Can the James Webb Space Telescope Find Alien Life? w/ Jacob Haqq-Misra
John Michael Godier Um, Dr Jacob Huck Misro welcome to the program now Jacob you recently released a paper that is something that I've interested in a long time and it's techno signatures that we sort of thought all this time. Jacob Thank you for having me. John Michael Godier Enthusiasts of astrobiology that we'd probably never be able to do and that is detecting agriculture on an exoplanet but you found a way. Could you give us an overview of using the Nitrogen cycle of a planet to determine if somebody's. Jacob Yeah, absolutely um, you know one of the things with trying to look for evidence of Alien technology is we want to find something that's going to last a long time if you burn a bunch of Fossil fuels but you do it quickly. The chances of us observing that is you know an astronomy experiment is very slim.
John Michael Godier Practicing Wide-scale agriculture. Jacob but but agriculture is something that you could do for a long period of time across the whole planet's history and obviously humans have been doing this for you know these tens ah you know order of tens of thousands of years it's not longer. Um, and. So the idea is like you ask myself? Well what is the technology of agriculture agriculture is more than just putting a seed into the ground that's a start of course but agriculture is is. It's embodied in the fertilizer we're managing our planet's nitrogen cycle and so you know we can get into the details if you want a little bit but. You know in a nutshell um plants and you need carbon dioxide everybody learns this in in school hopefully and plants take cotwo out of the atmosphere and and they they use the carbon and they release oxygen but plants also need nitrogen and we need nitrogen. It's part of our Dna. Um, all all living creatures need nitrogen in addition to carbon and oxygen is just the basic food. That's the building
blocks of our bodies and so what agriculture the innovation with that is it started just you know, simple. We think of it as simple, but this was an innovation taking manure from whatever animals you have around. And intentionally putting that in your soil to enrich it then manure being a source of nitrogen and you put it in the soil. It gets broken down by microorganisms maybe ancient people didn't understand exactly what was going on but what they got was better food production. Um, you know a higher productivity in their fields. And so um, you know a little bit
later in history. We were able to improve crop productivity even more by doing crop rotation realizing that nitrogen gets depleted in one field after prolonged you know. Planting the same crop over and over again. And so if you change crops you plant beans Legumm something that actually that the biology the plant is the nitrogen fixer it pulls nitrogen back into the soil into learning how to manage the types of crops you plant to to kind of enrich the soil nitrogen so those were the 2 innovations that let us. You know, kind of to to the early twentieth century and then the big innovation at that point is what we call the haber bosh process. This is the idea that we can tap into the nitrogen in our air about 70% of the air is nitrogen and it's hard to to get it.
Get it at but this is an industrial process where you can. We can just take nitrogen from the air combine it with hydrogen. It's a high temperature reaction. So it's an industrial process that we weren't able to do until very recently and we use this to make ammonia which we can dissolve in water and you make fertilizer out of this. You can apply the ammonia to our fields and and.
Jacob You know this technique and variations variations on this technique is how our planet has been able to grow to billions of people because we've been able to so significantly increase our agricultural productivity to be because of this this industrial synthesis of nitrogen. So. To get to your question. How does this lead us to a bio at a bio or techno signature that we could observe so we're making ammonia we're spraying ammonia into the field. The ammonia some of it gets taken up by plant roots but you have to put a lot of it out in the field because that's a really inefficient process. So some of the ammonia just. You know volatileizes and gets back in the atmosphere some of it breaks
down into nitrous oxide n two o that goes up into the atmosphere. Both of those things ammonia and nitrous oxide. Are are pollutants and they're not they don't stick around in the atmosphere for very long. They get rained out or or sunlight hits some and they get broken apart but we measure these on earth today from satellites. There's you know, increasing and large amounts of these 2 gases and the majority of them are linked to agriculture. So the idea is because we can see this on earth The only reason we can see those 2 gases on earth at that abundance is because we're continually doing agriculture continually spraying our fuels with fertilizer. So if we were to see a planet
It's like earth that has oxygen ozone co 2 on it and then we also see a lot of nitrous oxide and a lot of ammonia um, that would be a really good indication that there's something like this disruption of a nitrogen cycle. They're doing something like the haber bosh process or at the very least a ton of manure everywhere they're doing something. To to actively manage their nitrogen cycle because there's there's not a lot of ways to keep that much ammonia and that much nitrous oxide in the atmosphere for for a long time but we're doing it so you know I think it's worth keeping in mind as we we start to search. The atmospheres of these exoplanets. John Michael Godier And that's been one of the things within astrobiology because if you see an earth. You know a planet like earth that has weird
oxygen and methane levels. But you add in this signature as well. You can reasonably say that's not geological. that's that's ah that's a civilization. But. What size of a civilization. Um, so if somebody's looking at this this this planet here from I don't know eighty light years away or you know ten light years away something like that is our. Signature in our nitrogen
