Out There

A Scientific Guide to Alien Life, Antimatter, and Human Space Travel (For the Cosmically Curious)

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By Michael Wall, PhD

Illustrated by Karl Tate

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In the vein of Randall Munroe’s What If? meets Brian Green’s Elegant Universe, a senior writer from Space.com leads readers on a wild ride of exploration into the final frontier, investigating what’s really “out there.”

We’ve all asked ourselves the question. It’s impossible to look up at the stars and NOT think about it: Are we alone in the universe? Books, movies and television shows proliferate that attempt to answer this question and explore it. In Out There Space.com senior writer Dr. Michael Wall treats that question as merely the beginning, touching off a wild ride of exploration into the final frontier. He considers, for instance, the myriad of questions that would arise once we do discover life beyond Earth (an eventuality which, top NASA officials told Wall, is only drawing closer).
  • What would the first aliens we meet look like?
  • Would they be little green men or mere microbes?
  • Would they be found on a planet in our own solar system or orbiting a star far, far away?
  • Would they intend to harm us, and if so, how might they do it?
  • And might they already have visited?

  • Out There is arranged in a simple question-and-answer format. The answers are delivered in Dr. Wall’s informal but informative style, which mixes in a healthy dose of humor and pop culture to make big ideas easier to swallow. Dr. Wall covers questions far beyond alien life, venturing into astronomy, physics, and the practical realities of what long-term life might be like for we mere humans in outer space, such as the idea of lunar colonies, and even economic implications. Dr. Wall also shares the insights of some of the leading lights in space exploration today, and shows how the next space age might be brighter than ever.

    Excerpt

    Introduction

    Wow!

    Two days after Elvis Presley died, astronomer Jerry Ehman was sitting at his kitchen table, poring over an eye-straining thicket of numbers and letters on computer printouts. This was not his way of coping with the King's untimely demise; it was his job. Well, sort of. Ehman had volunteered to look for interesting patterns in this messy mass of data, which had been collected by Ohio State University's Big Ear radio telescope.

    Something in the jumble caught Ehman's eye: the vertical string 6EQUJ5. It was so surprising that he circled the mini column with his red pen and wrote "Wow!" in the margin in a lovely, looping script. It's nice that this iconic moment was immortalized in such an eye-pleasing way. The story would be marginally worse if the word had been written in my mom's pinched and slanting scrawl.

    6EQUJ5 was code describing a radio signal that had come in three days previously, on August 15, 1977. Ehman saw that the Wow! signal, as it has come to be known, was strong, covered a narrow range of wavelengths, and lasted 72 seconds, as would be expected from a deep-space source. (This was the length of time that the Big Ear could observe a distant cosmic target, before Earth's rotation rolled another patch of sky into view.) All of these characteristics were consistent with a transmission from an alien civilization.

    But there was more. The Wow! signal's frequency was 1,420 megahertz—squarely within the "water hole," the slender, radio-quiet range that many astronomers had predicted ET would use to contact us. The name stems from its position between the frequencies of naturally occurring cosmic hydrogen atoms (H) and hydroxyl (OH) molecules, which together form water. Also, it's a kind of joke: the water hole should attract conversation, just like an office water cooler. (If you're a fan of nature shows, water hole may evoke images of wildebeest getting ambushed by lions or crocodiles at dwindling, muddy pools, which is a valid image as well, if ET means to do us harm.)

    This was very intriguing indeed, but astronomers would need more information before they could say anything definitive about the Wow! signal. For starters, they'd need to observe it again. So Ehman and his colleagues tried with the Big Ear, again and again. Nothing. Other astronomers sought to pick it up as well, using a variety of different scopes. Silence. Researchers have continued this effort over the decades, and nobody has had any luck. The Wow! signal was a one-off, a single cry in the dark.

    So what was it? A weird, isolated natural event? Terrestrial interference somehow masquerading as a deep-space signal? Or, hope against hope, a "hello" beamed across the dark and frigid depths by ET?

    "I don't think it can ever be determined," Ehman said. "I'm frustrated that I can't draw any further conclusions than I already have."

    Though the Wow! signal remains a cosmic unicorn, a lot has changed since its detection four decades ago. Back then, the only planets astronomers knew about circled the sun. Scientists generally thought that life was as soft as a trust-fund kid, restricted to a narrow range of temperatures, pressures, and pH.

