The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Heats Up

Where do we stand, and what are the most promising leads?

Did life arise on more than one world? Religious organizations are interested too.

A remarkable meeting occurred outside Munich, Germany this past weekend. Its theme: Are we alone in the Universe? The most eminent German-speaking scientists in the field of astrobiology were invited to give keynote presentations, which included talks by Karl Menten, Director of the Max Planck Institute for Radioastronomy, on the search for extraterrestrial intelligent life; by Gerhard Haerendel, recipient of the Allan D. Emil Memorial Award for pioneering achievements in space sciences, on messaging to extraterrestrial civilizations (METI); and by Andreas Losch from the Institute of Systematic Theology at the University of Bern, Switzerland, on the scientific, philosophical and theological consequences of the presence of extraterrestrial civilizations. I also gave a talk, on the possibility of complex life on other planets based on the Cosmic Zoo hypothesis.

The meeting was hosted by the evangelical academy in Tutzing, Germany, underscoring the continuing interest of religious groups in the possibility of extraterrestrial life and what it might mean for faith communities. The Catholic Church appears to me to be the most interested group of all. In recent years I’ve seen many of its representatives at scientific meetings. In 2014 the Vatican Observatory (yes, they have their own observatory) even co-hosted a conference in Arizona on whether we are alone in the Universe.

So, are we?

If you were to ask Avi Loeb of Harvard University, he would likely direct your attention to 'Oumuamua, the first object seen to enter our Solar System from interstellar space. Last November Loeb pointed to six strange facts about 'Oumuamua, suggesting that it could be an artificial object, possibly a lightsail built by an advanced intelligent civilization. Most puzzling of all is its shape: long, shiny and unusually thin for a rock. And its motion seems to indicate that something other than simple gravitation might be at work.

Another observation that may hint at an artificial origin is the discovery of a new source of Fast Radio Bursts (FRB) earlier this year, only the second one found to be repeating. Could these bursts be messages from advanced technological civilizations? Or are they similar to naturally occurring pulsars? An artificial signal would be expected to have a narrow frequency range, and that is indeed the case with FRBs. But more evidence is needed for any kind of proof.

Yet another recent puzzle is the sudden dipping of the light curve from Tabby’s star, which has been suggested by some to be linked to alien megastructures. In this case, though, recent evidence seems to be pointing more to a natural cause, such as a cloud of disintegrating comets.

Of course, the longest unresolved enigma is the so-called Wow! signal, which has all the hallmarks of what we expect from an alien transmission, but unfortunately was only received once. My favorite explanation is still that advanced by William Bains a few years ago—that it may have been a transmission from one starship to another, or perhaps from a ship to its home base, and Earth just happened to be in the way.

However likely or unlikely these explanations, it is clear that interest in SETI is on the rise again, as shown not only by this latest conference near Munich, but by NASA’s renewed interest in what’s now called “technosignatures” of advanced life, culminating in a dedicated workshop on the topic late last year. One takeaway from these meetings is that many people beyond just scientists understand what a detection of extraterrestrial intelligent life elsewhere would mean—nothing less than a complete re-assessment of our place in the Universe.

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