cycle visible at that distance or do we need a much greater population than we have right now. Jacob Right? Well you know fundamentally depends on how big of a telescope do they have but but we we're kind of exerting ah a barely detectable signal. Um, you know for the kinds of telescopes that we have or that we're thinking about building so you know there's the James Webb Telescope which probably wouldn't do a great job with this. But there's like the
the next generation of space telescopes like you know that are being considered um you know the bigger the telescope the fainter the signal you you can you can detect. But as far as something that we're like thinking about doing um you would probably need you know anywhere from 30 to a 0 people. You know we're like you know close to 8 or so um, so you know hopefully our planet doesn't have that many people because I think we have some sustainability problems but you know maybe we'll figure that out and if not I mean there's there's no reason hypothetically um that that. Another civilization couldn't grow to that level or that you know level of
energy consumption. It's not that many creatures but you know the energy consumption required by 30000000000 people is kind of what we're talking about so so it's you can sort of just imagine what would it take for an advanced civilization to feed itself over long periods of time and right now we're dealing with you know growth in our population and growth in our energy consumption. So when I say 30000000000 or one 0 people for earth. Sort of a scary thought because we don't know how to put the brakes on yet. But but really what we're talking about is any civilization
that's reached a sustainable growth. Whatever that level is 30000000000 people equivalent energy use. But but you're able to do that indefinitely and so that's that's one of the things that I like about this idea of agriculture. As a techno signature. It's not dependent on growth. Even though we're growing today. Um, you can stabilize and you need to still feed yourself and it's not like combustion of fossil fuels where you're going to run out of fossil fuels in a few hundred years we have plenty of nitrogen in the atmosphere. We're not going to run out.
You can do the hyperperbosh process with renewable sources of energy. So so this is the kind of thing that you could imagine a large thirty billion equivalent person population on another planet but they've figured out sustainable development and they stay about 30000000000 people equivalent for for a very very long time. So so you know I think I think we're barely detectable now. But it's the kind of you know idea that that lets us ah think about what could be out there. John Michael Godier But one also has to remember that we're you know? Yeah yeah, we're somebody else's alien civilization but we ourselves are just a sampling of one. We're all that we know about but it may be that there are solutions to population growth. As 1 stretches out into their star system and begins to explore space. There. There may be solutions like multiple planets or things like that so you could easily think of situations where an alien civilization might terraform an otherwise dead world like Mars or something like that to be an agriculture planet and that's. This is where we grow the food you know and maintains
their population elsewhere. You know in I don't know O'neill cylinders or you know on on their original home world or something like that and they just use for some reason a planet just for agriculture now. In such an ideal situation. There are other technosignatures involved here such as the vegetative red edge that you could look for to see if these analogs you know exop plants if you will are also you know, really there so this is actually something that you could. Take further
than just a nitrogen cycle. Once you see the nitrogen cycle you could say well we need to look at this in infrared and that might be where James Webb might be of more use wouldn't you think so. Jacob Well, nice. So I totally agree with you on you know the the red edge tells you if you know it could be an indication of photosynthesis on a planet and so that that can be a biosignature you could look at earth and and find a red edge.
So yeah, if we're talking about a planet. Ah, some of the colleagues I work with manasvi lingham and others use these he calls these a service worlds you know a planet that's dedicated to an an industrial project like agriculture. Um, so yeah, if you had something like that a terraformed world or a service world there'd be other things that you would want to look at and that would depend on. You know how far away the planet is from its star. How much terraforming was required
and and and things like that. Um, as far as searching for it. Um, you know I mean I'm excited about the James Webb space telescope because this is one of our first chances to like really try to get a good look at you know some of these. Planets that are a little bit more earth-like maybe you know one of the trappist 1 planets? Um, but you know like you said so with the the red edge. This is an infrared signature but to look for evidence of of ammonia and nitrous oxide that would also be most likely an infrared. Signal and probably these things would be a little too far into the
infrared for the James Webb space telescope the James Webb space telescope has some mid-infrared capabilities. The the question is how detectable will these species be so. Um, you know you don't know until you look, but it's not super optimistic that some of these you know, mid-infrared techno signatures will necessarily be strongly detectable with with the James Webb space telescope um so so. You know we gotta try. We're not going to be able to look at as many targets as we'd like to at the James Webb space telescope as many earth-like planet. So so you know hopefully we'll get lucky but the real excitement will come in the generation of telescopes after the James Webb space telescope and which which would be able to detect. You know dozens of these
earth-sized earth-like habitable planets so those are hopefully the ones that will have more capabilities for for sort of really characterizing signatures in the mid-infrared. John Michael Godier That's what I'm hoping for is luvvoir you know, let's build a really big one. Um, now you've written on other techno signatures that are based in chemicals. In this case, we're looking at good old and Hydro Ammonia which I being from a Cornfield State I I know it? well. Jacob Right.
