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Space Science

Astronomers Search For Dyson Spheres of Alien Civilizations 686

Posted by Soulskill
from the scotty-might-be-trapped dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "An article by Ross Andersen makes note of Freeman Dyson's prediction in 1960 that every civilization in the Universe eventually runs out of energy on its home planet, a major hurdle in a civilization's evolution. Dyson argued that all those who leap over it do so in precisely the same way: they build a massive collector of starlight, a shell of solar panels to surround their home star. Last month astronomers began a two-year search for Dyson Spheres, a search that will span the Milky Way, along with millions of other galaxies. The search is funded by a sizable grant from the Templeton Foundation, a philanthropic organization that funds research on the 'big questions' that face humanity, questions relating to 'human purpose and ultimate reality.' Compared with SETI, a search for Dyson Spheres assumes that the larger the civilization, the more energy it uses and the more heat it re-radiates. If Dyson Spheres exist, they promise to give off a very particular kind of heat signature, a signature that we should be able to see through our infrared telescopes. 'A Dyson Sphere would appear very bright in the mid-infrared,' says project leader Jason Wright. 'Just like your body, which is invisible in the dark, but shines brightly in mid-infrared goggles.' A civilization that built a Dyson Sphere would have to go to great lengths to avoid detection, building massive radiators that give off heat so cool it would be undetectable, a solution that would involve building a sphere that was a hundred times larger than necessary. 'If a civilization wants to hide, it's certainly possible to hide,' says Wright, 'but it requires massive amounts of deliberate engineering across an entire civilization.'"
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Astronomers Search For Dyson Spheres of Alien Civilizations

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 05, 2012 @11:23AM (#41559051)

    Dyson assumed that all alien civilizations are stupid enough to believe in infinite growth, much like humanity.

    I don't believe this. I think the most advanced aliens have probably realized that there isn't much point of growth after a certain threshold.

  • Let me predict.... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by slashping (2674483) on Friday October 05, 2012 @11:25AM (#41559071)
    They'll find nothing.
  • by alvinrod (889928) on Friday October 05, 2012 @11:31AM (#41559131)
    It also assumes that there aren't any energy advancements that are so far out of our understanding right now that they wouldn't seem like magic if we possessed them. Our assumptions are limited by our current understanding. In the next thousand years we could see all kinds of advancements that render building a Dyson sphere completely unnecessary.
  • by Shrike82 (1471633) on Friday October 05, 2012 @11:32AM (#41559159)
    The energy output of a star is going to be many orders of magnitude higher than what you'd get from fusion technology. The sun is a giant fusion plant itself! A sufficiently advanced technological civilisation may very well find itself bound only by the amount of energy it could produce or harness, and getting every last scrap of energy from a star is a massive boost to an energy based economy.
  • I was watching that Riddick movie with the Necromongers the other day and I realized that the concept was actually very realistic. What kind of society would get into space first? The ones that put a high priority on space exploration. And what kind of civilization would do that just for the heck of it before any others? The ones that have some irrational reason to do it driven by some kind of religious fervor. While the "Star Trek like" science-driven societies pace themselves in a sensible manner, the religious nutjobs would throw every single resource their entire civilization could at getting into space to please their space deity or whatever. If there's an advanced space-faring race out there you probably want to steer clear of them.

    See also: The Irkens from Invader Zim

  • by Zontar_Thing_From_Ve (949321) on Friday October 05, 2012 @11:37AM (#41559235)
    I think you are 100% correct, but it's not just politicians who are small minded. Here's an example. I work in IT as a Linux System Administrator. One of my colleagues is not only extremely smart and one of the most knowledgeable IT guys I've ever worked with (he is like a living set of man pages), he is into sci fi. He feels very strongly that we have more pressing needs at home in the USA than to spend almost any money on NASA. I mean, he is the exact kind of guy who I would expect to be in favor of building a moon base. When guys like him won't even back NASA, there's really no hope for the USA to ever do anything useful in space in our lifetime unless it becomes a national security concern. But in direct response to your suggestion, I want to see a moon base first and a manned expedition to Mars before we try something massive like this. It's a "walk before you run" kind of thing.
  • by ShanghaiBill (739463) on Friday October 05, 2012 @11:38AM (#41559245)

    It also assumes that there aren't any energy advancements that are so far out of our understanding right now that they wouldn't seem like magic

    Which is a reasonable assumption. Advanced civilizations will certainly have more advanced technology, but basic laws of reality will still apply. There is no reason to believe that the second law of thermodynamics can be violated, and overwhelming evidence that it cannot.

