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Our Alien DNA

In 1960, a young astronomer by the name of Frank Drake pointed the Green Bank radio telescope at the stars Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani…and listened for the sounds of an alien civilization. Drake’s little experiment marks the official beginning of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Since that time, SETI has continued to scan greater parts of the sky, listening over wider and wider bands of the radio spectrum, but the silence has been deafening. While many have taken this as a likely sign that the cosmos is largely empty, it may be more likely that SETI’s search has been far too restricted in its scope, relying on just one particular 20th century technology that is already fading in use. As the psychedelic philosopher Terence McKenna once dryly noted, “To search expectantly for a radio signal from an extraterrestrial source is probably as culture bound a presumption as to search the galaxy for a good Italian restaurant”.

To broaden the search, other technologies of transmission have been suggested, such as lasers. But even those ideas seem limited to our cultural ideas of an ‘advanced’, artificial technology – but which seem likely to be considered as quaint just a century or two into our future. What if, however, aliens had already left a message for us, ‘hidden in plain sight’, since the dawn of history? What if we only had to look within ourselves?

A paper published last year in Icarus, the prestigious journal of planetary science, asked if it was possible that terrestrial life on Earth had been ‘seeded’ from beyond the Earth – and if so, does the building block of that life, DNA, contain any sort of message from our alien creators. Using mathematics, the authors of the paper – “The “Wow! signal” of the terrestrial genetic code” – looked for evidence of a statistically strong ‘informational’ signal in the genetic code, with surprising results:

Here we show that the terrestrial code displays a thorough precision-type orderliness matching the criteria to be considered an informational signal. Simple arrangements of the code reveal an ensemble of arithmetical and ideographical patterns of the same symbolic language. Accurate and systematic, these underlying patterns appear as a product of precision logic and nontrivial computing rather than of stochastic processes (the null hypothesis that they are due to chance coupled with presumable evolutionary pathways is rejected with P-value < 10–13).

The signal displays readily recognizable hallmarks of artificiality.

(For counter-comments against the claims of the paper, see this Pharyngula blog post).

Interestingly, this was not the first time that Icarus had featured a paper entertaining the idea of ‘biological SETI’. In 1979 the journal – under editor Carl Sagan – published a paper titled “Is bacteriophage φX174 DNA a message from an extraterrestrial intelligence?”, written by Japanese biochemists Hiromitsu Yokoo and Tairo Oshima. Given how crazy the idea sounded, Sagan asked a young protégé, David Grinspoon (now a prominent astrobiologist in his own right), to check out the paper to assess whether it was legitimate. Here’s how Grinspoon describes the paper in his book Lonely Planets:

A little background will help here… Prime numbers are those that cannot be made by multiplying together any other whole numbers: 1, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13 and on up, as high as you want to go. No known formula on natural process generates them. If you see primes, you know that mind is not far behind.

A widely accepted idea for interstellar message construction is to send digital pulses that repeat with a number that is the product of two primes multiplied together. This would suggest that a two-dimensional picture is being sent. For example, if you received a message that was repeating a sequence of 143 pulses, you, or your machine, would say, “Oh, 143 is 11 times 13, and these are both prime numbers. Let’s make an 11-by-13 array and see if there’s a picture encoded here.” This technique – using primes to create easily decoded 2-D images – is a pillar of SETI theory.

Now back to the message in that virus, bacteriophage φX174. It’s the first organism for which the entire genome was decoded. A remarkable feature discovered was the presence of “overlapping genes”. These are sequences of nucleotides that can be read in two different frames, to encode for two completely different proteins. In other words, the DNA sequence CAATGGAACAACTCA, can be read as the three-letter “words” CAA TGG AAC AAC TCA, and this will instruct a cell to start building a protein by putting together the five amino acids specified by these triplets. However, starting at a different letter, the same sequence can also be read as ATG GAA CAA CTC, and so on, which will build a completely different protein. It ais as if you could write an English sentence criticizing a bickering couple, “CAN YOU TWO NAG”, that also contains a message about the ninth inning of a baseball game, “ANY OUT WON”, except that to make proteins you would have to continue in this overlapping mode for hundreds of words, with both sentences making complete sense.

