Advanced alien civilizations, have we already found some?

Lots of scientists think our Galaxy should be full of advanced alien civilizations (see the Drake Equation and Fermi Paradox posts). But when they’ve looked the Galaxy appears to be quiet and lonely. Where are all the alien civilizations they ask?

Many insane people would of course argue with this, pointing out that aliens have visited us; that they created the pyramids, Atlantis and humankind itself. That they regularly abduct and probe drunk Americans, that the government knows and is covering it up, and that the government itself may even by aliens, alien communists, sent here to steal freedom from God-loving Americans. But then they’re insane. None of this is true.

In a previous post I argued that alien life might be common, but that simple life rarely evolves into intelligent life, and that even if it does, intelligent life may not exist for very long. However I may be wrong, I’m wrong about things all the time, especially as some astronomers may have discovered evidence for vast alien structures in space, I shit you not.

The story begins in 1964 in communist Russia, an astronomer called Nikolai Kardashev had been thinking about advanced alien civilizations, as most astronomers do, especially communist astronomers. Kardashev proposed a scale for categorising a civilization’s level of technological advancement based on how much of their star’s energy they use. All energy on Earth ultimately comes from our Sun, one of the most direct ways of harnessing it is through solar energy technology, which humans are totally crap at doing, apart from on calculators and watches in the 1990’s. Anyway, the scale was imaginatively called the Kardashev Scale and there were three categories:

Type 1 civilizations – use all of the energy that their planet receives from their star. Every beam of light (or photon in science speak) that hits the planet would be used. We’ve not achieved this, human civilization is not yet a type 1 civilization, but maybe in a few hundred years we’ll get there. Unless Sarah Palin and the other lunatics get their way. Then we’ll be back in 18th century.

Type 2 civilizations – use all of the energy that their star emits, every single photon of it, not just the energy that hits their planet. One of the ways a civilization might do this is by building a Dyson sphere. These are enormous structures that surround a star and collect all of its energy. Lots of different variations have been proposed, from Dyson rings (a bit like in Halo) to Dyson swarms, vast clouds of orbiting solar-panel satellites. Scientists have even suggested you could live on the inside of a Dyson sphere; there’d be loads of room as its area would be vast, and you could throw all your rubbish into the star. Brill.

Type 3 civilizations – use all of the energy that their galaxy emits. So not just the energy from one star, the energy from hundreds of billions of stars. This kind of energy would probably allow the civilization to do all kinds of cool things like fold space or travel in time. It’s so technologically advanced though that who knows what this would involve, or if it would even be impossible. Those communists sure knew how to dream though.

So I promised you proof of vast alien structures in space. Have you guessed yet? Yep, astronomers just may have found evidence for some kind of Dyson spheres floating around out there.

So what would you look for if you were hunting for Dyson spheres? Well firstly, they’d probably be very big, so they’d have quite a strong gravitational attraction, and secondly they’d emit some heat, but nowhere near as much as their star, as they’d absorb their star’s energy, and would re-emit it back to space, but at a lower temperature as the energy would be emitted from an object with a greater surface area. This energy would likely be re-emitted as infrared energy, so Dyson spheres would not be bright objects, like stars. Any dark object with a lot of mass could be a Dyson sphere.

Astronomers have found such objects, primarily through using the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS), and have even made a catalogue of potential Dyson spheres from this data. You can see more details on this at Dick Carrigan’s website (he’s a particle physicist with a passion for the search for intelligent alien life).

Lots of these objects can be explained by phenomena we already know about, like stars surrounded by clouds of dust, but some can’t.

Of course, these objects could be something totally different, not at all related to alien life; something we don’t know about yet. And there’s no certainty that alien civilizations would choose to make Dyson spheres, just as there is no certainty that alien civilizations exist at all. But its still exciting to know that these objects are out there, and that one feasible explanation is an alien Dyson sphere. Fingers crossed!

34 Responses to “Advanced alien civilizations, have we already found some?”

  1. 1 Algernon Cumbersnatch April 4, 2011 at 5:09 pm

    I like this blog – amusing and yet thought provoking… I wonder if giant aliens, upon discovering such structures, might incorporate them into huge vacuum cleaners, capable of turning corners very easily…

  2. 2 Dan G Swindles April 4, 2011 at 10:16 pm

    Thanks a lot

    That’s the problem with Dyson spheres, whenever I hear the word Dyson, my first though is vacuum cleaner. Still at least its an alien vacuum cleaner

  3. 3 JC June 15, 2011 at 2:47 pm

    Actually on a scale that the earth is 7 days old, making some basic assumptions, the nearest civilization would be 4.5 days light days away. THe universe on this scale woud be 21 days. Civilization has been around for just 1 second. Radio technology for an infitesimally small fraction of that. Thus if one civilzation lasts 0.75 sec and another lasts for 1 second they co-exist for 0.25 seconds. But they are long dead by the time messages taking 4.5 days reach them. That’s why intelligent life may exist but it is unlikely to be able to show itself to anyone else due to the distances involved. I personally don’t think that Aliens exist at all. I think we’re a huge fluke of nature.