  • energy leakeage (Score:4, Insightful)

    by demonbug (309515) on Friday October 05, 2012 @11:40AM (#41559283) Journal

    If Dyson Spheres exist, they promise to give off a very particular kind of heat signature, a signature that we should be able to see through our infrared telescopes. 'A Dyson Sphere would appear very bright in the mid-infrared,' says project leader Jason Wright.

    Right, because there's no way a civilization advanced enough to build 282743338860000000 square kilometers of solar panels is going to be able to build solar panels capable of absorbing and using mid-infrared light (heat). If the supposition is that they inevitably build Dyson spheres to capture all of the available energy coming off their star, why would they let a whole bunch of it escape as heat?

    Seems like a giant waste of time and money, but I suppose they will be generating useful data while they look. Still, their chances of finding one are likely ludicrously close to zero even if one does exist. I also find the whole premise to be rather poorly thought out, I have to admit; even if a civilization is capable of building a Dyson sphere, I'm not sure it makes any sense to actually do it.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 05, 2012 @11:41AM (#41559299)

    I recognize that humanity has overpopulated the earth

    What do you base that on? Humanity may have overpopulated Calcutta, or Sao Paulo.
    We haven't overpopulated Wyoming.

  • by the gnat (153162) on Friday October 05, 2012 @11:43AM (#41559321)

    Imagine what the Republicans and Tea Party would do and say if somebody proposed government-enforced limits in the USA.

    Why pick on the Republicans here? I'm relatively liberal, and I know plenty of other liberals who would be just as outraged.

  • by ShanghaiBill (739463) on Friday October 05, 2012 @11:44AM (#41559333)

    Dyson assumed that all alien civilizations are stupid enough to believe in infinite growth,

    No, he didn't assume that all civilizations would take this path, just some of them. The Universe should contain billions of civilizations. If even a tiny fraction of them build Dyson Spheres, then this search may find something.

    Alien civilizations are likely products of the same kind of Darwinian process that produced humans, so the desire to expand and grow will be innate, because species which lack that desire are replaced by those that possess it.

  • by Thud457 (234763) on Friday October 05, 2012 @11:50AM (#41559441) Homepage Journal
    Against Stupidity, even the gods themselves labor in vain. [wikipedia.org]


    lets see how many mods perceive the relevance to the reference
  • by interval1066 (668936) on Friday October 05, 2012 @11:54AM (#41559499) Homepage Journal
    Perhaps. You seem to be making an assumption that many naysayers make, that is we've made a huge effort in detecting exo-planetary intelligence and come up with nothing. Let me add that our efforts so far have been miniscule when campared to the real relative distances involved in the search. Meaning that a real search effort with the given technology may be a bit beyond our current economic and technical ability.
  • by 0xdeadbeef (28836) on Friday October 05, 2012 @12:02PM (#41559615) Homepage Journal

    For fuck's sake, people, read a god damn book. Star Trek is make-believe bullshit.

    If you're completely ignorant about a subject, is it too much to ask that you remedy the situation before farting an opinion? There are four links in the post for your education!

    I mean, sure, the Templeton Foundation are a bunch of religious loons, but do you actually think you know better than Freeman Dyson and the actual physicists, astronomers, and engineers who consider the idea plausible? If so, you'd better tell them why it can't work, before they waste all that money! Your paper on the subject will make you famous!

  • by ShanghaiBill (739463) on Friday October 05, 2012 @12:06PM (#41559647)

    They'll find nothing.

    Which would be an interesting result.

    Experiments don't have to be "successful" to have an impact. Michelson and Morley [wikipedia.org] failed to detect ether, yet their failed experiment revolutionized physics.

    If the search finds nothing, does that mean the Rare Earth Hypothesis [wikipedia.org] is correct? Or maybe advanced civilizations find a way to hide their energy consumption, or maybe they don't grow or don't need the levels of energy that we think they do. A null result from this search leads to many interesting questions.

