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11 January 2019

Talk to me: what are the new signals from space and why do they matter?

New signals from possible “aliens” remind us that the largest puzzle of all is not space, but our own minds.

By India Bourke

Over a three-week period last summer, in a research facility in British Columbia, a group of astronomers spotted something mysterious in the data from their radio telescope. Thirteen short bursts of energy, emanating from deep in outer space, were observed as narrow-band frequency radio signals – and one of them was repeating.

Fast radio bursts (FBRs) are not rare but they are hard to spot, and only one repeating burst has ever been reported before in human history. Speculation that they could be evidence of alien technology has thus set imaginations alight. News outlets across the globe have leapt on the story, while jokes about missing drones have abounded on Twitter.

The reality, however, is that far too little is known about the phenomenon to say much about its origin. FBRs were first uncovered by accident in 2007 from a data set gathered in 2001. These were later thought to have derived from a galaxy over three billion light years away, meaning that whatever event produced them happened as primordial life on Earth was only just beginning to form.

Scientists who favour natural causes as an explanation, point to rapidly spinning neutron stars, which can form after a star explodes and dies. Professor Ingrid Stairs, an astrophysicist at the University of British Columbia, told the BBC this was a likely answer. She added that it was “highly improbable” that alien civilisations were behind the highly dispersed signals.

Yet Professor Avi Loeb, from the Harvard-Smithsonian centre for astrophysics, has been keeping Trekkie dreams alive. In 2017 he co-published an academic paper exploring whether the phenomenon could be emanating from “extragalactic civilisations”. Artificially produced energy beams that enable spacecraft to ride on light waves, could be responsible for the large flashes of energy detected, he argued.

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So where do these tantalising new shreds of data leave the wider debate about extra-terrestrial beings? In and of itself, not much further on. That other life exists – somewhere – seems increasingly likely: of the 3,725 exoplanets discovered to date, more than 900 are thought to have solid, rocky surfaces like Earth. But whether life exists that is as complex as humanity (or more advanced), remains a subject of wide speculation.

There is Brian Cox’s theory; that civilisations unwittingly self-destruct when they become advanced enough to do so. Or the opposing viewpoint; that other life forms have become so advanced that their technology has surpassed a level at which we can detect them. And then, for the really outlandish thinkers, there’s the simulation hypothesis; in which Earthlings are all just Sim-like artificial entities, created by more advanced humans with better computers.

All of which assumes that other life-forms would share our imperial impulse to spread out and colonise (when they may have evolved to a higher plane of ecological harmony with their own planetary systems).

Which position you subscribe to can say a lot about your outlook on the world and is why the origins of these latest unexplained space phenomenon matters so much. Are we in competition with other non-human life-forms, or part of a greater and ultimately collaborative whole? Are we the masters of the universe or its minions? How these questions are answered impacts upon all kinds of more immediate challenges – from tackling climate change to the protection of biodiversity.

Whatever event caused the FBRs to occur, they have been received by political beings. And in doing so, our reactions provide a new small piece of the largest puzzle of all; not the existence of aliens, but the trajectory of our own minds.

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