    • 4 Dan G Swindles June 26, 2011 at 2:37 pm

      Not even microbial alien life?

      I’m more certain simple life exists elsewhere in our galaxy, but I’m less confident about alien life that would be capable of extra-stellar communication

      What’s behind your estimate of the nearest civilization being 4.5 days away?

  4. 5 Type1Civ June 29, 2011 at 11:42 am

    Haha nice. Originally it had 3 designations, but extended from other SETI researchers such as Freeman Dyson and Carl Sagan and now popularized by Michio Kaku.

    But in criticism of Nikolai’s original publication (minus the knowledge in the Russian language) I recently thought even the scale may not even be universally applicable. Partly because we may not have any true understanding of what life really is to have a truly accurate definition of “life”, (beyond the realization that it is some biochemical phenomenon of nature) so that in itself jeopardizes the legitimacy of the scale. This must be addressed IMO.

    But one may get around that by only describing planetary-based organisms or devise a whole different measurement system for lifeforms that dwell in other places besides planets or nomadic life. Then again I’m not an actual chemist, biologist or any related field to say what “life” really is, besides sounding like a nihilistic asshole to say that all we really are is a bunch of biochemicals.

    • 6 Dan G Swindles June 30, 2011 at 9:36 am

      Thanks a lot

      That’s a great point, I’ve read plenty of sci-fi predictions about very different forms of life, like Stephen Baxter’s black hole ecosystems, and you’re quite right, this scale wouldn’t be appropriate at all

      In Baxter’s work life emerges in any system that is sufficiently complex and that has mechanisms for information to replicate and evolve, if my memory serves I think he had a form of life that crystallizes out of fractures in space-time occurring almost instantly after the big bang. Of course, this probably never happened, but at least it raises the possibility that life may be able to emerge from mediums other than baryonic matter. It’s a brilliant idea

  5. 7 Algernon Cumbersnatch June 30, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    I think I read somewhere about the faint possibility of life (but not as we know it, Jim) existing among the rings of Saturn, information encoded in the twisting spirals of electrically charged dust creating self-replicating patterns which could evolve and progress in response to changes in either the electromagnetic environment or the physical composition of the ring material itself – again, crazy, but almost plausible…

    • 8 Dan G Swindles June 30, 2011 at 3:39 pm

      That’s a great one, not far from home, and as you say, almost plausible 🙂

      One of the things I love about science fiction is inventive and surprising forms of alien life. I read a short story called Wang’s Carpets by Greg Egan a while ago, in which an alien life form, something like a microbial mat expanded into multiple dimensions and acted as a kind of biological computer that had an entire ecosystem of life that existed within its programming, kind of like a biological artificial reality simulation, mindblowing, and… almost plausible

      PS. Love the username

  6. 9 SalemCat July 7, 2011 at 6:47 pm

    Current political commentary, regardless of how clever the Author may feel it is, has no place in a discussion such as this.

    The moment I reached the Sarah Palin insult, I stopped reading.


    • 10 Dan G Swindles July 7, 2011 at 10:48 pm

      I’m sorry if I offended you, it wasn’t meant to be a cheap shot.

      I honestly do feel that if Sarah Palin got into a position of power she would retard the progress of humanity

      If you feel different, then no biggie

      • 11 Algernon Cumbersnatch July 8, 2011 at 7:06 pm

        [biting tongue SO hard here]
        Politics eh? Always a thorny bone of contention, but I tend to agree with Dan here (but then that is fairly likely – I liked his blog, because it reflects a number of my own views).
        I think it very unlikely that genuine progress will be made for the benefit of all under a conservative government.
        The nature of conservatism is that it conserves the status quo.
        If we assume that, despite Dan’s worst fears, scientific progress is somehow achieved under the Palins of this world then we can expect a magnified, expanded space-conquering version of the current status quo.
        I give you – The Human Hive 🙂
        Vast numbers of downtrodden slave workers will toil for a tiny minority of virtually immortal individuals who will most likely be at each others throats all the time, using more slaves to fuel their war machines etc…
        Let’s face it – the current status quo isn’t very nice – it’s like a pyramid scheme, and can only function if there are loads of disadvantaged people at the bottom…
        And that’s is my political ramble over (and I didn;t start it 😉

      • 12 john d clark January 26, 2012 at 5:23 pm

        😉 * 10^65535. One incumbent president more or less kills the space program. While my man Newt promises a permanent lunar presence
        by 2020. Where would you rather be?