John Michael Godier But there's also there's also cfcs and cfcs are a double-edged sword because you can use them to refrigerate and destroy your ozone layer or they are very efficient greenhouse gases and you can terraform with them. So This seems like something that. Might use and it should be a pretty unnatural signal if you see it Now. Could you give us a profile of cfcs as a technosignature. Jacob Sure yeah I mean as you mentioned you know cfcs are an industrial gas. Um, they were banned by the montreal protocol. Um, one of the
you know success stories of an environmental. You know, political treaty actually having an impact and and getting universal buy-in. And and there was a pretty you know, clear demonstration of of chlorrofluorrocarbons being responsible for the the loss of ozone especially in in Antarctica um, but these things stick their very long atmospheric lifetimes they stick around for a long time and so even though. Ah, many of the harmful greenhouse gases are no longer being produced. There's
still many of them in the atmosphere they they just have you know lifetimes of 10 to you know, even hundreds of years or longer for some of them. Um, so the idea if if you could observe if you observed. Cfc's inners atmosphere or if we observe cfcs in the atmosphere of another planet. Um, you know there's there's not really other ways that we know that biology makes these things they're really kind of big complicated molecules that we use industrial processes to make. Um,
and so these again have a lot of you know, main main their main signatures in the mid infrared. Um, but so if we saw that it would be a clear pretty convincing evidence of you know something like alien pollution if we were to see that elsewhere. But as you say ah. What kind of alien civilization is going to want you know all this greenhouse warming to stick around so this gets into terraforming and good. Maybe you're using the chloropfloocarbons to terraform your planets or maybe your post-biological life form and you don't care about. Effective cfcs on your environment I mean you you could speculate about that.
But you know the idea that if you saw this it would be it would make you raise your eyebrows and and think that there's something technological going on on the surface is the idea. John Michael Godier Now what seemed to me that this this would open up the the possibility of a combo now imagine mars in the far future and we're terraforming it using very efficient greenhouse gases like cfcs if you see a planet an exoplanet that. Has a thicker atmosphere with cfcs in it than it ought to have because it's the size of Mars and it should have lost it then it would seem to me. You have a very clear technical signature right. Jacob No I Think that's a great example, right? Yeah, if you if you saw you know, especially like you say let's say there's a habitable planet like Earth in this you know, conventional, habitable zone and it looks like it has water and Oxygen and then there's just Mars -like planet outside of that habitable zone and has cfcs and a thick Gap Ticker atmosphere I mean. Yeah, you could imagine scenarios where you could infer you know strong evidence of of something like terraforming.
John Michael Godier And especially if you start where it would get really creepy and interesting is if you started seeing clusters of Star systems with habitable worlds like this that are all close together. So yeah. Jacob Right? Well well this is this is you know gets into the fermi Paradox. You know if if interstellar you know settlement is a common thing and not that difficult for advanced you know civilizations then where are they why you could have colonized the galaxy multiple times if. If you can do do so with exponential growth and so um, yeah, you know, maybe the answer is is. There's just little local pockets of the galaxy that have been settled like that and yeah, we don't know we haven't looked enough yet to be able to rule that out. John Michael Godier And now to invoke another one of your papers. What happens if it's not exponential and that Alien civilizations as
they colonize the galaxy do it in a way that we don't expect a non exponential expansion. Jacob I think you have to do non exponential expansion and this even gets into what we were just talking about with with farming. Um, if if you if your growth outpaces. You know your ability to to produce resources. That that's fundamentally what sustainability or unsustainability is defined as and so if if you're above your carrying capacity too for too long then you collapse and there's examples. You know in human history of this and and then hopefully as a whole we avoid this for ourselves. But you
can imagine the same thing at the galactic level if if you colonize the whole galaxy very quickly at an exponential scale. You hit ah a wall where you have nowhere else to go and if if your whole civilization has to grow in order to to continue thriving then you then. You're kind of out of luck at that point and you collapse so you know at the very least after the whole galaxy is settled. You have to put on the brakes and stop the growth. Um, so I think what's more likely is you know how? how are we going to figure this out. You know we have to figure out what our carrying capacity is that's a hard number to estimate. Um, you know it's anywhere from 1 to 100000000000 people.
