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We think we're the first advanced earthlings - but how do we really know?

We think we're the first advanced earthlings - but how do we really know?

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Imagine if, many millions of years ago, dinosaurs drove cars through cities of mile-high buildings. A preposterous idea, right? Over the course of tens of millions of years, however, all of the direct evidence of a civilization -- its artifacts and remains -- gets ground to dust. How do we really know, then, that there weren't previous industrial civilizations on Earth that rose and fell long before human beings appeared?

Evidence Other than Artifacts

It's a compelling thought experiment, and one that Adam Frank, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester, and Gavin Schmidt, the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, take up in a paper published in the International Journal of Astrobiology .

"Gavin and I have not seen any evidence of another industrial civilization," Frank explains. But by looking at the deep past in the right way, a new set of questions about civilizations and the planet appear: What geological footprints do civilizations leave? Is it possible to detect an industrial civilization in the geological record once it disappears from the face of its host planet? "These questions make us think about the future and the past in a much different way, including how any planetary-scale civilization might rise and fall."

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Anthropocene period is the period when fossil fuels will dictate the footprint humans leave on Earth. (Image: CC0)

In what they deem the "Silurian Hypothesis," Frank and Schmidt define a civilization by its energy use. Human beings are just entering a new geological era that many researchers refer to as the Anthropocene, the period in which human activity strongly influences the climate and environment. In the Anthropocene, fossil fuels have become central to the geological footprint humans will leave behind on Earth. By looking at the Anthropocene's imprint, Schmidt and Frank examine what kinds of clues future scientists might detect to determine that human beings existed. In doing so, they also lay out evidence of what might be left behind if industrial civilizations like ours existed millions of years in the past.

Fossil Fuel Imprint

Human beings began burning fossil fuels more than 300 years ago, marking the beginnings of industrialization. The researchers note that the emission of fossil fuels into the atmosphere has already changed the carbon cycle in a way that is recorded in carbon isotope records. Other ways human beings might leave behind a geological footprint include:

  • Global warming, from the release of carbon dioxide and perturbations to the nitrogen cycle from fertilizers
  • Agriculture, through greatly increased erosion and sedimentation rates
  • Plastics, synthetic pollutants, and even things such as steroids, which will be geochemically detectable for millions, and perhaps even billions, of years
  • Nuclear war, if it happened, which would leave behind unusual radioactive isotopes

Industrialized town in Germany, circa 1870.

"As an industrial civilization, we're driving changes in the isotopic abundances because we're burning carbon," Frank says. "But burning fossil fuels may actually shut us down as a civilization. What imprints would this or other kinds of industrial activity from a long dead civilization leave over tens of millions of years?"

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The Astrobiological Perspective

The questions raised by Frank and Schmidt are part of a broader effort to address climate change from an astrobiological perspective, and a new way of thinking about life and civilizations across the universe. Looking at the rise and fall of civilizations in terms of their planetary impacts can also affect how researchers approach future explorations of other planets.

"We know early Mars and, perhaps, early Venus were more habitable than they are now, and conceivably we will one day drill through the geological sediments there, too," Schmidt says. "This helps us think about what we should be looking for."

Schmidt points to an irony, however: if a civilization is able to find a more sustainable way to produce energy without harming its host planet, it will leave behind less evidence that it was there.

"You want to have a nice, large-scale civilization that does wonderful things but that doesn't push the planet into domains that are dangerous for itself, the civilization," Frank says. "We need to figure out a way of producing and using energy that doesn't put us at risk."

That said, the earth will be just fine, Frank says. It's more a question of whether humans will be.

Pripyat town square. Abandoned ghost town in northern Ukraine. ( CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )

Can we create a version of civilization that doesn't push the earth into a domain that's dangerous for us as a species?

"The point is not to 'save the earth,'" says Frank. "No matter what we do to the planet, we're just creating niches for the next cycle of evolution. But, if we continue on this trajectory of using fossil fuels and ignoring the climate change it drives, we human beings may not be part of Earth's ongoing evolution."

