Let’s go alien-hunting

A group of researchers is lobbying for access to £1m of the UK’s space budget. Why not?

You probably don’t think of Britain as a spacefaring nation but we’re up there with the best. It’s just that we usually do the dull stuff that no one talks about. How exciting, then, that the UK could soon be the only country with a government-sponsored alienhunting programme.

Britain’s space engineering efforts at present add up to a £9bn industry that employs 30,000 people. But although Britain has its own spacemanin- training, Major Tim Peake (why couldn’t he have been a Tom?), it’s still essentially the backroom jobs we’re grabbing. Britain’s final frontier is likely to be in better satellites to improve telecommunications, internet provision, navigation systems and TV broadcasting. We will also continue to be an important player in the European Space Agency’s science missions.

We’ll get even better at earth observations that tell us about climate trends and global weather patterns. Occasionally we’ll deliver an innovative launch technology, or create infrastructure that will pave the way for space tourism. But it’s not exactly Dan Dare.

Yet one day soon we might be the first to make contact with aliens. A group of researchers is lobbying for access to £1m of the UK’s space budget. The idea is to buy time on e-MERLIN, a network of seven radio telescopes dotted around the UK, and begin the world’s only government-funded search for aliens. Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal and former president of the Royal Society, is in the captain’s chair, so the group has a good chance of being taken seriously.

That said, it does all seem a bit far-fetched. The UK Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) group made a series of presentations at the National Astronomy Meeting at St Andrews early this month. Among the more conservative suggestions was that space probes should be equipped with capabilities to interact with aliens. At the other end was the idea that the lunar surface may be studded with “extraterrestrial artefacts”, such as fragments of exotic alloys that have flaked off alien spaceships. We should go and look, apparently.

Somewhere in between was the contention that our search for aliens should also include consideration of machines that may have taken over a biological civilisation. Such eventualities would lead to different kinds of communication – machine codes – being more abundant than the biological-intelligencebased signals we’ve always sought. Then there was Anders Sandberg, a research fellow at Oxford University, who offered an analysis of the “deadly probes” scenario, in which the apparent absence of alien civilisations arises from highly developed cultures sending out space probes designed to kill off newly arising competitors.

This, by the way, is a scenario that causes great controversy in alien-hunting circles. Some say we should accelerate the time to first contact by broadcasting “We Are Here” signals for aliens to pick up. Those who object point out that some aliens might not be friendly, and could decide to come and destroy us.

You are probably rolling your eyes at all this. That is why no government funds SETI at the moment: the idea of searching for aliens is regarded as faintly ridiculous. Nasa’s alien hunt ended in 1993 after a Nevada senator pointed out that “millions have been spent and we have yet to bag a single little green fellow”.

However naive and Boy’s Own it might seem, though, first contact would be momentous – a watershed in human experience. The UK SETI group wants only a million pounds a year; it’s hardly going to kill us. Assuming the aliens are friendly, that is.

Is anybody out there? Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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Facebook official: the rise and fall of the relationship status

In the Noughties, it was a relationship milestone. Now, it's just another dead feature. What happened? 

In the 1950s, couples on US campuses took out ads in college newspapers to announce that their relationship was getting serious. 

In the Noughties, we had Facebook official. One of the social media site's first features, rolled out while the network was still primarily used by students at US universities, was the "relationship status". And at first, it was a successful one: a way for users to broadcast their personal lives to friends and ex-lovers, and another way to show off online.

It was so successful, in fact, that it began to invade very culture and lexicon of dating. "It's Complicated" was first entered onto Urban Dictionary in 2007, and fast became an iconic phrase to describe the rocky dating lives of teens and twentysomethings. (Whether anyone actually used it on their profile without a hint of irony is another question.)

The press treated Facebook and its investment in your relationships much as it's treating dating apps now: with suspicion. News and comment pieces were littered with first-person horror stories of "likes" and passive aggressive comments on break-up statuses, or people mercilessly dumping their partners by declaring themselves "single". 

But these criticisms actually show how influential the statuses were - enough to be seen as a threat to the social fabric. As Samuel Axon wrote for Mashable in 2010 in an article titled "5 Ways Facebook Changed Dating (For the Worse)": 

"Changing Facebook relationship status has, for better or worse, joined first date, first kiss, first night together, exclusivity talk, and first "I love you" on the list of important relationship milestones."

