Alien invasion!

Despite being blocked by Roger Pielke Jr yesterday for pointing out that his righteous indignation appeared to be based on information that was not true, I thought I might still comment on his recent Guardian article about the risks associated with discovering extra-terrestrial life. By and large, it appears to show a significant lack of understanding of this general topic.

The sub-heading is

The search for extraterrestrial life is seen as one of pure curiosity. But, as in other areas of science, we should worry about the consequences of success.

and it ends with

My answer is the same one I apply to other areas of investigation and invention. So long as we are searching, we should be discussing the consequences of success of that search. If we discover alien life we may not end up dead or captured, like the New York prison escapees, but we will better prepared for the possibility of success if we consider success possible.

Roger seems to be essentially confusing two related, but largely independent, issues:

  • what are the chances that we could be attacked by some alien civilisation, and
  • what are the risks associated with our search for extra-terrestrial life?

Personally, I think that the chance that some alien civilisation could attack us is vanishingly small, but there would be nothing wrong with considering this risk, and it’s quite possible that this has been done. However, this is largely unrelated to our search for extra-terrestrial life, which carries virtually no risk at all. Why? Because, with the exception of potential robotic searches in our own Solar System (which are almost certainly not going to uncover some advanced civilisation living on one of Jupiter’s moons and that will attack us once discovered) all extra-terrestrial searches for the foreseeable future will be passive. We’ll be listening with large radio telescopes, or observing with large optical/infra-red telescopes.

Given that detecting human-like extra-terrestrial intelligence will be difficult even with the largest radio telescope we’ll have in the next few decades, the most optimistic scenario is that we detect some spectral signature that might indicate the presence of life on a planet outside our Solar System. We will probably not even be able to confirm that it is indeed life on another planet, or – if it is – how complex such life forms may be. Even if it were some advanced, war-mongering civilisation with the ability to travel through inter-stellar space, it would certainly have no knowledge that we’d discovered its existence. Also, if it were advanced enough to travel through space, it would almost certainly know of our presence, before we knew of theirs. I guess it could work out that we now had the technology to detect their existence and should therefore be destroyed, but I can’t see us deciding to avoid technology development just in case some alien civilisation might attack us once we become too advanced.

The only possible realistic risk that I can envisage, is how we might respond to the knowledge that we aren’t alone in the universe. However, not only is this not the first time that humans have encountered unknown civilisations, I suspect that the societal response to climate change will give us some hints as to what might happen; those who find that this information challenges their world-view will simply deny it, while almost everyone else will simply carry on with their busy lives regardless. Remember that the best we will probably have in the next few decades will be some complicated spectrum that scientists will claim shows signatures of life; we’re not going to have photographs of little green men.

So, unless Roger was joking, I don’t think his article presents a particularly informed view of this issue. If you want to read something more informed, you could try this. I should, however, acknowledge a very strong conflict-of-interest, as I’ve worked closely with the author of this article for many years.

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63 Responses to Alien invasion!

  1. semyorka says:

    AC Clarke and von Neumann had it nailed, if they exist and if they are interested in us, there probes have been watching us for millions of years. Our oxygen rich atmosphere has been broadcasting an inhabited planet is here for billions of years, a signal we will be able to read a hundred light years or so out perhaps as soon the the James Webb Telescope goes up (under perfect observation conditions~), in 100 years we may be able to spot this signal on Earth like planets around other stars, at similar orbital distances for tens of thousands of light years without the planet having to pass between the observer and its star.

    The Voyager\Pioneer type probes of humanity in 200 years will be able to self replicate at each solar system using material from things like Asteroids and Trans Neptune Objects.

    As for contact, well people today actively believe we have been contacted, there have been a couple of false alarms like the Herschel Hoax and people in the late 19th early 20th century widely believed Mars to be inhabited. This happened with no great existential angst.

    The Tasmanians seem to have had no concept of other peoples existing, they had been cut of for thousands of years, the Inca had no concept of more advanced civilisations. You can argue for great crises in these kinds of contacts, although disease played a role. But India and China had concepts of other advanced civilisations, each other, those around them and some knowledge of Europe. The arrival of technologically dominant foreigners created huge political instability but relatively small psychological shocks of discovery (there were some issues with loss of pre-eminence in science perhaps.