    Now we know that the universe harbors more planets than stars, and huge numbers of these alien worlds probably look a lot like ours. But even if we never found an Earth twin, that wouldn't necessarily mean we're alone in the universe. Microbiologists have discovered that many of our planet's smallest inhabitants are unbelievably tough, scratching out a living in boiling-hot mud pots, frigid pools buried beneath Antarctic ice, and soda lakes so alkaline they'd eat the skin off a flamingo's legs. The possible abodes for life are nearly endless.

    The search for ET has moved from the sci-fi fringes into the mainstream and onto the front pages of newspapers around the world. Scientists are looking hard now, and their efforts are about to ramp up, as a new generation of powerful telescopes, both on the ground and in space, is about to come online. Excitement and optimism are in the air.

    "I think it'd be the biggest surprise if we don't find something," said Lisa Kaltenegger, an associate professor of astronomy at Cornell and director of the university's Carl Sagan Institute. Kaltenegger is focused primarily on finding biosignatures in the atmospheres of alien worlds—generally speaking, evidence of "simple" life such as microbes.

    But Ehman is just as bullish on intelligent aliens. "I'm convinced that there are probably millions or billions of extraterrestrial civilizations, if we include all of the galaxies in the universe," he said.

    As the search for ET heats up, so too does the push to expand humanity's footprint out into the solar system. NASA is planning to return astronauts to the moon and then get them to Mars; the European Space Agency is really excited about setting up an international "moon village." But much of the action is in the private sector. SpaceX and Blue Origin—led by billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, respectively—are launching, landing, and reflying rockets, showcasing tech that could slash the cost of spaceflight enough to get us off this rock in a meaningful way for the first time ever.

    Musk wants to set up a million-person city on Mars. Bezos wants to get millions of people living and working in space, in so-far unspecified locations that presumably do not include the surface of the sun, the interiors of black holes, or the kitchens of Romulan warships.

    A number of companies aim to start mining asteroids and the moon in the next few years. And we're already manufacturing stuff off-Earth, using machines launched to the International Space Station.

    "A thousand years in the future, looking back, people will see this as the inflection point, where we did transition to a multiworld and spacefaring civilization," said Bob Richards, the CEO of Moon Express, a company that aims to provide robotic transportation services to the lunar surface and mine the moon and a number of other bodies throughout the solar system.

    There's a lot going on out there and a lot out there to see. In this book, we're going to take a little tour of the great beyond, asking some pertinent (and some impertinent) questions about ET: Does he/she actually exist? If so, why so shy? Do aliens have sex? And we'll touch on humanity's push for another giant leap: Will we colonize Mars? Can we go interstellar? Could we really travel back in time and stab Hitler in the neck with an awl?

    Enough of the preliminary chatter. Let's get started!




    Part I

    What's Out There?




    Chapter 1

    Where Is Everybody?

    In 1950, Nobel Prize–winning physicist Enrico Fermi—who led the team that created the first-ever nuclear reactor, the inadequately named Chicago Pile-1—and a few of his colleagues were discussing UFOs during their lunch break. The conversation prompted Fermi to ask his companions, "Where is everybody?"

    Fermi meant that the lack of visits by ET is distinctly odd. The Milky Way harbors hundreds of billions of stars and is about 13 billion years old, so there has been plenty of time and opportunity for alien civilizations to rise and spread throughout the galaxy. By some estimates, a colonization-minded species with propulsion technology not much more advanced than our own could island-hop its way to every corner of the Milky Way in just a few million years.

    The physicist's simple question is enshrined now as Fermi's paradox—one of the two coolest paradoxes of all time, along with the crocodile paradox—and it continues to puzzle scientists to this day. Indeed, the mystery has deepened considerably over the years. For one thing, we're not just talking about the lack of visitation anymore. In 1960, 6 years after Fermi's death, astronomer Frank Drake pointed a radio telescope at West Virginia's Green Bank Observatory at the nearby sun-like stars Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani, kicking off the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI).1 Nearly 60 years later, SETI scientists are still hunting for the first confirmed peep from ET.

    Then there's the exoplanet revolution. Alien worlds were purely hypothetical objects in Fermi's day and for decades afterward; scientists didn't announce the first confirmed detection of a planet beyond the solar system until 1992. But in the last decade or so, NASA's Kepler space telescope and other instruments have revealed that the cosmos is teeming with possibly life-supporting worlds. Kepler's discoveries suggest that about 20 percent of the Milky Way's sun-like stars host an Earth-sized world in the "habitable zone"—that just-right range of orbital distances that would allow you to walk around in flip-flops pretty much year-round. The proportion appears to be similar for red dwarfs, the small, dim stars that dominate our galaxy. (About 75 percent of Milky Way stars are red dwarfs, whereas just 10 percent or so are similar to our sun.)