    Are the aliens us? UFOs may be piloted by time-traveling humans, book argues

    The great distances covered by visiting "aliens" may be ones of time rather than space, a recent book argues.

    Unidentified flying objects (UFOs) have captured the public's attention over the decades. As exoplanet detection is on the rise, why not consider that star-hopping visitors from afar might be buzzing through our friendly skies by taking an interstellar off-ramp to Earth?

    On the other hand, could those piloting UFOs be us — our future progeny that have mastered the landscape of time and space? Perhaps those reports of people coming into contact with strange beings represent our distant human descendants, returning from the future to study us in their own evolutionary past.

    The idea of us being them has been advanced before. But a recent book, "Identified Flying Objects: A Multidisciplinary Scientific Approach to the UFO Phenomenon" (Masters Creative LLC, 2019), takes a fresh look at this prospect, offering some thought-provoking proposals.

    Alien apocalypse: Can any civilization make it through climate change?

    A case study of the inhabitants of Easter Island served in part as the basis for a mathematical model showing the ways a technologically advanced population and its planet might develop or collapse together. Rochester astrophysicist Adam Frank and his collaborators created their model to illustrate how civilization-planet systems co-evolve. Credit: University of Rochester illustration / Michael Osadciw

    In the face of climate change, deforestation and biodiversity loss, creating a sustainable version of civilization is one of humanity's most urgent tasks. But when confronting this immense challenge, we rarely ask what may be the most pressing question of all: How do we know if sustainability is even possible? Astronomers have inventoried a sizable share of the universe's stars, galaxies, comets, and black holes. But are planets with sustainable civilizations also something the universe contains? Or does every civilization that may have arisen in the cosmos last only a few centuries before it falls to the climate change it triggers?

    Astrophysicist Adam Frank, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester, is part of a group of researchers who have taken the first steps to answer these questions. In a new study published in the journal Astrobiology, the group—including Frank, Jonathan Carroll-Nellenback, a senior computational scientist at Rochester, Martina Alberti of the University of Washington, and Axel Kleidon of the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry—addresses these questions from an "astrobiological" perspective.

    "Astrobiology is the study of life and its possibilities in a planetary context," says Frank, who is also author of the new book Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth, which draws on this study. "That includes 'exo-civilizations' or what we usually call aliens."

    Frank and his colleagues point out that discussions about climate change rarely take place in this broader context—one that considers the probability that this is not the first time in cosmic history that a planet and its biosphere have evolved into something like what we've created on Earth. "If we're not the universe's first civilization," Frank says, "that means there are likely to be rules for how the fate of a young civilization like our own progresses."

    As a civilization's population grows, it uses more and more of its planet's resources. By consuming the planet's resources, the civilization changes the planet's conditions. In short, civilizations and planets don't evolve separately from one another they evolve interdependently, and the fate of our own civilization depends on how we use Earth's resources.

    In order to illustrate how civilization-planet systems co-evolve, Frank and his collaborators developed a mathematical model to show ways in which a technologically advanced population and its planet might develop together. By thinking of civilizations and planets—even alien ones—as a whole, researchers can better predict what might be required for the human project of civilization to survive.

    "The point is to recognize that driving climate change may be something generic," Frank says. "The laws of physics demand that any young population, building an energy-intensive civilization like ours, is going to have feedback on its planet. Seeing climate change in this cosmic context may give us better insight into what's happening to us now and how to deal with it."