      • 13 Dan Swindlehurst January 26, 2012 at 7:56 pm

        Well, the idea of a lunar base definitely appeals to me. But I don’t know how serious it is, it does sound a bit like wild politician voter-wooing rhetoric to me.

      • 14 john d clark January 26, 2012 at 8:12 pm

        Newt is evidentially a big backer of space exploration. That aside, the idea
        of “real” economic growth could come from the transition to a type I civilization. Might just save our bacon since “burning dead things” for energy has it’s limits. More on topic 🙂 any thoughts on possible sightings of type II or III civilizations?

      • 15 Algernon Cumbersnatch January 30, 2012 at 6:03 pm

        Interesting sceptical article here – I wonder what Newt would say in response?

      • 16 john d clark January 30, 2012 at 6:31 pm

        I know what I would say in response: Mr Krauss is very short sighted and not real bright.

        Folks like David Criswell have very good ideas as to how to use the moon as a resource. More than that it’s not the moon it’s self so much that is a treasure trove, but the fact that it can be used as a manufacturing resource for the rest of the solar system. As for cost I’d look less at the investment and more at the payback in becoming a true Level I Civilization. (And BTW, we’re screwed if we dont)

        “Perhaps we could put mirrors on the moon to beam sunlight to Earth for power.” The writer is an engineer or a scientist? Because I really want to slap him for that comment.

        IMO, The article has that self righteous sound the New York Times had when they explained to Robert Goddard that rockets in space simply wouldnt work. Note that bit of journalism was retracted upon the moon landing 70 years hence.

      • 17 Algernon Cumbersnatch February 1, 2012 at 5:32 pm

        That’s a good point you make there John. Most scientific innovation has come from unexpected corners, from people prepared to stand up and do something everyone else thinks either can’t be done or will not work. That said, I am just not sure Newt will stick to his guns once in power (if he gets there). He’ll have a lot of vested interests telling him not to rock the boat, and a tricky job explaining to the rest of his electorate that he is spending the equivalent amount as the entire debt mountain of the USA on this project.
        What I WOULD like to see is someone really getting to grips with the near-Earth asteroids with a view to mining the metal and volatiles resources they could provide. Maybe Newt is the man to push such things higher up the list of priorities? I shall watch this space with interest – it’s nice to see a scientifically progressive guy on the Rep ticket 🙂

      • 18 john d clark February 1, 2012 at 6:06 pm

        “What I WOULD like to see is someone really getting to grips with the near-Earth asteroids with a view to mining the metal and volatiles resources they could provide.”

        Great minds think alike 😉 It seems such an obvious move for a small planet with a need to grow. And… Much of the up front exploration and prep could be done robotically minimizing cost.

        What we need:

        Global cooperation between interested parties, usa, eu, china, japan, india,
        russia (if i left you off just put your name here ____)

        Please leave your national interests, politics and wars at home.

  7. 19 Dan G Swindles July 10, 2011 at 11:16 am

    My favourite blog comment so far

    That’s so depressing it’s bound to happen (you’ve got yourself the makings of a great sci-fi 1984-style novel right there too)

    Hopefully us proles will still be able to anesthetise ourselves with bingo and chips though

  8. 20 Algernon Cumbersnatch August 20, 2011 at 2:47 am

    One day, if I am ever struck by a long and unprecedented burst of organisation and motivation, I may just try writing a novel… watch this space (in about 30 years time) 😉

  9. 22 Peter September 2, 2011 at 6:32 am

    I wonder whether an alien civilization would want to bother communicating with us in our present stage of development. If this other civilization were sophisticated enough to pick up and interpret signals we’ve sent out since the first radio and television broadcasts, they’d probably view us as being slightly more advanced than chimpanzees. (I read somewhere but have not verified it, that humans and chimpanzees are the only two kinds of primates that kill their own kind–apparently monkees and orangutans and the others are mellower — though I wonder about baboons).

