Between 1957 and 1968, scientists decided to try their hand at creating new minerals that could act as very effective conductors of electricity. They "invented" a pair: heideite and brezinaite.
After a few years, the same minerals unexpectedly started showing up in fragments of meteorites that had landed on Earth. As it turns out, these weren't materials that had to be invented—though how they were able to form outside the lab remained a mystery to scientists.
Now, six decades later, a Venezuelan researcher is trying to connect the dots between the minerals those scientists made in labs and the same minerals that came crashing to Earth from space.
Maybe, just maybe, those superconducting minerals that came from space are also artificial, B.P. Embaid, a physicist at Central University of Venezuela, hypothesized in a study —not yet peer-reviewed—that appeared online on Sept. 13.
And if that's the case, the minerals could be evidence of extraterrestrial technology— "technosignatures," as scientists like to say. "It is important to be open-minded and even provocative to consider the following question: are these meteoritic minerals samples of extraterrestrial technosignatures?" Embaid wrote.
It's a controversial proposition. The implications are enormously attractive: Scientists who study alien technosignatures want to find alien tech and get confirmation we aren't alone in the universe. But even they aren't convinced by Embaid's study. There are plenty of reasons to believe those exotic minerals aren't evidence of extraterrestrial civilization.
"I'm very skeptical these minerals represent technosignatures," Edward Schwieterman, an astrobiologist at University of California, Riverside, told The Daily Beast. It's entirely possible heideite and brezinaite occur naturally somewhere out there in space. And in that case, we wouldn't need E.T. to explain the minerals' presence in a handful of space rocks.
But Embaid's broader point—that evidence of aliens could exist right under our noses—has more merit. Scientists largely agree that we should be looking more widely, with more open minds, for signs of extraterrestrial civilizations. Embaid didn't respond to requests for comment.
It was way back in 1957 when scientists first synthesized brezinaite by combining, and carefully layering, chromium and sulfur. Twelve years later, astronomers studying a meteorite that had plummeted to the ground near Tucson, Arizona in 1850 found brezinaite in the space rock's structure. The same weird mineral later turned up in other meteorites that had already fallen on Earth.
Heideite is a more recent discovery. Scientists first created it in a lab in 1968 by combining chromium, iron, sulfur and titanium. Six years later, heideite turned up in a meteorite that had lodged itself in the ground in India in 1852. In 1995, scientists found heideite in a second meteorite—one that had landed in Yemen in 1980.
It's not some cosmic coincidence that we discovered brezinaite and heideite in labs and then, a few years later, detected them in meteorites. The minerals have been spinning around space for eons, of course—and are probably embedded in countless meteorites peppering our planet. We just never noticed them before the late 1960s because we had no idea they even existed before we created them for ourselves, and didn't notice them when they were right under our nose.
Scientists even have a name for our tendency to notice things all around us only after we've decided they're important. "Frequency illusion." The classic example in the scientific literature is people who see red cars everywhere after deciding to buy—you guessed it—a red car.
Brezinaite and heideite are special—not the least because they're very, very conductive. Possibly even super conductors. That is, electricity might pass through them without resistance. Superconductors are key components in a wide array of modern technology, like computer chips and medical instruments. It's not for no reason human scientists created brezinaite and heideite.
So it would make sense for an alien civilization to create these minerals, too. Intelligent life, whether it's on this planet or one halfway across the galaxy, is working with the same natural elements and the same laws of physics.
That doesn't mean brezinaite and heideite only come from labs. Sure, they don't occur naturally on Earth—we have to manufacture them. But they might occur naturally somewhere else in the galaxy, however.
In other words, brezinaite and heideite falling from the sky isn't necessarily evidence of aliens.
But Embaid thinks brezinaite and heideite are so odd—with their unique formulations and layering—that there's a good chance they're always manufactured. A good chance, that is, that all the brezinaite and heideite in the galaxy come from labs—whether our labs or the labs of some alien civilization. "The genesis of these meteoritic minerals could require [a] controlled and sophisticated process not easily found in nature," Embaid wrote.
Maybe. Ravi Kopparapu, an expert in technosignature research at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, told The Daily Beast we need a lot more data before we start making bold claims about brezinaite and heideite. "Believability is robust only when additional experiments are conducted, and verified independently, that these are not natural."
Scientists should scour space for evidence of some natural process that inputs chromium, iron, sulfur and titanium and outputs, say, heideite. They should be looking for proof that nature can't make brezinaite or heideite on its own.
"If many attempts are made and this hypothesis is still unfalsified, then we may start asking ourselves about the possibility that these minerals were made by industrial processes—in other words, that they are technosignatures," Jacob Haqq-Misra, an astrobiologist with the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science in Seattle, told The Daily Beast.
If it's the case that brezinaite and heideite are exclusively synthetic, the implication is clear. Any meteorite we find that contains brezinaite or heideite isn't some natural space rock. It's a fragment of alien technology—specifically, "derelict technology," according to Embaid. Remains of long-defunct spacecraft or probes.
How this alien tech might've arrived on Earth isn't hard to imagine. At least one probe or other craft traveled to the solar system potentially millions or billions of years ago, and at some point lost power and got caught in the gravity of the sun or one of the several planets already in orbit. That spacecraft could have broken apart and been scattered into many pieces across the system. Some of those pieces fell to Earth as meteorites.
If this sounds outlandish, consider that just five years, a very strange, shiny, oblong object the size of a cruiser liner barreled into the solar system then exited as quickly as it arrived. 'Oumuamua, as the object became known, is unlike anything else we've ever observed. At least one prominent Harvard scientist believes it might be an alien craft.
If 'Oumuamua is an intact alien craft, then all those meteorites containing brezinaite or heideite could be what's left of a much less fortunate vehicle—one that fell to pieces during its long journey.
It's an exciting story. Perhaps too exciting to be plausible. The more boring explanation might be the far more likely one—that brezinaite and heideite occur naturally somewhere in the vastness of space. And meteorites containing the minerals are just rocks, not the ancient remains of a wrecked alien spaceship.
Even if Embaid is wrong to champion brezinaite and heideite as possible technosignatures, his heart might be in the right place. As our understanding of the universe expands and our shared conviction that the human species is special gets a long-needed reality check, more and more scientists are coming around to the idea that aliens are probably out there, somewhere, in one form or another.
The math checks out. There are 100 billion stars in our galaxy alone. And there are potentially trillions of galaxies in addition to ours. Multiply the two and you get a total population of stars somewhere in the vicinity of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. If other galaxies are like our own, most of those stars have at least one planet the size of Earth.
That's a lot of planets. A lot of potentially wet and warm rocks, similar to ours, that could evolve life. Should other circumstances break well, eventually that life could become intelligent, and might invent technology.
Signs of that tech could come in many different forms: pollution from alien farms and factories, or giant inhabitable structures containing entire stars, or explosive bursts of radiation from the engines of high-tech spacecraft belonging to some other sentient species, just to name a few A team of scientists this summer began drawing up a new, more expansive list of potential technosignatures .
The list doesn't include superconducting chunks of some derelict alien craft. But maybe it should .
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