    Four scenarios for the fate of civilizations and their planets, based on mathematical models developed by Adam Frank and his collaborators. The black line shows the trajectory of the civilization's population and the red line shows the co-evolving trajectory of the planet's state (a proxy for temperature). Credit: University of Rochester illustration / Michael Osadciw

    Using their mathematical model, the researchers found four potential scenarios that might occur in a civilization-planet system:

    1. Die-off: The population and the planet's state (indicated by something like its average temperature) rise very quickly. Eventually, the population peaks and then declines rapidly as the rising planetary temperature makes conditions harder to survive. A steady population level is achieved, but it's only a fraction of the peak population. "Imagine if 7 out of 10 people you knew died quickly," Frank says. "It's not clear a complex technological civilization could survive that kind of change."
    2. Sustainability: The population and the temperature rise but eventually both come to steady values without any catastrophic effects. This scenario occurs in the models when the population recognizes it is having a negative effect on the planet and switches from using high-impact resources, such as oil, to low-impact resources, such as solar energy.
    3. Collapse without resource change: The population and temperature both rise rapidly until the population reaches a peak and drops precipitously. In these models civilization collapses, though it is not clear if the species itself completely dies outs.
    4. Collapse with resource change: The population and the temperature rise, but the population recognizes it is causing a problem and switches from high-impact resources to low-impact resources. Things appear to level off for a while, but the response turns out to have come too late, and the population collapses anyway.

    "The last scenario is the most frightening," Frank says. "Even if you did the right thing, if you waited too long, you could still have your population collapse."

    The researchers created their models based in part on case studies of extinct civilizations, such as the inhabitants of Easter Island. People began colonizing the island between 400 and 700 AD and grew to a peak population of 10,000 sometime between 1200 and 1500 AD. By the 18th century, however, the inhabitants had depleted their resources and the population dropped drastically to about 2,000 people.

    The Easter Island population die-off relates to a concept called carrying capacity, or the maximum number of species an environment can support. The earth's response to civilization building is what climate change is really all about, Frank says. "If you go through really strong climate change, then your carrying capacity may drop, because, for example, large-scale agriculture might be strongly disrupted. Imagine if climate change caused rain to stop falling in the Midwest. We wouldn't be able to grow food, and our population would diminish."

    Right now researchers can't definitively predict the fate of the earth. The next steps will be to use more detailed models of the ways planets might behave when a civilization consumes energy of any form to grow. In the meantime, Frank issues a sober warning.

    "If you change the earth's climate enough, you might not be able to change it back," he says. "Even if you backed off and started to use solar or other less impactful resources, it could be too late, because the planet has already been changing. These models show we can't just think about a population evolving on its own. We have to think about our planets and civilizations co-evolving."

    Shock, shock, horror

    Milgram wanted to ensure that his experiment involved as broad and diverse a group of people as possible. In addition to testing the American vs. German mindset, he wanted to see how much age, education, employment, and so on affected a person's willingness to obey orders.

    So, the original 40 participants he gathered came from a wide spectrum of society, and each was told that they were to take part in a "memory test." They were to determine the extent to which punishment affects learning and the ability to memorize.

    The experiment involved three people. First, there was the "experimenter," dressed in a lab coat, who gave instructions and prompts. Second, there was an actor who was the "learner." Third, there was the participant who thought that they were acting as the "teacher" in the memory test. The apparent experimental setup was that the learner had to match two words together after being taught them, and whenever they got the answer wrong, the teacher had to administer an electric shock. (The teachers (participants) were shocked as well to let them know what kind of pain the learner would experience.) At first, the shock was set at 15 volts.

    The learner (actor) repeatedly made mistakes for each study, and the teacher was told to increase the voltage each time. A tape recorder was played that had the learner (apparently) make sounds as if in pain. As it went on, the learner would plead and beg for the shocks to stop. The teacher was told to increase the amount of voltage as punishment up to a level that was explicitly described as being fatal — not least because the learner was desperately saying he had a heart condition.

    The question Milgram wanted to know: how far would his participants go?

    Under alien observation?

    One explanation that scientists explored at the METI meeting, is that aliens are aware of Earth and are observing us as we would observe animals kept in a zoo, METI President Douglas Vakoch said in a workshop. If this is the case, humans should increase their efforts to create messages capable of reaching our "keepers," to demonstrate our intelligence, Vakoch explained.