    "There's a lot of real estate out there, and we now know that," said radio astronomer Jill Tarter, who co-founded the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, and served as the inspiration for Ellie Arroway, the lead character in Carl Sagan's novel Contact and the movie based on it.

    Not all of this real estate is way out in the boonies, either. The sun's nearest neighbor, the red dwarf Proxima Centauri, hosts an Earth-size planet in the habitable zone. Seven rocky planets circle the dwarf star TRAPPIST-1, which isn't much farther away from us in the cosmic scheme of things—and three of those worlds may be able to support life as we know it. (Proxima Centauri and TRAPPIST-1 lie about 4.2 light-years and 39 light-years from Earth, respectively. The entire Milky Way is about 100,000 light-years wide.)

    So, again: where is everybody? Nobody knows. The Fermi paradox is tougher than a Brazil nut, and scientists haven't cracked it yet. But it's not for lack of trying. They've advanced hundreds of hypotheses to explain it. As varied as these ideas are, they all encompass just a few basic possibilities, as physicist Stephen Webb noted in his book If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens, Where Is Everybody? Let's take a look at each of these three explanation families.

    Possibility 1: What Paradox? Intelligent Aliens Have Already Messed with Us

    You may already have wandered off, irritated or incensed that I put the Fermi paradox on equal footing with the beloved crocodile paradox. Perhaps you're now thumbing through a dog-eared copy of Chariots of the Gods? or watching YouTube clips of that "alien autopsy" TV special that Fox aired in the 1990s.

    Indeed, one possible resolution of the Fermi paradox is that it's no paradox at all, because ET has already journeyed to Earth. Adherents of this explanation often point to UFO sightings and alien abduction stories, topics that you can read about in chapter 10. For our purposes here, suffice it to say that scientists generally don't regard any of these reports as convincing evidence of alien life. (If they did, you definitely would have heard about it.)

    There are more subtle possibilities in play as well. For example, what if ET came to our planet long ago, before people were around to be probed? Unless the voyaging aliens were particularly interested in us, this is much more likely than a documented visit, given that our species has existed for just the last 200,000 years of Earth's 4.5-billion-year history and has been capable of capturing encounters on blurry, low-light video for only a few decades.

    Let's indulge in some wild speculation, because it's fun! Say Earth has been colonized many times over the eons by greedy, grabby alien civilizations, each of which ground the planet's native species into the dust in the process. (Don't get too high and mighty: pioneering humans have tended to wreak ecological havoc as we've explored the globe.) As astrophysicist and sci-fi author David Brin has pointed out, a history of such oppression could explain why it took intelligent life so long to arise on our planet as well as the radio silence in our galactic neighborhood. Maybe Earth is the only planet for light-years around to have recovered from the ravages of invasion.

    If you squint a little, this scenario lines up with the five mass extinctions that scientists have identified in the fossil record. These great purges occurred about 450 million years ago, 375 million years ago, 251 million years ago, 200 million years ago, and, most famously, 66 million years ago, when an asteroid strike wiped out three-quarters of all Earth's species, including the dinosaurs. "It may not be preposterous," Brin wrote in a seminal 1983 paper, to compare the intervals between these extinction events and the time it might take for different waves of invasion to wash over Earth. The dino-killing asteroid could even have been a weapon of war, slung by a space-dwelling alien faction with a beef against their brethren on Earth.

    Brin didn't mean to suggest that any of this actually happened, and neither do I. There's no evidence that it did—no spacecraft entombed in ancient amber, no ruins of a 200-million-year-old city—and I certainly wouldn't put any money on it. But it's possible.

    Possibility 2: They're Out There, but We Haven't Found Them Yet

    As scientists and other logically minded people often point out, absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence. It's entirely possible that intelligent aliens are (or were) out there, and we just haven't spotted any signs of them yet.

    For example, maybe ET hasn't visited Earth because getting here is just too hard. The distances involved in any interstellar trek are mind-boggling. Proxima Centauri is "just" 4.2 light-years from the sun. But that's almost 25 trillion miles—equivalent to circling Earth 1 billion times, going to Pluto and back 3,450 times, or jogging around the track at your local high school 100 trillion times. It would take a spacecraft about 75,000 years to get to Proxima Centauri using today's rockets.

    There aren't enough honey-roasted peanuts and Sudoku books on Earth to make that trip bearable. Even if we assume that aliens, with their pulsating and extravagantly veined brains, have developed super-fast propulsion tech that puts our puny human gear to shame, there's still a big problem: energy. Say the aliens, like Starfleet engineers, know how to build matter-antimatter engines that can accelerate a ship to 75 percent the speed of light. Just making an Earth–Proxima Centauri round trip with this craft would require 100,000 times more energy than the United States uses in an entire year, physicist Lawrence Krauss wrote in his book The Physics of Star Trek. Is the aliens' desire to probe us, or to give the ancient Egyptians some killer pyramid blueprints, really that strong?

    Or maybe ET just doesn't want to interfere with the development of life on other worlds—and has hewed to this noble "prime directive" far more successfully than Captain Kirk and his crew have managed to do in the Star Trek universe. (Remember when the Enterprise gang took it upon themselves to destroy the machine-god Vaal in an original series episode? Vaal seemed like a jerk, but still.) It's even possible that aliens are watching us right now, to monitor our technological progress, figure out how we tick, or keep their bratty kids occupied for a few hours.

    Some thinkers take such reasoning a step further, suggesting that we and everything else in the observable universe—yes, even love—may be part of a simulation run on a very fancy alien computer. Before laughing this off, consider how much cooler Fortnite is than Burger Time. Those two games were released just 35 years apart, and the hypothetical aliens have had billions of years to come up with amazing graphics and compelling yet believable storylines. Indeed, philosopher Nick Bostrom has argued that the odds we're trapped in a Matrix-style pseudo-existence are actually quite high—provided there are a decent number of super-advanced civilizations out there and at least some of them are keen to create convincing virtual worlds, for fun or profit. Given these two assumptions, the number of artificially created universes, or patches of universe, will far outstrip the number of real ones, according to this line of thinking.

    Along similar lines, perhaps ET's technical mastery has driven its focus away from the real world and into the virtual, sapping its desire to explore the cosmos or meet any potential neighbors. (Humanity may well succumb to this fate when high-quality virtual reality porn hits the marketplace.)

    There are other reasons why advanced aliens may be keeping their heads down as well. Self-preservation springs to mind: what if they're trying to avoid being destroyed or enslaved by big-time cosmic jerks, like the Borg from Star Trek or the Galactic Empire in Star Wars? Scientists have even suggested that evil aliens may have sent fleets of intelligent, self-replicating "berserker" probes out into the galaxy to hunt for radio transmissions and other signs of intelligent life—and to exterminate any civilizations they find.

    Extinction is another possibility. Maybe those berserkers have done a lot of exterminating over the eons. Or perhaps alien civilizations tend to off themselves in relatively short order. Humanity has come perilously close to a nuclear holocaust several times, after all, and we've recently spurred a global mass extinction that may end up claiming our species as well. And yet, with all that, we've been capable of sending signals to other stars for only a century or so.

    If a 100-year messaging life span is the norm for civilizations, "then it's as if there are two fireflies that each flick on once during the course of a long night," said Douglas Vakoch, president of METI International, a San Francisco–based nonprofit dedicated to astrobiology and SETI research. (METI stands for messaging extraterrestrial intelligence—the controversial notion that humanity should reach out to potential alien civilizations, rather than just passively listen.)

    The odds that these cosmic fireflies will flash at the same time are, of course, not good. That's sad for them, and sad for any giant space monsters that want to catch them and put them in jars.

    It's also possible that ET is trying to get our attention, and we just haven't noticed yet. After all, humanity has been searching for alien transmissions for less than 60 years—the last 0.000001 percent of Earth's history—and always on a shoestring budget.

    How shoestring? Well, the US government hasn't bankrolled a SETI operation for a quarter-century. NASA began an ambitious observing project in 1992 but had to stop a year later when Congress cut off the money. (The leader of the defunding push, Nevada senator Richard Bryan, painted the SETI effort as a Mars safari for some reason. "The Great Martian Chase may finally come to an end," Bryan said in 1993. "As of today, millions have been spent and we have yet to bag a single little green fellow. Not a single Martian has said, 'Take me to your leader,' and not a single flying saucer has applied for FAA approval.")

    The SETI Institute and other such groups generally rely on private donations to keep the lights on and the telescopes listening. These donations don't always come through. The SETI Institute had to idle its main ear to the universe, the forty-two-dish Allen Telescope Array in Northern California, for four months in 2011, and the original plan called for the ATA to consist of 350 telescopes, but there hasn't been enough cash to complete the build.

