Would We Recognize Extraterrestrial Technology If We Saw It?

There’s a common critique in science fiction series like Star Trek about the extraterrestrial species not looking ‘alien’ enough, as well as about their technology being strangely similar to our own, not to mention compatible to the point where their widgets can be integrated into terrestrial systems by any plucky engineer. Is this critique justified, or perhaps more succinctly put: if we came across real extraterrestrial life with real extraterrestrial technology, would we even notice? Would an alien widget borrowed of an alien spacecraft even work with our own terrestrial spacecraft’s system?

Within the domain of exobiology there are still plenty of discussions on the possible formation and evolutionary paths conceivable within the Universe, but the overarching consensus seems to be that it’s hard to escape the herding effect of fundamental physics. For lifeforms, carbon-based chemistry is the only reasonable option, and when it comes to technology, it’s hard to not end up at technology using the same physical principles which we presume to exist across the Universe, which would practically guarantee some level of interoperability.

What’s notable here is that over the past years, a number of people have claimed to have observed potential alien technology in our Solar System, in particular the ʻOumuamua asteroid in 2017 and a more recent claim by astrophysicist Abraham Loeb regarding an interstellar meteor that impacted Earth in 2019, which he says could be proof of ‘alien technology’. This raises the question of whether we are literally being pummeled by extraterrestrial spacecraft these days.

Space Is Boring

Most of space is literally just that: seemingly endless stretches with nothing but some electromagnetic radiation and potentially virtual particle pairs briefly zipping about in a vacuum. From the center of the Sun to Neptune’s orbit is 30.11 AU, or approximately 4.5 billion km, and outside the cozy confines of our Solar System it’s a trip of more than 4.2 light years to the next planetary system in the form of Proxima Centauri.

Traveling beyond the bounds of the Milky Way galaxy, distances to other galaxies are measured in millions of light years, meaning that even when traveling at 1 c, traveling to these galaxies would take longer than humans have existed in any form. This means effectively that all the space probes like Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 – which we sent into interstellar space at a relatively leisurely pace of over 30 km/s – will not approach another planetary system until many thousands of years into the future.

Simulated view of the Voyager probes relative to the solar system and heliopause on August 2, 2018. (Credit: NASA)
Simulated view of the Voyager probes relative to the solar system and heliopause on August 2, 2018. (Credit: NASA)

What this sobering realization also shows us is just how unlikely it is that an extraterrestrial spacecraft would somehow end up in our neighborhood, all the way here in a sparsely populated region of the Milky Way. Perhaps ironically, the likelihood of this happening would be much higher if it was deliberate, rather than a derelict alien space probe. Yet even then in the absence of faster-than-light traveling capacity, such a spacecraft would likely have been underway long before humanity had begun to differentiate itself from the other ape species on Earth, or mammals had begun to throw off the shackles of dinosaur tyranny.

Ultimately, planetary systems even within the same galaxy are rather isolated. This makes the possibility of having even something as mundane as another civilization’s space trash zip through our neighborhood both exceedingly unlikely and extremely exciting. But exactly how do we tell the difference between a comet rich in metals and a sophisticated extraterrestrial probe?

Is It A Rock? Is It A UFO?

English: Hyperbolic trajectory of ʻOumuamua through the inner Solar System, with the Sun at the focus, showing its position every 7 days. The planet positions are fixed at the perihelion on September 9, 2017. Shown from a three-quarter perspective, roughly aligned to the plane of ʻOumuamua's path. (Credit: Tomruen, Wikipedia)
Hyperbolic trajectory of ʻOumuamua through the inner Solar System, with the Sun at the focus, showing its position every 7 days. The planet positions are fixed at the perihelion on September 9, 2017. Shown from a three-quarter perspective, roughly aligned to the plane of ʻOumuamua’s path. (Credit: Tomruen, Wikipedia)

When a large enough object enters our solar system, we are likely to pick it up using telescopes, after which we can begin to figure out what exactly it is that we’re dealing with. The easiest clue as to whether we’re dealing with anything interesting is the trajectory and speed of the object, which is why ʻOumuamua was considered to be so interesting, as based on its calculated trajectory it came from far beyond the solar system, making it a rare visitor from probably another solar system within the Milky Way, or even far beyond.

From what we can determine, this particular object has likely been moving through the Milky Way for at least hundreds of thousands and likely billions of Earth years, yet its somewhat unusual elongated shape invited speculation about it being more than just a rocky asteroid, with Abraham Loeb pitching the idea that it was in fact a spaceship. Part of this speculation came from oddities in the asteroid’s velocity as it neared our solar system, but subsequent observations showed the object to be consistent with other, non-extrastellar asteroids. Attempts to detect any radio frequency emissions also led to nothing, and with the asteroid being too far removed from Earth to get a close-up look, much of what we know about it is based on its spectra.

A few years after ʻOumuamua passed silently through our solar system, another interstellar visitor made its presence known in the form of 2I/Borisov, or Borisov for short. This was a comet that made an even briefer visit, finding its path deflected by the Sun before it continued on its trajectory through the Milky Way. Making interstellar visitors even less rare is CNEOS 2014-01-08, which is the meteor that Abraham Loeb got excited about since it’s an interstellar object which not just passed through the solar system, but which actually crashed onto Earth.

After obtaining the 10 km radius of the meteor’s suspected crash site off the coast of Papua New Guinea, Loeb and colleagues recovered some metallic spherules in the area, which he claims to have a composition that points towards the meteor having been an extraterrestrial spacecraft of some type with astounding alien properties. Whether these spherules are in fact connected to the meteor is still left up for interpretation, as they are not composed out of any alien metals, just the same iron, silicon, magnesium and titanium you’d expect to find on and outside Earth.