    For example, if a captive zebra were to suddenly tap out a pattern of prime numbers, humans would be required to re-evaluate their understanding of zebra cognition, "and we would be compelled to respond," according to EarthSky.

    But what if we're not part of a vast alien zoo &mdash what if, instead, humanity has been evaluated by alien civilizations, and subsequently "quarantined" from our galactic neighbors?

    It's possible that extraterrestrials are actively isolating us from contact for our own good, because interacting with aliens would be "culturally disruptive" for Earth, meeting co-chair Jean-Pierre Rospars, honorary research director at the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA), said in a workshop.

    Of course, it's also likely that we haven't heard from aliens because they're locked under a layer of ice in subsurface oceans trapped on massive "super-Earth" worlds by gravity's intense pull or dead because their advanced civilizations have already destroyed themselves &mdash as humanity might &mdash through runaway consumption of their planet's natural resources.

    Though, maybe if we want to hear from aliens we just need to relax and be patient. After all, Earth has been around for 4.6 billion years, while extraterrestrial research is less than 100 years old, Paris-Match reported.

    Did another advanced species exist on Earth before humans?

    Our Milky Way galaxy contains tens of billions of potentially habitable planets, but we have no idea whether we’re alone. For now Earth is the only world known to harbor life, and among all the living things on our planet we assume Homo sapiens is the only species ever to have developed advanced technology.

    But maybe that’s assuming too much.

    In a mind-bending new paper entitled “The Silurian Hypothesis” — a reference to an ancient race of brainy reptiles featured in the British science fiction show "Doctor Who" — scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the University of Rochester take a critical look at the scientific evidence that ours is the only advanced civilization ever to have existed on our planet.

    “Do we really know we were the first technological species on Earth?” asks Adam Frank, a professor of physics and astronomy at Rochester and a co-author of the paper. “We’ve had an industrial society for only about 300 years, but there’s been complex life on land for nearly 400 million years.”

    If humans went extinct today, Frank says, any future civilization that might arise on Earth millions of years hence might find it hard to recognize traces of human civilization. By the same token, if some earlier civilization existed on Earth millions of years ago, we might have trouble finding evidence of it.

    In search of lizard people

    The discovery of physical artifacts would certainly be the most dramatic evidence of a Silurian-style civilization on Earth, but Frank doubts we’ll ever find anything of the sort.

    “Our cities cover less than one percent of the surface,” he says. Any comparable cities from an earlier civilization would be easy for modern-day paleontologists to miss. And no one should count on finding a Jurassic iPhone it wouldn't last millions of years, Gorilla Glass or no.

    Finding fossilized bones is a slightly better bet, but if another advanced species walked the Earth millions of years ago — if they walked — it would be easy to overlook their fossilized skeletons — if they had skeletons. Modern humans have been around for just 100,000 years, a thin sliver of time within the vast and spotty fossil record.

    For these reasons, Frank and Gavin Schmidt, a climatologist at Goddard and the paper's co-author, focus on the possibility of finding chemical relics of an ancient terrestrial civilization.

    Using human technology as their guide, Schmidt and Frank suggest zeroing in on plastics and other long-lived synthetic molecules as well as radioactive fallout (in case factions of ancient lizard people waged atomic warfare). In our case, technological development has been accompanied by widespread extinctions and rapid environmental changes, so those are red flags as well.

    After reviewing several suspiciously abrupt geologic events of the past 380 million years, the researchers conclude that none of them clearly fit a technological profile. Frank calls for more research, such as studying how modern industrial chemicals persist in ocean sediments and then seeing if we can find traces of similar chemicals in the geologic record.

    He argues that a deeper understanding of the human environmental footprint will also have practical consequences, helping us recognize better ways to achieve a long-term balance with the planet so we don't end up as tomorrow's forgotten species.

    Then again, he’s also a curious guy who's interested in exploring more far-out ideas for finding Silurian-style signatures: “You could try looking on the moon,” he says.