Um your your take you know it's hard to figure that out. But but certainly there's some limit as to how much food we can produce on the planet. How much energy we can produce per person before we grow beyond that limit. And so how far can we expand into space onto first other planets
and to to other star systems. So um, you know my my pragmatic mind says you know maybe you can't actually expand past your stellar system. It's probably maybe it's really hard to have. interstellar travel and interstellar settlement but maybe the limit is the is the whole star system and so maybe you know we can go to Mars and use resources at the outer solar system and and things like that and maybe that's the limit to growth but maybe not. And so maybe all all that's saying is that it's really difficult to settle the whole galaxy really quickly because you run into these limits and so yeah, maybe there's small pockets where other civilizations have figured out how to settle nearby stars. They're not doing this in this exponential. Growth pattern but they're just you know doing it within their carrying capacity and
then you move to another star system and you can grow a little bit but but you're not you. You have the idea of growth within the carrying capacity in mind from the beginning and so you could you know a slower growth civilization like that would not necessarily have reached earth. Jacob Anding and where they started and we would not have necessarily found them and so these these are the kind of things that well they're fun to think about, but you know and they can help help us you know in some ways and think about how to do this search. For techno signatures on other planets where to look and what kinds of signatures we might want to look for. John Michael Godier So now one has to ask a question. Um, we have
a relatively close star system. You know proxima centauri and it has apparently exoplanets and might it just simply be that it's not worth it. In other words, we sit there and we say well we got this beautiful earth. You know this eyeball were you know there's a gorgeous world and that thing over there is an eyeball world with some liquid water but it's tially locked and it just doesn't look all that great. Not great enough to send a bunch of instruction materials four and
a half light years to settle and that might be the simple plans or is that they stay at home. Because there's just not that many suitable planets and unless you're really close to another earth. There's not much point you know? Um, yeah, so that may be the solution to the fermi paradox is that space travel is hard and it's not worth it. Jacob Yep yep, that's totally possible. John Michael Godier And it's better to focus on your own ah planet of origin or your own star system. Anyway.
Jacob That that that's right I mean you know I even wonder where we'll go with Mars I mean I think it's fun to think about. Um I mean I even have a book coming out this winter about you know so the settlement of Mars but I'm I'm kind of agnostic about whether or not we should you know develop. Permanent settlements and cities on Mars I think we will send people to Mars for sure that's going to happen eventually but will it stay limited to you know a handful of explorers astronauts you know Spacex employees or will we really have you know a city with a million people on Mars and I just think. It could be the way that we you know nobody really lives in Antarctica other than you know, a handful of of small science and and worker collectives that that you know do research you know there's there's not a lot of people living at the bottom of the ocean and in underwater cities like some science fiction authors speculated about. Um, I just wonder if Mars will be like that like we'll we'll send people there but you know I've said this to my wife earth is my favorite planet like I want to stay here. This is this is a great place.
John Michael Godier It it really is and I liken it to Mount Everest because Antarctica is nice compared to Mars right? Antarctica you know we can actually breathe in Antarctica you just need a lot of insulation. But Mars now now. So I think of it in terms of Mount Everest and that there are. Jacob The phrase. John Michael Godier Plenty of people on this world looking to summit Mount Everest even though it's often deadly.
You know there are over a hundred corpses on that thing. Um, but they still do it because it's there and there's a certain type of person that will do it but they always come back down. They don't live up there. You know that you don't build a house on top of of Everest. Jacob Um, that's right and and most people are fine. Not every climbing efforts. John Michael Godier And as a result I think yeah and most people we just stay here and play video games down here at sealevel. Um, so I I think that there will be a certain type of person then there will be a market for it for going to Mars but I don't think anybody's going to want to live there and I think that.