    We have role played contact scenarios in our entertainment and literature, we have a concept of being contacted, many\most expect it. It will be huge but I dont think it can be compared to the shattering shocks of unexpected finding you are not the only people or the only advanced peoples in the universe.

  2. Tony Duncan says:

    He blocked you for THIS?

    I see some value in his concern, but as a few people commented this is an issues that has been addressed.
    Sonce we know absolutely nothing abkit what alien life wild be like, spending lots of resources on dealing with the consequences seems like a fruitless endeavor.
    Maybe if we discover some sort of life on Europa, there should be extreme caution in any manned exploration or any robotic probe that migjt bring back samples. But that is such a basic wel undersyood precaution that Pilke’s concern seems a bit pedantic.
    Other than that i see not much value in even the sociological
    A commenter expressed the view that the knowledge of othr life would cause intense reactions, especially among orthodox religious people. That seems highly unlikely to me. I see nothing about alien life that would have the impact of something like evolution. People are so used to the concetnof aliens tyrough pipulat culture, that the reality of itnwould not threaten most peoples core worldview.
    And if there is some sort of intelligent advanced alien presence that decides to interract with us because of our sewrch for life …., well that seems
    Theoretically possible, but is rather moot. Not much we can do without having some actual info.

  3. Tony,

    He blocked you for THIS?

    Ahh, no. He blocked me after he posted a tweet stating that it was shameless that John Cook had posted blog comments under someone else’s name and I pointed out that this claim was – according to my info – not true.

  4. semyorka,

    AC Clarke and von Neumann had it nailed, if they exist and if they are interested in us, there probes have been watching us for millions of years.

    Yes, precisely. Anything advanced enough to be concerned about, already knows we’re here.

  5. I find it interesting that our expectation is that alien intelligences will be just like evil human ones, storm troopers and all. Perhaps we’ll know more when the dolphins finally leave us their message and disappear.

    Pielke jr seems to have missed the point by a large distance. His article looked like he’d been watching 50s scifi movies all the night before.

  6. John Hartz says:

    ATTP: Are you telling me that the Flash Gordon serial movies that I watched on TV as a child were not reality-based? 🙂

  7. Joshua says:

    Well – lot’s of folks are convinced that listening to rap music and watching (violence on) TV causes harm to the listener/observer…and I’m not sure that the evidence is conclusive one way or the other….so maybe you’ve mistaken Roger’s concern: Perhaps it isn’t that he’s worried about ET coming to get us, but he’s worried that we don’t know whether or not scientists might be at risk of becoming social deviants by looking for extraterrestrial life?

    All I know is that along with the war on Christmas, Obama coming to get our guns, Jade Helm, the IRS persecuting Tea Partiers, and Ebola, this whole extraterrestrial-search-thing just reinforces my confidence that my time, resources, and effort dedicated to building my bunker was well spent.

  8. Joshua,
    I don’t know why your comment ended up in moderation. Maybe my Poe’s law filter is working too well?

  9. Joshua says:

    Poe? Do you doubt my sincerity?

  10. Sorry, I realise that I should have said “Maybe my Poe’s Law filter isn’t working too well?” 🙂

  11. It could be a problem for the mitigation sceptics if we find alien life. That would give the conservatives a new enemy and a reason to collaborate with other humans. First thing to do would be to solve the solvable problems, such as climate change, to make humanity stronger.

  12. John Hartz says:

    Here’s nice overview including links and video…

    The search for ET has been going on for years: so what do we know so far? by Jonti Horner, The Conversation, July 22, 2015

  13. Aren’t we into the area of risk again here? If I’ve read him correctly he seems concerned about threats to us from alien life forms, but plays down the threat that humans will make our planet uninhabitable. I know which concerns me more.

    Regarding intelligent extra-terrestrial life: I suspect that due to the vast distances, any contact will be one way. Either we’ll send off a space ship colony to inhabit another planet, or another life form will try to colonise Earth. Either way I suspect the colonisers will establish that they’re heading for an habitable but uninhabited planet before setting off. The last thing a small group of colonisers would want is to be confronted by a fully-populated planet of beings with intelligence.