    Lunar archaeology

    The moon is a favored target of Penn State University astronomer Jason Wright, one of a handful of other researchers now applying serious scientific thinking to the possibility of pre-human technological civilizations.

    “Habitable planets like Earth are pretty good at destroying unmaintained things on their surfaces,” Wright says. So he’s been looking at the exotic possibility that such a civilization might have been a spacefaring one. If so, artifacts of their technology, or technosignatures, might be found elsewhere in the solar system.


    Mach Space aliens could have died out long ago, scientist says

    Wright suggests looking for such artifacts not just on the lunar surface, but also on asteroids or buried on Mars — places where such objects could theoretically survive for hundreds of millions or even billions of years.

    SpaceX’s recent launch of a Tesla Roadster into space offers an insight into how such a search might go. Several astronomers pointed their telescopes at the car and showed that, even if you had no idea what you were looking at, you’d still quickly pick it out as one weird-looking asteroid.

    Finding technosignatures in space is an extreme long shot, but Wright argues that the effort is worthwhile. “There are lots of other reasons to find peculiar structures on Mars and the moon, and to look for weird asteroids,” he says. Such studies might reveal new details about the history and evolution of the solar system, for instance, or about resources that might be useful to future spacefarers.

    If the efforts turn up a big black obelisk somewhere, so much the better.

    Who is Out There?

    So, are all these UFOs piloted by little green men from beyond the stars? Well… maybe. Graves thinks the UFOs might be Chinese or Russian in origin, which, if true, would pose a serious national security threat that he says isn’t being taken seriously enough by top brass.

    Elizondo is not necessarily saying that all these UFOs that are apparently littering our skies are extraterrestrial… but he’s not not saying that either. "There is very compelling evidence that we may not be alone,” he told CNN in 2017.

    But there's another layer to this story. Elizondo still recounts how he was met with a lot of resistance from higher-ups during his days at the Department of Defense, primarily on religious grounds.

    The aliens triggered climate change (and died).

    When a population burns through resources faster than its planet can provide them, catastrophe looms. We know this well enough from the ongoing climate-change crisis here on Earth. So, isn't it possible that an advanced, energy-guzzling alien society might run into the same issues?

    According to astrophysicist Adam Frank, it's not only possible but extremely likely. Earlier this year, Frank ran a series of mathematical models to simulate how a hypothetical alien civilization might rise and fall as it increasingly converted its planet's resources into energy. The bad news is that in three out of four scenarios, the society crumbled and most of the population died. Only when the society caught the problem early and immediately switched to sustainable energy did the civilization manage to survive. That means that, if aliens do exist, the odds are pretty high they'll destroy themselves before we ever meet them.

    "Across cosmic space and time, you're going to have winners &mdash who managed to see what was going on and figure out a path through it &mdash and losers, who just couldn't get their act together, and their civilization fell by the wayside," Frank said. "The question is, which category do we want to be in?"

    Can we figure out alien languages?

    Recently, MACH’s Denise Chow spoke with Jensen about what it would take for us to be able to communicate effectively with extraterrestrials and whether the 2016 film “Arrival” offers an accurate portrayal of an alien encounter. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

    MACH: The idea of making contact with aliens is a mainstay of science fiction. But when did it become clear among linguists and other experts that we should think seriously about how we might communicate with extraterrestrials?

    Jensen: We used to sort of gaze up into the sky and go, "Oh, stars. They're lovely. Wouldn't it be nice if someone were looking back at us and hoping that we're here." But now we know there are planets, and now we know there are habitable planets. You could point to a specific star and say: "That star there has a habitable planet. Is there anyone living there?" That makes a huge emotional difference. If you can point to a place and ask, "Is there intelligence living in that place?" It's a whole different question than "I wonder if this could possibly, maybe, somehow, imaginably be true?"

    What exactly is alien linguistics?