Breaking up  

In 2016, we can pretty much declare the relationship status dead - at least among the twenty-something generation who grew up on Facebook. In November, BuzzFeed ran a reader poll and concluded: “No One Wants To Admit They’re In A Relationship On Facebook Anymore”. Forty per cent of polled twenty-somethings said they wouldn’t put a relationship status on Facebok. 

Among twentysomethings I spoke to anecdotally, the percentage was even higher: I couldn't find a single person who would list themselves as "in a relationship" with a boyfriend or girlfriend. The situation changed a little when it came to engagements or marriage: these are worth listing alongside other big milestones like graduations so friends know what you're up to. But what turned us off listing our squeezes in real-time?

One obvious answer is that everyone tries it once, in the first flush of romance, then never forgets the crushing social embarrassment of living out your break-up online. Izzy, 23, tells me that she once saw "Facebook official" as a necessary stage in relationships, but now, "I'd probably only change it now for something big like an engagement or marriage", since watching break-up become "public property" on Facebook. 

In “Why I will never (again) put my relationship status on Facebook” at XO Jane, Sofia Barrett-Ibarria recounts that colleagues and friends would approach her following a a break-up and subsequent status change: “Thanks to Facebook, everyone I knew knew about the breakup. This was my nightmare.” 

In the essay, and among those I talk to, there's a real sense that a social media airing of a break-up actually makes it worse. It's no wonder we're keen to avoid repeating the experience. 

Instead, it's far more common among my generation to list a joke partner online - as much to protect yourself from the risky business of online relationship declarations as to make fun of the feature itself. Amy, 24, says her Facebook relationship with a friend “became quite useful as a means to avoid putting other relationships on here”. It's a joke, but it's also a signal that you won't be game for a po-faced "in a relationship" further down the line. 

Even the phrase "relationship status" has become a meme to mock your own singledom, rather than a serious phrase about your commitment to someone:

It's not you, it's me 

Marking the slow decline of the relationship statuses are various desperate attempts by Facebook to bring it back to life. In May 2014, it introduced an option to "ask" your friends about their relationship status, or other details like Hometown or School. Show me a single person who actually did this, and I'll show you a person with one less Facebook friend.

In November 2015, Facebook US introduced tools which would make a social media break-up less painful. If you break up (and change your relationship status), the site now allows you to "take a break" from an ex-partner, untag them from pictures, and generally stop them haunting your page without unfriending or blocking them. 

The move is a sensible one, especially as Facebook has come under fire for "On This Day", another feature which throws up old pictures and posts and has been depressing users the world over with pictures of their now-dead relatives or relics of past relationships. In the press release for the new relationship tools, the company says:

“This work is part of our ongoing effort to develop resources for people who may be going through difficult moments in their lives. We hope these tools will help people end relationships on Facebook with greater ease, comfort and sense of control.”

Never, ever getting back together 

Somehow, I don't think any of this will convince users to once again share the minutiae of our dating lives on social media. You could argue that my generation's rejection of relationship statuses is to do with a fear of commitment - after all, none of us have pensions or can afford houses. Research has shown that social media interaction, like a shared relationship status or photos taken together, are an indicator of "greater relationship commitment". Perhaps twenty-somethings just aren't keen to stamp Facebook-endorsed "commitment" all over their dating lives.

But it could also be that we're moving away from relationship statuses because we've realised there's a type of online sharing that can be damaging in its honesty. It's increasingly clear that even bloggers and Instagrammers who post online constantly keep their personal lives locked carefully away from their smoothie and interior decor feeds, sometimes to the detriment of their alleged "authenticity". 

We want social media to be privy to our highs, not our lows. Research has also suggested that while relationship statuses indicate commitment, they were reflective of this commitment, not participating in it. While asking someone to be your boyfriend and girlfriend is an action that actually changes the fabric of a relationship, going Facebook official isn't - unless you're a 13-year-old who still thinks this is a good way to ask. 

As such, relationship statuses are a communication of status, not a creation of one. They were never meant as a milestone for the couples themselves: they're to satisfy the sort of people who bark "BUT IS SHE ACTUALLY YOUR GIRLFRIEND?" at you, in the pub, while she's two feet away. Maybe we've just decided that our online presence should benefit us, not those who want a two-click rundown of our personal lives. 

And since you ask, I've been in a Facebook-only civil partnership with a university friend for four years now. It isn't complicated at all. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.