  • by Bengie (1121981) on Friday October 05, 2012 @12:18PM (#41559799)
    As far as we can tell, no macro-level system can violate thermodynamics, so the postulate should hold true. There should be IR energy given off anywhere energy is consumed as IR is the end result of an system that is not 100% efficient.
  • by rhsanborn (773855) on Friday October 05, 2012 @12:29PM (#41559927)
    If I've read my recent physics correctly, 95% of the energy in our universe is in a form we don't know much about (dark matter/energy). If a sufficiently advanced civilization could harness that, they are likely going to do something to target that, instead of star light.
  • by 0xdeadbeef (28836) on Friday October 05, 2012 @12:30PM (#41559937) Homepage Journal

    I don't believe this. I think the most advanced aliens have probably realized that there isn't much point of growth after a certain threshold.

    It's funny how these armchair physicists who got their education from bad science fiction are so adamant that we can't possibly know what magical technology we might invent that will get us around the laws of thermodynamics, so capturing starlight is crude and stupid and this project is obviously a waste of time.

    But boy do they sure know the motivations of future humanity, the path of technological and societal growth, and the psychology of hypothetical aliens, and that knowledge also tells them that this project is a waste of time.

  • by ShanghaiBill (739463) on Friday October 05, 2012 @12:33PM (#41559971)

    How does science explain psychics? Auras, the afterlife, the power of prayer?

    Science also fails to explain unicorns. And don't get me started on Santa Claus. How does he deliver toys to over a billion homes in one night? Science offers no plausible explanation for that.

  • by Nethemas the Great (909900) on Friday October 05, 2012 @01:05PM (#41560343)
    Just ignore him, he's one of those frustrating, myopic people that thinks we are limited to the resources of the ball of mud on which we presently live.
  • by ChronoFish (948067) on Friday October 05, 2012 @01:15PM (#41560467) Journal
    <quote>Dyson assumed that all alien civilizations are stupid enough to believe in infinite growth....</quote>

    I don't know anything about Dyson, but based on our "civilization" we don't "believe" in infinite growth... we just grow to point where our growth is no longer sustainable. There is no belief or consciousness involved. Sure you you may have individuals warning about the "tipping point" of the world the civilization lives in... but until the tipping point is reached there is little the civilization can do to stop its growth. That's life in general. Every population grows until it can't. When it's over populated it shrinks. When no resources can be consumed, it dies. Populations growth will always be towards equilibrium with what-ever its surrounding can support.

    If a population is advanced enough to build a a dyson sphere, and a dyson sphere is the only way to survive, then a dyson sphere will be built or the population will decrease towards 0 until the population stabilizes (which very well may be at "0").

    But regardless there is no belief here. There is no concerted attempt to grow infinitely. Just ask a deer or fruit-fly. They have no clue what you're asking...but their population will certainly increase when it can and decrease when it has to.

    -CF
  • Re:series of tubes (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Dr_Barnowl (709838) on Friday October 05, 2012 @01:26PM (#41560599)

    You have to release heat. The laws of thermodynamics demand it ; even if you have a fractally complex energy usage system, it has to move outwards, or it will all grind to a halt. So you'd see a large sphere at a temperature somewhere above cosmic background - how far above would depend on the efficiency of their engineering.

  • by jeffmeden (135043) on Friday October 05, 2012 @01:47PM (#41560871) Homepage Journal

    we have *always* relied on sunlight

    Past performance is not an indicator of future performance. Humans always used horses... until they invented a car. Humans were using only land transport.. until they invented an airplane. Humans were always planet-bound, until they flew into space.

    In the midst of ALL of that (horses, cars, planes, spaceships) they have all been powered (as well as the humans in them) indirectly (by about 2 or 3 steps of conversion) by the sun... Sure things change, but given how different humanity of 2012 looks compared to that of only 1000 years ago, and still it's entirely thanks to the sun, is a pretty clear suggestion that humanity will rely on the sun from now until the end of our existence. There's just too much energy shooting out of it in every direction for it to be ignored, barring something that literally violates the laws of physics as they are currently understood.