    It is the discipline of getting ready. If something marvelous is going to happen, and you have the idea that the marvelous thing is afoot, you can just sit back and think, “We'll get a call, we'll get a message, it'll be fantastic.” Or you could lay some groundwork.

    What we're doing now is kind of taking our responsibility as scientists seriously, and doing some of the preparatory work that we are capable of doing now — which isn't a lot, but there are things we can do to get ready. Our responsibility is to make intellectual, emotional, ethical, spiritual preparations for what's to come.

    Let me ask you an even more basic question: What is language?

    I think the answer is a resounding "um." We don't really know. We don't know where it came from. We experience language, we use it every day, and I continue to think about it. I can tell you about its relative complexity as compared to other forms of communication from other species on Earth. I can tell you things about what language does. But the definition of language is a social object, not a scientific object.

    Mostly, people know language when they experience it — real language, as separate from communication. Lots of animals communicate. My cat communicates with me very clearly, and instructs me with what I am to do, very clearly. But she does not have language, and the line between communication and language feels mushy until I say to my cat: "Hello, how was your day? Please tell me three things that you did that amused you today." And she just, you know, does the food meow back. So the exact borders between communication and language feel mushy, but we know when we experience one or the other.

    What if aliens make contact, but their way of communicating is vastly different from our own? What would you do as a linguist to try to understand them?

    This presumes that we have a face-to-face interaction, which is probably not how it will go down. We are much more likely to have to deal with a more prosaic radio signal. Superficially, this sounds disappointing. Everybody wants the saucer on the White House lawn scenario, and the radio signals feel like a distant second best. But actually, the radio signal confirming that we are not alone would rock my personal world and probably most of the rest of everybody’s world, too.

    But it doesn’t matter much what the medium is — swirls of color, vocalizations, hand or tentacle gestures — as long as we have two things.

    One, a language which is learnable — which, depending on how alien they are, we might not have. There are at least two hypotheses here: the folks who think that for a language to be a language, it will possess a core similar to our own, so we could learn it, and the folks who think that alien bodies and environment might be dramatically different from ours and this might cause their language to be correspondingly different, and so un-learnable.

    Two, [we'd need] an agreed-upon context so we could start learning each other’s words. As a linguist, in a new language-learning situation, I rely a lot on context. If I don’t know your language and I walk up to you, make a quizzical face, hold up an apple, point to it, you would get the idea that I want the word for “apple.” So you’d say “apple,” and if I did it again, you’d say “apple” again. That is, you’d get that idea if you and I understood that language learning is the game we are playing.

    If we don’t agree that language learning is what we are doing, you might think I am giving you the apple, threatening you with the apple, using the apple to show how mighty I am, showing you the shape of my hand and on and on. We have to agree that we are taking time to learn language now and that the “right” thing to do is give simple, one-word-long-ish responses. For example, if I did this apple pose, and you understood that I want to learn your language, you would not say to me, “Oh, you are standing on your two feet wearing pants and a jacket breathing oxygen, using both lungs and your left hand is raised 1.8 meters above the floor and you have an apple in your hand and there are no tigers, elephants or cakes of frozen sea ice anywhere near you.”

    The thing a linguist can bring to this situation is perhaps first to have some beginning of an understanding about all the many, many ways this can go wrong and be alert to as many of these as possible. The other thing is that a linguist is trained to conduct a systematic exploration of the language, figure out how sentences are put together, logically explore vocabulary and syntax and search out ways in which the rules of conversation might lead us to misunderstand one another.

    Is it possible that an alien civilization has tried contacting us but we simply didn't understand it?

    It's possible. If they sent a radio signal in the 1700s — if they tried to communicate with us by radio before we had radio, they would've gotten nothing.

    You’re involved with an organization called Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or METI. What is that?

    So SETI is the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. The idea of METI is that if you're going to have a conversation, there are two people who can say hello. SETI is mostly for them [aliens] to say “hello,” and METI is Earth saying “hello.” So it is the idea that to join the conversation, you have to say something.

    Some people oppose the idea of actively seeking contact with aliens, fearing that if they do exist they might be hostile. Where do you stand on that?

    It's really important to take ethical reservations on this very seriously, because we're all kind of together, dealing with the possibilities. So if you are respectful, you want to listen to other folks whose opinions differ and try to come to an agreement. Whether all of Earth can come to an agreement, I don't know. I mean, I have trouble when there are six people in my house agreeing on what to put on a pizza.

    So are we going to all agree about what to say on behalf of all the planet? I'm thinking that that's not likely. But the thing that we can do immediately is enter into conversation with one another respectfully, and start thinking through, as a community, what we would like to say and if we would like to say anything.

    Does “Arrival” give a realistic portrayal of how a linguist might try to communicate with aliens?

    Everybody loves “Arrival.” Everybody wants to be Amy Adams [who plays a linguist who learns to communicate with aliens]. The scenes where she was doing the fieldwork, where she was up against the barrier — if you don't share a language in common, that's kind of how you do it. You get right in there and you point to things, and you try to pick things up, and show people things. Whether you represent your language pictorially or auditorily, or however you do it, it's still a language.

    If you could send a message to an alien civilization, what would you want to say?

    That's a complicated question. It's hard to communicate with people you don't know. If you look at us just trying to communicate with one another, we're not so good at it. We don't think carefully and respectfully about each other's needs. We struggle to communicate, and sometimes fail. So if we're trying to communicate with someone and we don't even know who that someone is, I think it's reasonable to expect to be profoundly misunderstood.

    Honestly, the only thing I would say is "One, three, five, seven, eleven, thirteen" [listing prime numbers]. I would like to send a message that indicates that we're here. Because anything I personally would choose is completely a bad idea, because I'm only one person. So I would just like to say that there is intelligence here, and make my message as simple as possible with the expectation that there will be a next step.

    Your own preferred solution is what you call laser porting. Explain what this is—and how the Human Connectome Project may be laying the foundations.

    The first big scientific project was the Manhattan Project, which gave us the atomic bomb. The second was the Human Genome Project, which gave us the human genome. The third could be the Connectome Project. Many nations, including the U.S., have said that the brain is the key to understanding mental health, depression, and suicide. All that could perhaps be unraveled if we understand the connectome, which is a map of the entire brain.

    We expect to have this perhaps by the end of this century. But once we have it, what do we do with it? We could look at mental illness, but we could also put it on a laser beam and shoot it into outer space. In one second, you’d be on the moon in 20 minutes you’re on Mars and in years you’re on the nearest star. So laser porting is perhaps the most efficient way to explore the galaxy without booster rockets, radiation dangers, or problems from asteroid impacts. You just laser port yourself!

    Let’s end with the million-dollar question: Will we one day make contact with another civilization in outer space? If so, when? And do you agree with Stephen Hawking, who warned of the dangers of contact?

    I definitely think we have to take his warning to heart because we will one day encounter other terrestrial life forms. They’re probably going to be thousands of years more advanced than us. They’re not going to want to plunder us for resources because there are a lot of uninhabited planets out there, like Mars, that they can plunder without having to deal with restive natives like us. The main threat is that we might be in the way. In the novel The War of The Worlds, the Martians wanted to take over the Earth not because they were evil or because they didn’t like Homo sapiens. They had to remove us so Martians could thrive on Earth and terraform it so it looked like Mars.

    We have discovered 4,000 planets so far in the galaxy, and we now know that on average every star in the galaxy has a planet of some kind. So I think it’s inevitable that we’re going to bump into one of these advanced civilizations and it will change world history. Not like Cortez meeting Montezuma and shattering Aztec civilization in a matter of months. The conquistadors had a hidden agenda. They wanted to plunder the gold of the Aztecs. I don’t think the aliens will want that. And, hopefully, there’ll be a mentor to show us the way to the future without having to go to war and resort to savagery and barbarism.