  14. russellseitz says:

    The best way to invite a war of the worlds would be to freeze supernumary Presidential aspirants and blast them off to adjacent star systems with a fanfare of political spot ads on the Areceibo radiotelescope.

    If we landed Donald Trump on their doorstep , they’d gear up their post-singularity economy and come to zap us for sure .

    As a halfway measure, we could practice for that contingency by staging a Presidential primary on Pluto.

  15. NevenA says:

    I’m sure alien think tanks would be interested in the Big Tobacco playbook. Maybe they should abduct Roger so he can explain its more subtle workings?

    Other than that, I’d say bomb ’em as soon as they’re discovered, and then alter their atmosphere to see what happens when you triple greenhouse gas concentrations in 200 years time.

  16. Willard says:

    Do aliens have oil?

    Yes, interested.

    Not, not.

    Oh, and Fermi’s paradox checkmates Dodger.

  17. BBD says:

    I was just about to mention Fermi’s Paradox and there goes Willard, stealing my thunder. I’ll go and troll RPJ instead.

  18. FLwolverine says:

    BBD – now look what you did!
    Thanks for Reading

    This blog is no longer being updated.

    Thanks for reading, please enjoy the archives!
    Posted by Roger Pielke, Jr. at 5/23/2015 12:29:00 PM

  19. John Hartz says:

    In case you were wondering about going back in time to correct past mistakes…

    Backwards Time Travel Would Create Spooky, Self-Annihilating Twins by Tia Ghose, Live Science, July 23, 2015

  20. Steven Mosher says:

    The danger in listening is the same danger in reading the comments or downloading crap from the intertubes:


    Carrigan, Richard A. (2006). “Do potential SETI signals need to be decontaminated?”. Acta Astronautica 58 (2): 112–117. Bibcode:2006AcAau..58..112C. doi:10.1016/j.actaastro.2005.05.004.
    Jump up ^ Marsden, P. (1998). “Memetics and social contagion: Two sides of the same coin”. Journal of Memetics-Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission 2 (2): 171–185.

  21. Steven,
    That’s an interesting issue, although I guess it would still fall – in a sense – into the class of situations where we’re dealing with a civilisation who know we are here and are beaming something to us in the hope that we’re listening, pick it up, and try to decode it. However, as I understand it, much of the SETI search is based on looking for a basic radio signal that doesn’t appear natural, without necessarily trying to decode it and extract information. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be careful if we ever did try to decode such signals, though.

  22. Steven Mosher says:

    Fermi’s paradox checkmates Dodger.?

    quite the contrary.

    on some views smart LGM have determined that the risks of communication outweigh the benefits and only one form of life ( humans ) is stupid enough to transmit or spend resources trying to look.. So the paradox is explained.

    so you reach the level of intelligence to listen and transmit.. U might listen a little time and transmit a little time.. but then u figure out that both of those are potentially dangerous or useless and u stop. we are almost at that level of intelligence. See.. Roger is an Alien

  23. If you look at this paper (which I also linked to in the post) one of the arguments being made is that we’ve gone digitial within about 100 years, and so now leak much less electromagnetic energy than we once did. In a sense, therefore, we’ve alread essentially started the process of reducing our transmissions.

  24. corey says:

    (Didja ever notice how, in a mirror, 7:40 looks like 4:20?)

  25. Steven Mosher says:

    And now that u know roger is an alien, you understand the danger in reading comments.

    does anyone have video of roger?

    I want to see if he shape shifts

  26. BBD says:

    Do aliens have oil?

    IIRC the spacecraft on which much of the action of the film Alien is set is actually a giant oil tanker returning alien hydrocarbons to Earth 😉

  27. Steven Mosher says:

    In actuality an alien species is conducting a GHG experiment on earth to settle their own climate debates ( it was a blog Bet between two aliens who decided to settle the matter by experimenting on earth ) and Roger has been planted here to ensure that we dont screw up the experiment by stopping GHG emissions. so ya, skeptics are aliens sent here to ensure the conditions of a bet

  28. BBD says:

    I did not inhale.

  29. John Hartz says:


    Do you moonlight by writing articles for Newsweek under the pen-name, Andrew Norton? 🙂

    The $100 Million Alien Listening Project May Be a Huge Waste of Time by Andrew Norton, Newsweek, July 25, 2015

  30. Not me, but he does make a good argument 🙂

  31. Tom Dayton says:

    I learned from a lecture at The SETI Institute that if we put a radio telescope 100 astronomical units from the Sun, we can use the Sun as a gravitational lens that will allow us to detect radio emissions as weak as the emissions from our street lamps. So any aliens will know we exist. Not possible for us to hide. So no danger in being overt.

  32. Tom,
    I hadn’t heard about that, but here is the paper. One issue is that the focal length is about 550 AU. The furthest we’ve sent a man-made object is around 120 AU. The New Horizons mission is about the fastest we’ve ever done, which reached Pluto in just under a decade. Also, you would need to be targeting specific sources, since it will only focus from a single direction.

  33. Back to the story. Except for the above mentioned dangers to the mitigation sceptical movement and Pielke’s book sales, are there any speculations on the dangers of listening? Transmitting, okay that may not be a great idea, but my imagination is too poor to think of dangers of listening (and ideally being prepared when they come).

    It will cost money, but in a world where we justify a manned space program with the discovery of non-sticking frying pans, I guess you can put money in any thing sufficient number of people find interesting.

  34. Well, there’s the paper Steven mentions in this comment, but that would imply actually decoding information from a signal, rather than simply identifying a signal.

  35. The aliens sending a computer virus or a message that leads to social contagion.

    Bring them on. 🙂

  36. BBD says:

    I quite like the idea that evil aliens send out signals that are laced with smart, adaptive malware that eventually begins to subtly manipulate us. In space, no one can hear the tinfoil rustle 😉

  37. BBD says:

    Versions of this tale exist, of course. See eg. Vernor Vinge A Fire Upon The Deep.

  38. Kevin O'Neill says:

    It’s a cookbook!

  39. BBD says:

    You remind me of a bassist I once knew 🙂 Too many loud nights.


    No mate, the chip pan’s okay; I said a fryer on the bleep.


    * * *

    For an alien signals cookbook, try Jack McDevitt’s The Hercules Text 🙂

    It’s not gay porn 😉

  40. John Mashey says:

    1) I am amazed the Guardian published that. Among other things, issues of alien contact have been explored in science fiction for many decades.

    2) For a more serious discussion, that actually worries about power requirements, see Fermi @ Barry Brooks, long ago. Start at this comment,and more later, from which a few key items are:

    Kardashev scale.
    We’re around .7.

    Fermi Paradox (Wikipedia)
    See especially
    Intelligent civilizations are too far apart in space or time
    Humans are not listening properly
    Civilizations broadcast detectable radio signals only for a brief period of time

    “1) It’s essentially impossible for us to see the accidental emissions of a planet at our tech level (~Kardashev .7), because none are close enough, according to SETI FAQ analyses of visible distances. Hence, we will *never* see emissions from a nice peaceful, sustainable, even very-long-lived civilization that stays at or below our tech level. We won’t even see one that has enough space travel to take care of bolides.

    2) The only possible civilizations we could *ever* see would likely be closer to Kadashev Type I’s with plenty of energy and longevity, willing to run multi-million year efforts to beam narrowband signals at nearby stars [~10,000 systems within 100 light-years] in hopes of finding one close enough in space and time to get a reply. I’d love to see the budget process for that! One needs to be willing to burn energy run high-powered transmitters for long periods, as well as keeping a bunch of receivers going.”

    “BUT, and this gets us back in the direction of energy, and as Charles Stoss writes one needs outrageous amounts of cheap energy, i.e., assuming Earth’s electricity production ~4TW, we need to use about 5 days supply to send a mere 1-2-ton probe to Proxima Centauri at .1c, with anything like current tech, no anti-matter conversion, etc. Interstellar expansion really needs sustained efforts over thousands or millions of years, and again, one always has the worry that if a civilization falls, can it get back up again. I recommend MS FND IN A LBRY for an amusing way in which that might happen in a society in which most information is kept electronically.” (Now, total electricity generation is more like 5+ TW.)

