The search for distant signs of life

Print More

Despite what its title might lead one to expect, Adam Frank’s “The Little Book of Aliens” is no “Chariots of the Gods?”

Published Oct. 23, Frank’s book is a careful, scientific examination of what we now know and speculation on what we might someday discover about extraterrestrial life and intelligence. In short, it is the polar opposite of Erich Von Daniken’s 1968 book.

A University of Rochester astrophysics professor, Frank is part of a group of like-minded scientists who since 2019 have worked under a NASA grant to see if they can detect signs of life in planets orbiting far distant stars.

So far, they have found no definitive proof. But given the likelihood that billions of such exoplanets exist and that some percentage of them might harbor life, Frank is optimistic. The existence of the first exoplanet was only confirmed in 1991. His search is just getting started.

Working entirely on his own in the 1960s, Von Daniken posited that aliens who ancient earthlings took to be gods built structures including the Egyptian pyramids, the giant Easter Island heads, Stonehenge and huge earthworks on South America’s Nazca Plain whose construction could not be otherwise explained.

A bestseller when it came out, “Chariots of the Gods?” is still in print. The eponymous 1970 documentary film it spawned is still in circulation. “Stargate,” the 1970s science fiction TV series it inspired, is still seen on broadcast and streaming channels.

Along with a plethora of books and films describing or imagining sightings and supposed encounters with UFOs, recently recast as unidentified aerial phenomena or UAPs, Von Daniken’s thesis continues to shape much of the popular understanding of what alien intelligence might be like.

To call Frank a skeptic of Von Daniken’s theories or doubter that UAPs are alien interstellar craft might be understating the case. Still, Frank confesses that as an 11-year-old bent on growing up to be an astronomer after “somehow coming across a copy of “Chariot of the Gods?,” even he once eagerly sought to spread the Von Daniken’s gospel.

“I’m like aliens, aliens built the pyramids. There’s proof—the Nazca Plains, Stonehenge and Easter Island. I’m totally into this,” Frank now wryly recalls, remembering how his father rolled his eyes.

A few years later, Frank’s already beginning to wane faith was completely shattered by a PBS documentary in which scientists familiar with the pyramids, Stonehenge and the Nazca Plains structures examined Von Daniken’s claims.

After hearing what “actual scholars who’d spent their lives studying these things like Stonehenge” had to say, Frank concluded that “(Von Daniken’s) whole book was bullshit.” While “Von Daniken never even bothered to talk to anybody who studied the Nazca Plains,” the PBS debunkers did. So, in the 14-year-old Frank’s mind, PBS won. Frank hated being taken in.  

“I just remember getting so angry,” he says. “I’m from New Jersey and I know that the worst thing that can possibly happen is to be a mark.”  

Adam Frank

Despite his disillusionment with Von Daniken, Frank remains as besotted today with the idea of intelligent extraterrestrial life as he was the child who fell under Von Daniken’s spell, maybe more so.  

In Frank’s view, what we are learning and may yet learn from data gathered by powerful telescopes like the Hubbell Space Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope put Von Daniken’s speculations to shame. The secrets they might someday reveal, he believes, could spark not only a scientific but a planetwide social and cultural revolution.

As Frank chronicles it in his book, our serious search for extraterrestrial intelligence, known in scientific circles by its acronym SETI, began more than half a century ago. Today, it is an organized, worldwide effort.

Initially, SETI searched on two fronts. One was the Voyager probe, which contained a message sent in hopes of contacting an alien civilization that might find it and contact us back. The other was through listening posts like the giant, now-collapsed radio telescope in Aricebo, Puerto Rico, that hoped to pick up a broadcast signal sent by an alien civilization.

Neither of those lines of inquiry much impresses Frank. The odds of an alien civilization intercepting a probe like Voyager or of us intercepting a message sent by an alien civilization are, in his view, impossibly slim.

If an alien civilization were to send a signal in hopes of contacting us, Frank says, its broadcast would need to be so powerful that it would have to emit the energy of a star.

For Frank, the real alien-life detection action lies in the careful study of exoplanets, the planetary bodies orbiting stars light years from our sun. Only with the relatively recent launch of powerful telescopes have we been able to detect and study such bodies. Careful observation of these distant bodies, says Frank, is far more likely to detect alien life than earlier SETI efforts.

