The search for extra-terrestrial life: Where are we now?
A countless number of human beings have looked above into the stars in awe and wondered “What lays beyond? Is anybody out there?” These questions still create mass intrigue and speculation, but 50 years ago we finally had the technology to address it with the launch of SETI (search forextra-terrestrial intelligence).
Radio telescope dishes swept the skies in the hope of signals from civilisations far away, but no message has come through; not even an intercepted interstellar email. Only silence prevails. So what does this white noise mean for both our search and the future of SETI? This is a concept Paul Davies tackles in “The Eerie silence: Are we alone in the universe?” As a physicist, cosmologist and currently chairman of the Post Detection Task group at SETI he is best placed to handle such a topic. For if E.T does one day decide to call, his team will have played a part in determining how we respond.
Initially Davies sets about dispelling the myths surrounding extra-terrestrials as well as exploring the quirks in trying to make contact. Consider the scenario of a civilisation 1000 light years away – what would they see? Earth 1000 light years ago-perhaps the Great Wall of China or the Pyramids of Giza. Would they dare send out a message, without any assurance we had the technology to receive it? In an age of fibre optics and potentially quantum computers, would an advanced race be able to decipher outdated radio signals? We may have been simply “looking in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and in the wrong way”.
Referring to J. B. S. Haldane “the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose” Davies exposes the biggest hurdle facing this venture. For a long time extra-terrestrial intelligence has been viewed anthropomorphically, that they may look like us or even think like us. “Forget little green men, gray dwarfs, flying saucers with portholes”, erase the images of “crop circles, glowing balls and scary nocturnal abductions”. Instead we should look for things that are “fishy” or the effect such beings would have on the space around them. He expands this to the possibility that life beyond may even be post biological; more of a collective of conscious machines living as a god like entity. Or on the other hand, there may be intelligence but not as we know or wish it to be. So many factors must act together for life to originate, and then to be driven to evolve in a way that allows it to consider other life. Could the same have really occurred elsewhere?
Several considerations ensue, from are we the aliens to viral messengers and mirror life, each tantalising in their own right. Davies is at his best when reflecting upon the myriad of themes a first contact would throw upon us. From who would speak on behalf of earth, to the potential consequences such a discovery could have. He considers the irony if we, the human race – with our disagreement over territory, race, religion and culture destroy ourselves-perhaps the only intelligent life in the universe. That truly “would be a tragedy of literally cosmic proportions”.
At its crux “The Eerie Silence” is a swashbuckling vivid account of our search for life beyond the stars, which by its end leaves you in no doubt of the importance of SETI. For SETI as Frank Drake its founder declared is “a search for ourselves-who we are and where we fit in to the universe”.Tagged in: aliens, extra-terrestrial intelligence
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