But wait, there’s more. This organism (φX174) contained not one, but three pairs of these overlapping genes. And, if you count the number of letters in these overlapping sequences, you find that they are 121, 91, and 533. Each of these is the product of two prime numbers (11×11, 7×13, and 13×41). How weird is that? Here was the widely accepted signature of an intelligent message, turning up in the strangest of places.

Both the researchers, and Grinspoon, did what any SETI enthusiast would do: they attempted to use the prime number pairs to create two-dimensional pictures. Unfortunately, the pictures looked like random noise, and despite “trying all kinds of tricks” to decode them, no coherent message has ever been uncovered. (Below are “messages” that Grinspoon created from the DNA ‘information’).

David Grinspoon&#039;s Decoding of &quot;Messages&quot; in DNA

Though no alien message was found, the 1979 Icarus paper seems decidedly ahead of its time from the vantage point of the year 2014. Synthetic biology is taking leaps forward: in 2010, a team led by American biologist Craig Venter synthesized a long DNA molecule containing an entire bacterium genome, and placed it within another cell. This ‘synthetic organism’ has watermarks written into its DNA, including the names of the 46 contributing scientists and a series of quotes from the celebrated Irish novelist James Joyce. And ‘genetic artist’ Joe Davis is planning to encode the whole of Wikipedia into the genome of an apple in order to echo the the forbidden fruit that grew in the Garden of Eden – a literal “tree of knowledge”.

Note the amount of information that Davis is going to cram into the apple. Any alien ‘message’ hidden within our own DNA need not just be a short sentence; rather they could implant entire books . As science writer Dennis Overbye has commented:

The human genome…consists of some 2.9 billion of those letters — the equivalent of about 750 megabytes of data — but only about 3 percent of it goes into composing the 22,000 or so genes that make us what we are.

The remaining 97 percent, so-called junk DNA, looks like gibberish. It’s the dark matter of inner space. We don’t know what it is saying to or about us, but within that sea of megabytes there is plenty of room for the imagination to roam, for trademark labels and much more. The King James Bible, to pick one obvious example, only amounts to about five megabytes.

And the idea of biological SETI seems to make sense. Physicist George Marx wrote in support of the concept by posing a question: “How does one send a letter to a faraway planet, a letter that is light enough for easy transportation, that multiplies itself on arrival, that can correct misprints automatically, and that will be read definitely by the intelligent race of the target planet after they have reached scientific maturity?”

But is it likely that we will ever find an alien message within DNA, given the diversity of life on Earth, and the complexity of both finding and decoding such a message? Perhaps further advances in recording the genomes of various life forms, combined with advances in computer power and algorithms built to detect such patterns, will allow us to do so. As the very first SETI paper remarked, “The probability of success is difficult to estimate; but if we never search, the chance of success is zero”.

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Is Stephen Hawking right about aliens?

Stephen Hawking thinks that making contact with aliens would be a very bad idea indeed. But with new, massive telescopes, we humans are stepping up the search. Have we really thought this through?

In February 2008, Nasa sent the Beatles song, Across the Universe, across the universe. Pointing the telescopes in its Deep Space Network towards the north star, Polaris, astronomers played out their short cosmic DJ set, hoping that it might be heard by intelligent aliens during its 430-year journey to the star.

The hunt for intelligent species outside Earth may be a staple of literature and film – but it is happening in real life, too. Nasa probes are on the lookout for planets outside our solar system, and astronomers are carefully listening for any messages being beamed through space. How awe-inspiring it would be to get confirmation that we are not alone in the universe, to finally speak to an alien race. Wouldn’t it?