Space telescopes are not just helping us search for alien life. Analyzing data from the beginning of time, other scientists are investigating how stars and galaxies first formed. But for Frank, such topics lack the verve of a search for life.

Stars, he says, are “all very interesting, but they’re also on one level very boring. If you give me a star at the beginning of its lifetime and you tell me its mass and its chemical composition, I pretty much know that star’s entire history. The star is not going to surprise me.

“Whereas life, if you give me a cell, a single-celled creature three and half billion years ago, there’s no way, there is absolutely no way to predict a kangaroo or a bat. Life creates, life innovates, life goes beyond itself.”

While classic SETI is based on what Frank sees as the unlikely assumption that an alien civilization is actively trying to contact us, in his group’s study of exoplanets “you’re just looking at them going about their own business. You’re just looking for a civilization’s heartbeat; you’re looking for its blood circulating; you’re looking for the things that a civilization does when it’s going about its own business.”

As Frank explains in “The Little Book of Aliens,” his search does not involve direct observation of aliens going about their business. No telescope yet devised by earth scientists is that powerful. Instead, his group searches for traces of life, signs like an oxygen-rich atmosphere or technosignatures, evidence that aliens have harvested their sun’s energy to a point where they have managed to unnaturally unbalance their planet’s ecosystem as we are doing on Earth.

Such work arguably lacks the pizzazz of conjectures like Van Daniken’s or the enticing immediacy of the U.S. government’s recent release of pilots’ multiple sightings of what might be alien craft darting about in ways our current understanding of physics cannot explain.

Frank, 61, understands the allure of such tales. A lifelong science fiction aficionado, he began our recent Zoom interview only after locking in “my favorite background,” the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, noting that it was “the original, old-school” Enterprise, not some later edition.

His own fandom notwithstanding, Frank devotes considerable space in “The Little Book of Aliens”to explaining why warp drives, worm holes and other devices science fiction writers use to move protagonists across impossibly vast reaches of space probably would never work.

And while acknowledging that some verified UAP sightings cannot be explained, he also archly wonders why an alien civilization that’s capable of traversing light years and that seems not very anxious to reveal itself would not have better cloaking devices.

Analyzing atmospheric composition of exoplanets might seem more pedestrian to some than racing about the galaxy at warp speed and encountering other, mostly humanoid, beings. But Frank sees a potentially deeply profound outcome to his endeavors.

We know that life has arisen on Earth because we are here. Right now, however, we don’t know if we are unique in the universe or just one of many instances in which chemical processes led to self-replicating substances, let alone whether technically advanced alien civilizations dot the universe.

“The only example we have of life is on Earth,” says Frank. “And so it’s really important to understand whether we’re just an accident or whether or not life has happened anywhere else. If it’s happened anywhere else, then all bets are off.”

If we were to definitively learn that life is an essential feature of the universe and not some one-off anomaly, Frank believes, that would fundamentally alter how we as a civilization think about ourselves.

Before Copernicus posited that the Earth revolved around the sun, he notes, humans imagined themselves to be the center of all creation. Finding out that we were not deeply changed pretty much all of human society.

“The Copernican revolution wasn’t just a scientific revolution,” says Frank. “The Copernican revolution played a very important role in the Reformation. That scientific idea kind of filtered down and became part of the socio-political economic upheaval that was going on.”

In the same way, the search for alien life he and others are conducting, Frank insists, is not “just a bunch of scientists, a bunch of eggheads thinking about this. A discovery this powerful, this profound would find its way into the culture. It would reshape how we live.”

Whether such life might be technologically advanced, microbial or somewhere in between would matter less than the mere fact of its existence.

“The question is whether we are alone or not,” says Frank. “I don’t think that it’s important that it be a technological civilization.”

Answering that question is especially important now, he adds, “because right now we’re fighting to understand how live on this planet. Right now, this planet is ready to shake us off like fleas on a dog.”

Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

One thought on “The search for distant signs of life

  1. NASA and the Intelligence Agencies have been lieng to us for decades and dishing out this disinformation about extraterrestrials.

    These beings are here , always been here. We’re not stupid. The NASA disinformation program is looking more and more ridiculous as one military official after another is coming forward publicly. As well as Intelligence agents , dvds, airline pilots.

    The gigues up guys. Give it up. We’re onto you. Save your intellectual distraction projects. Your own NASA officials have given congress testimony about the reality of extraterrestrials here. The game is over. We’re not stupid.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *