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AlienSupercivilizationsAbsentfrom100,000NearbyGalaxiesScientificAmerican

SPACE

Alien Supercivilizations Absent from 100,000 Nearby


Galaxies
The most far-seeing search ever performed for Dyson spheres and other artifacts of
astroengineering comes up empty. Where is everybody?
By Lee Billings on April 17, 2015

Orange whorls of starwarmed dust ll the Andromeda galaxy's spiral arms in this falsecolor
midinfrared image from NASA's WISE space telescope. Such images could also potentially
reveal the waste heat from galaxyspanning advanced civilizations. Credit: Credit:NASA/JPL
Caltech/WISE Team

Astrobiologythestudyofextraterrestriallifehasmadegreatstridessinceits
1960sorigins,whentheevolutionarybiologistGeorgeGaylordSimpsonderidedit
asasciencewithoutasubject.Todayitisboomingasneverbefore,drivenby
perenniallyhighpublicinterestandsteadilygrowingscientificrespectability.

InapressconferencelastweektwoseniorNASAofficialsEllenStofan,the
agencyschiefscientist,andJohnGrunsfeld,theformerastronautandassociate
administratorforNASAsscienceprogramspredictedthatastrobiologistswould
atlastfindtheirelusivealiensubjectswithinonlyadecadeortwo.Notlongago

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thepredictionwouldhavebeenboldbutnowitseemsalmostpass,asmore
evidencemountsthatthewarm,wetconditionsforlifeasweknowitprevail
throughoutthecosmos.Surelysimple,singlecelledlifeshouldbecommonout
there,waitingtobefoundbyaroverinsubsurfacebrinesonMarsorbyamission
senttoprobetheoceansoftheicymoonsEuropaorevenviaspacetelescopes
gazingatEarthlikeplanetsorbitingfarawaystars.NASAgenerouslyfundsall
theseefforts.

Thepossibleexistenceofintelligentaliensandextraterrestrialcivilizations,onthe
otherhand,remainsmuchmorecontroversialandisscarcelyfundedatall.Even
so,formorethanahalfcenturyasmall,scatteredcontingentofastronomershas
goneagainstthegrain,engaginginasearchforextraterrestrialintelligence
(SETI).SETIchieflylooksforchattycosmicculturesthatmightbebeaming
messagesaroundourregionofthegalaxyusingradiowavesorlaserpulses.Butits
interstellareavesdroppinghasyettodetectanysignalsthatwithstandclose
scrutiny.Evenifbrimmingwithlife,tous,thegalaxyseemstobeaveryquiet,
ratherlonelyplace.

Now,newresultssuggestthislonelinessmayextendoutintotheuniversefar
beyondourgalaxyor,instead,thatsomeofourpreconceptionsaboutthe
behaviorsofaliencivilizationsaredeeplyflawed.Afterexaminingsome100,000
nearbylargegalaxiesateamofresearchersleadbyThePennsylvaniaState
UniversityastronomerJasonWrighthasconcludedthatnoneofthemcontainany
obvioussignsofhighlyadvancedtechnologicalcivilizations.PublishedinThe
AstrophysicalJournalSupplementSeries,itisbyfarthelargestofstudyofits
kindtodateearlierresearchhadonlycursorilyinvestigatedaboutahundred
galaxies.

Moreheatthanlight
UnliketraditionalSETIsurveys,Wrightandhisteamdidnotseekmessagesfrom
thestars.Instead,theylookedforthethermodynamicconsequencesofgalactic
scalecolonization,basedonanideaputforthin1960bythephysicistFreeman
Dyson.Dysonpostulatedthatagrowingtechnologicalculturewouldultimatelybe
limitedbyaccesstoenergy,andthatadvanced,energyhungrycivilizationswould
bedriventoharvestalltheavailablelightfromtheirstars.Todothat,theymight
dismantleaplanetortwoasfeedstockforbuildingstarenvelopingswarmsof
solarcollectors.AstarslightwouldfadeasitwasencasedinsuchaDyson
sphere,butDysonnotedtheconstructionscouldbedetectedbythemidinfrared

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glowoftheirradiatedwasteheatessentiallythesamephenomenonthatcauses
yourcomputertowarmupwhenitsrunning.In1963theRussianastronomer
NikolaiKardashevextendedtheseideasbydevelopingatripartiteclassification
systemforacivilizationsenergyuse.Atype1civilizationwouldharnessallthe
energyofitshomeplanetwhereasatype2usesalltheenergyofitsstar,perhaps
bybuildingaDysonspherearoundit.Atype3civilizationwouldbecapableof
usingalltheenergyofitsgalaxy,presumablybyencasingallitsstarsinDyson
spheres.

