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Space

Finding Life In Space By Looking For Extraterrestrial Pollution 95

Posted by Soulskill
from the assuming-the-little-green-men-are-not-too-green dept.
coondoggie writes: If what we know as advanced life exists anywhere other than Earth, then perhaps they are dirtying their atmosphere as much as we are. We could use such pollution components to perhaps more easily spot such planets. That's the basis of new research published this week by researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. They say that if we could spot the fingerprints of certain pollutants under ideal conditions (PDF), it would offer a new approach in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence."
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Finding Life In Space By Looking For Extraterrestrial Pollution

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  • by creimer (824291) on Wednesday July 23, 2014 @05:44PM (#47518609) Homepage
    After all these years of running SETI@Home [berkeley.edu], we still haven't found any extraterrestial TV signals carrying alien porn. :/
    • Great... (Score:5, Funny)

      by sycodon (149926) on Wednesday July 23, 2014 @05:51PM (#47518651)

      Our first encounter with an alien civilization will be the EPA trying to fine them millions of dollars.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        No, the EPA won't be bothering them...

        Customs will be after them for importing technology without a license.

        ATF&E will be after them for carrying unlicensed military type weapons.

        Department of Energy will be complaining about the unlicensed reactor they will be running.

        The FCC will be fining them for importing RF equipment and causing interference. Operating an RF transmitter without authorization and listening to 800 MHz and cell frequencies. Depending on the size of the craft, there may be fines

        • by Cryacin (657549)
          Yep and Luhr's next move will be to deploy his death ray. Let me be the first to both welcome and thank our new Omicronian Overlords.
        • by Jesrad (716567)

          And we still wonder why they are keeping quiet ?

          Earth must be labelled as "that planet is full of crazies, steer well clear !" throughout the entire galaxy...

        • tea partiers will be shouting about illegal alian immegration and we need to build an outer space fence. tech cos will want to issue H1Bs.
        • Wrong, First encounter will be america invading them for oil
    • by Anonymous Coward

      Blerg on blerg action, tentacle docking, sorg fissure licking!!!!

      Well it would probably be all scrambled anyway unless we got one of those pirate boxes to descramble it for us....

      • by creimer (824291) on Wednesday July 23, 2014 @06:11PM (#47518785) Homepage

        Well it would probably be all scrambled anyway unless we got one of those pirate boxes to descramble it for us....

        If the signal wasn't scrambled, all those naked blue-colored girls I saw on a TV as a teenager may actually be naked blue-colored girls... from SPACE!

        • by gstoddart (321705)

          If the signal wasn't scrambled, all those naked blue-colored girls I saw on a TV as a teenager may actually be naked blue-colored girls... from SPACE!

          I'll be in my bunk. ;-)

    • After all these years of running SETI@Home [berkeley.edu], we still haven't found any extraterrestial TV signals carrying alien porn. :/

      It was on the tee-vee [sadgeezer.com], friend. :)

    • by roc97007 (608802)

      How would we recognize alien porn? They could be very, almost unreasonably, similar to us and maybe it'd look like binary fission. More likely, it would look like six or more Teslas crashing at speed.

    • by nospam007 (722110) *

      "After all these years of running SETI@Home [berkeley.edu], we still haven't found any extraterrestial TV signals carrying alien porn. :/"

      They abandoned it 100 years ago, because there was never anything on.
      Just as they abandoned pollution.

    • by Moof123 (1292134)

      What is striking to me is that SETI is mostly looking for spikes in the background noise, but our communication standards have rapidly moved away from such signals ourselves. AM, FM, and VSB+C (old analog TV) were all relatively inefficient ways to transmit information, and often had a large center carrier that sticks out like a sore thumb, which makes for a nice way to detect a transmission.

      Most digital transmissions now use various methods that do not need a center carrier, and look very much like amplif

      • One of the assumptions behind SETI is that aliens want to be heard, we have deliberately broadcast radio messages to nearby stars, SETI are hoping aliens will do the same thing.

        The idea of looking for atmospheric signatures of technological life that do not occur in nature (such as CFC's) has been around for a long time. Non technological life can be inferred from an atmosphere rich in both methane and oxygen. People are trying to perform atmospheric spectroscopy on exoplanets but the technology is not q
      • by sFurbo (1361249)

        Once can only assume that other cultures smart enough to make radio transmitters would also have similarly short periods during which inefficient methods would be used.

        For information transmission, yes. For other uses of EM radiation [wikipedia.org], not so much.

    • by kuzb (724081)

      You couldn't be more wrong - where do you think all the hentai tentacle rape comes from?