Jacob Breath. John Michael Godier It'll just prove to be a vacation destination for the foreseeable future. Um, now I think it's coming quickly though I mean it seems that Spacex and Elon Musk have not wavered from their ah plan to get somebody to Mars and and go there. So think it's gonna be fast I think it's gonna happen. But I don't think people are gonna stay and that speaks to the fering paradox of course because it just may be that the footprint of even a highly advanced alien civilization is very small and it's possible I think that it could even get smaller and smaller as. As the you know the aliens progress because of
things like nanotechnology and the the answer to the firm paradox is that aliens are hard to see. Jacob That could be too. Yeah, they could be everywhere and really really small. Um, yeah, and then of course there's the inverse that you know maybe they're They're really advanced and we're like ants and we just don't perceive anything about them at all and and you know we we could be staring at them. You know in ways
that we have we have no clue it could be in dark matter or something you know I'm not necessarily saying. That's my favorite idea. But just we we have no idea what could be out there and and there there is that possibility that we would not even recognize. A more advanced civilization if we saw it especially given the fact that it has to achieve a long-term sustainability with its environment. So You know the agriculture is an attempt to get at what a signature of sort of a long-term civilization could be. The cfcs I mean it's a nice idea to talk about,
but it's hard to think about how that would be long live same with Combustion. So We maybe don't know enough yet about what to look for for a really long live advanced civilization. John Michael Godier And the fun thing about the agriculture is that could be forever in other words millions of years yeah millions of years of agriculture as a is a constantly sustained techno-signature that they don't have to. They don't have to put any energy in. Jacob That could be forever. Yeah. John Michael Godier And other words it's not a gigantic omnidirectional radio beacon that you have to power with a star. It's no,
it's just simple agriculture and it's a byproduct of being alive. Um, but assuming of course that they eat the way we do and things like that. But it's just. Jacob Exactly. Jacob Well it it just assumes that they need Nitrogen because you can do whatever you want with it. It's just an industrial process for harvesting the Nitrogen. So and there could be something else like it if if you don't
want into the form of Ammonia but um. Like yeah if you're talking about like Silicon based life that uses really weird chemistry then it might be be different. But I think I think there's an argument that even weird life as long as it's you know, maybe likes similar carbon-based organics. The Nitrogen is going to be Useful. It's It's all it's a limiting factor for life on Earth I think it could certainly similarly be a limiting factor for other kinds of organic chemistry elsewhere.
John Michael Godier And it also has to be said too that you know people will always make the argument that you can't know anything about aliens. But I think there are a few things that you can and 1 of them is that evolution occurred. Because it just doesn't seem like an organism that can think is going to pop into it in existence in this universe any other way. You know it's going to take a long period of evolution to get there. Um, oh well, yeah, that.
Jacob Right? Well unless you're building a robot and then something had to evolve to build the robot. John Michael Godier Well, that's where it gets scary is that if you if you start looking at techno signaturetures and you're able to determine that they're all technological and I think that Joe Stack has predicted this that they're all machines and that what biology biology is just a stepstone to something else and then you got to ask. Jacob Yeah, it could be the total could be. John Michael Godier What happened to the biologicals you know, um, that's the 1 thing that. Jacob Yeah, and then that that gets you back to the fermi Paradox where's the robots then they should be here. Maybe. John Michael Godier They should be um or I don't know because I mean you could also make the case that a robot may not care I mean it just may live entirely in its head and just not care about the universe all it cares about is collecting up resources and computing.
Jacob Yeah, it depends what I guess was programmed to do I mean I know that like a lot of like you know Seth shostack and some of the other seti institute people have you know thought about robot being you know the keepers of the long-term beacon. You know they're like the lighthouse operators on like geologic time scales and so you have this rope. John Michael Godier In which yeah.
Jacob This radio beacon transmitting throughout the universe as like a monument to a civilization that once was and you know they're kind of or you know any variation of that kind of a theme. John Michael Godier Yeah, there's ah the idea of the data ohm where your your data your collective information. Your civilization has built up is your greatest gift to the universe So you try to preserve it somehow and send it out there even though you may be gone now. Jacob Um, right, right? exactly.
John Michael Godier Again in these these these scenarios that we're Discussing. We're assuming that the civilization doesn't go extinct. But if you see cfcs in an atmosphere. It could be that they're destroying their world and that they're they're on their way out which is. You know, possibly our case, you know we don't Know. So Do you think that? that's it it it becomes at some point a necro signature if you see it and.
