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Habitable Exoplanets Can See Us, As Well
Many of us remember this passage from The War of the Worlds, the 1898 classic science fiction tale by HG Wells:
With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.
In spite of this (or perhaps because of it), scientists who study exoplanets (see Perhaps You Might Be Interested In Habitable Exoplanet Moon Real Estate) are asking which of the known worlds would also be in a position for their inhabitants to study us.
In new research, astronomers have drawn up a shortlist of nearby star systems where any inquisitive inhabitants on orbiting planets would be well placed to spot life on Earth.
The scientists identified 1,715 star systems in our cosmic neighbourhood where alien observers could have discovered Earth in the past 5,000 years by watching it “transit” across the face of the sun.
Among those in the right position to observe an Earth transit, 46 star systems are close enough for their planets to intercept a clear signal of human existence – the radio and TV broadcasts which started about 100 years ago.
The researchers estimate that 29 potentially habitable planets are well positioned to witness an Earth transit, and eavesdrop on human radio and television transmissions, allowing any observers to infer perhaps a modicum of intelligence. Whether the broadcasts would compel an advanced civilisation to make contact is a moot point.
I'd also point readers to Italo Calvino's wonderful collection of short stories Cosmicomics, and in particular the story The Light-Years, in which nosy celestial neighbors see each other, and post visible signs, communicating at light speed, which turns out to be not very fast at interstellar distances.
One night I was, as usual, observing the sky with my telescope. I noticed that a sign was hanging from a galaxy a hundred million light-years away. On it was written: I SAW YOU. I made a quick calculation: the galaxy's light had taken a hundred million years to reach me, and since they saw up there what was taking place here a hundred million years later, the moment when they had seen me must date back two hundred million years.
Even before I checked my diary to see what I had been doing that day, I was seized by a ghastly presentiment: exactly two hundred million years before, not a day more nor a day less, something had happened to me that I had always tried to hide...
I thought the best line to take was to act as if nothing had happened, minimize the importance of what they might have found out. So I hastened to expose, in full view, a sign on which I had written simply: WHAT OF IT?
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