    Sustainable or not, the fact that more than 70% of our electricity (e.g. in the USA) is generated by burning coal and other fossil fuels is pretty primitive (and btw I say this as a power engineer who also happens to view the electric grid, and the thousands of power plants all running in synchrony as being among our greatest technological achievements), and we are so war-like, the hypothetical civilizations who’d consider communicating anything of technical value would probably worry we would fight over their information (assuming we could figure out what it meant) like hominids at a new watering hole.

    In any case I’ve only been reading about SETI for the past month or so and would be interested in any links to journals that discuss specifically the following:

    1) How “bad” is the news of no success yet is, in terms of the percent of the area we’ve searched vs. reasonable expectations regarding signals of other intelligences, and the time factors involved and other hypothetical considerations surrounding the Drake equation (such as the percent of planets with life that have intelligent life etc.)? Even if I said a one percent chance of intelligent life signalling us in any given time period is a high number, if the one percent is one century of consecutive signalling out of every 100,000 years instead of one year of consecutive signalling per every hundred, I’d feel excited about the prospects in the second scenario but sad in the first.

    2) The “anomolies” or spikes of energy that researches have supposedly dismissed make me wonder about how many different ways from a physics standpoint are we looking at the waveforms that are being picked up? In other words, are we just looking at amplitude and frequency and wavelength? Is there something else about these spikes that we could be missing? Perhaps related to some quantum physics properties surrounding the more sophisticated equipment that an advanced civilization might have employed to send them?

    Thanks all.

    • 23 Dan G Swindles September 16, 2011 at 12:17 pm

      Hi Peter

      Great comment, sorry its taken me so long to reply

      On your first question, I’ve read bits and pieces on this but I’ve never come across any journals, although I’ve only read superficially. The general consensus seems to be that its not such a surprise that we’ve not found any conclusive intelligent signs of life yet, as SETI has only searched a relatively small area of our galaxy. As you correctly mentioned, a lot of it depends on your assumptions, such as how widespread is intelligent life likely to be, how likely are they to want to communicate with other civilizations, how would they choose to communicate etc? But I think its still too early to draw any statistical conclusions.

      This article on CBS News is quite relevant and interesting

      As for your second question, I have no idea really. I know there’s been a lot of discussion on topics such as what radio frequencies are most important/likely to be artificial (i.e. the natural frequency of hydrogen, as its the most abundant atom in our Universe, multiplied by Pi, to make the signal distinctive is quite a popular one), and I know there’s been a lot of thought devoted to how things like amplitude could be modulated to make a signal stand out, but I don’t know if anything like quantum properties have been discussed.

      There has been quite a bit of discussion about alternative to radio waves though, such as using gravity waves and lasers. And of course, there could be many forms of communication available to advanced civilizations that we haven’t discovered yet. Imagine trying to describe twitter to someone from 200 years ago!

      Still, radio waves are pretty common and useful, so I still think they’re a good bet. Fingers crossed SETI can stay active, especially as we’re entering the golden-age of exoplanet discovery!

      • 24 Peter September 21, 2011 at 2:24 pm

        Thanks Dan – I’m looking forward to following the blogs here. Am re-reading Sagan’s Cosmos and will also review other items per your suggestion. Things Sagan said more than 25 years ring true all the more now–how people need to understand science simply as a matter of the survival of our species–it sounds so much stronger now to hear something said with such clarity, given all the politicization of global warming and evolution among other issues that should not be subject to argument over certain basic facts… even though “theories” shouldn’t be subject to the kinds of debates going on either….


  10. 25 Peter September 2, 2011 at 6:36 am

    ….edit–should say one century out of every 10,000 years for a 1% scenario….

  11. 26 James N. Campbell December 12, 2011 at 3:33 pm

    As you’ve stated Dan, the physicists typically use the hydrogen frequencies to make attempts at communication. The question is, would a type 1, 2, or 3 civilization still be using the hydrogen frequencies. We, as a civilization that has yet to reach a type 1 civilization, has to remind ourselves that the tools we use to explore out of space are so primitive that it is almost impossible to for us to seek any alien life. Therefore, our interaction with any advanced alien life may completely depend on THEIR efforts to visit us. There have rarely been resources that the human race has used throughout it’s entire existence so that would lead me to believe that as our technology advances we discover and use more effective and efficient resources. Under this natural course of events, any alien life may have abandoned hydrogen frequencies millions of years ago – which is a relatively small time frame considering the age of the universe. The life on earth may very well be a newborn compared to other life forms in the universe. A new-born that has yet to develop enough to roam outside of it’s boundaries.

    Many people use the argument: If aliens exist, why haven’t they shown themselves to us as yet? This question does nothing more than show the vanity of the human race. Hypothetically: If some of these UFO sightings are authentic, the extra-terrestrial responsible is far more advanced than us (They could obviously enter our atmosphere while we haven’t the slightest clue as to where THEIR atmosphere is.) If they were an upper tier Type 1 or a Type 2 civilization, then we would be so primitive in comparison that we would be mere insects to them, not capable of any purposeful interaction. So, when looking at it through these terms, the question should be: if aliens exist, why WOULD they show themselves to us as yet?

  12. 27 Algernon Cumbersnatch January 29, 2012 at 2:19 pm

    Now we have Kepler up there, and the James Webb in production (I think I have the right names for them – I am too lazy to verify) I have noticed already that they are finding some unusual anomalous stars – things like
    which are being interpreted (sensibly and conservatively) as natural phenomena. Is there perhaps the whisper of a possibility that such sightings could in fact be due to S1 civilisations constructing dyson spheres or huge clouds of orbiting space stations/ habitats?
    I know it’s unlikely, but then, the galaxy is vast and old, and so tiny probabilities are going off all over the shop all the time. If any civ is doing this anywhere within range of our ‘scopes then dimming of the star, especially in a strange and unpredictable manner, could indicate something unusual being constructed by aliens?
    Just a thought – I find all this new exo-planet stuff deeply cool. I am just waiting for them to pop three or four JW scopes in solar orbit about 1,000,000km apart – using interferometry they would produce an image similar to that from a single scope with a million km mirror – should be able to read the alien newspapers with that!
    As for Newt – I am quite impressed by his rhetoric – reminds me of the 60’s space race stuff, conjuring up nice imagery of the threat of orbiting space stations with sinister red paint-jobs, run by the “old enemy”. He could be on to a winner here, votewise at least.
    American politics is so different to our British version. You guys have 2 parties, and either vote for one or the other, love one, hate the other. We have three parties and hardly anyone likes any of them.
    I sometimes think that America could actually neatly divide into 2 countries, one Democrat and one Republican. Just a thought…

  13. 28 BrainPains February 9, 2012 at 2:55 pm

    when the rebells win, the war is called a revolution. but if the rebells lose, the war is called a civil war… isn’t that funny?

  14. 30 johnnyp76 September 21, 2012 at 2:50 pm

    Hi there
    On the point of being skeptical of theories about ancient aliens visiting earth:

  15. 31 Yootha January 13, 2013 at 10:51 am

    You’d have to mine the entirety of several million Earths in order to have enough material to build a Dyson sphere. Nice dream, but completely unrealistic.

  16. 32 Angel September 10, 2013 at 3:55 am

    I have been researching non-stop for a paper and I have to say Thank You! It has been hard not to fall asleep and you are hysterical and informative. Thank you for waking me up and helping me understand information that has been confusing to me.

  17. 33 slighted January 22, 2014 at 12:27 pm

    if you follow our current developement , we have transitioned from a civ that had to broadcast widely any information we disseminated, to our current switch over in which our information is beamed directly to a source or area. so as we get more and more advanced we get quieter and quieter… so given how we are advancing any other civ who follows same process if advanced enough we wouldnt notice unless we got in the middle of a beam of information. look at what we have brodcast so far once that information disperses enough it just become part of the general background noise of creation. any civ to far away and we wouldnt know their traffic from general noise. I dont think it has anything to do with how warlike or aggressive we can be it all comes down to how far away something is and is it worht the expenditure of enrgery to visit it when you can just view it from a distance and use equipment to tell you what its made of and if its generating noise and what not. plus the timescales involed if you follow science if we all died in les then 5 thousand years or so most of what we have created will be broken back down by the elements and aside from the garbage in space and the milk cartons and such any new sapience beyond us wouldnt have an idea initially we were here b4 them. The universe doesnt love us our own planet doesnt love us we have such a high ideal of ourselves in such a non caring creation come or go time passes on, leave the cradle or die.

  18. 34 sujarno February 8, 2014 at 11:05 pm

    To say it doesn’t exist at all is just plain arrogance thinking we are the centre of the universe thinking that human beings are so special that we are everything. Really this is the problem with humanity in a whole the pure arrogance they have of thinking they are the centre of the universe.

    And yes we are not the only one how big you think this universe is? We are nothing more than small ants in a pile of trillions molecules and remember also the alcohol cloud found in space so there is some proof of life outside this galaxy.

    And yes we can’t find them and honestly the technology we use is to

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