The Detection of Extraterrestrial Life and the Consequences for Science and Society
By Nick Pope
The title of this article probably resonates with a lot of people with an interest in UFOs. And yet, this is not something I drew up as an attention-grabbing headline. This was the title of a two day discussion meeting held earlier this year at the Royal Society in London. I was one of only a very few journalists who attended this event and in this article I want to give an overview of what happened.
The Royal Society
The Royal Society is arguably the most prestigious scientific organisation in the world. Founded in 1660, its members have included legendary figures such as Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. It has a role not just in acting as a forum for scientific discussion and debate, but in shaping scientific policy in government and academia. If you wanted to take the issue of alien life to the very heart of the scientific establishment, this is where you would take it. And that’s exactly what happened.
Who Goes There?
In looking at any event of this kind, it’s interesting to see who attended, both in terms of speakers and attendees. The event included representatives from NASA, the European Space Agency and the UN Office for Outer Space affairs. Speakers included Colin Pillinger, designer of the ill-fated Beagle 2 spacecraft, and Frank Drake, the first person to send a message into space in a deliberate attempt to signal our presence to extraterrestrials. Attendees included Jill Tarter, the astronomer on whom the character of Ellie Arroway is based in the sci-fi movie Contact – which was based on a book written by the late Carl Sagan. Lord Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal and President of the Royal Society, chaired a number of the sessions.
The conference was a multi-disciplinary affair. Physicists, chemists, biologists, astronomers, anthropologists and even theologians came together to discuss a subject which, a few years ago, would have been regarded at best as fringe science.
Who Stayed Away?
It’s also interesting to look at an event of this sort in reverse and see who was notable by their absence. Two groups of people spring to mind, the first obvious, the second not. The first is ufologists. This isn’t surprising because this was most definitely not a UFO conference, though the subject did come up, as we shall see later.
More oddly, perhaps, there were not as many journalists there as I might first have expected. The Sun sent two reporters, on each day, reflecting their ongoing interest with space and the question of alien life (readers may recall that it was The Sun that broke the story about NASA believing that methane on Mars might be a by-product of microbial life under the ground). I was there and subsequently wrote up a big feature article on the event – also printed in The Sun. I also bumped into Jon Ronson, who subsequently wrote up a big feature interview with cosmologist and author Paul Davies, which subsequently appeared in The Guardian. But I spotted few other mainstream journalists.
On reflection, the reason is obvious. Two days is a commitment in terms of time and most journalists – even freelancers – would just dip in and out, listening to the odd session, grabbing a few quick sound-bites with one or two speakers in the press room and beefing up their stories with material from the press release. The event certainly got a lot of media coverage, but it was slightly disappointing that more mainstream media didn’t do what a few of us did, and sit through everything. I think they missed a trick.
Frank Drake, SETI and the SKA
On a personal note, the conference got off to a fascinating start. I was one of the first people to arrive and was having a cup of coffee when I heard a voice behind me, calling my name. I turned around to see Dr Frank Drake from the SETI Institute, often dubbed the father of SETI. I hadn’t seen him for around ten years, since we were both speakers at a conference in San Marino. He wasn’t speaking until the second day, but I took the chance to discuss with him issues such as how much time SETI might (or might not) get on the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Telescope. When complete, in 2024, the SKA will be the largest and most powerful radio telescope ever constructed. If there are civilisations within 100 light years of Earth, using radio, this telescope may find them. But scientists always have to fight for telescope time, and with so many competing demands from other radio astronomers with different fields of interest, SETI scientists will have to lobby hard for access.
We also discussed the famous Drake Equation, which Frank Drake devised in an attempt to determine how many communicable civilisations there might be in our own galaxy (which is, of course, only one of billions of galaxies). Recent discoveries of extra-solar planets excited him and inclined him to believe there may be more civilisations out there than he previously thought. This is because one of the variables in his equation is the proportion of stars that have planetary systems. It now seems as if this proportion might be quite high, so the value in the equation needs to be adjusted upwards. Bear in mind, of course, that a few years ago we had no data to suggest that any other stars had planetary systems. Unlikely though it was, there was a chance that our sun was unique in having a planetary system – and that we were, therefore, alone.
