Asking The Tough Questions With New Frontiers In Astronomy And Cosmology

By on December 3, 2012 // Science // 0 Comments

New Frontiers
Image: Flickr/NASA/SDO/AIA via CC by 2.0

The John Templeton Foundation’s New Frontiers in Astronomy and Cosmology is a research grant and awards program that awards funding to scientists looking to answer one of four (very) big questions:

  1. What was the earliest state of the universe?
  2. Is our universe unique or is it part of a much larger multiverse?
  3. What is the origin of the complexity of the universe?
  4. Are we alone in the universe. Or, are there other life and intelligence beyond the solar system?

“The program is particularly intended to foster research that, because of its non-mainstream nature or breadth of questions asked, would not usually be funded by conventional funding sources.”

Sounds like my kind of grant. In fact, here’s a snippet of some of the deeper questions they’re asking about the mulitverse:

“An important question has been raised whether or not the multiverse theory can ever be empirically tested, as we are dealing with the existence of universes to which we do not seem to have any access. Is the idea of the multiverse merely metaphysical? Or, are there any creative ways to empirically test the physical consequences of some versions of such theories?

…Will any of these issues be forever beyond the science?”

That would certainly be unfortunate, but that’s what the New Frontiers grant program is all about: asking the tough questions that may not have answers.

Searching For Life In The Stars

While my personal interests lie in the possibility of a multiverse, it’s Lucianne Walkowicz’s innovative ideas regarding the search for extraterrestrial life that have recently made the headlines.

She’s one of the few who have been awarded a grant to investigate Big Question IV, “Are we alone in the universe?”

In short, Walkowicz will be looking for signs that extraterrestrials are using stars as a form of communication. Her idea is that aliens may be “manipulating” star light — perhaps making it “wink” — to send out Morse code-like messages, or simple on/off, intelligent communication.

Coincidentally, I recently mentioned another group of astronomers, led by Jason Wright, who had a similar idea. They too have been awarded a Templeton Foundation grant to search for the existence of Dyson spheres, or massive solar-energy machines built around stars. In this way, they’ll also be focusing on stars for clues of extraterrestrial intelligence.

You can view all of the grant recipients here, as well as what they’ll be researching.

There Are Some Things We May Never Know

In general, searching for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence is extremely difficult; there may be “signals” out there we simply wouldn’t recognize.

We can only search for things we currently understand — radio waves, lasers, etc. — and it’s difficult to conceive of the potentially more exotic ways extraterrestrials may communicate, especially if they’re more advanced than humans.

Consider this: An alien species doesn’t necessarily have to be like humans in any way, or at least in any way we would understand.

Scientists have often mused over the possibility of silicon-based lifeforms, for example, in contrast to the carbon-based ones here on Earth.

An alien species may experience the universe in a different way (perhaps they only see infrared). They may communicate via alternative means. Like ants, or (somehow) telepathically.

Evolution and biology leave open the possibility for an incredibly wide variety of types of alien creatures. An alien world may even be so vastly different from Earth that we wouldn’t even recognize its life as living.

There’s even the possibility — which I’ve raised before — that alien civilizations may have already come and gone, lived and died, long before humanity even entered the cosmic picture. And they may rise long after we’re gone.

The universe is a big place. The (potential) multiverse is even bigger. Opening up the search to include star signals, dyson spheres, and other exotic, outside-the-box ideas may be the only way we’ll ever know.


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