Axiom Vs Infinity

Perhaps what drives some of us to believe in ‘alien technology’ to be somehow magical is the belief that there must be something beyond the boring physics which we are currently trapped in. When we consider for example that many people put their faith in supernatural beings, fantastic existences beyond anything we can observe or measure, the ability of crystals, magnets and even plain water to effect reality in ways beyond any reasonable explanation, not to mention harmful effects of things long after no negative effect has been demonstrated.

To the rational, scientific mind, the Universe we have found ourselves in can be a source of marvel, but it’s nevertheless a purely rational and deterministic system. Through the scientific method we are able to convert observations into theorems and theories which we can then subject to validation through experimental and observational data. If the data fits the theory’s prediction, it passes, if it does not, either the theory is wrong, or the way the data was obtained was flawed.

Where some may question whether we really know anything is when they learn about the concept of axioms, which are essentially assumptions, and the axiomatic systems that underlies much of today’s mathematics and ultimately also some elements of physics. Yet as flawed as it may seem that we would hold certain truths to be self-evident, they’re a practical way to prevent issues like infinite regression as we try to define a set of terms. If not, one could conceivably discard the axiom that ‘1 equals 1’ by dismantling the axiomatic definitions underlying the property of one term equaling another.

Self-evidence here is not a sign of laziness, but rather one of fundamental understanding. This is exemplified by the fundamental electrical components which were postulated and gradually proven to exist based on an increasing understanding of electrical circuits and their potential properties. Of these the components, the resistor, capacitor and inductor were first discovered, followed eventually by the memristor.

What this demonstrates is how improved understanding of one part of a system can allow us to predict that which we have yet to discover, even if it’s something that defies intuitive understanding like magnetic monopoles.

Alien Is Relative

As someone once put it: “Where are all the time travelers?” in reference to the concept of time travel being possible, which is a statement that should put to rest the idea of either time travel being invented, or humanity going extinct before it is able to do so. Part of existing in this universe is to accept that there’s so much that we do not know, and perhaps will never know. All we know today is that even within the minuscule time period of a hundred rotations of the Earth around the Sun, humankind has fought a number of world wars, discovered modern medicine, invented computer technology and semiconductors.

To our ancestors and even to those who are living well into their twilight years today, the world we inhabit today seems alien in many ways. What will human technology look like in a hundred years, or a thousand? What about 100,000 years from now? Within the timescale of the Universe, those are still tiny numbers during which a particularly shaped space rock can leisurely zip around the Milky Way a few times, each time passing by a specific solar system in which over billions of years some goop turned into multicellular organisms which eventually turned into mammals that invented sliced bread and computers.

Is there truly extraterrestrial life out there, or is it mostly what we keep telling ourselves to feel less lonely in this grand and yet so empty Universe? Whatever may be the case, if we ever do meet up, we’re likely to be able to exchange technology, even if it’s the equivalent of wiring up a 1930s vacuum tube radio to a 2020s super computer. Which will naturally be just where we have that plucky engineer jump in.

92 thoughts on “Would We Recognize Extraterrestrial Technology If We Saw It?

  1. I want to believe, but our location in the vast dimensions of time and space are discouraging. Meanwhile, can we teach whales and dolphins to speak to us (or vice versa) How about cephalopods? It might prove a useful exercise for our descendants.

    1. Dolphins and whales are about as smart as pigs/dogs.

      The _assertion_ that they are as smart as humans was made based on brain size by a person on LSD at the time (hippies name escapes me). He spent the rest of his life tripping balls and failing to teach Dolphins to communicate…Good gig if you can get it.

      We now know (fMRI) that the extra brain mass is sonar processing. But just try and revise a popular fairy tale, see what it gets you.

          1. You don’t get te point.
            He points out that humans are also not as smart as we think… :)
            Some are, but the current collective smartness is not far above the collective smartness of the dark ages.

          2. Don’t give him that much credit.

            He saw a fact he didn’t like and attacked the messenger.
            His comment was ‘yours’ not ‘humans’.
            It’s just anger because Santa isn’t real.

            We’re no smarter than dark age humans, just some are better educated.
            Less are mis-educated, but marxists have mostly picked up what the religious have lost.

          3. Well, Dolphins are smarter at interpreting biological sonar without technological aids. So there’s that.

            Oh, wait, you mean “smarter” is a really subjective criteria that human society is continually struggling with creating benchmarks for even with our own species and species’ creations?

            So long and thanks for all the fish.

      1. John Lilly did research. He had previously explored isolation tanks and LSD. See Altered States.

        Fred Neil gave up music to hang out with dolphins.

        Actor Burgess Meredith was involved in Lilly’s dolphin project.

    2. Emphasis on vast dimensions of time and space. If a probe ever passed through our system passively, simply coasting for thousands of years after an acceleration phase long, long ago and far, far away—like the ʻOumuamua hypothesis—we would probably never know for sure, and it wouldn’t matter because interception would be completely impossible. It would rapidly be shooting for the heliopause again long before we could get out to it, or even get a really good look at it.

      But if something interstellar propulsively entered the system and slowed down enough for capture? Oh, we’d definitely spot that. You can’t expend that much energy in space and not expect everybody within a light-year’s radius to notice. It would also mean a level of energy expenditure which would be enormously dangerous; we would basically be at the mercy of anything like that, and all they’d have to do to get rid of us is simply neglect to hit the brakes.

      1. I could see something Oumuamua being a probe. Not using solar power and radio waves, but it could orbit a sun, taking thousands of years. Its orbit and shape being slightly altered over millennia, and those features could be been seen from afar before it goes back in for another reading. Of course its initial trajectory would be aimed so that it never crashes into a planet or the sun. If it ever stops reporting, then you could assume intelligent life has interfered with it.

      2. ESA’s Comet Interceptor mission should be able to do a flyby of one of these if one happens to arrive during its window of opportunity. Unlike most space exploration missions, it uses a spacecraft that’s launched on an arbitrary date and just waits in space for a target to come by before departing to meet it. It’s planned to be launched in 2029 (with ARIEL) and then wait up to 3 years. There are several other mission proposals with similar capabilities, some involving sails. There’s also Project Lyra, which is about catching up with ʻOumuamua specifically. There was even a NIAC project recently about the feasibility of a sample return from an interstellar object using advanced nuclear electric propulsion.

        1. Waiting implies that it spent energy launching, and then spent that energy again to either come to a full stop, or at least go into some stable orbit around the sun. And then it would need all that energy again to accelerate towards some object, somewhere in the solar system.

          That’s a *lot* of energy spent for a really, really tiny chance that it might somehow, completely by chance, be close to an event when it happens. This comes really close to an extremely expensive gamble, in my opinion.

          But then again, I did not really do the math, and the math might be favorable.

  2. One of the things I find funny about “ancient aliens” and “alien technology” is we always seam to make it look like rocks and crystals and low tech looking kinda like from our past as if we are superior in tech but expect alien tech to me low tech looking and magic. – heck, even the main pic of this article looks like rocks

    1. Science fiction is extremely limited having its hands tied by the expectations of the general public.
      In a way it is backwards from what you’d expect. The plot will inform you something is alien, and the only job “how it looks” has to do is not push you into thinking it is earthly/human.

      Science fact is that you don’t need to go (relatively) all that far back in Earths tree of life before things get bizarre enough. Once you get back to the earliest domain splits it isn’t hard to find examples of life initially not recognized as such (think bacteria)
      Moving the root node back one level from Earth will be equally as unrecognizable at best.

    2. It’s not quite the same, but this reminds me of a corollary to Clarke’s third law (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”): “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from nature.” I don’t remember for sure who said it—maybe Karl Schroeder or Charles Stross. Anyway, I think the argument was that advancement of technology makes it more efficient, unobtrusive, self-healing, etc., with one predicted endpoint being very animal-like or plant-like technology, and other being technology that could be as small as interplanetary dust and produce insignificant waste heat, so it would be very difficult to detect as anything but natural dust, while actually being similar to a Dyson sphere, matrioshka brain, etc. I’ve also seen an argument against this, but I don’t remember what it was.

      1. If it’s indistinguishable from nature, why call it technology?

        The smart dust scenarios are sci-fantasy because “nano-machines” at the scale of molecules are about as dumb as a virus. To have any greater function, they would have to communicate using energy, glow light in the dark or emit radio waves, etc. which would make their activity easily detectable.

        1. The size of the dust particles also limits what sort of thing they can use for communication. Wavelengths much longer than the body would not be efficiently radiated or absorbed, so they would pretty much have to glow in the high Terahertz, infrared, or visible light spectrum.

          1. It depends on their density. If the overall density of the dust is large enough, they could conceivably work together collectively and communicate using shorter-range methods (e.g. more near-field coupling) that are harder to detect at distance. The increased *number* makes them more detectable, of course, but if you’re really trying to be covert you might be able to overcome that somehow by trying to detect being probed and becoming inert.

            The energy problem is a bigger deal for smart dust.

  3. I firmly believe that life of some sort exists out there … the size of the universe makes that almost a statistical certainty. However, interstellar travel is really, really, really, really difficult and the nature of the universe in general as we know it involves a lot of chaos and competition in one form or other. I think it is far more likely that civilizations develop the means and probability of making themselves extinct long before they can develop the means of interstellar travel. UFOs are something, but they aren’t tin cans with aliens in them.

    The fact that many people believe aliens have visited our planet is hardly evidence of anything. Surveys have shown that roughly 40% of Americans believe in ghosts and an even greater percentage believe in demons. Almost 10% believe in vampires and werewolves. I suspect that the percentages are even higher globally.

    1. > that civilizations develop the means and probability of making themselves extinct long before they can develop the means of interstellar travel.

      I suspect that is too narrow in thinking – the shear scope of the universe means life that can easily travel interstellar distances I’d say is just as much a certainty as life in general out there somewhere. In the same way I have to disagree with the article that ‘Carbon based is the only reasonable’ option for life – the conditions that can exist across such a vast space mean you get strong suggestions of plants that rain gemstone etc. Something that meets all the criteria for life under such different environmental conditions may well not be Carbon based as in chemistry temperature and pressure really matter!

      The Tardigrade are really darn resilient for instance, if they can exist here there is no reason something similar can’t evolve elsewhere. And if it is effectively dead until it reaches the next resource zone and revives it could potentially end up a very complex and intelligent organism. Squirrel jumping from tree to tree but on a galactic scale with a period of dormancy in-between means a civilisation that travels across space and will eventually will bump into other civilisation. Now the odds of one of those sort of space faring civilisations ever crossing paths with any specific other civilisation are bound to be really really low, as the same argument of scale that makes life out there very likely also makes overlap much less likely. Also to me it seems rather more likely an intelligent species that jumps across the void aims for really young/still forming stars as they know the resources they need will be there by the time they arrive. And those systems probably won’t have had time to develop life even once they have crossed that void – might even wind up causing new evolution in that system that won’t really bear fruit until long after they have moved on to the next…

      1. I really don’t like the “this is narrow thinking” idea. You get to “liquid water and carbon based life” by just asking the question “using the most common elements in the Universe, what’s the best way to produce a practically-unlimited set of molecules for use in chemistry?” CHON are the most common reactive elements in the Universe, and water’s a very strong dipole.

        The main way to jump around it is to work at temperatures/pressures where water wouldn’t work, but at lower temperatures everything works slower and at higher temperatures, hydrogen bonds rip apart too easily (and you *need* to use hydrogen bonds, hydrogen’s too common).

        I’m not saying alternative biochemistries aren’t possible, but if there are any… it’s almost certainly a very small number.

        1. Indeed, the more unusual the condition that favour something the less common it aught to be, not disputing that. But again we are getting into the shear scale of the universe – if such an environment can exist at all it quite probably does many more times than once.

          1. It’s not an issue of “if it can exist,” it’s “is it stable enough to last for long but reactive enough to build up enough complexity to persist through changes.”

            Anything at lower temperatures is going to develop slower, and life *already used* a significant fraction of our star’s lifespan to start up. So in some sense, you probably can’t go much colder. And at higher temperatures you’re going to limit the complexity you can reach, and life only barely survived early extinction events, so any limit on complexity could easily just result in an immediate “poof” once things change.

            These are effects that would persist anywhere in the Universe, not just here.

          2. Just because chemistry happens slower at low temp and pressure doesn’t actually require that this ‘life’ will be slower to develop – massively parallel slow cycle CPU vs more sequential all the GHz type argument, both can get a similarly complex task done in similar time potentially. And the estimated age of the universe vs the age of our star gives plenty of scope for much slower development anyway.

            Obviously there is always going to be some requirement for stable enough conditions, but again giant universe it is certain to happen more than once.

          3. I don’t agree with your statement about temperatures. It’s just chemistry. You’re asking for reactions to happen. If you reduce the available energy, they won’t happen as often, and things will take longer. There’s no magic alien ability to fix this.

            And you can’t use “the Universe is so old” trick: it doesn’t matter. No place in the Universe is going to be safe and stable for much longer than life on Earth already takes. Asteroid impacts, orbital changes, stellar changes, nearby high-energy events, etc. It takes a lot of diversity and complexity to survive things like that. Too early on and it’s just “poof.”

            It’s a bit of a miracle that Earth’s been relatively stable for a billion years or so, but that’s partly because we have the Moon. And we don’t have another billion: so saying “it’s okay, you can take 10 Gyr to develop” is crazy. No planet’s going to be in a stable space for that long.

          4. My point on slower chemistry perhaps not always mattering is simply volume that was suitable for the development of life – a much bigger volume can run much slower chemistry and still potentially get to the same sort of result in the same time, as its got so many more chances to get lucky in those right conditions and develop life, and once it has got that self replicating life it can have so many more lifeforms around at once to have more chance of lucky mutations in each generation. And who said life has to develop on the surface layers of a rocky planet like ours, gas giants are huge and could be made of a sufficiently complex chemical soup, as could a stellar nursery (after a few failed big stars dump the higher complexity elements) and both of those don’t tend to change very much for a very long time as far as we know.

          5. I don’t understand how volume could help. Chemistry needs mixing, which needs density. Spread everything out more and not only does the chemistry run slower, the mixing runs much slower, too.

            I’ll believe the idea of gas layer biochemistries when I see it. You need chemicals trapped in an area physically for them to interact. Doesn’t happen in gas layers: a heavier chemical forms and poof, it’s gone. And in free space? Nothing there to drive the mixing! Liquid mixing is many orders of magnitude faster.

            And what the heck do you mean “gas giants and gas clouds in space don’t change over long timescales”? Of course they do. Gas giants get whacked with space rocks all the time, and gas clouds… turn into solar systems!

          6. Neither change in the sort of time scales we are saying you probably require (at least with our current modelling most remain practically unchanging across their full scope). And if anything rock strikes provide that stirring effect you say is ‘required’ while making virtually no difference to anything it passes through – it would have to be a planet collision to really be more than adding a drop of food colouring to the sea in change as the scale of the gas giant is so damn huge.

            Fundamentally life developing in gaseous environments is virtually identical to how we believe life first started here and may not even be any more diffuse depending on the conditions this gas is under – about the only state of matter that life is really really unlikely to ever form in is solid as there is so little if any diffusion of whatever reaction products form in the intermediary stages. And I’m not saying you spread the exact same amount of stuff over a bigger area somehow helps, but that having WAY WAY WAY MORE stuff in total even if it is doing all the reactions slower can end up with MORE total progress made!

          7. “Fundamentally life developing in gaseous environments is virtually identical to how we believe life first started here”

            I really, really disagree. With a pure gaseous environment there’s no way to confine anything, and once you introduce a solid surface to do the confining, liquid mixing becomes vastly more efficient kinetically.

            How do you form long complex molecules in a gaseous environment where they *stay* in that environment?

            Note that I’m not saying that *some* biological-type molecules can’t develop in a gaseous environment. Of course they can. But that’s just chemistry. The border between “biology” and “chemistry” is obviously arbitrary, but to me, it’s not biology until the molecular processes involved are effectively encoded in a library, and you’re not going to get that kind of complexity in a gaseous environment because the molecules would be too heavy.

    2. “I suspect that the percentages are even higher globally.”
      I’m guessing in turn that you are an American then eh..
      Because I see no other reason to make the assumption you make.

      1. Yes, I live in the U.S. but my comments was purely practical. It’s actually a pretty reasonable assertion based upon the education levels in Africa and some other places around the globe with high populations but weak infrastructure … like rural India and even Pakistan. I think the belief quotient in the U.S. is appallingly low, and it probably isn’t that much worse elsewhere, but you’d be very hard pressed to coherently argue that the less educated pats of the world don’t skew the profile.

    3. 80% of Americans believe in god (for roughly 84% of the world population), so I bet you are right when you said that the percentages are higher globally :)
      It hurts me when someone says “I know” when talking about aliens, ghosts, vampires, werewolves, god(s), magic stones, … Minded people, real scientifics, use “I think” or “I believe” and must accept that other people believes what they want because you cannot prove that something does not exist.
      I cannot exclude that other living beings exist somewhere, or “sometime”, so I believe because it’s pleasant to me to do so. But I will not accept if someone else would tell me what to do because he thinks that he knows. Same for the parallel medicines (how many people died because some quack told them to stop using medicine and use magic potions instead ?) or for the religions (how many wars were triggered using this argument ?).
      Science allows debate, questioning, and free thinking.
      Make science and love (because both are pleasant :), not war.

      1. “ Minded people, real scientifics, use “I think” or “I believe” and must accept that other people believes what they want because you cannot prove that something does not exist.”

        That worked real well with Covid, huh?

      2. “Minded people, real scientifics, use “I think” or “I believe” and must accept that other people believes what they want because you cannot prove that something does not exist.”

        Too little do we realize what a hindrance a language of antiquated structure is.
        Such a language does not help, but actually prevents, correct analysis through the semantic habits and structural implications embodied in it.
        — A.Korzybski

        It’s 91 years ago that Korzybski wrote this, and it’s amazing how few people it has influenced. But what’s equally amazing, is how *much* it influenced those few people.

        (The book is Science and Sanity, by Alfred Korzybski)

  4. “Traveling beyond the bounds of the Milky Way galaxy, distances to other galaxies are measured in millions of light years”

    This is kindof arbitrary. The Milky Way has plenty of satellite galaxies as close as 70 kly (and possibly closer) – that’s like, 3 times the distance to the galactic center.

    Obviously it doesn’t change the conclusion that it’d take a really long time anyway, but it *does* make the Fermi problem worse (as several researchers have pointed out), since the idea that the distance between galaxies could somehow be a barrier doesn’t really hold water: the jump from “colonizing your planet” to “colonizing your galaxy” is much, much larger than the jump from “colonizing your galaxy” to “colonizing the Universe.”

  5. >When we consider for example that many people put their faith in supernatural beings […] not to mention harmful effects of things long after no negative effect has been demonstrated

    The way the final example is worded here makes it clear that the author thinks all of the provided examples are unscientific nonsense. The whole article is about how life outside our planet could be very different from what we imagine; and yet it’s absurd to think that life might have powers that appear to us as supernatural?
    “Any technology sufficiently advanced will be indistinguishable from magic”, or something along those lines. Conversely, anything labeled as “magic” could just as easily be explained with sufficiently advanced science.

    1. I never liked the converse of Clarke’s Third Law. You have to define “magic” and “science” – if you just call magic “unexplainable phenomena” and science “knowledge that explains,” Clarke’s third law is straightforward: anyone with knowledge sufficiently past yours can show you a phenomenon that you cannot explain (using said knowledge). I guess you have to define “explain,” with something like “to explain means to understand the principles involved enough to recreate and modify said phenomenon.”

      The converse doesn’t work, though: an unexplainable phenomenon does not necessarily have to admit explanation through any amount of knowledge.

      From a storytelling type of view, the idea is that magic doesn’t have to follow *any* rules, whatsoever. It *could*, of course, which is how you get “magical technology” worlds, but it doesn’t *have* to.

      1. “From a storytelling type of view, the idea is that magic doesn’t have to follow *any* rules, whatsoever. It *could*, of course, which is how you get “magical technology” worlds, but it doesn’t *have* to.”

        “Truth is stranger than fiction, because fiction has to make sense.”
        -G.K. Chesterton

      2. Just because you can’t explain it doesn’t make it “magical”.

        From a logical standpoint, there is no such thing as supernatural. Any phenomenon that interacts with the world is in principle explorable and explainable through the same interaction, which simply extends our definition of “natural” to include this new phenomenon.

        1. “Any phenomenon that interacts with the world is in principle explorable and explainable through the same interaction,”

          No, it’s not, because the creatures inside it are bound by those laws and the laws don’t have to be reciprocal.

          The simplest example in our Universe would be a separate pocket surrounded by an event horizon. Events outside cannot be explored, even though said events do interact with the pocket.

          A similar example would be a programmer rewriting the code of a virtual environment. Inside said environment, the changes can be fundamentally unexplainable. They just happen.

    1. Even 10 years ago a smartphone with a folding screen would have seemed alien. Those exist now.
      The Wright brothers aircraft was made in 1910. The first jet powered airplane was in 1939 and would have been deemed alien in 1910.

      Plenty more examples of that in modern history. But even in the distant past the Antikythera mechanism was foreign even in modern times.

      It would definitely be possible for alien tech to not be understood, but still work and amaze us.

      1. “Even 10 years ago a smartphone with a folding screen would have seemed alien. Those exist now.”