Well no, according to the eminent physicist Stephen Hawking. “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans,” Hawking has said in a forthcoming documentary made for the Discovery Channel. He argues that, instead of trying to find and communicate with life in the cosmos, humans would be better off doing everything they can to avoid contact.

Hawking believes that, based on the sheer number of planets that scientists know must exist, we are not the only life-form in the universe. There are, after all, billions and billions of stars in our galaxy alone, with, it is reasonable to expect, an even greater number of planets orbiting them. And it is not unreasonable to expect some of that alien life to be intelligent, and capable of interstellar communication. So, when someone with Hawking’s knowledge of the universe advises against contact, it’s worth listening, isn’t it?

Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the Seti Institute in California, the world’s leading organisation searching for telltale alien signals, is not so sure. “This is an unwarranted fear,” Shostak says. “If their interest in our planet is for something valuable that our planet has to offer, there’s no particular reason to worry about them now. If they’re interested in resources, they have ways of finding rocky planets that don’t depend on whether we broadcast or not. They could have found us a billion years ago.”

If we were really worried about shouting in the stellar jungle, Shostak says, the first thing to do would be to shut down the BBC, NBC, CBS and the radars at all airports. Those broadcasts have been streaming into space for years – the oldest is already more than 80 light years from Earth – so it is already too late to stop passing aliens watching every episode of Big Brother or What Katie and Peter Did Next.

The biggest and most active hunt for life outside Earth started in 1960, when Frank Drake pointed the Green Bank radio telescope in West Virginia towards the star Tau Ceti. He was looking for anomalous radio signals that could have been sent by intelligent life. Eventually, his idea turned into Seti (standing for Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence), which used the downtime on radar telescopes around the world to scour the sky for any signals. For 50 years, however, the sky has been silent.

There are lots of practical problems involved in hunting for aliens, of course, chief among them being distance. If our nearest neighbours were life-forms on the (fictional) forest moon of Endor, 1,000 light years away, it would take a millennium for us to receive any message they might send. If the Endorians were watching us, the light reaching them from Earth at this very moment would show them our planet as it was 1,000 years ago; in Europe that means lots of fighting between knights around castles and, in north America, small bands of natives living on the great plains. It is not a timescale that allows for quick banter – and, anyway, they might not be communicating in our direction.

The lack of a signal from ET has not, however, prevented astronomers and biologists (not to mention film-makers) coming up with a whole range of ideas about what aliens might be like. In the early days of Seti, astronomers focused on the search for planets like ours – the idea being that, since the only biology we know about is our own, we might as well assume aliens are going to be something like us. But there’s no reason why that should be true. You don’t even need to step off the Earth to find life that is radically different from our common experience of it.

“Extremophiles” are species that can survive in places that would quickly kill humans and other “normal” life-forms. These single-celled creatures have been found in boiling hot vents of water thrusting through the ocean floor, or at temperatures well below the freezing point of water. The front ends of some creatures that live near deep-sea vents are 200C warmer than their back ends.

“In our naive and parochial way, we have named these things extremophiles, which shows prejudice – we’re normal, everything else is extreme,” says Ian Stewart, a mathematician at Warwick University and author of What Does A Martian Look Like? “From the point of view of a creature that lives in boiling water, we’re extreme because we live in much milder temperatures. We’re at least as extreme compared to them as they are compared to us.”

On Earth, life exists in water and on land but, on a giant gas planet, for example, it might exist high in the atmosphere, trapping nutrients from the air swirling around it. And given that aliens may be so out of our experience, guessing motives and intentions if they ever got in touch seems beyond the realm’s even of Hawking’s mind.

Paul Davies, an astrophysicist at Arizona State University and chair of Seti’s post-detection taskforce, argues that alien brains, with their different architecture, would interpret information very differently from ours. What we think of as beautiful or friendly might come across as violent to them, or vice versa. “Lots of people think that because they would be so wise and knowledgeable, they would be peaceful,” adds Stewart. “I don’t think you can assume that. I don’t think you can put human views on to them; that’s a dangerous way of thinking. Aliens are alien. If they exist at all, we cannot assume they’re like us.”