  • Advanced? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by KeensMustard (655606) on Wednesday July 23, 2014 @05:46PM (#47518619)
    Would an advanced race actually do something so illogical?

    In what other ways are we assuming alien life is like us?

    • Pollution occurs wherever there is life.

      • Re:Advanced? (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Applehu Akbar (2968043) on Wednesday July 23, 2014 @06:16PM (#47518825)

        It's worse than that. Pollution is highly specific to the existence of given technology at a given stage of development. How long, on astronomical time scales, would a given planetary atmosphere contain iodine-131 (half life 8 days) or even coal smoke, before more advanced versions of the same technology, or a different technology entirely, succeeds the one emitting the pollutant?

        Furthermore, we can only detect as pollutants substances that we already know about as side effects of our own civilization. If we were to look at some exoplenet and detect an oxygen atmosphere that has scandium dust in it, or which absorbs slightly more yellow that we think it should, we would have no way of associating this effect with possible intelligence until we experience the same kind of pollution ourselves.

        • by timeOday (582209)
          "Pollution" is by definition a bit of spin on top of the science, since it is a socially-defined term. (Just as a botanist would never hope to find a gene that is found in all weeds, and only in weeds). But expanding the list of compositions that are best explained by the existence of life is still a useful exercise.
        • by drinkypoo (153816)

          Pollution is highly specific to the existence of given technology at a given stage of development.

          And as a corollary, a civilization which spends too much time at any given stage is going to collapse again when it uses up its ready resources, and/or renders its biosphere uninhabitable. If we had used up all the trees, for example, on the planet. Many civilizations did deforest astoundingly large areas even before the invention of power equipment. If we had used up all the ready ores without inventing power equipment. If we use up all the fossil fuels without figuring out what to do about the CO2.

      • Pollution occurs wherever there is life.

        Indeed, the oxygen we breath is another life-form's pollution.

      • Re:Advanced? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by WillKemp (1338605) on Wednesday July 23, 2014 @09:11PM (#47519901) Homepage

        Pollution occurs wherever there is life.

        True. Earth was populated for millions of years by organisms that polluted the atmosphere with oxygen.

      • by coofercat (719737)

        ...and a few other places besides. The toilets at my work are probably the first place these people should be looking.

    • by ninjabus (3024459)
      At least these would be good chemical markers for extraterrestrial stupidity.
    • Exactly. This human myopic assumptions are purely asinine at times. (Just like Scientists assume the Laws of Physics are constant for the universe based purely on visual data which has huge margins of error.)

      Other stupid assumptions: Assuming life favors a single-star system when in reality it favors a twin-star system.

      Earth is the anomaly here; NOT the norm.

      • Assuming life favors a single-star system when in reality it favors a twin-star system.

        I'm assuming you are a native of a twin-star system who happens to be doing anthropology work among the savages in this system.

        Because otherwise, I can't figure out how you'd know that life favors a twin-star system, given that we know of zero twin-star systems that support life.

        • Why do you assume Science is the _only_ way to acquire knowledge?

          • by Anonymous Coward

            It might not be the only way, but it works better than just making things up on average.

          • by sFurbo (1361249)
            "Science" is the collective name for the methods for acquiring knowledge that has, over the last couple of thousand years, been shown to yield self-consistent results that are confirmable by other ways to get the same information. There might be other methods we haven't thought of yet (and realistically, "science" in a thousand years will include more methods than it does today), but for now, the methods collectively known as "science" are the ones we know work.

            That is why the assumption that a method out
          • Because I've never met a clairvoyant who won the lottery, or a telepath who could type my password. Beyond that I'm just assuming.
            • We all can have a laugh then when First Contact happens within 10 years (by 2024) and our Pleiadian parents look humanoid. :-)

              You can keep laughing when Scientists discover the quantum energy flow between white holes and black holes, and the remaining 2 fundamental forces.

              Clairvoyants have to follow spiritual laws too. Information is NOT allowed to just be "put out there." It follows a schedule just like everything else in the universe.

    • I would have used different words expressing essentially the same sentiment.

    • by the gnat (153162)

      Would an advanced race actually do something so illogical?

      By "advanced", I assume the summary meant "technologically advanced". How would any civilization reach a high level of technology without going through industrialization? It's not like anyone enjoys living downwind of a coal plant, but the messier forms of energy production are convenient, cheap, and don't require any advanced materials or science. Try to imagine an alternate history where we emerged from the industrial revolution with effective,

      • by radtea (464814)

        Try to imagine an alternate history where we emerged from the industrial revolution with effective, sustainable fusion and solar power without ever polluting the planet.