        No. Well, maybe. Not to me and my relatives, though.
        My 90s “me” was very demanding and was eager to see real books with e-ink pages.

        Where you would turn the display pages as if it was a real book. Such experimental prototypes were being shown in shows like the “Knoff Hoff Show”, circa mid-90s or something.

        Another thing was an UMTS cellphone that looked like a digital version of an ancient scroll. It was being shown in a little book about the Cebit 1998 or Expo 2000, I think. The color LCD screen was flexible and transparent. On both ends, where you held the scroll, was the electronics installed.

        Seriously, we 20th century people weren’t undemanding. We had so many expectations for the year 2000. Like floating cars, fusion energy, world peace and an increase in space exploration and the end of social fears (basic needs being guaranteed eben without having money). A little colony on moon or mars. Or a small asteroid. Or research labs under water, like in SeaQuest DSV..

        But in the end, it was just internet technology that developed a lot. Cellphones got smaller and fused with PDAs/Palmtops. We had them in the 90s, too.

        Tablet PCs also became popular. Though they existed since the Windows 3.1x days (Windows for Pen Computing).

        So yeah, everything was pretty predictable. All the technology we adore so much now was available in a simpler form in the 90s. Yes, it was simpler, but good enough already.

        Please don’t get me wrong. I understand that technology has evolved. But it’s a niche which did. There’s more than semiconductors, die sizes and clock frequencies. Design concepts do matter, too.

        And in that respect, the smartphone isn’t ingenious. It’s a PDA with an internal cellphone module, a GPRS receiver and a camera. With the looks of a pocket mirror. Simple.

        People from the 1960s could have had come up with it, as well. Their IQ was no different than ours.

        In fact, people from 50.000 years ago had higher developed brains than us, according to studies. Because they weren’t farmers yet and did more hunting, which required a lot of different skill sets. On every person. So everyone was an universal talent, in order to survive.

        So with a little bit of education, historic people like Jesus, Cäsar or Socrates could have not only learnt our languages, but also become very fluent at using our technology. While simultaneously speaking ~5 languages and participating deep philosophical discussions.

    2. The answer to the roman dodecahedron mystery is the variable sized holes around the perimeter, and the fact that they’re found among coin hoards.

      They’re coin sorters. People used to shave gold and silver coins smaller to cheat, so an object like this is a handy tool for checking the size of a coin: if it falls through the hole, it’s been shaved.

  6. I’m impressed with Maya making dozens of statements and references that could start a lot of hate and flame wars, but avoiding such by being just vague enough.

    However, I think this line is just silly: “which would practically guarantee some level of interoperability.”

    1. I’m not. I believe there’s other life in the universe, but that’s a belief or an opinion, not a fact. This author does’t seem to know the difference between their opinion and a fact, and I bet they spend too much time on Twitter and have a lot of cats.

  7. I think we should consider a comprehensive search of our solar system for alien artifacts. Particular focus should be given to searching in the Kuiper Belt. Not so much to look for artifacts that originated outside of our solar system, but for traces of a civilization existing before our star formed some 4.6 billion plus years ago (probably in the 5 to 10 billions years ago range). I.e. look for artifacts from any civilizations that may have arisen during the 2nd generation of our star (we are currently the 3rd generation), that may have survived our systems previous supernova event. While all inner planet stuff should have been complete destroyed in the supernova, there might artifacts at the outer edge of our system that didn’t get completely destoryed.

    New Horizons could give us an opportunity to start the search:

    1. There’s… just a ton of word salad here that I have no idea what you’re trying to say. So I’ll… try, I guess?

      1. There was no “previous supernova event” in our solar system. Our solar system was *formed* by the collapse of a gas cloud that was likely *triggered* by a supernova, but that supernova wasn’t anywhere particularly close. Because if it *was* nearby, there wouldn’t be a gas cloud for the solar system to collapse from. Oh, also, there’d be a neutron star nearby scouring us to death constantly, so there’s that.

      2. Planets wouldn’t get destroyed by supernovae anyway. This is wrongly depicted and talked about *everywhere*, so it’s an understandable mistake. Plus, supernovae only come from massive stars, which usually don’t have planets, so it’s mostly an academic mistake. And to make it even *more* academic, while a planet wouldn’t be mechanically/thermally destroyed, it almost certainly would be *ejected* from the system because the mass loss from the supernova would suddenly change the dynamics.

      3. As was mentioned in (2), the biggest effect a supernova has on its system is actually due to the mass loss from the star, which would disrupt… pretty much everything.

      1. Where do you think that gas cloud from?

        Earth is considered a 3rd generation star, made from “recycled” material from a previous star (which in turn is believed to be the “recycled” material of a star formed after the big bang).

        Also, your “word salad” seems to be a bit contradictory. E.g implying in 1 that a supernova wouldn’t leave any material to form another solar system, then in 2 you claim a supernova wouldn’t even destroy planets….

        If it was true that a supernova would leave planets intact, this would be another reason for looking for alien artifacts in our own solar system.

        1. Yes, the solar system has enriched metallicity: the Sun is a pop-I star. It’s not *that* enriched. Basically, the ejecta from a supernova spreads out and mixes with the rest of the gas in the galaxy, over very long timescales. It doesn’t come from any one singular supernova.

          “then in 2 you claim a supernova wouldn’t even destroy planets….”

          Yes. It wouldn’t destroy planets. It would disperse a gas cloud. Because planets… aren’t gas.