Answers to some of these conundrums will begin to emerge in the next few decades. The researchers at the forefront of the work are astrobiologists, working in an area that has steadily marched in from the fringes of science thanks to the improvements in technology available to explore space.

Scientists discovered the first few extrasolar planets in the early 1990s and, ever since, the numbers have shot up. Today, scientists know of 443 planets orbiting around more than 350 stars. Most are gas giants in the mould of Jupiter, the smallest being Gliese 581, which has a mass of 1.9 Earths. In 2009, Nasa launched the Kepler satellite, a probe specifically designed to look for Earth-like planets.

Future generations of ground-based telescopes, such as the proposed European Extremely Large Telescope (with a 30m main mirror), could be operational by 2030, and would be powerful enough to image the atmospheres of faraway planets, looking for chemical signatures that could indicate life. The Seti Institute also, finally, has a serious piece of kit under construction: the Allen Array (funded by a $11.5m/£7.5m donation from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen) has, at present, 42 radio antennae, each six metres in diameter, but there are plans, if the Seti Institute can raise another $35m, to have up to 300 radio dishes.

In all the years that Seti has been running, it has managed to look carefully at less than 1,000 star systems. With the full Allen Array, they could look at 1,000 star systems in a couple of years.

Shostak is confident that, as telescope technology keeps improving, Seti will find an ET signal within the next two decades. “We will have looked at another million star systems in two dozen years. If this is going to work, it will work soon.”

And what happens if and when we detect a signal? “My strenuous advice will be that the coordinates of the transmitting entity should be kept confidential, until the world community has had a chance to evaluate what it’s dealing with,” Davies told the Guardian recently. “We don’t want anybody just turning a radio telescope on the sky and sending their own messages to the source.”

But his colleague, Shostak, says we should have no such concerns. “You’ll have told the astronomical community – that’s thousands of people. Are you going to ask them all not to tell anybody where you’re pointing your antenna? There’s no way you could do that.

“And anyway, why wouldn’t you tell them where [the alien lifeform] is? Are you afraid people will broadcast their own message? They might do that but, remember, The Gong Show has already been broadcast for years.” And, for that matter, the Beatles.

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The Truth about Those “Alien Alloys” in The New York Times UFO Story

Is the government really stockpiling materials in a Nevada building that scientists cannot identify?

What to make of a Las Vegas building full of unidentified alloys?

The New York Times published a stunning story (Dec. 16) revealing that the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) had, between 2007 and 2012, funded a $22 million program for investigating UFOs. The story included three revelations that were tailored to blow readers’ minds:

1. Many high-ranking people in the federal government believe aliens have visited planet Earth.

2. Military pilots have recorded videos of UFOs with capabilities that seem to outstrip all known human aircraft, changing direction and accelerating in ways no fighter jet or helicopter could ever accomplish.

3. In a group of buildings in Las Vegas, the government stockpiles alloys and other materials believed to be associated with UFOs.

Points one and two are weird, but not all that compelling on their own: The world already knew that plenty of smart folks believe in alien visitors, and that pilots sometimes encounter strange phenomena in the upper atmosphere – phenomena explained by entities other than space aliens, such as a weather balloon, a rocket launch or even a solar eruption.

Point No. 3, though – those buildings full of alloys and other materials – that’s a little harder to hand wave away. Is there really a DOD cache full of materials from out of this world?

One of the authors of the Times report, Ralph Blumenthal, had this to say on MSNBC about the alloys: “They have, as we reported in the paper, some material from these objects that is being studied so that scientists can find what accounts for their amazing properties, this technology of these objects, whatever they are.” When asked what the materials were, Blumenthal responded, “They don’t know. They’re studying it, but it’s some kind of compound that they don’t recognize.”