    From the SETI FAQ above:
    “1.2.3 How far away could we detect radio transmissions?”
    Representative results are presented in Tables 1 and 2. The
    short answer is
    (1) Detection of broadband signals from Earth such as AM radio,
    FM radio, and television picture and sound would be
    extremely difficult even at a fraction of a light-year
    distant from the Sun. For example, a TV picture having 5
    MHz of bandwidth and 5 MWatts of power could not be detected
    beyond the solar system even with a radio telescope with 100
    times the sensitivity of the 305 meter diameter Arecibo

    (2) Detection of narrowband signals is more resonable out to
    thousands of light-years distance from the Sun depending on
    the transmitter’s transmitting power and the receiving
    antenna size.

    (3) Instruments such as the Arecibo radio telescope could detect
    narrowband signals originating thousands of light-years from
    the Sun.

    (4) A well-designed 12 ft diameter amateur radio telescope could
    detect narrowband signals from 1 to 100 light-years distance
    assuming the transmitting power of the transmitter is in the
    terawatt range.”

    see Table 1 “Table 1 Detection ranges of various EM emissions from Earth and
    the Pioneer spacecraft assuming a 305 meter diameter
    circular aperture receive antenna, similar to the Arecibo
    radio telescope.” Look carefully at the bandwidths.
    ” It should be apparent then from these results that the detection
    of AM radio, FM radio, or TV pictures much beyond the orbit of
    Pluto will be extremely difficult even for an Arecibo-like 305
    meter diameter radio telescope! Even a 3000 meter diameter radio
    telescope could not detect the “I Love Lucy” TV show (re-runs) at
    a distance of 0.01 Light-Years!”

    Then see this comment.
    “From my categorization, we couldn’t ever see anything below 7f), i.e., a space-capable civilization willing to spend serious energy transmitting focused narrowbeam signals at nearby stars, and doing it at the right range at the right time. The distinction between 7f and the lower ones is that they not only had the capability but the very-long-term will to do it.”

  41. JamesVI says:

    The aliens sending a computer virus

    You mean like “Plan iOS9 from Outer Space”

    That would explain a lot, maybe they already have.

  42. It’s good to be operating outside of climate science circled and be able to focus on non-loony theories in science — quite unlike the Wadhams —

  43. Ken Fabian says:

    I recall someone saying our widespread use of microwaves for radar and communications would make a noticable not natural excess in particular bands that could be noticed a long way away. Not a signal with content, except that of saying something, probably technology is making it. Valid or not?

  44. Well, Trenberth is another one of those scientists who has been flailing away to try to figure out ENSO, to no avail.

    “there are way too many assumptions and extrapolations for anything here to be taken seriously other than to promote further studies.”

    Maybe time for some fresh blood in the research, eh Dr. Trenberth? And exactly #whut is there to “promote”? We don’t need any research dollars to do the work. This is stuff that anyone can do with a PC in their spare time.

  45. Ken,
    I think that it would be possible to distinguish between a man-made microwave signal and something natural, but the signals would only extend now about 100 light years (25 pc) and would be getting very weak, so I’m not sure how true that idea is unless some civilisation was doing something like using their host star as gravitational lens.

  46. Roger wrote,

    “But, as in other areas of science, we should worry about the consequences of success.”

    “As in other areas of science”?

    “We should worry”?


    I’m one who believes that trying to read subtext is at least sometimes a good idea. Some of the subtext I think may be there is this:

    “It is not always the case that I want to know the truth, whatever it is, no matter what it is. I’m scared of what I might find.” And at least one corollary: “I’m not sure I’m OK with science doing its thing, which is the absolute search for truth, no matter what.”

    We should worry about the consequences of a particular scientific inquiry such that maybe one option in response to this worry is to try to shut down this particular scientific inquiry or at least deny the results of scientific inquiry if these results negate our prior beliefs?