UnabletosecurefundingfromstandardsourcessuchasNASAortheNational
ScienceFoundation,WrightsgroupinsteadturnedtotheTempletonFoundation,
aprivateorganizationwithahistoryofsupportingcontroversialandspeculative
research.Withthatfundingtheteamsearchedfortype3civilizationsinanallsky
cataloguefromNASAsWidefieldInfraredSurveyExplorer(WISE).Theylooked
forobjectsthatwereopticallydimbutbrightinthemidinfraredtheexpected
signatureofagalaxyfilledwithstarlightabsorbing,heatemittingDysonspheres.
Afterusingsoftwaretoautomaticallysiftthroughsome100millionobjectsinthe
WISEcatalogue,WrightsstudentRogerGriffithexaminedtheremaining
candidatesbyhand,cullingthosethatwerentgalaxiesorthatwereobvious
instrumentalartifacts.

Theresultwasabout100,000galaxies,withabout50inparticularthatemitted
muchmoreheatthanlight.JessicaMaldonado,astudentatCaliforniaState
PolytechnicUniversity,Pomona,thenscouredtheastronomicalliteratureto
determinewhatwasalreadyknownaboutthosetopcandidates.Manyofthem
werewellstudied,andcanbeexplainedaspairsofgalaxiesintheprocessof
mergingorasisolatedstarburstgalaxiestwoprocessesthatcanheatgalactic
quantitiesoflightblockingdusttogeneratepowerfulinfraredglows.Accordingto
theresearchers,anadditional90galaxieswithlessextremeheattolightratios
warrantfurtherstudybut,byandlarge,theresultsarenull.OnKardashevsscale,
atype3civilizationusesenergyequaltoallthestarlightproducedbyonegalaxy,
Wrightsays.Thatwouldequatetoaninfraredbrightgalaxyseeminglybereftof
stars.Welookedatthenearest,largest100,000galaxieswecouldfindinthe
WISEcatalogueandweneversawthat.Onehundredthousandgalaxiesandnot
onehadthatsignature.Wedidntfindanytype3sinoursamplebecausethere
arentany.

EvenifadvancedcivilizationsdonotbuildDysonspheres,Wrightsnullresultalso

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appliestoanyotherenergyintensiveastroengineeringtakingplaceatgalactic
scales.LookingfortheabsenceoflightaswellasthewasteheatlikeWrightand
hiscolleagueshavedoneisreallycool,saysJamesAnnis,anastrophysicistatthe
FermiNationalAcceleratorLaboratorywhointhelate1990suseddifferent
methodstosurveymorethanahundrednearbygalaxiesfortype3s.Insome
senseitdoesntmatterhowagalacticcivilizationgetsorusesitspowerbecause
thesecondlawofthermodynamicsmakesenergyusehardtohide.Theycould
constructDysonspheres,theycouldgetpowerfromrotatingblackholes,they
couldbuildgiantcomputernetworksinthecoldoutskirtsofgalaxies,andallof
thatwouldproducewasteheat.Wrightsteamwentrighttothepeakofthecurve
forwhereyoudexpecttoseeanysortofwasteheat,andtheyrejustnotseeing
anythingobvious.

Againsttheempire
Theideathattheremaybegalacticempiresouttheretofindatallcomesfrom
seeminglyreasonableextrapolationsofourownsituationhereonEarth.

Weknowthatonatleastoneplanetmicrobiallifeemerged,andthatlifethen
ascendedtheevolutionaryladdertobuildlargebodies,brains,societiesand
eventuallytechnologiesthatcouldtakeittootherplanetsmaybeevenother
stars.Ifithappenedhere,whynotonanyofthebillionsofotherhabitableplanets
astronomersnowestimatefilleachgalaxy?Life,onceitbecomesspacefaring,
lookslikeitcouldcrossagalaxyinaslittleas50millionyears,Annissays.And
50millionyearsisaveryshorttimecomparedtothebillionyeartimescalesof
planetsandgalaxies.Youwouldexpectlifetocrisscrossagalaxymanytimesinthe
nearly14billionyearstheuniversehasbeenaround.Maybespacefaring
civilizationsarerareandisolated,butitonlytakesjustonetowantandbeableto
modifyitsgalaxyforyoutobeabletoseeit.Ifyoulookatenoughgalaxies,you
shouldeventuallyseesomethingobviouslyartificial.Thatswhyitsso
uncomfortablethatthemorewelook,themorenaturaleverythingappears.

Overtheyears,researchershavecreatedavastassemblageofpossible
explanationsforSETIsfailuretofindanyaliens.Perhapswearealoneorsome
restrictionimposedbyastrophysicsandbiologymakesintelligentlifevanishingly
rareortechnologicalcivilizationsalwaysselfdestructorinterstellartravelis
simplytoohard,tooslowortooboring.Annissuspectsgalaxysterilizing
astrophysicalexplosionscalledgammaraybursts,whichweremorefrequentin
thecosmicpast,untilrecentlysuppressedtheriseofadvancedcivilizationsand

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thatweinhabitthebeginningofhistory.