        First off, what we can or cannot imagine has absolutely nothing to do with what is or is not real, so it isn't clear why you're bringing this up. Three hundred years of knowing what is real through publicly testing ideas by systematic observation, controlled experiment and Bayesian inference had demonstrated that the pre-scientific "method" of "imagining what might be the case and then reasoning from it" is a hiding to nowhere, knowledge-wise.

        That said, as it happens I can imagine such an alternative histor

        • by the gnat (153162)

          First off, what we can or cannot imagine has absolutely nothing to do with what is or is not real, so it isn't clear why you're bringing this up.

          The parent poster was criticizing the making of "assumptions" about how advanced alien life might behave in the process of trying to detect it. If we don't make certain assumptions based on what we can observe firsthand, our imaginations are all we're left with. And I agree this is a shitty way to do science, which was kind of my entire point.

          • Also no one is saying this is the only way life can possibly exist. The assumption with the search for extraterrestial life is that our first goal is to find anyone else out there, and the easiest way to do that is to look for people who are enough like us that we can make logical assumptions about them (which is a bit anthropological principlely but it's valid).

            If tomorrow we discovered intelligent gas clouds living in the Jovian atmosphere, and correlated a bunch of spectral features to them, then you can

      • by erice (13380)

        Would an advanced race actually do something so illogical?

        By "advanced", I assume the summary meant "technologically advanced". How would any civilization reach a high level of technology without going through industrialization? It's not like anyone enjoys living downwind of a coal plant, but the messier forms of energy production are convenient, cheap, and don't require any advanced materials or science. Try to imagine an alternate history where we emerged from the industrial revolution with effective, sustainable fusion and solar power without ever polluting the planet.

        The thing is, fossil fuels run out rather quickly on the cosmic scale. A few centuries and the consequences of pollution become apparent quickly too. A civilization must quickly move to something cleaner or it dies. Either way, the pollution stops. What are the odds that our telescopes will find a planet inhabited by a civilization that just happens to be going through a (likely) one-time few century window of time?

        If they exist at all, the average of civilization out there is probably tens to hundreds

        • by the gnat (153162)

          The thing is, fossil fuels run out rather quickly on the cosmic scale. A few centuries and the consequences of pollution become apparent quickly too. A civilization must quickly move to something cleaner or it dies. Either way, the pollution stops. What are the odds that our telescopes will find a planet inhabited by a civilization that just happens to be going through a (likely) one-time few century window of time?

          This is an excellent point, but it's also orthogonal to the post I was replying to. You're a

        • by careysub (976506)

          ... It is unthinkable that a civilization that old would still be producing significant pollution (at least of a type that we are familiar)....

          We often see posters on /. pitching "terraforming" ideas - perhaps creating a biosphere on a planet that initially lacks one. Evidence of terraforming projects carried out by ancient civilizations are "highly thinkable".

          Consider one such proposal for terraforming Mars: by injecting "super green-house gases" - chemicals designed to maximize the greenhouse effect - into the Martian atmosphere. One top candidate for this is perfluoropropane - if we find worlds with significant concentrations of this (or oth

      • By "advanced", I assume the summary meant "technologically advanced". How would any civilization reach a high level of technology without going through industrialization?

        given a world that didn't have vast resources of stored energy in coal and oil! I imagine it would begin how ours began! with hydro power. Advancement would probably be slower. Wind and eventually solar added to the mix. Possibly even significant amounts of geothermal. Technology would probably advance in different routes as the ICE and even steam engines would play a minor role in things. They might even have their own ecological disasters by deforestation (or equivalent ) to fuel steam engines. The shift

    • Would an advanced race actually do something so illogical?

      In what other ways are we assuming alien life is like us?

      Do you think their shit don't stink? Everybody poops. That is pollution.

    • The search parameters suggested in this post will yield only low quality results.

      I would rather search for vomit traces - that way we will find a civilization that knows how to party hard!

  • by perpenso (1613749) on Wednesday July 23, 2014 @05:48PM (#47518631)
    Well, pollution as in atmospheric O2, not pollution as in SUV exhaust. Atmospheric O2 is not the Earth's "normal" state, its a byproduct of life.

    If I remember correctly, Earth's original atmosphere was SO2 based and some photosynthetic creature with a sulfur based metabolism started emitting O2 as a waste product ... and so began global climate change 1.0.
    • by rubycodez (864176)

      some say oxygen and ozone were in the early atmosphere in significant concentration due to disassociation of water by ultraviolet light

      http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com... [wiley.com]

    • by Tailhook (98486)

      If I remember correctly, Earth's original atmosphere was SO2 based and some photosynthetic creature

      The large scale Oxygen contamination of Earth's atmosphere by plant emissions began 650-700 million years ago.

