Punch Q&A: Are we alone?
With a total absence of intelligent life in the Capital Hill region of Canberra, we thought we’d ask a Canberra-based academic, the ANU’s Dr Paul Francis, if there’s any hope of something with a pulse up there…
The search for extraterrestrial life has been going on in earnest for decades now. Are we any closer to finding intelligent life?
It’s pretty clear that there is no intelligent life elsewhere in our own solar system. But what about on planets orbiting other stars? If you go out on a starry night, it could be that every star you see has planets with intelligent life, and that aliens are staring back at you from every star. Or it could be that there is no other life in the universe and all those planets are dead and dusty.
Will we ever be able to learn more about those distant worlds?
Going to visit these other stars is far beyond current technology, so the only thing we can do it listen for radio signals from them. Until now nothing has been detected. But our current surveys could only pick something up if one of the nearest few stars had a highly advanced technological race on a planet orbiting it, and this race was broadcasting enormously powerful radio signals in our direction. So it’s not really conclusive.
Do you think we (the world in general, or Australia in particular) should invest more or less in the hunt?
This sort of investment is like the lottery - small chance of success, but potentially an enormous payoff if you get lucky. Most pure scientific research is like this. Most research will never have any practical application, but occasionally someone discovers electricity or silicon chips and revolutionises the world.
If we were to pick up signals from intelligent aliens, the impact would be stupendous. The aliens would have to be far more advanced than us (if they weren’t, we wouldn’t be able to detect their signals). We might be able to learn from them and advance our technology by a million years.
Odds are we won’t detect anything. But I think that the payoff is potentially so great that it’s worth making a small investment in searching. Odds are that this investment will pay for itself in technical spin-offs anyway. Right now, the world’s governments are not investing anything in the search for aliens (the investment is all funded by private donations).
People often fall back on the ‘There’s so much out there in the Universe, we can’t be alone’. What’s your take on this argument?
There are two opposing arguments: both quite compelling.
The argument for intelligent life in space is the ‘Space is really big” argument. The number of stars within range of our telescopes is about the same as the number of grains of sand on Earth. And that’s just the stars within range of our telescopes - there are almost certainly far more (maybe infinitely more) further out. And we now know that most of these stars have planets orbiting around them. Advocates of intelligent life in space would say “How can we be so arrogant as to think that we are alone - that nowhere else in this incomprehesibly vast universe there is intelligence?”
The argument against intelligent life in space is the “life is really complicated” argument. The simplest organism capable of making copies of itself (and hence evolving) is a bacterium. Once you get a bacterium, it will multiply, mutate, evolve, and before long (only a few billion years) you will have incredibly complex life forms such as Julia Gillard. But where did this first bacterium come from? The standard theory is that some random chemical reactions produced this first life form. But as any biologist can tell you bacteria are staggering complicated. How could a random chemical reaction produce something life that?
Sir Fred Hoyle famously said that the odds of a random chemical reaction producing a bacterium are like the odds of “a whirlwind blowing through a junkyard and producing a fully functional Boeing 747”. Only it’s worse than that, as a bacterium has many more moving parts than a 747. Opponents of life in space could say “Sure - there is a lot of real-estate out there in space. But life is so staggeringly unlikely, the odds are we are alone.”
What do I think of these arguments? We know that on Earth, life got started very quickly after the planet formed. To me this suggests that there is some easier way to form life. Perhaps there are some simpler chemicals capable of reproducing themselves and hence evolving (free-floating RNA is one possibility). These simpler chemicals can form by chance, and start the incredibly powerful engine of evolution going. If that’s the case, life would be common in the universe.
If you do think there’s a chance of contact, how do you think we should prepare for that?
If there is life in space, odds are overwhelmingly that it will be either much more advanced than us, or much less advanced than us. It’s taken over four billion years for humans to evolve. If an alien species evolved even 10 per cent faster, or their planet formed 10 per cent earlier, then they would be 400 million years more advanced than us. That’s as much time as separates us from slime molds. Try to imagine aliens that more advanced than we are!
Would they be interested in talking with us? I doubt it. When did you last have a conversation with some fungus? And star wars are unlikely - and would be very short if they took place. If they were more advanced, we’d lose in seconds, and if we were more advanced, beating them would be about as demanding as cleaning the shower.
So I think we should just listen and not talk to them. Odds are any species that advanced would be benevolent (otherwise they would have destroyed themselves eons ago) but you don’t want to take even a tiny risk here, where the consequences could be so dire.
I don’t know how the human race would respond to learning that we are not alone. History is full of examples of peoples demoralised and destroyed by contact with other more technologically advanced peoples. But there are counter-examples - like the way the Japanese responded to their opening up to the world in the Meiji Restoration, learned the tricks of the West and beat the westerners at their own game, while still remaining distinctively Japanese. I hope that humanity is resilient enough to rise to the challenge, learn from any contact, while remaining true to ourselves.
Paul Francis is an astronomer at the Australian National University. His web page is here.
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