Thursday, January 10, 2019

Turn up the radio

In recent years, astronomers have discovered new faraway planets, gotten close looks at distant objects like asteroids and comets, and driven lots of robots around Mars.

All of this is in service of exploring the physical universe and learning more about why things are the way they are, basically. That's exciting! But there is also this sort of deeper human need to find out whether we're all there is in terms of intelligent life. Scientists and philosophers argue about the odds--on the one hand, they're infinitesimal because shouldn't we have seen something by now given how old the universe is? On the other hand, they're quite good because the universe is as vast as it is old... that's a lot of planets.

Anyhoo, there's not much evidence to go on in that regard. There's the WOW! signal, which no one ever really figured out. And lately there have been "fast radio bursts," which are also mostly unexplained. This week, more of those bursts were announced, including an unprecedented repeating burst.

“When these bursts happen once only, it’s really hard to figure out what created them,” Cherry Ng, a radio astronomer at the University of Toronto and lead author on the paper about the repeating FRB, tells The Verge. “Now we’re showing, no, at least one other repeats.”

I've always felt like this is the way we'd get evidence of "other life out there"--something pretty inscrutable and outwardly mundane, as opposed to in the movies where detailed messages or even space ships arrive.

what will the aliens' morning drive zoo crews sound like?

To be clear, these bursts are almost certainly caused by natural (if distant) phenomena. That doesn't make them any less fascinating... it's a new physical mystery to unravel.

But it's sure fun to think about the tiny chance they're more than that.

It's been a rough few years for this planet, and finding life on another one would somehow make that feel more bearable.