    • by geekoid (135745)

      You do know pollution can also be atomic particle that can only occur through fusion on the planet.
      Also, light is a pollution as well.
      Basically too much of things that need to be artificially created would be a reasonable definition of pollution for this usage.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Judging by the pollution content of their atmosphere, I believe we have arrived at the latter half of the 20th century.

  • Aliens don't know better than to shit where they eat. We could be the only species in the galaxy that's so stupid.
    • by arisvega (1414195)

      Aliens don't know better than to shit where they eat. We could be the only species in the galaxy that's so stupid.

      But can you imagine if not? Imagine: an alien civ, similar to this one, but at an earlier stage of development. Ripe to be exploited. Would you then, for one, welcome yourself as their alien overlord?

  • What kind of moron came up with that? Let's see, life was here for like 500 million years, for about 150 we've been ruining the atmosphere, and 100 years from now we'll have solved it. So there's a 0.0000000000000001% chance that we'll find a polluted but populated world.
    • by RockDoctor (15477)

      What kind of moron came up with that? Let's see, life was here for like 500 million years, for about 150 we've been ruining the atmosphere, and 100 years from now we'll have solved it.

      OK. And now let's look at the real figures :

      There has been life on the planet for approximately 3500 million years (definite fossils to 3.2 billion, more disputed going back to 3800 million).

      The first major pollution event - the production of oxygen - started around 2600 million years ago, with oxygen becoming ubiquitous (if

  • So let's assume the premise of these proposed observations and let's assume that we actually find a planet with a high pollution content and let's further assume that we're only able to detect the type of pollution that can never be created from some naturally occurring process e.g. don't look at Venus and assume that it was once a beautiful place until acid rain formed. Such a planet will be quite a few light years away, perhaps hundreds. So what we would be looking at is the pollution from a hundred yea

    • Or over the sum of the billions of planets out there, it may turn out that at any given time there are a few hundred in the midst of an industrial revolution, who's light is just now reaching us.

      Space is really, really big. And one consequence of that is provided we know what to look for, and have the capability to see it, we have a very large sample population to test for various observations.

    • by RockDoctor (15477)

      Then again, if the atmosphere clears up in a year or two, then they either are even more advanced than we are or they destroyed themselves and their planet healed itself.

      We've two data points for the cleaning up of atmospheres after a sudden bout of pollution : the ozone hole we created in a few decades is steadily reducing and dispersing since the 1990 ban on producing CFCs ; that looks as if it'll be cleared up in a century or two (large, sulphate-rich volcanic eruptions not occurring, which may put it ba

  • scanning for radio communications. It's an activity that we've been doing only for a couple of hundred of years now (pollution that is, radio is even shorter) and we have a around 100 000 years worth of time in our galaxy so we have to be lucky and find a planet where the inhabitants polluted their planet around the time relative to their distance from us. Trying to come up with better and more easily detectable biomarkers that cover a larger portion of the planets lifetime is a much better prospect.
  • Might be used for communication even. But the bandwith will be very narrow: about 2 bits per century, as it took us that long to really mess thing up...
  • What if the aliens aren't a bunch of irresponsible, selfish shitbirds? A civilization as advanced as ours or better could go unnoticed because they have a clean atmosphere.

    • What if the aliens aren't a bunch of irresponsible, selfish shitbirds? A civilization as advanced as ours or better could go unnoticed because they have a clean atmosphere.

      Answer: Maybe they are only trying to detect Republican aliens.

  • species as stupid as we are.

    Maybe when they come to earth looking for food they'll leave us alone because we wallow in our own poo.

  • Every time we talk about SETI, people say "who the hell says they use radio waves"

    the answer is, of course "well, it seems plausible, and it is SOMETHING we can look for."

    Then we talk about Kepler and everyone says "Who the hell says they have to live in the Goldilocks zone?"

    the answer is "well it seems plausible and it is SOMETHING we can look for.

    So now we have pollution. Same question, same answer.

    This is how science and exploration work... Lets say we get really good at all three types of se
    • by careysub (976506)

      Mod parent up!

      More generally - what we are looking for in planetary atmospheres (once we can routinely analyze them) is evidence of chemical syntheses that cannot plausibly can arise from non-living physical processes. The arguments made in several posts above (as if it were some sort of refutation) that oxygen is pollution cause by photosynthetic organisms is absolutely correct - detecting large excesses of oxygen (for example) should indicated living systems. But looking for more exotic chemicals never fo

  • This seems awfully short sighted. If we were pigs we'd probably look for others by seeking out piles of crap and filth... and we're kind of doing the same here. I'd like to think that as we advance technology beyond setting things on fire for energy, that we'd start to clean the place up-- maybe even leave it cleaner than when we got here.

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