastenings. So they so they kind of turn more inward. And I think something you mentioned the article is what the idea of becoming more at one with the environment they’re in. So they become more integrated with their solar system or their galaxy or whatever it is. And therefore they are to us, indistinguishable. That’s right. From from just the astronomical phenomena. 

Yeah. It’s kind of you know, there’s that there’s that famous adage from Arthur C. Clarke. And you may notice a trend here that in the absence of hard, solid scientific data, people like me appeal to science fiction authors who get their first. Are able to speculate. Arthur C. Clarke said any especially advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Well, the kind of correlate to that is any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from nature. Right. So, yeah, that’s where you end up. 

That’s that’s a pretty heavy thought to me. And, you know, along those lines, it’s occurred to me that when we talk about things like these super civilizations and what they called Dyson spheres, it’s kind of what you were talking about with building a structure around a star to harness its energy and stuff. These these super space structures like the alien superstructure people thought they were seeing before. It recalls a time when when we thought about high technology, we thought about big industry. We thought about big rockets and big factories and big facilities. Computers filled entire rooms when we were first thinking about this kind of stuff. But now we know that, you know, high technology very often, maybe more often means miniaturization, means microprocessors, means nanobots. And like you said, integrating with nature almost becomes a lot more abstract. So it’s zero, I guess. Maybe. I guess the answer to this is no, but I guess we have no way of looking at it from that way instead of looking for something hyper industrial, looking for some other kind of sign about this more integrative civilization. 

Well, there there are all kinds of ideas. You know, it’s one of these things where I could I could go through the literature and catalog various things for you. And they’re all extremely speculative. You know, some people have said, I don’t if you saw this, but I think there’s about maybe a month ago, a month and a half ago, scientists managed to encode what are essentially movie frames. So almost like like a moving image into sequential images, into DNA. And I think I think it bacterial, y’know. Wow. Right. So, you know, when it gets expressed, you can actually kind of arrange it. One way is that you’re seeing. I think it’s like a horse galloping or something like that. People back and I think the 80s, if not even the 70s. We’re talking about looking in highly conserved regions of the genome for messages for aliens. Right. Because, hey, you know, something like reversible DNA, DNA, if that’s actually not the best example. But there’s there’s parts of the genome that are very highly conserved. You can imagine somewhere out there, there being a sequence that’s actually a message from aliens that they put in there eons ago just to let us know that that were there or that there they were here or something like I’m looking for artifacts on the moon. You know, maybe maybe the aliens came and visited us two billion years ago when there wasn’t much to talk to here. And they left a little sentinel on the moon, for instance, for us to find wherever we decided to build rockets and survey our solar system. There’s all kinds of goofy ideas you can come up with. But one thing just to mention, just a riff on a little bit. Yeah, you mentioned Dyson Freeman Dyson. That’s the guy who came up with this Dyson sphere concept idea that you case a star with solar collectors to get all that energy. And he had he was also related to a project called Project Orion, which was one of the more feasible ways to send machines, if not even people, to other stars and what it involved. Back then, this is in the 1960s, late 50s, I think was a essentially detonating a series of hydrogen pumps. Oh, he hide behind a big a big rocket. And so you’re getting a nuclear pulse. Propulsion rocket is what it’s called. And of course, it’s if you’re launching it from Earth, it’s really, really bad. Please do that. Father away, please. Yeah. And there’s also the side effect of, you know, you have to develop capabilities to miniaturize thermonuclear devices so they can be really, really small, compact, which is obviously dangerous for things like cities. So there were a lot of disruptive elements of it that weren’t good, but on paper it looked like it would have worked. But that was an idea. You know, that was an example, the exemplary 1950s, 1960s, a big infrastructure thinking that you were talking about. Whereas now let’s look at now what we talk about when we think about you’re still at missions. There’s a project called Breakthrough Star Shot for. By. By the billionaire Yuri Milner. That I’ve written about. And the idea there. And people take it pretty seriously is that we could build a big array, a big laser race somewhere on earth. Maybe the Atacama Desert. You want to build it space because again, you could point it down. And generals don’t like that. Oh, that’s fascinating. Yeah. But thought of it that way. So that’s why it’s on the ground. It’s a big problem to figure out how to call me the beams. But if you could build this facility, you could do things like watch little tiny nano craft on solar sails, on photon sales, light sales, I call them, to other stars at at at significant fraction of the speed of light, perhaps 10 or 20 percent. And so we’re talking about something that’s looking like a computer chip that would go into your smartphone, like the thing I’m using to talk to you right now. And you strap that to something like a five meter very, very thin scale. It would have to be made of some some almost unobtainium, but people are working on it. You could imagine, like Mylar, highly reflective, something like that. And you just hit it with a laser beam and off it goes and up. But it’s very small. It’s very hard to detect. And funny enough, people have looked at the kind of the you can call them the entry profiles for how these things might look when they’re speeding through the Alpha Centauri system, for instance, launched from Earth. And they’re they’re they’re gonna be really tough to detect. But even if they strike a planet, for instance, and they dissipate in the atmosphere, it’s just going to look like a little tiny bit of space junk or, you know, a little tiny micrometeoroid just just vaporizing at the top of the atmosphere. And we see those things all the time, every day on Earth. So you kind of have to wonder sometimes. I mean, I’m not saying that every micrometeorite impact is a is a space probe aliens. But it would be really, really tough for us to actually know the difference. 