          “If it was true that a supernova would leave planets intact”

          A supernova would leave planets intact, yes, so it wouldn’t be insane to go looking for alien artifacts in rogue planets (although again, supernova systems typically don’t have planets). But you know what very likely wouldn’t leave alien artifacts intact?

          Standard planetary formation from accretion. Which is how the Solar System was formed.

          1. Ok, so you are saying that the Solar system is made up of ejecta from one or more supernova. You also say a supernova isn’t as destructive as people believe and it wouldn’t destroy planets, implying that there could be intact remnants left over from a system that had “gone supernova”.

            This still points to the possibility that we can find artifacts from a past star system in the Solar system.

          2. “This still points to the possibility that we can find artifacts from a past star system in the Solar system.”

            Only in the same sense as “looking for alien spacecraft crashed on something” or “looking for extrasolar interlopers like ‘Oumuamua”.

            We can date existing solid bodies in the solar system, because they stopped mixing radioactive isotopes when they collapsed into solid bodies. If we find something older than ~4.6 billion years, then yes, holy crap we should go study it, because it’s a rogue object captured from another system.

            The entire reason people talk about trying to rendezvous/capture an ‘Oumuamua-like object is because it would be from another star system, yes.

            But the only artifacts we’d find from another system would be *space-faring* artifacts, and the chance of that randomly landing in our lap is basically zero.

    1. I agree, but I don’t see what makes it especially relevant here. Alien technology, to whatever extent it should be considered technology, was recognized as such, right?

  8. Alien might actually be as simple as an asteroid or asteroids from outside the solar system. Consider this, if an alien civilization wants to colonize the galaxy but has determined that it is impossible to travel faster than light and there is no way they could construct a technological ship to reach another habitable planet they may go for a more existential form of colonization, panspermia. A civilization could map exoplanets that seem capable of supporting their type of life, load asteroids with extremophile life and use some type of drive to send swarms of asteroids towards the mapped exoplanets. Example, imagine Earth loads up hundreds of small asteroids with tradigrades, algae and bacteria, put ion engines on them and send them off towards Gliese 581c, with the hope that some of the asteroids are pulled into the planet and “seed” it with “us”, terrestrial life. If this seems like it could be an idea for a civilization to “colonize” the galaxy then we should be looking for extrasolar asteroids full of alien bugs with, maybe, a motor on one end.

    1. This makes sense on the surface of it, but there is one issue: WHY would they/we do that?
      But I guess people do the craziest and most pointless things all the time, so it it remains a fair possibility based on actual reality as we now it. Kudos for being logical.

      1. I did indeed drop the word ‘know’ since I wrote ‘now’ and somehow my brain dropped the ‘know’ that was suppose to follow it, so make that: ‘reality as we now know it’

      2. I think if a civilization came to believe that it would be impossible for them to spread to the stars themselves seeding space with life from their planet would be a way to save something of themselves, so, since they would know they can’t get out into the stars themselves and will cease to exist one day this would be a way to survive and maybe be remembered. Or at least that’s how I look at it.

        1. As I said; craziest things.
          But I heard people say similar things before, I guess I’m the outsider to that thinking.

          I generally am a bit amused by that ‘remembered’ thing people often talk about, people don’t even know or get you when you are right there spending hours with people and spending hours explaining your thoughts, and they still get you completely wrong because they are too much into themselves and their own thinking and projections and limitations. (not that I am different of course.)

    2. The only reason humans are obsessed with travelling faster than light to explore the galaxy is because we’re short-lived.

      There’s no reason to believe this is anything fundamental. I’ve often said elsewhere that it’s a bit silly that we look at the problems of space travel and say “man, this biology problem is so hard, let’s try literally warping and tearing the fabric of spacetime itself.”

      Although I guess you could look at it as if we’re like the Universe’s worst “kids in the backseat,” looking at the prospect of a long trip and saying “but it’ll be so BORING.”

  9. So advanced robotic probes didn’t come up? . I seems a little arrogant to me to assume there is no other life anywhere, if it happened here it could happen elsewhere. I am not a believer in visitors, I would require specific, clear evidence, but i’m open to the remote posibillity and it is fun to speculate, and be absolutely fascinating if true. We have been spraying basic robotic probes all over our solar system for decades. It’s not that hard to imagine a race even a thousand years older than ours may have the capability (though theirs may not be here for a long time unless our physics are wrong / incomplete). If you used robots you don’t even have to figure out a “safe” means of propulsion, or life support, only reliabity, and adaptive or all encompasing programming, remaining undetected most of the time, inspect, gather data, evade, report. Maybe the arrival in system could be masked by making your approach vector line up with a distant object so the gamma radiation burst given off during decelleration looks like some unknown process from the galaxy behind you etc. Fun to speculate….

    1. You make me realize: They are now talking of AI taking over and achieving conscious thought. So now we have to speculate if such an entity would be into exploring the universe in that manner too, and not just what living creatures would and would not do.

      Perhaps it would be easier to try to imagine what none of them would ever do (AI/aliens/us), because we are well beyond the imaginable already really.

  10. Every technology we have come about builds upon lower tech parts. Therefore, even if we wouldn’t recognize the overall, we would recognize many of its pieces. Something like the Antikythera mechanism. First it was recognised it was something metalic, a 3 millenia old tech. Then it had some gears, a 2 millenia tech. A century later we deciphered it was a mechanism for calculations, much newer tech.

  11. Some of it, surely not all of it.

    There’s already a perception problem: the perceptual time differs from animals to animals, and humans have one of the slowest already (100-300ms). So any tech that would go much faster could just not be observed. Say for example, screens. Our computer screens are designed taking into account retinal persistance. If a computer screen was faster, it could very well not be perceived as a computer screen, with displayed graphics or symbols, but just a source of light, or not even that (depending on frequencies). Granted, we’re helped with some artificial sensors, (eg. radar), but I don’t have the impression that’s really helping in identifying alien stuff for what it is. UFOs are still Unidentified!

    Next, there’s of course the fact that most technology is made invisible. Hertzian instead of cabled, microscopic or nanoscopic instead of macroscopic. And moving toward the biology and integrated in living beings instead of based on artefacts. An ideal observation system would be based on microscopic insect, living, reproducing, spreading everywhere, observing, taking samples, and reporting thru “telepathic” channels. Could mosquitoes be the alien observation system? Or birds? Owls were said to be sorcerers’ eyes…

    1. It really annoys me how in so many SciFi shows and movies and books they include ‘telepathy’ as a thing.
      It’s the completely wrong genre, that’s Fantasy not SciFi.

      Oh BTW, could you not think of the word ‘wireless’ or was that ‘Hertzian’ a stylistic choice?

    2. CRT’s did use persistence of vision, but when I went from 25Hz (my old TV) to a 60Hz computer screen, I could still see it. Going _slower_ causes issues, such as Logie Baird’s 12Hz offering. Faster is better.

  12. The aliens (lizard people) are already among us. They have gained control of major governments, news agencies, and social media, and are working to unite all governments for their control (e.g. UN, WEF, organized crime/cartels, World Bank).
    You will eat (genetically altered) bugs (filled with endorphins) and you will be happy (i.e. stoned). In the meantime, they are conducting spcial experiments on us (e.g. wars, pandemics, “natural” disasters) for their own amusement.

  13. So, did you hear they now adjusted the age of the universe to 26.7 billion years?
    Now you must remember it’s 3D space so it’s not a simple doubling as far as the adjustment of the estimated number of galaxies, so in short we are looking at a drastic alteration upwards to that equation on the chance of alien life.
    And people have to adjust their oft repeated quotes on various calculations.

    1. “So, did you hear they now adjusted the age of the universe to 26.7 billion years?”

      No, that’s a totally different theory of cosmology (using tired light). It was really weird the way it was reported.


      Siegel might be a bit too strong/dismissive but the overarching point of “Gupta’s theory probably violates a bunch of other observations to try to explain one” is probably correct.

      1. Personally I think the big bang theory has been disproved a bit too many times to still try to cling to it.
        And as for the age of the universe, clearly we lack the data to determine it when you see all the observations done and the incompatibilities of those with the accepted model and the desperate but failing attempts to ‘adjust’ things to make them fit with wilder and wilder imaginations.
        I think we should just say it out loud: We don’t know yet, wait a bit while we investigate further.
        Possibly you can state a lower limit, but perhaps just stick with ‘wait a moment’ is the better course of action.
        And yeah, I get the risk of the religious abusing the moment.

        1. “And as for the age of the universe, clearly we lack the data to determine it when you see all the observations done and the incompatibilities of those”

          I just… I don’t think people grasp exactly the scale of what’s going on.

          People are *literally* trying to simulate entire galaxies forming from nothing but a hydrogen/helium plasma with an unknown gravity component holding it together. Oh, plus a several hundred million year gap immediately after when it’s literally *impossible* to get any data because *nothing was producing any light* yet.

          The fact that we get results that are anywhere *close* to right is honestly amazing. The “incompatibilities” that you’re talking about are so, so minor compared to the scale of what’s being done.

          The “problem” that the “tired light” people were trying to fix has *hundreds* of other possible solutions which are only minor changes in the overall paradigm, like tweaking star formation rates or the initial mass function for stars. None of which require changes in fundamental physics or our understanding.

  14. Well ‘ carbon based ‘ aliens could be right, but they are so fragile and so dependent on time, space, food, love ? However, ‘ carbon based ‘ aliens were just a small blip in the evolution of ‘ aliens ‘ , as the article below refers to in that they were simply the catalyst to create machinery, then the machinery/technology took over not needing ‘ organic ‘ aliens. This type alien can wait and travel a billion years without being ‘
    ‘ bored ‘ . https://waitbutwhy.com/2014/05/fermi-paradox.html

  15. Oumuamua could as well been a probe. There’s no need to high technology as we know it to probe something.

    Typically, since we start to be able to observe a distant stellar system and its planets, it’s probably safe to assume some intelligent beings also being able to do so.

    Then, one can deviate an asteroid from its own stellar system to cross the solar orbit and then, you can observe it going when it’s in the target stellar system.

    If the object deviates from its expected path, it means that some intelligent beings in the target system are interfering with it. That would have happened if we had been able to intercept it and analyze it, because we are curious and that’s probably the only common marker of intelligence everywhere.

    Because intercepting it would have modified its (expected) position in the next hundred of years or so (even a small 0.0001% of deviation would have a huge impact on its expected path), an alien observer now knows that an intelligent species lives in this stellar system, so it should be able to harbor/sustain life and it might be interesting to conquer.

    And the ship is only a rock, but the “smart” part isn’t the material it’s made of, but its velocity and direction.

    1. That’s for the passive part. And for the active part, the alien intelligence can as well redirect a laser beam on the rock to orient it (by vaporizing a part of its content). A beam that’s powerful enough and rightly focused is undetectable if it’s not in the direction we can observe. Again, the ship still is a rock, but the smart part isn’t in the ship itself, but in the entity manipulating it.

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