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We'll never get alien telly, says Zagreb boffin

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A Croatian tech boffin has spoiled the party for those hoping to tune into TV signals broadcast by alien civilisations, publishing a pessimistic analysis (brain-ache pdf) of the subject.

As the boffinry newshawks of New Scientist noted from Marko Horvat's paper:

"If, for example, 10 civilisations, each with a lifespan of 250,000 years, live within radio reach of Earth, the probability that one of them will be detected is about nine per cent. That sounds good, but it assumes we have near-perfect telescopes scanning the entire sky constantly - an ideal far from being realised."

Actually, a nine per cent chance of ever managing to pick up alien TV sounds wholly unacceptable to us at Vulture Central. The possible galacto-political implications of interstellar broadcast media reception is one of our favourite areas of speculation.

In fact, the Reg assessment is that the four-year gap between the two series' of Fawlty Towers may very well lead aliens to develop faster-than-light star travel (in order to avoid waiting for their second helping of John Cleese tomfoolery). Indeed, an interstellar armada capable of destroying planet Earth - or perhaps the entire solar system - unless a third series is produced may already be on the way.

But, in fact, all is not lost for the wannabe aficionado of alien broadcasts. Horvat's research is based on some highly questionable assumptions.

Firstly, the party-pooping boffin says typical aliens will only use primitive radio-wave voice and video for short periods of time.

"We already know of several better methods of communication, like fiber-optic cables or directional lasers, which are very difficult or entirely impossible to detect over interstellar distances," he writes.

"So, it is quite probable that, at some point in every civilisation's development, all its radio emissions will completely stop. This will make the civilisation totally radio silent and thus completely undetectable ..."

Essentially, Horvat reckons the aliens will move from black-and-white analogue to high-def and cable too fast to give us much chance of noticing them. We always knew there was a downside to HD, but total galactic comms blackout seems a bit extreme.

And Horvat isn't done yet.

"It is also quite reasonable to assume that civilisations don't last forever but that they all have certain average life span," he says.

"Naturally, [the period of RF telly broadcasting] can never be larger than [the lifespan of the civilisation]."

Bloody great. We'll have just got hooked on a riveting alien talk show or whatever ("next week: my 12 tonne pond dwelling brood-mother has her egg pod fertilised by my crustacean hermaphrodite deadbeat drone husband"). Then the aliens' sun will blow up, or they'll get wiped out by a meteor strike or a malfunctioning planet-buster beam cannon or a sexually transmitted stomach-bursting internal parasite plague or something, and that'll be that.

Then there's the reception problems. According to Horvat:

"[Our ability to pick up alien telly] depends exclusively on the mean sensitivity of our own receiving antennas and the predicted average strength of alien [telly] signals. In order to get the latter value, we can use the average emitting strength of our own TV and radio signals."

It can be hard enough to get Freeview just a few miles from Crystal Palace; out by the Crab Nebula they must be dreading the analogue switch-off even more than grandad. And tuning into alien broadcast standards from interstellar distances clearly isn't going to be a picnic. Especially if greedy extraterrestrial pigopolists have put some kind of ultra-advanced DRM on all the content.

Unsurprisingly, Horvat's results are grim. For there to be a better than evens chance of us ever getting some ET TV to liven up the increasingly bland Earthly schedules, he has to slot in some tough numbers. Worldwide takeup of pricey interstellar set-top boxes, for a start, that wouldn't miss any broadcasts anywhere in the Milky Way. Then there'd need to be at least 80 alien civilisations within the galaxy, all lasting more than a quarter-million years and all resisting the temptations of cable for no less than 25 Earth centuries.

But, we say Horvat has ignored a lot of factors which could improve matters.

For a start, it has to be quite likely that a lot of civilisations will expand across more than one star system using slower-than-light generation ships. When you're stuck on an interstellar voyage lasting centuries, what are you going to need?

It stands to reason: telly to watch, and broadcast from the home world using high-powered interstellar transmitters, to boot. Even if all the aliens back home have gone to cable or krenon-wave or whatever, the equivalent of the Beeb World Service or the shipping broadcast will still be belting out to bored ET astronauts.

And it gets better. Once the alien base civilisation inevitably gets catastrophically wiped out, the interstellar colonists will still be there; but they'll probably descend into a primitive state on arrival at their new homeworld. Then in time technology will rise again, and at some point ordinary analogue telly transmissions will begin, giving us another chance to notice them. This would also probably happen in the case of robot starships fired off with aliens in cryogenic sleep, or alien eggs ready for hatching on arrival or whatever, though the in-voyage entertainment 'casts would be missing in that case.

Even where a lackadaisical, corrupt race utterly fails to develop space travel despite being quite capable of it, there's no reason why it would necessarily cease broadcasting just because it had died out. Such an idle and decadent civilisation would probably refine the production of its TV content, with programmes becoming more and more formulaic and repetitive until they could easily be knocked out by autonomous software. A culture of this sort would be very prone to scheduling repeats excessively, too.

Even when the terminally lazy and bored alien couch potatoes finally died out - too riddled by ennui even to reproduce themselves - their automated TV sausage-machine complexes would continue to spew banal broadcasting into the sky for eternity.

In fact, taking the human race as a model, it's a wonder we haven't already picked up some kind of eternal synthetic version of Big Brother already, pumped out from relic production machinery left running by a far-off, long extinct alien race. ®

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