Yeah, something like that could broadcast back. Still, because they do that now here on Earth. We’ve got the chips to do that, like you said, in our phones all the time. And so that could still just send something back at the speed of light to tell us what it’s finding. 

It could it’s pretty tough. That’s actually when the harder problems it looks like maybe the way to do it is to potentially set up a relay network, kind of a daisy chain, where you send off flotillas of these things and they kind of link to each other as they’re going closer, closer to the destination. They sent back the radio signal or the laser beam to the next one back and so on and so forth. So lots of links in the chain. But the point is, again, is that, you know, we’re looking at two totally different paradigms for how to explore the nearby stars by sending missions there. And one, use nuclear bombs and multi ton spacecraft. The other one uses little tiny, wispy things and smartphones. 

I say we try both and we try not to blow up the wisby things while we’re using the nuclear bombs. Let’s keep them separate. 

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We’ll see. Now I’m getting more I’m getting more optimistic now that we’re talking about this like it feels. I mean, not necessarily that we’re going to find somebody, but that they’re that our reach could extend further than maybe we felt it could. But I do want to bring it down again because I have this other idea I’ve wanted to bounce off of you. I think I mentioned it to you when we were first talking about setting this up. The Great Filter. Yeah. And as the kind of civilizational buffer zone, so very few species throughout the universe can ever cross it because it’s maybe there’s been some planetaria or astrological cataclysm that takes out a civilization or the biosphere collapses or they kill each other. But there’s this kind of Rubicon that they cannot cross. And and that’s why we’re not finding anybody, because you just can’t get by that. And I can I can buy that because we’re obviously not treating ourselves too well lately. Yeah, yeah. My idea, however, is little is maybe maybe not as depressing, but almost more final that I almost wonder if the problem isn’t that there’s just a limit to just raw physics, that however far away these other civilizations, if they exist, might be there. They have to be so astronomically, far, literally, astronomically far that it would be literally physically, physically impossible to ever cross paths, either just by communication or or physically like I call. I think that is like the great ceiling. There’s a you can’t go technologically any farther than, you know, x ray. Right. There’s nothing to be done about that. But although we keep finding ways to wiggle around that, you know, we keep finding holes in the ceiling that we can wiggle through. Quantum computing or something like quantum is the answer to everything. I don’t know if you knew that. 

Of course. Of course. We solve anything. Sprinkle some quantum pixie dust and then all your problems. 

Yeah, it’s very expensive, but it’s gonna it’s gonna get cheaper soon. So I don’t know. So those various buffers, like the great ceiling that I just made up because I’m so brilliant or the the great filter, does that ring true to you? Is there is there something there? 

Immensely. And so the great filter is a concept, the traceback. Well, the person who coined that term is actually an economist, kind of an iconoclastic economist named Robert Hanssen at George Mason University. Really brilliant thinker. I highly recommend looking into him. If you haven’t, you’d actually be a good person to talk to the podcast. And the key question with the Great Filter is whether or not not not even what it is, but whether it’s ahead of us or behind us. Right. Because we are. Yeah. Pretty high up this ladder of evolution and technology. And you just wonder, well, OK, so can we just keep ascending the rungs? Is is this great filter? Is there only one of them? Are there multiple? If there’s something ahead of us that’s really bad news and that explains the great silence of the universe. Service paradox. But it could be it could simply be that it is actually behind us. And the real the real tough part, the biggest hurdle was something like getting cells right or getting autocatalytic information, conveying molecules, you know, like like RNA. That led to DNA. Things like that. So it could be a matter of biochemistry, way back in the origins of life that the Burki pre history of Earth or, you know, could be ahead. And so that’s really the most pressing question. And what’s funny is you can and other people talked with us much more eloquently than I could, in particular, Nick Bostrom, a philosopher of science in Oxford. He wrote a really nice essay in The Washington Post some years back talking about how finding fossils, finding fossils of complex life on Mars. You know, imagine the Curiosity rover trundling over a pretty triceratops head or something, you know, sticking out of some rock strata. That would be the worst one of the worst possible things we could imagine for our future. That would immediately likely just constrain our future and just tell us there is no hope. Because what that would suggest is that the filter, the great filters in front of us, who it’s just that life get started very easily and not only get started very easily, but it sends the evolutionary ladder very easily to complexity, to multicellular complex organisms. And that would just be really bad news. So he was saying, you know, let’s let’s hope let’s pray that that nothing is found. When we look on Mars, we look in Europa. When we look anywhere in the solar system for life, we find nothing because each time we got no result. That’s a little little tiny pip suggesting that, yes, in fact, the great filter might be behind us and our best days may be ahead. Fascinating. So. So a lot fossilized or current. Yeah. And, you know, of course, there’s a lot of caveats there that we could get into. Well, you can think about things like panspermia. The idea that that big asteroid impacts early in the solar systems, life after life at R2 develops here on Earth, could do things like send life to Mars or even send life to and it Saturn’s moon. 

Yeah, I’ve actually heard Jill Tarter posit the idea that that life could have begun on Mars and then some. 

That’s right. Knocked over here. And so you can imagine if we went to Mars and we saw we found a little microbe or something and we see and we looked at me and we were able to do some biochemistry on it. And we found, lo behold, there’s DNA in it. That could mean that it’s contamination of earth. Panspermia or it could mean that we’re all Martians here on Earth. So so it gets kind of a little muddy and complicated, but but definitely fertile ground for imagining and for lots of lots of good research work. 

That’s true. Let’s let’s actually talk about some of those local areas where we might find some life. For example, there’s the planet that you’ve written about, planet L.H. s one one four zero B, which is rolls off the tongue, been dubbed a super earth. And it shows some hopeful signs of life. What are we seeing there? What what is what is the unique bit about S, et cetera? 

Well, so we we really we can’t talk about LHC. Eleven forty B rolls off the tongue. We can’t really talk about that without also talking about a handful of other nearby systems, most notably others. There’s one called Trappists one. Yes. Which I think has seven planets around it, many of which are in this potential habitable zone. There’s also right next door Proxima Centauri B, an Earth sized planet in the habitable zone of our of our nearest neighboring star. That is not the sun. And the commonality between these this this trifecta of world expansion or systems is that they’re all orbiting these very dim, very tiny, very cool stars called a red dwarf stars, or you want to be very astronomical about it, called M Dwarfs. But you can just call it red dwarfs. And these stars are so tiny and so prevalent, you could kind of imagine you kind of imagine it like like you on a beach and there’s boulders. There’s a few boulders in the beach, but there’s a lot more sand grains and boulders. Right. Just by by nature. And similarly, there’s a lot more small stars and large stars. Sun like star. So these Red Dwarf stars are basically about as small as you can get and still be called a star, are the dominant, most prevalent common type of star in the Milky Way and probably in the universe. And by virtue of their being so small, it’s actually easier to find and study planets around them for for various abstruse reasons that are probably not worth getting into right now. Point is, is that they’re everywhere out there. We’re looking at them more and more and they’re very amenable to being looked at, for being search for planets. So this is where James Webb comes in. James Webb is going to be able to look at the atmospheres of some of these planets that are around some of these stars around the very nearest Red Dwarf, which include L.A., just eleven forty B and DIA de Trappist one system. There’s also an upcoming generation of what are called extremely large telescopes on the ground that have light gathering surfaces on the order of like 30 meters in size. They’re huge and they’re hopefully going to debut sometime in the twenty twenties, if not the 20 30s. Let’s hope that for 2020, what really is. Yeah, some of the stuff on the ground. And so, again, we’re seeing that we have the tools near at hand to answer some questions about these places. And, you know, the sorts of things we could figure out are, OK, well, just have an atmosphere that sounds really basic. But, hey, if you have an atmosphere, you could live there. Right. 