Here’s the thing, though: The chemists and metallurgists Live Science spoke to – experts in identifying unusual alloys – don’t buy it.

“I don’t think it’s plausible that there’s any alloys that we can’t identify,” Richard Sachleben, a retired chemist and member of the American Chemical Society’s panel of experts, told Live Science. “My opinion? That’s quite impossible.”

Alloys are mixtures of different kinds of elemental metals. They’re very common – in fact, Sachleben said, they’re more common on Earth than pure elemental metals are – and very well understood. Brass is an alloy. So is steel. Even most naturally occurring gold on Earth is an alloy made up of elemental gold mixed with other metals, like silver or copper. [8 Important Elements You’ve Never Heard Of]

“There are databases of all known phases [of metal], including alloys,” May Nyman, a professor in the Oregon State University Department of Chemistry, told Live Science. Those databases include straightforward techniques for identifying metal alloys.

If an unknown alloy appeared, Nyman said it would be relatively simple to figure out what it was made of.

For crystalline alloys – those in which the mixture of atoms forms an ordered structure – researchers use a technique called X-ray diffraction, Nyman said.

“The X-ray’s wavelength is about the same size as the distance between the atoms [of crystalline alloys],” Nyman said, “so that means when the X-rays go into a well-ordered material, they diffract [change shape and intensity] – and from that diffraction [pattern] you can get information that tells you the distance between the atoms, what the atoms are, and how well-ordered the atoms are. It tells you all about the arrangement of your atoms.”

With noncrystalline, amorphous alloys, the process is a bit different, but not by much.

“These are all very standard techniques in research labs, so if we had such mysterious metals, you could take it to any university where research is done, and they could tell you what are the elements and something about the crystalline phase within a few hours,” Nyman said.

Sachleben agreed.

“There are no alloys that are sitting in some warehouse that we cannot figure out what they are. In fact, it’s pretty simple, and any reasonably good metallurgical grad student can do it for you,” he said.

Nyman said that if metals did fall from some mysterious aircraft, some forensics experiments would quickly answer a lot of questions about that aircraft. [UFO Mysteries: These Sightings Have Never Been Solved]

“How has the hunk of metal changed?” Nyman said. “From my scientist’s perspective, that’s the kind of question I’d be asking. Maybe, if it has to do with world politics, and we want to know where the metal comes from, maybe there’s some analysis that can lead you to where it was mined, or what country uses that particular alloy, that kind of thing.”

If the aircraft had come from space, Nyman said, that travel would leave telltale signs in the metal as well, in the form of spacefaring debris and ionization (changes to the electrical charges of the substance’s atoms).

Even if a chunk of alloy that hadn’t been seen before did fall to Earth from outer space, both Nyman and Sachleben agreed that it wouldn’t necessarily have come from an alien craft. In fact, Sachleben said, alloys strike the planet regularly – space-traversing alloys like those found in fairly common nickel-iron meteorites – leaving behind telltale signs. The meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs was even identified by the rare-Earth metals it left behind in certain geological formations in Earth’s crust.

It’s important to point out that while Blumenthal did go on cable news and say the alloys were unidentifiable mysteries, helping to spur speculation, that’s not what his article actually stated. Here’s the full quote from Saturday’s piece:

“The company [involved in the DOD research] modified buildings in Las Vegas for the storage of metal alloys and other materials that … program contractors said had been recovered from unidentified aerial phenomena. Researchers also studied people who said they had experienced physical effects from encounters with the objects and examined them for any physiological changes. In addition, researchers spoke to military service members who had reported sightings of strange aircraft.”

From this statement, there’s no actual sign that there’s anything unusual about the alloys themselves. All the Times wrote was that the DOD researchers tasked with finding weird UFO stuff collected some metal, interviewed some people who had claimed startling experiences with it, and decided that it was UFO-related.

In an email to Live Science regarding these metal alloys, Blumenthal said, “We printed as much as we were able to verify. Can’t go beyond that.”