In his presentation on the second day, Frank Drake said he believes there may be 10,000 civilisations in our galaxy alone, but points out that given the staggering number of stars in the galaxy, this would mean only 1 star in 10 million would support such a world. Cosmologist and best-selling author Paul Davies uses the phrase “the eerie silence”, in relation to the fact that SETI scientists have not yet detected a signal from an alien civilisation (though many believe the so-called Wow! signal, detected in 1977, is a strong candidate). Frank Drake said that given our search has only really scratched the surface, the silence isn’t “eerie”, but predictable.
SETI versus Ufology
Some readers may take exception to the above section. Ufologists who support the extraterrestrial hypothesis will say “What’s the point in looking for life out there, when that life is already visiting us down here?” Stanton Friedman says that SETI stands not for “Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence” but for “Silly Effort To Investigate”. The famous counter-culture philosopher Terrence McKenna once said “To search expectantly for a radio signal from an extraterrestrial source is probably as culture bound a presumption as to search the galaxy for a good Italian restaurant”. My own view is that SETI scientists and ufologists are looking for the same thing, but in different places and with different methodologies. Arguably, however, there is more that binds them together than sets them apart.
I don’t propose to give a blow by blow account of all the different presentations. This would take too long and in any case, the proceedings are available from the Royal Society. Abstracts of some of the papers are already on their website. What I want to do is give an overview of the conference, picking out some themes, talks and debates that will be of particular interest to readers of this magazine. Fascinating though it is, for example, I suspect that discussions concerning organic matter in interstellar gas clouds may be of less interest to readers than questions about whether the discovery of extraterrestrial life would lead to panic in the streets, or how it might affect people’s religious beliefs.
The Differing Scenarios
Before going on to discuss some of the specific issues, I should say that there were, broadly speaking, three scenarios in people’s minds at this conference, in relation to what “the detection of extraterrestrial life” might involve. At the low end, there’s the discovery of microbial life, perhaps on Mars. In the middle would be detecting a radio signal from a civilisation that we’ll never meet and that may be extinct by the time we receive the signal (which could have been sent millions of years of years ago). At the high end is actually encountering other intelligent beings. Many – but by no means all – of those present were sceptical of this latter scenario.
Friend or Foe?
If we detect a signal or encounter another civilisation, will the extraterrestrials be friendly, like the alien in ET, or will they be something like the aliens in the movie Independence Day, here to exterminate us? Views were split. Frank Drake and others believed that we might have much to gain in terms of scientific knowledge. It’s been suggested that civilisations might broadcast information about themselves – a sort of cosmic Facebook. Might we tap in and learn something helpful, such as scientific and technical knowledge that could be of huge benefit to the human race?
Others pointed out what has happened in our own history when a technologically advanced society has encountered a more primitive one. Our trying to find aliens, some believe, is like the Aztecs seeking out the Conquistadors. Professor Simon Conway Morris from the University of Cambridge asked what would be worse, meeting ourselves or meeting nobody? While he veered towards the belief that we’re alone, he said that if the cosmic phone rings, we shouldn’t answer (It’s too late, of course – we’ve been a detectable civilisation for decades, as television signals leak out into space). This was on the basis that the similarity between alien and terrestrial biospheres and the ubiquity of evolutionary convergence might produce something very much like us. And if “they” discover “us”, their technology is self-evidently going to be more advanced than ours, which may have adverse implications for us.
Professor Stephen Hawking made similar and highly controversial remarks recently, when he said that extraterrestrial civilisations might regard Earth as a resource to be plundered.
None of these remarks, of course, impressed those ufologists who take a New Age view of the phenomenon, where the space people are our friends. But Morris and Hawking have a point.
In War of the Worlds, the invading aliens were finally wiped out by terrestrial bacteria. If we encounter extraterrestrial life, even if it’s just microbes, might we share the same fate? Some delegates thought this was a real risk and said it was vital that strict controls should be put in place to deal with any potentially biological material brought back from space missions. There’s the related ethical issue, even on uninhabited worlds, of whether terrestrial microbes from an unsterilized spacecraft might contaminate other planets. What right do we have to do this?