So right at this distance, that’s something we’d be able to tell with these new instruments. 

Oh, yeah. Yeah. So does it have an atmosphere? What’s in the atmosphere? Is there water vapor? Is there carbon dioxide? Is there maybe in some cases oxygen? Right. So we could actually start getting a little tentative peeks at that and answers to these questions for the select series of planets around redwoods. Now, the bad news, Paul, is that red dwarfs, while they’re very easy to look out for planets and they’re really common and there’s lots of reasons to be excited about looking at them, they could actually be really, really, really bad news for life. There’s all sorts of effects. Because if you think about it, that the star is so, so small and dim and cold. That means for a planet to be habitable and not freeze, that’s to huddle and close that little tiny campfire. Right. Right. And so these these planets are very, very, very close to their stars. Well, within the orbit of Mercury, around our sun. And at that distance, they’re going to be bathed in it. Really powerful flares of the star that could strip away the atmosphere or or harm life on the surface. They’re going to be subjected to immense amounts of stellar heating very early in the star’s life when it’s much, much brighter. There’s all kinds of issues that that come from from the unique physical circumstances of these systems. And a lot of those things could be showstoppers for life. But we don’t know until we look as far as like what we’ve seen from pettily Trappists. 

I remember I was so excited when when the Trappist planets came along because there was like it was like a true right. It was like somebody opened like a precedent. Here’s three planets for you that that might have life. Now, this was, I think, first came about maybe less than a year ago. That’s right. So I’m assuming there’s not been any new developments there as far as what we’ve been able to detect at this point. 

Well, Hubble has looked at at at the traps one system and it’s looked for something called, I believe, the technical term cache. What’s it called exosphere? Well, the idea is that Hubble could maybe, I think in ultraviolet light see something like excited hydrogen that would be streaming off the top tops of one of these planets or some of these planets. They were being if their atmospheres were being stripped away by it, by flares and things like that, then the Hubble could see some of that or at least put a constraint on that, on that. That process by seeing these these free hydrogen ions floating through space around around the system. 

So it looked I don’t think it saw that very much so. Well, that’s good news. Bad news. We can’t really say, you know, I guess I want to be. I won’t be measured. I really want to be optimistic. I’m kind of an optimist at heart. I’m a glass half full kind of guy. But I would bet that a lot of these planets that we’re looking at right now, we’re getting excited about light traps, water, L.A. chests, levit 40 be proxima. 

We are going to be maybe more like Venus or even like Mercury than like Earth. And I hope I’m wrong. I’m still kind of the of the mind that if we really want to find something like us, we don’t want to find other earth like planet. We should probably focus on sunlike stars just just for a whole host of reasons. But but looking at looking for planets, Rantzen, some like stars and in particular trying to image those planets. Get information about their atmospheres. Services is a lot and in some respects more difficult. 

And another others, the easier it gets, kind of gets really complicated. I could talk a lot about the technology behind it, but. But people are working very hard and. And I you know, I’m hopeful, very hopeful that we’re gonna be able to continue the progress that we’ve made, that we’ll be able to actually break the five billion years of solitude if somehow find something out there. 

One of the things that was also optimistic to me in a weird way, in a sad way, was the way Cassini, the Saturn probe, had to go and meet its death. And I didn’t realize this until some of the reports are coming out like, OK, it’s a countdown to Cassini’s death that it was being killed, as it were, in order to avoid infecting Titan or Ancel IDUs, which might harbor some sort of life with Earth microbes. And so the idea being we are interested enough in these two places as potential homes for life, that we are going to let our wonderful device get swallowed up by Saturn. And that, to me, tells me that maybe a better chance than maybe I ever suspected that there might be something going on just within our own. So. 