Butasrichasthescientificliteratureiswithideas,someofthemostfascinating
onescomeinsteadfromsciencefiction.DrawingfromArthurC.Clarkesfamous
quipthatAnysufficientlyadvancedtechnologyisindistinguishablefrommagic,
in2011thesciencefictionauthorKarlSchroedercoinedanalltooplausible
reasonfortheapparentabsenceofaliens:Anysufficientlyadvancedtechnologyis
indistinguishablefromnature.Inthisviewthefutureoftechnologywouldnot
consistofstarhoppingcivilizationsspreadinglikewildfirethroughgalaxies,
disassemblingplanetsandsmotheringsuns,butratherofslowgrowingcultures
becomingmoreandmoreintegratedwiththeirnaturalenvironments,strivingfor
evergreaterefficienciesandcomingeverclosertothermodynamicequilibrium.
Simplyput,profligategalaxyspanningempiresareunsustainableandtherefore
wedonotseethem.SETIisessentiallyasearchfortechnologicalwaste
products,Schroederhaswritten.Wasteheat,wastelight,wasteelectromagnetic
signalswemerelyhavetopositthatsuccessfulcivilizationsdontproducesuch
waste,andthefailureofSETIisexplained.

AccordingtoDavidBrin,anastrophysicistwhoalsoauthorsbestsellingworksof
sciencefictioncontemplatingtheGreatSilenceoftheuniverse,Wrights
expansivestudyleavesthepossibilityofDysonspheresopenbutmaybethenailin
thecoffinforantiquatednotionsofallencompassingempiresthattapentire
galaxiesforenergy.Whywouldadvancedbeingsneedorwantthat?Brinasks.
Onlyastunninglyvastprojectwouldjustifysuchgreed.Therewouldbeno
moregentle,welcomingsystemslikeoursallwouldbeconvertedtoindustrial
use.Itsthetraitofrapacioususerswhoeitherhaveabigreasonorabig
insatiability.

Thingstocome
In1973CarlSagandevisedamoreempiricalformulaforKardashevsscalethat
allowedforfinergradations.Ourcurrentplanetboundcivilization,hecalculated,
ratedasatype0.7andwouldreachtype1,givenafewmorecenturiesofsustained
growthinenergyuse,whichforthepastfewcenturieshasincreasedbyabout3
percentperyear.Tosustainthattrend,humanitywouldneedtobuildaDyson
sphereofourownwithinaboutamillennium,becomingatype2,andwouldneed
toencasemostoftheMilkyWaysstarsinDysonspheresamillenniumafterthat,
becomingatype3.

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Theimplicationsareclear:Withinthespanofrelativelyfewgenerationsabrief
momentincomparisonwithallofhumanhistoryeitherwemustreworkthe
solarsystemandthenagreatdealofthegalaxyitselforourcivilizationmustshift
toaradicallydifferent,lessenergyintensivetrendofgrowth.Inthe1960s,during
thedizzyingearlydaysofthespaceage,itwaseasiertobelievetheformerwas
morelikelytoday,calamitiesbothecologicalandeconomicalmakethelatterseem
morecertain.Thisnumericalprophecyofquieter,slowergrowth,evenstasis,is
consistentwiththenullresultsfromtraditionalSETIsearchesaswellastherare,
unorthodoxDysoniansearchesofWright,Annisandafewothers.

Providedhecangetmorefunding,Wrightintendstoperformfollowupwork
investigatingsomeofhissurveysstrangestgalaxies,lookingforcivilizations
furtherdowntheKardashevscale.Healsohopestoexamineacuriousclusterof
opticallydarkpointsourcesjustoutsidetheMilkyWaysgalacticplanethathis
teamdiscoveredbytheirinfraredglowsintheWISEdata.Theclusterisprobably
apreviouslyunknowngiantmolecularcloud,anunmappedstellarnurseryfilled
withprotostars,Wrightsays.Butitsalsoalmostexactlywhatyoudexpecta
clusterofDysonSpherestolooklike.ItseemsDysonsdreamisstillalive.

Dyson,now91butstilleagertotalkaboutSETIfromhisofficeattheInstitutefor
AdvancedStudyinPrinceton,N.J.,saysthenullresultsarentsurprisingbut
shouldntbediscouraging.Ourimaginingsaboutthewaysthataliensmightmake
themselvesdetectablearealwayslikestoriesofblackcatsinadarkroom,Dyson
says.Ifthereareanyrealaliens,theyarelikelytobehaveinwaysthatwenever
imagined.TheWISEresultshowsthatthealiensdidnotfollowoneparticular
path.Thatisgoodtoknow.Butitstillleavesahugevarietyofotherpathsopen.
Thefailureofoneguessdoesnotmeanthatweshouldstoplookingforaliens.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

Lee Billings
Lee Billings is an editor at Scientic American covering space and physics.

Nick Higgins

Scientic American is part of Springer Nature, which owns or has commercial relations with thousands of scientic
publications (many of them can be found at www.springernature.com/us). Scientic American maintains a strict policy of
editorial independence in reporting developments in science to our readers.

2 016 S CI E N TI F I CA ME RI CA N , A DI V I S I ON OF N A TU RE A ME RI CA , I N C.
A LLRI GHTS RE S E RV E D.

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