Jacob Well if you see it. You know. So if they're dead right? That's a good question that have thought about you know, what's the signature of of a dead civilization a graveyard and a dead dead 1 is really difficult. Maybe unless you're on the planet doing archeology but but short of that to do remote. Jacob Searches for dead civilizations I think is really difficult but like yeah, okay, if we saw something with cfcs. You know we saw like basically earth but maybe with elevated cfcs. Um. Yeah I mean maybe that might make us think that you know did we get really lucky and we found planet just when it was you know, ah about to go on an unsustainable trajectory with astronomy we kind of have to.
At least that the the first assumption you make is that if you assume something if you observe something that it's it's probably been around for a long time. I mean you you could observe something like a supernova that's a transient event or gamma rebirth to transient event and and that. You know, existed in an instant of time. But if you observe a star or a planet in sort of a steady state where you take you know're you're observing it for many hours or many days or however long and you're looking at the light curve and whatever you know the the absorption of the gases as atmosphere is telling you. Um, you know you could be lucky in finding the civilization finding this planet just on the cosp of of before it goes goes unsustainable, but the safest assumption is most of the time with astronomy catching things as they are in sort of a long-term average like they're into the. Typical state for that object. So yeah, if we found cfcs in a planet like that I mean we would just you know we don't know everything about what a planet can do. We would really have to just start scratching our heads and looking at more information about that planet just to see is this really just like earth before it collapses or is this. Something else. We don't understand.
John Michael Godier Now something like a dying civilization or a let's call him not a dying civilization but a mitigating civilization. Do you think it'd be fruitful to look at things like a sunlight star that's older than the sun you know type g that's older. Jacob Ah, okay.
John Michael Godier And its luminosity is increasing and it's it's trying to bake. Its its its habitable. Zone are formerly habitable So by ah so the the aliens would then do. Drastic measures like a gigantic sunshade around the world that might be visible in a light curve and a couple like light curve. Do you think that we should start targeting in study certain worlds like that where a civilization is forced. Into building some kind of mega structure to survive and. Jacob I mean the idea is is certainly you know something that we can talk about ah you know and people talk about that for earth today you know, megastructures or geoengineering I mean in terms of targeting specific systems like that.
Um. I think we just still don't know enough about which systems are most likely to develop life and then technology because you know it could be that you know earth-like planets around g stars are really great for for producing technology eventually. Um, it could be that. You know mdorf planets are really great and there's a lot more of them or you know depending on what the odds are maybe it's a little bit more likely for a g dwarf system but not by much and there's a lot more m dwarf systems and they've been you know a lot of them are really really old. So. You know it's hard to say which one is is I mean this is certainly why it's it's important to do research on these to make priorities. Um, so so I guess there's there's sort of 2 answers. 1 is what I'm telling you now is that it's hard to say which types of systems are really going to be the best for. Figuring out what civilizations are toward the end of of their life. Um, but at the same time the mdwarf systems these small red dwarf systems are probably the ones that are going to be easiest to look look at with the you know James Webb space telescope and the upcoming mission. So so though
for better or for worse those are the ones we're going to get more information about um, you know if you're talking about looking at systems with a radio telescope the way the Seti Institute does um you know that's a fine hypothesis. But I think I think it's it's really hard to say at this point. John Michael Godier I Think what would be all right? So my own feeling on this is that if we ever detect an Alien civilization. It's it's gonna be something we don't expect in other words, we'll be you know, studying a pulsar and all of a sudden We see a techno signature associated with the pulsar. And then we're left with the great mystery of what are they doing where were they originally From. They're not from that pulsar you know something like that and that's what I'm hoping for just just just for hopes is that if we do see an Alien civilization. It's doing something really weird that we can learn from um or if they if they're destroying themselves. And they're at
a more advanced stage of destroying them sort of themselves than we are Again. We can learn something from that. Observationally even if we don't get like a hello message which we'll probably never be able to decipher. But um, now do you think that if we do get a techno signature and say. Let's take the Wow signal. For example, which looked to be technological and it's weird and we still don't to this day know what it was do you think it's going to be really hard to detect Aliens simply because they're so transient and that their signals don't repeat like ours. Jacob Well, that's that's a great example. Yeah, the
wow signal was you know, whatever it was. It was a transient signal and so that made it difficult to figure out what the source of it was and so you know the the atmospheric techno signatures. We've been talking about things like like you know. Agriculture or cfcs or things like that. Um the idea is to try to find ones that aren't very transient and so even cfcs are at least you know in an atmosphere of a planet for some prolonged period of time. You know it could could be tens to hundreds or even longer depending on, especially if it's terraforming then it is a prolonged intentional presence of the gas. Um yeah radio signals um can be a little more difficult if if a radio signal is not a continuous signal. Then it's difficult
to you know verify where the source is if you if you just send us 1 signal out into space. It doesn't really matter if somebody picks up that signal because it's going to be difficult to identify where it came from if they're not able to continually you know to define the signal again. So so yeah I mean again, what we want are are you know what are technosignatures that are are long lived and you know which what are kinds of technos signatureatures that are are unambiguous or or have you know, not not very difficult to identify as technological so radio has that advantage it could be you know. Fairly you know apparent that there's this narrowband radio signal that might be difficult to make with any other known physical process but are we going to find a repeating radio signal. That's really actually convincing to us and we haven't found one yet. I mean I think we should keep looking but. Hasn't haven't done one yet.