Yeah. Well, again, you know, we look everywhere, whether in particular in our solar system was focused there. And we did see all sorts of promising indications for for life to to populate exist. And of course, that presupposes that we know how life gets started and that it starts as done earth. But, yeah. So, you know, you have all these icy moons, the moon, the ones that are most popular you mentioned. And so it is I think there’s also Titan, which has a kind of a methodological cycle on its surface rather than hydrological cycle. That’s the largest moon of Saturn. And it also has another subterranean ocean or subsurface ocean of water as well. But there’s there’s many others. There’s Europa, there’s a Ganymede Callisto. People think Pluto probably has an ocean of water underneath it. And then, of course, there’s things like Mars, which we’re not talking about oceans there, at least at present, but we’re talking about oceans that dried up billions of years ago. And you can imagine yet that life, life somehow clinging, clinging on by its fingernails, so to speak, in all these various places and maybe to thriving in some situations. So so NASA and other space agencies do take it very seriously. There are so-called super bugs that essentially can survive the vacuum of space and the harsh radiation for years on end and still be viable at the end of that. 

So you can imagine Cassini crash landing on to on to Titan, for instance, and starting a little self-sustaining colony of microbes. I mean, I think that’s really a stretch. Yeah, actually. But but, you know, we it’s kind of the precautionary principle playing out writ large across the solar system where we’re just saying, first, do no harm. And, you know, really, it’s some people don’t appreciate this problem enough because the rubber is going to start beating the road here pretty soon. You know, you have people like Elon Musk and SpaceX talking about sending colonists to Mars or conducting private missions to Mars. Well, what sorts of planetary protection measures, so-called are they going to take the instant that you land a human being or any living organism, any any big creature on the Martian surface, you’ve isolated every planetary protection protocol that exists, fascinate. 

And that’s just because of the number of of microbes that are within, you know, for instance, are our guts, are our microflora, Farnam. 

You know, you you use the bathroom once on Mars and as far as, as far as a lot of upended everything. You’ve ruined everything. Yeah. And you know I so a lot of people are talking a lot more about this, about. About how strict these planetary protection protocols really need to be because, you know, Cassini was out of fuel. Right. Cassini was really low on fuel. So it’s not like we could have done a ton of additional stuff with it. But you you look at some other missions, things that take place on Mars, and we could do a lot more. We’re kind of exploring Mars with one hand tied behind our back because we’re so worried about contaminating certain potentially habitable environments with earthly microbes that we can’t actually get a good look on the ground at what these places would like to actually see if life is there. It’s a really thorny situation. And it’s going to be, I think, a very, very active and contentious area in the not too distant future, Kristie. 

Well, I’d rather us a air toward the side of trying to preserve what might be there than just blowing shit up. So that’s actually good to me. OK, so we’re just about out of time. But I do want to ask you one more kind of speculative thing. Let’s assume that all of this stuff gets itself worked out and we we find some way we have made somehow made contact with another intelligence. For one thing, just just in the real world here. Do you know of any kind of actual protocol there is for the world, for for humanity to make a first contact with something if it were to show up in our backdoor? Like, is there someone who’s assigned to speak for us at that point? 

Who speaks for. Yes. Classic question. Yes. Who speaks for Earth? Actually, they’re there technically is there’s an agency that that basically is just astronomers that have gotten together and said, hey, we’re gonna deal with this, who have a set of protocols to follow. And essentially, you know, it’s things like, well, let’s verify the signal. Okay, let’s let’s release the information to the public. One issue is what sort of contact you’re talking about. Right. So just to be real quick, if you’re talking about a signal that’s coming from another galaxy, you know, people are going to be too worried about that. And there will be time to figure out how we’re gonna do it, how we’re going to respond if we can’t respond. And, of course, if we do respond, it’s totally a moot point because another galaxy that’s so far away, they’re not going to we’re gonna be ashes and dust by the time and he still gets there. So that’s one scenario. There’s a much more urgent scenario where you could imagine something detected at the edge of our solar system coming in very fast or a UFO landing on the White House lawn like the Vulcans making first contact to a Zefram Cochran, for example. And so those are scenarios. I’m pretty sure that these protocols go out the window very, very quickly and would be immediately superseded by, you know, the people who actually have power and not the astronomers. Yeah, I think that I think that that’s how that would go down. But, you know, I would I would leave you with an idea. It was just something that I that I try to emphasize a lot. You know, we talk so much about other civilizations and making contact and other minds lives in the universe that’s important and valuable and fun. But I think it’s also somewhat a product of the past centuries that we’ve been in this kind of Copernican paradigm of science or the physical sciences, where time after time we were told that that we’re we’re mediocre, we’re average. We’re, you know, everything about us is just perfectly normal. And all things being equal, you know, everything out there, it’s just like it is here. And the great silence, Fermi’s paradox, all these things really fly in the face of that. And more and more, I think, as we look deeper, deeper at this problem, as we survey the nearest hundred thousand stars for other planets. I would not be surprised at all if what we find is that we are, in fact, in a very real sense that you can demonstrate empirically on the scale of things like the galaxy. We are special. Right. And so I think it’s worth thinking about the kind of the opposite of what if we make contact? What if we do this extensive survey and we look at all the nearby stars and we don’t find anything that looks much like Earth or anything that has any signs of life that we recognize? That’s to talk to. But what does that say about us here? And I like to think that that that so-called failure of this effort, this quest of this search could actually be one of the most transformative and profound things that happens to us as a civilization that is, in fact, a case that emerges because this this idea that we’re common as dirt, that we’re that we’re a dime a dozen in the universe, and you just have to hop over to another star to see something like this. I think you’d be immensely damaging. I think it’s a product of that 1950s, 1960s thinking about. About boundless futures and an endless possibility that that, you know, you can wave your hands and still say it’s true, but at the same time seems a bit naive and ignorant. And, you know, we’re the product of an incredible chain of chance that stretches back billions of years to the birth of our son. And there’s very there’s certainly a decent chance that, you know, we’re very special and unique. And perhaps then we should try to preserve, protect and cultivate what we have here. So just dismissing it as something that’s average. 

That’s fascinating because almost like a reverse pale blue dot. But it comes to the same conclusion, though. It’s it’s we are special. We are the only ones in the universe, or at least in our perceivable universe who have what we have and all the more reason then to keep it sacred and safe and and nurture it because it is so small and and unique. And that’s that is a really wonderful way to look at it. I’m glad that you left us with that. 

I think sacred the right word there. So, yeah. It’s been a pleasure talking to you, Paul. I’d be happy to come back and talk blathered tomorrow some time. 

Oh, I would love that, because God knows, there are so many of the things that I had on my list of things we could talk about. But I think for one episode, this is plenty of aliens and non aliens are the listener to digest. Lee Billing’s, thank you so much for being on the show. I want to tell folks where they can find your work and where they can find you on the Internet. All that stuff. 

Sure, of course. So I’m a ed covering basic physics, Scientific American. You can always go to Scientific American dot com or pick up the issue of the new standard. You’ll probably see some of my work. I’m also on Twitter. It’s just my name. Links. I have a Web site. Lee Billing’s dot com. I never update it, but you go there if you want. And hey, check out the book. Why not? It’s pretty good to hear. 

Oh, get the. I’m telling you, folks get get the book in whatever format you need to get it. If you get a physical copy, put it on the shelf next to Cosmos, you know, put it put it next to the. It’s it’s fantastic. And it’s it’s gonna. It’s gonna expand your brain in in wonderful, wonderful ways. All right. Lee, thank you so much for being on the show. 

Thank you. Paul has been my pleasure. That’s all for today. Look for the next episode of Point of Inquiry in the next few weeks. My thanks to Lee Billings for joining me. If you’d like to support this show, direct your browsers to Center for inquiry, dot net slash support. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook. And hey, why not drop us some hopefully positive reviews on Apple podcast, Google Play Stitcher and wherever you listen and subscribe, Point of Inquiry is a production of the Center for Inquiry. Learn more at Center for Inquiry Dot Net. I’m your host and producer Paul Fidalgo, and I thank you for listening. 

Paul Fidalgo

Paul Fidalgo

Paul Fidalgo has been communications director of the Center for Inquiry since 2012. He holds a master’s degree in political management from George Washington University, and has worked previously for FairVote: The Center for Voting and Democracy and the Secular Coalition for America. Paul is also an actor and musician whose work includes five years performing with the American Shakespeare Center, and he currently directs productions for the University of New England Players. In 2017 he was the second Richard Kirschman Free Thought Fellow at the Mesa Refuge in Point Reyes, California. His work also appears in the 13th book of the Dark Mountain Project. He lives in Maine along with his two dangerous kids. His personal blog is Near-Earth Object, and he tweets at @paulfidalgo.