  • by camperdave (969942) on Friday October 05, 2012 @01:50PM (#41560909) Journal
    We build taller and taller skyscrapers. Why? There are more efficient structures, and it's not like they are there to harvest resources unavailable at ground level. Besides, some peasant can build a mountainside hut that is at a higher altitude than the highest skyscraper. So, maybe it's not about the energy. Maybe it's a statement of prowess, or art.
  • Re:series of tubes (Score:5, Insightful)

    by icebike (68054) * on Friday October 05, 2012 @01:58PM (#41561005)

    Of course, this presumes that advanced civilizations will simply re-radiate the left-over thermal energy, it's entirely possible that they would have close to 100% efficient systems or have a economically sensible way of storing thermal energy to re-use at a later date.

    It also presumes that advanced civilizations would waste their time and resources building such a contraption, when, given the technology necessary to do so, it would be far easier to find another planet.

    The level of sophistication necessary to deploy such a thing would require a level of technology where Fusion is childs play. There would be no energy shortage.

  • sustainability (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Chirs (87576) on Friday October 05, 2012 @02:01PM (#41561041)

    We cannot (given current understanding and resource consumption patters) maintain the current population of the planet indefinitely.

  • by maxwell demon (590494) on Friday October 05, 2012 @02:18PM (#41561237) Journal

    It is very simple: If you don't want to boil your self to death, you must ultimately radiate away all the energy you get from your star. The biggest common misunderstanding about energy is the idea that we consume it. We don't consume energy, we just pass it through our systems. Now in what form do you radiate it away? Well, in the most useless form possible, because otherwise you'd waste precious energy. That form is the form of heat radiation, and the spectrum is determined by only two parameters: How much energy the star produces (which is the amount of energy to be radiated away), and how large the Dyson sphere is.

    Think about it like the water of a river used to drive machines. We let the water run through our machines to use its power, but if we would keep that water, we'd soon drown. Instead we have to let all the water we use flow out again.

    With energy it is basically the same. If we don't ultimately get rid of all the energy we use, we heat up and boil to death. We have to eventually re-emit all the energy; we just do so in the form of heat radiation.

    OK, there's one thing which could actually lower the energy emission: Conversion of energy into matter and antimatter. So if we assume that the advanced civilisation use up a considerable part of the energy in order to produce matter and antimatter, it would reduce their energy output. The matter could be used to build things inside the sphere. However, unless they found a way to convert antimatter to matter, they would have to get rid of all the antimatter (transforming back into energy would lead back to the original emission). If they just throw it into space, it would react with other matter there (remember, we are speaking about massive amounts of antimatter, if it shall make a noticeable difference in the energy output), which would give a very obvious signal which I'm sure would already have been detected.

    So the only way to have lower energy output would be if the advanced civilisation found a way to transform antimatter into matter, and uses a large fraction of the energy to create new matter.

  • by maxwell demon (590494) on Friday October 05, 2012 @02:28PM (#41561383) Journal

    The "power of prayer" goes not only against science, it even goes against true faith. If god is all-knowing and good, then he must know what is best for the people even without the people praying for it. If he needs to be told what to do, he's not all-knowing. If he does the good only if someone prays for it, he's not good. And if he does something which is not good because someone prays for it, he's even less good. Therefore we find that an all-knowing and good god cannot be influenced by prayers, and therefore the believe that prayers have objective effects (other than the normal psychological effects) shows a lack of faith.

  • by XxtraLarGe (551297) on Friday October 05, 2012 @02:47PM (#41561635) Journal

    i can think of at least 1 scenario where 1+1=10

    Yes, but that's still 2.

  • by gandhi_2 (1108023) on Friday October 05, 2012 @03:42PM (#41562093) Homepage

    The Nazis got us into space. The military industrial complex got us the internet. War gave us most of our trama medicine.

    But you take issue with this one, huh?

  • by HeckRuler (1369601) on Friday October 05, 2012 @04:30PM (#41562571)

    Sorry, but while chemistry is involved, it isn't even approximately the same as love.

    It's a subset. The chemicals would be the building blocks. Like how the elements of a turning complete language (if, loop, set) are the building blocks that compose the most advance artificial intelligence system. So AI is a subset of software. Likewise love is a subset of chemistry.
    There's all sorts of subjects that are tied into software that pertain to AI, like documentation, feedback loops, unit testing, etc. And there are all sorts of subjects that are tied into chemistry that pertain to love: biology, neuroscience, sociology, porn.

    So rather than saying computation requires an abacus, you should be saying computation requires math. Which it does.

    If I were to say that love is nothing but a bunch of chemicals bumping around, it would be perfectly true.
    The economy is nothing but a bunch of wealth shuffling about.
    AI programs are nothing but a bunch of bits being flipped.

    This view is pertinent here because the woo-woo crowd is trying to claim that there's some mystical magical additional force/quality/aspect to it which is beyond our ken. There is not. It really does boil down to something that simple.

  • Re:series of tubes (Score:4, Insightful)

    by tgibbs (83782) on Friday October 05, 2012 @05:04PM (#41562947)

    It also presumes that advanced civilizations would waste their time and resources building such a contraption, when, given the technology necessary to do so, it would be far easier to find another planet.

    Would it? The technology required to build any kind of Dyson sphere and the technology required to move a large population to another star are both so far beyond our own capability that there is little basis to judge which is easiest.

  • Presuppositions (Score:4, Insightful)

    by gottabeme (590848) on Saturday October 06, 2012 @12:23AM (#41566053)

    You build a box and try to fit God inside it. When he doesn't fit, you conclude he doesn't exist. The irony is that God created the one who created the box in which God does not fit. I find that you are not even aware of your own presuppositions, therefore you cannot reach a reasonable conclusion. You have been so heavily influenced by atheists and scientism (which is practically worshipped as a religion unto itself) that you have confined your own thinking to a box which you are unwilling to exit, and perhaps even unaware of.

    1. You presuppose that if God acts on a prayer, it indicates that he was previously unaware of something.
    2. You presuppose that if God is all-knowing and good that he must necessarily enforce what is best for people.
    3. You presuppose that, as a finite, relatively insignificant human being, you could possibly know whether and when God intercedes in our world and to what ends.
    4. You presuppose that you could even know what is "good" or "best" from the perspective of an all-knowing, all-powerful, universe-creating, life-breathing entity beyond our comprehension.

    Your conclusion ("Therefore we find that an all-knowing and good god cannot be influenced by prayers...") is a non sequitur. It's not even a logical conclusion from your assertions. And your assertions are unsubstantiated, anyway.

    The very nature of an omnipotent, omniscient entity who exists outside of our plane of existence means that we cannot completely comprehend him; we may only do so to the extent he chooses to reveal himself to us. What you have done is set forth arbitrary specifications for God, and if it seems to you that he does not meet your criteria, you conclude that he must not exist. This is nothing short of absurd. If God exists outside of or above our universe, if he created you and the universe and the very nature of our existence, how could you possibly define the means by which he may exist?

    N.B. I am not even arguing that God does exist--I'm simply arguing that your logic is fundamentally flawed because of your presuppositions. Either God is an all-powerful, all-knowing entity--and therefore beyond our comprehension--or he is finite, like us, but with advanced technology--and therefore, presumably, ultimately understandable--or he does not exist at all. If you are arguing based on the presupposition that he is all-powerful and all-knowing, then you must argue that he is far beyond any of your reasoning or standards, and therefore you cannot logically define criteria for proving his existence.

    The argument boils down to whether anything can exist beyond our understanding or comprehension: if we can comprehend God, then nothing is ultimately beyond our understanding, and--eventually, perhaps far beyond our lifetimes--we can "find" him, understand him, and even possess similar powers (note that this implies being able to create an entire universe of our own, from nothing). In this case, it's simply a matter of time until he is "discovered"--until then, he either does not exist or we have yet to find him (a conclusion which does not answer the questions, "How?", "Why?", and "From what?"). But on the other hand, if things may exist beyond our understanding, then we can never expect to meet God on our terms, and trying to do so is naive and futile.

    I like the fishbowl analogy. (It's not perfect, of course.) The fish's entire universe is inside his fishbowl. He knows nothing outside of it (perhaps it would be useful to declare the fishbowl to be opaque, or at least barely translucent). Now and then something from outside his universe seems to interact with his world--perhaps a hand reaches in, but he cannot discern the source of the hand. The fish cannot comprehend existence outside of his bowl, or outside of water, the very fabric of his existence. Therefore, to him, nothing must exist outside of his world, and nothing must exist outside of water--which, to him, isn't even water, just reality as he knows it. But to the human, clearly the fish is limited

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