John Michael Godier Now We have a a a a handful of candidates stars that are doing something weird that you know we have trouble finding a natural explanation for but we don't want to invoke aliens Yet. We're not to that stage on any of these things and examples would be tavi Star. Or Shabisky Star which seems to have Transuranic elements in it that it shouldn't have and things like that and the Wow signal So We have these these sort of hints that maybe you know, but again this this speaks to what you just said ambiguity. They're ambiguous and that. Jacob Right.
John Michael Godier Thanks a question and I mean is is are there techno signaturetures that are just so unambiguous that if we detect one. It's there It is and there would be no debate about it. It has to be an Alien civilization. Jacob Well sure you could imagine one I mean suppose. Ah a lunar Rover a chinese have a rural rover on on the moon I think there was some rock formation. They investigated. In fact that you know some some people had suspected was some some artificial you know technology and so. Yeah, you just walk up. You know roll your rover up to some structure if it turns out to be some you know
silicon monolith with electronics on it and and ah you know a serial number with characters. We don't recognize I mean you can imagine something that that could be. I don't describe any likelihoods to these sorts of things. But I mean I think the point is remote evidence is always going to be really difficult and have a lot of of uncertainty and ambiguity to it versus you know. Ah, physical object. Let's say there was alien garbage floating around the apoid belt and you picked it picked it up and you you know that that would be very convincing. Um, you know free forget about technosignatures for a moment just the idea of looking for biosignatures just evidence of life even microbial life that. Just you know is is in a methane atmosphere an
oxygen-based atmosphere or something like that if if you know James the James Webb space telescope or you know the luvex future mission were to detect one of you know an earth size planet in the habitable zone with water vapor and methane and ozone and co 2 scientists would be debating that for you know decades as to whether or not that signal is robust and you'd have to have followup missions on it. Um, but if you set to spacecraft there to enter the atmosphere and take measurements you know it would be a lot more easier to to say what you're really looking at so in situ measurements. You know are always more convincing just we have no idea you keep giving back to fermi paradox you know is there alien garbage in our civilization or is nobody visited here and and if nobody's visited then we have no hope in getting that sort of inseeu evidence. John Michael Godier I now that's something that strikes me as a very long-lived technosignature. Okay, not so much alien garbage but alien mining so somebody passes through the solar system at some point in the last four point five billion years and depletes an asteroid of certain materials. And say we find an asteroid that just is appears to have been mined and it's just the tailings. That's always you know,
just a big ball of tailings and all of the I don't know say nickel or iridium or something like that is gone. Um I would so it would I would imagine that that would last indefinitely right I mean. You could detect that billions of years after the operation ceased. Jacob Yeah I mean we we haven't started asteroid mining yet I mean that would be you know quite the discovery if an asteroid mining team started operations on an asteroid you only to realize that like all the good stuff is gone. Um, but be be. It would be quite the Discovery. Um, so yeah, we don't. We don't know we we have not searched asteroids Well enough to know. Yeah, if Asteroids have been mined either by passing
through Extraterrestrials or robots that are you know floating through space or um, if some of the objects in the Asteroid belt themselves are the remnant of of. You know Alien Spacecraft I mean eventually a spacecraft could you know would get broken apart into very very small pieces and and dragged to sort of a stable orbit. But but these you know we don't understand our own solar system backyard nearly as well as as maybe many people think we do. There's lots to learn everywhere we we we know something but but the amount of stuff We don't know is is tremendous. John Michael Godier Now your thoughts on self-replication the von neumann probe and the idea that you could you could station a such a probe self-replicating probe in all of the stars of the galaxy if you wanted to within short order geologically speaking. So in geologic time you could do it in millions of years and boom. Everybody's got one. Do you think that an alien civilization would actually do that. Do you think
that? that's that's something that is just too fanciful to expect or could it have happened. Jacob I mean I I don't see any reason why it couldn't have happened just it seems like you know when I talk to someone who steadies ai, there's no theoretical reason why you can't have replicators and they worked out the math for it and um I mean. You know there's some things where I don't like to give my gut sense for but for this one, my gut sense is you know, probably not like it's worth thinking about every now and then what it what if the roof on Norman Propes everywhere it comes back to the fermi paradox and why haven't we seen them and I mean you know I just wonder like how long can hardware last but. For it. Fails. There's always something I'm a computer guy I guess