As for whether there’s an explanation at least for the metals themselves, Sachleben said: “There’s not as many mysteries in science as people like to think. It’s not like we know everything – we don’t know everything. But most things we know enough about to know what we don’t know.”

Source www.scientificamerican.com


Also published on Medium.

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Aliens & UFO's

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin Passes Lie Detector Test About Alien Encounter

Aldrin reportedly passed the lie detector test during his recollection of his close encounter with alien life during the 1969 Apollo 11 mission to the moon.  

He was part of the test that also analyzed interviews from astronauts Al Worden, Edgar Mitchell and Gordon Cooper.

Experts said their results prove they were ‘completely convinced’ that their claims of alien life were genuine.

Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin has reportedly passed a lie detector test after recalling his apparent encounter with alien life during the historic 1969 mission to the moon.

Aldrin, 88, was a part of the test that also analyzed interviews from astronauts Al Worden, Edgar Mitchell and Gordon Cooper.

Recorded interviews of the astronauts were tested using the latest technology at the Institute of BioAcoustic Biology in Albany, Ohio.

Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin (right) has reportedly passed a lie detector test after recalling his apparent encounter with alien life during the 1969 mission to the moon. Pictured are Neil Armstrong (left) and Michael Collins (center)

Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin (right) has reportedly passed a lie detector test after recalling his apparent encounter with alien life during the 1969 mission to the moon. Pictured are Neil Armstrong (left) and Michael Collins (center)

Aldrin (pictured on the moon), 88, participated in the test along with astronauts Al Worden, Edgar Mitchell and Gordon Cooper

Aldrin pictured in February 2018

Aldrin (left on the moon and right in 2018), 88, participated in the test along with astronauts Al Worden, Edgar Mitchell and Gordon Cooper

Experts claim their results prove they were ‘completely convinced’ that their claims of aliens were genuine, according to the Daily Star.

Aldrin has always maintained he spotted a UFO on the way to the moon.

‘There was something out there that was close enough to be observed, sort of L-shaped,’ Aldrin, who is the second human to set foot on the moon, recalled.

The Institute of BioAcoustic Biology conducted an analysis of the astronauts’ voice patterns as they spoke about their encounters.

BioAcoustic’s Sharry Edwards told the Daily Star that their tests revealed Aldrin is sure he saw the UFO even though his logical mind ‘cannot explain it’.

Last year, Apollo 15 pilot Al Worden, 86, told Good Morning Britain that he saw extra-terrestrials during his mission.

Cooper (pictured) had previously described trying to chase a cluster of objects

In a 2009 interview, Mitchell (pictured), who was a part of the Apollo 14 mission, claimed he saw multiple UFOs

Last year, Apollo 15 pilot Al Worden (pictured), 86, said he saw aliens during his mission

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The Institute of BioAcoustic Biology conducted an analysis of the astronauts’ voice patterns as they spoke about their encounters. Last year, Apollo 15 pilot Al Worden (right), 86, said he saw aliens during his mission. Pictured are Edgar Mitchell (center) and Gordon Cooper (left)

Experts claim their results prove they were 'completely convinced' that signs of alien life they claimed to have witnessed were genuine. Al Worden is pictured (center) next to astronauts David Scott (left) and James Irwin (right)

Experts claim their results prove they were ‘completely convinced’ that signs of alien life they claimed to have witnessed were genuine. Al Worden is pictured (center) next to astronauts David Scott (left) and James Irwin (right)

Voice recordings of NASA astronauts Edgar Mitchell and Gordon Cooper, who are both deceased, were also analyzed.

In a 2009 interview, Mitchell, who was a part of the Apollo 14 mission, claimed he saw multiple UFOs.

Cooper had previously described trying to chase a cluster of objects.

According to the Daily Star, the tests revealed that Cooper and Mitchell believed they were telling the truth.

The technology is still top-secret, but it has been claimed that these tests are more reliable than current lie detector tests.

Daily Mail

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