    Given this situation and the huge scale of the Milky Way galaxy, scientists have not yet been able to mount a comprehensive SETI survey. They haven't even come close.

    Tarter often relies on an analogy to get this point across: imagine that you're searching for fish across the entirety of Earth's oceans, and you wade into the surf and scoop up a single glass of seawater. "If you did that experiment and your glass didn't contain a fish, you probably would not conclude that there aren't any fish," Tarter said. "Well, numerically, the amount of searching that we've done versus the amount that we might have to do is equivalent to that one glass of ocean."

    We may not even be looking for the right kinds of signals. The SETI search to date has focused heavily on radio waves and to a lesser extent laser-light pulses, because those are technologies that humanity has mastered. But we're already weaning ourselves off radio-wave transmission just a century after inventing it; when's the last time you sharpened your TV's picture by crumpling some tinfoil onto rabbit ears? Would a billion-year-old alien civilization really still be communicating like this, or in any way we could understand? Maybe ET sends messages via neutrinos, the bizarre and unfathomably numerous particles that zoom through planets unimpeded like subatomic Houdinis. (Trillions of solar neutrinos passed through your body in the time it took to read that last sentence.) Maybe the aliens are telepathic. Who knows?

    Our current strategy may be akin to trying to eavesdrop on people via walkie-talkie, according to astrobiologist Dirk Schulze-Makuch, who's a professor at the Technical University of Berlin in Germany and an adjunct professor at Arizona State University and Washington State University.

    "You probably won't get anything, because everyone is on Facebook," Schulze-Makuch said.

    As this discussion shows, many of the ideas bandied about to explain Fermi's paradox basically amount to ET psychology. And that's not the most promising path for a breakthrough: getting inside the heads of super-advanced aliens is beyond us, at least until we stop devoting most of our creative energies to meme generation. (Thank you for indulging this "get off my lawn" moment.)

    Possibility 3: We Are Alone

    The last alternative is the most depressing: the cosmic silence speaks volumes.

    Maybe Earth is the only inhabited world in the entire galaxy. God loves us that much! Or, if you want to get all science-y about it, the jump from complex organic chemicals to wriggling microbe may be so improbable that it occurred just once, and we hit the jackpot.

    Genre:

    • "This look at some of the key questions of the cosmos and human interactions--it is brain food with flair, and nearly impossible to put down--what a fun ride this book is!"—Alan Stern, principal investigator of NASA's New Horizons Pluto mission and former head of the space agency's Science Mission Directorate
    • "Perhaps since the dawn of language, humankind's most profound quest has been to answer the question-'Are we alone?' Mr. Wall's book takes us on an insightful, engaging, and at times humorous journey through the cosmos, and explains why we may now be on the verge of answering that question!"—Bill Diamond, president and CEO of the SETI Institute.
    • "With a humorous, accessible tone, Wall, a senior writer for Space.com, answers questions about alien life and space travel...this should appeal to anyone who has ever looked up into the sky and wondered what is out there."—Publishers Weekly
    • "Wall's witty and readable style is never preachy, and he readily acknowledges that new discoveries continue to turn long-held assumptions upside down (although it's probably safe to rule out moon-dwelling lunarians). This approach is effective in conveying lots of technical information within a context of manageable scenarios, bolstered by multiple pop-culture references."—Booklist
    • "This book provides a simple introduction to possibilities of other intelligent species in a conversational approach that should appeal to a wide range of readers."—Library Journal
    • "Out There is a refreshingly playful romp through the most exciting aspects of space exploration."—Scientific American
    • "[A] succinct and accessible summary of the search for extraterrestrial life in the 21st Century...Out There goes a long way toward fostering a basic, scientific literacy on its topic. For anyone interested in research-based information about the search for ET, Wall proves the perfect guide and a sure hand. As an introduction for lay-readers, it's the perfect primer."—-Scientific Inquirer

    On Sale
    Nov 13, 2018
    Page Count
    256 pages
    ISBN-13
    9781538729373

    Michael Wall, PhD

    About the Author

    Dr. Michael Wall is a senior writer at Space.com who has written extensively about the search for alien life. His work also has appeared in Scientific American, NBC News, Fox News and a number of other outlets. He holds a graduate certificate in science journalism from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Before becoming a writer, Dr. Wall worked as a biologist; he earned a Ph.D. in biology from the University of Sydney in Australia and has 15 peer-reviewed publications. He’s based in San Francisco, where he also chronicles the space tech revolution in Silicon Valley.

    Illustrations by Karl Tate.

    Learn more about this author