    I find this attitude not uncommon in more or less conservative thought and therefore not particularly surprising coming from one who is more or less conservative. (See their denial of evolution as an example of this.)

    Am I wrong?

  47. Andrew dodds says:

    I saw Independence Day, as long as the aliens write their code in Java and don’t put circuit breakers on their main weapons, we are sorted. And they don’t think of bioengineering a super plague to wipe us out with minimal effort and detection.

    To the topic.. To contact and communicate, you need to create a self-replicating probe that can land on a KBO type object, create a communications node back to the star it came from, reproduce itself.a few dozen times, and go to the next few nearest stars. You’d want the base to have a laser to accelerate the probe, to minimise fuel requirements. The only cost is building the first probe. (Nb. Hard) So.. The best place to look for aliens would be the outer solar system, by this hypothesis.

  48. BBD says:

    Andrew Dodds

    I’m guessing you’ve read David Brin’s Existence?

  49. Eli Rabett says:

    Roger is a charming but extremely weak thinker with a large address book, unlimited energy and Dunning Kruger class confidence in his own ability. As evidence thereof, Eli gives you the not paying attention in class convenient introduction to the latest, where he completely bollix’s the NY version of prisioners’ dilemma as a set up to raising asked and answered questions about SETI. FWIW, planet finders have completely changed the SETI game.

  50. John Mashey says:

    I second Eli, but really, the issue is why the Guardian published this. Somebidy might ask.

    1) Serious people have explored inplications of alien contact for many decades.
    2) Astrobiologists have explored the science at NASA and elsewhere.
    David Morrison is a good guy and know his stuff.
    3)Serious people have long thought about the energy requirements of interstellar communucation and travel. I quoted some discussion from 2008, and it wasn’t new then.
    Then, Roger, obviously unfamiliar with history, says nobody seems to have thought about it… and for me, the real result is less respect for the Guardian…

  51. guthrie says:

    John – The Guardian has been going downhill for years and years now. MOstly now it just publishes clickbait and pseudo-controversial guff.
    That’s all you need to know to explain the publication of something pontless by a well known political ‘scientist’.

  52. BBD says:

    Could seepage have reached this far?

    Then we are doomed 🙂

  53. russellseitz says:

    The alien think tanks will send along a better playbook after the vaping ads reach the Kepler syatem.

    The old one was based on a Marconi transmission of the 1916 Bull Moose playbook .

  54. russellseitz says:

    Given optical transmission at the limits of nonlinear optics as we know it, perfect, diffraction limited laser beams would succumb to to dispersion by the interstellar medium on sub-parsec scales. Event smart rich aliens may need optical repeaters to call home when they explore.

  55. victorpetri says:

    I came a across an interesting idea.
    If we would find CFCs it would mean an advanced civilization was present:

    I found Pielke’s call for more societal discussion on the what if question not that unreasonable (and also do not interpret his piece as us invoking an alien invasion with our search)

  56. Willard says:

    > Could seepage have reached this far?

    Space. The final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Honest Broker. Its continuing mission: to explore strange news outlets, to seek out new eyeballs and new gigs, to boldly raise concerns where no one has gone before.

  57. anoilman says:

    I think Pielke’s approach to Alien Invasion is an appeal to the nut jobs of the planet. You know… the denial community.

  58. russellseitz says:

    Roger’s unreadability index is so high that Areciebo should beam up every word he writes to drive off boredom-averse alien omnivores

  59. Eli Rabett says:

    Victor, perfluorocarbons would be more likely as they last much longer (c2f6 for example)

  60. Andrew Dodds says:

    AOM – Hmmm, I can see it..

    ‘We are not being invaded by alie..

    ‘Anyone reporting flying saucers is clearly seeing ball lightning being reflected off of march ga

    ‘The destruction of selected world city iconic buildings is a natural proc

    ‘If there is a rain of Alien Death Rays from the sky we’ll just adap

    ‘If aliens are stealing our bodies and turning us into highly productive drones this can only be good for the econ..

  61. Andrew Dodds says:

    Thought I put a post on this earlier, may have been stuck in moderation for excessive emphasis..

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