maybe that's where my skepticism comes in that like even with self-replication. There's there's sort of obsolescence with with like you know changing environmental conditions and there's you know. Unintended environmental consequences like a cosmic Ray shower can disable electronics. There's I think a 1% chance 1% of electronics failures are just random cosmic race hours today. So I think there's just a bunch of things that could go wrong without. And think robots work. Well when humans are there to do service on them. But but I'm not sure. Yeah but but
but that's just my personal opinion I know people who study ai who think very differently about it. John Michael Godier Yeah I have to admit a a slight amount of skepticism on the matter because of the reasons as just stated it's it's it's hard to keep a machine running for 1000000 years without touching it. You know and I wonder if that you know you would need just an unbelievably advanced. Jacob Um, yeah. John Michael Godier Machine that that probably needs to actually be conscious which do you think it's even possible to ever make a machine conscious. Jacob Well, that gets into what is consciousness and you know that's a big topic. Um, you know I don't know that it matters necessarily I think for for the sake of what what we want to know for techno signatures is could you make a machine that sort of has like self-directed. Goals and I think it doesn't matter if you call that consciousness or
not just you know if if the machine can replicate and and have self-directed goals and then maybe do some process of self-repair and improvement then it's doing a lot of the things that life does and and that humans do and and. Yeah, if you get that far who knows where it could go. John Michael Godier So favorite solution to the fermi paradox what is your gut feeling and I'll give you mine I think that intelligence is simply rare and that you know there's just doesn't happen very much and you look at earth and we're the only thing that creates a radio signal so and it took. Four and a half billion years to get to that stage. Do you think it's just that intelligence is a rare or do you think there's a more novel favored solution. Jacob Well, that could be so this is one where I don't like to give my favorite approach but I can I can tell you what I do think is I think we're probably not going to see a planet or civilization in that sort of middle stage where it's it's dying or it's in this threshold. Period If not, you know where is it going to go I think we're either going to observe a planet where it's got simple life on it and there's no technology or we're going to observe a planet where there's technology and they've figured out how to make it last over geologic time I think I think we're not going to see anything in the middle. And so what I think we have to do then is you know, build luux and and couple other telescopes too. Get better better better mid infrared coverage and search dozens
or more habitable habitable zone exoplanets and see where that distribution lies because if most of them. Have no technology. We don't we and and we think we're doing the search. Well, that means that the transition from where we're at to a long lived sustainable technological civilization is really really hard and it either never never happened like you're saying. It happened a bunch and they all failed at it and they all collapsed. But if we do that search and we find a bunch of technosic signatures everywhere then they all figured it out I think the only reason we will see Technos signatures is if they figured it out how to have this long geologic time sustainability with technology. And if we see that Well, that's really encouraging because that means that there are solutions at least in in theory to these problems that we have and you know whether we can learn from them or not directly at least indirectly. By example, we know
that this is a navigable path. So um. I Think that's the reason we need to do to search because it'll help us know which which way are we gonna go. John Michael Godier You know I think ultimately the the answer will come from just centuries of looking because if you look for centuries actively and you see nothing Well, there's your answer. It must be rare or nonexistent or if you find something or we're not looking right. Jacob Or we're not looking right. John Michael Godier Or you know we come across some technology or some ah better understanding of the areas of physics that we don't currently understand very well and then we find that they were doing that you know I don't know gravitational wave communications or something like that.
So if we see nothing. Over a long period or we see something over a long period. They both answer the question. Basically so all we have to do is look and continue looking right? That's right. Jacob If you don't look. You won't answer the question. John Michael Godier Right? Jacob we are out of time for today and thanks for joining us and I hope you come back sometime next time you release another paper all right now took 1 question that a lot of people have and it's going to come up in the comments is what if they're already here. Jacob Um, thanks so much for having me.