If we discover alien life, many people think there will be mass panic. If we faced an alien invasion, clearly that would be true. But Professor Albert Harrison from the University of California suggested that the mere announcement of the discovery of alien bugs, or even of the detection of a signal from another civilisation, would have little effect. Opinion polls already show that large numbers of people believe in alien life, with many believing we’re already being visited. Add to this the fact that sci-fi movies have embedded the idea of aliens firmly in people’s minds. As an example, NASA announced in 1996 that they’d found a Martian meteorite containing evidence of fossilised life. President Clinton made an announcement, David Bowie’s song Life on Mars got a lot of airplay, but people got on with their lives. Even the alien autopsy film got a mention in Harrison’s presentation, as an example of hoaxes embedding belief of alien life in popular culture.
It’s often stated that discovery of other civilisations would undermine and shatter world religions. Delegates weren’t so sure. Professor Ted Peters, a theologian, briefed the meeting on some survey results that suggested that rather than undermining people’s religious beliefs – whatever their faith – it would strengthen them, by making God’s creation seem even bigger and more wonderful. Not everyone agreed. Paul Davies thought Christians, in particular, would have a problem, given their central belief that Jesus died to save us. If we discover other civilisations, it would raise the awkward question, why just us?
One amusing part of this presentation showed that the polling data suggested that generally speaking, people thought their own religion would cope, but that people from other religions might have some difficulty! In fact, the data and interviews showed little differences in how people from different religious denominations would respond – though the sample size for non-Christian respondents was quite small.
All this ties in neatly with what the Catholic Church has been saying recently. In May 2008 (at almost exactly the same time as the National Archives published the first batch of MoD UFO files) José Gabriel Funes, Head of the Vatican’s observatory, gave an interview where he said that extraterrestrial life might exist. He went on to say that “this is not in contradiction with our faith, because we cannot establish limits to God's creative freedom”. Some ufologists have suggested that this means the church “know something” and that, perhaps, they’re part of an Establishment plan to acclimatize the public to an extraterrestrial reality, prior to an official announcement – “Disclosure”. I suspect the church are just being canny and covering all the bases, in case something does turn up.
Who Speaks for Planet Earth?
Who would take the lead in dealing with all of this? As one American delegate put it, if an alien spacecraft docks with the International Space Station, do we call the Defence Department or the State Department? One proposal was that the United Nations takes the lead. There is an intriguing precedent. The Voyager 1 spacecraft, currently on its way to the stars, contained a message from the Secretary General of the United Nations. In part, this read “I send greetings on behalf of the people of our planet. We step out of our solar system into the universe seeking only peace and friendship”.
How Alien is Alien?
One of the most thought-provoking presentations was given by Dr Kathryn Denning, an anthropologist from York University (Toronto), Canada. She pointed out that if we detected a signal from extraterrestrials, we would be dealing not with extraterrestrial life itself, but with our human perceptions and representations of that extraterrestrial life. She said that these perceptions would derive from and be shaped by popular culture and our own individual psychology and belief.
She concluded her presentation with a fascinating analogy, in telling the story of Ishi. Ishi was the last of the Yahi, who walked out of the Californian wilderness in 1911. It’s believed he was the last Native American to have lived most of his life outside the influence of European American culture. He became a sensation and was widely studied by anthropologists. And yet, despite being co-operative with them, there was a fundamental disconnect. On one occasion, Denning explained, he was asked a simple question about his family and replied with a five-hour story about a bird.
Given that Ishi was human, friendly and co-operative, yet we couldn’t really understand him, Denning concluded by drawing our attention to just how much more different an extraterrestrial civilisation would be. If we detected a message from aliens, she said, it might be “a story that would tell us everything we needed to know, but a story we could never understand”.
As I said at the outset, this wasn’t a UFO conference. The term hardly cropped up at all in the formal presentations. But in many respects the UFO phenomenon was the ‘elephant in the room’. In one discussion period someone pointed out how unscientific it was for the MoD to terminate its UFO project when there were many cases where there was good evidence that something strange had been seen, including sightings witnessed by pilots and tracked on radar. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, Lord Rees responded, looking a little uncomfortable, before moving the discussion on.
But here’s the interesting thing. Outside the formal sessions, in the breaks, over the coffee and biscuits, several attendees and even one or two of the speakers were much more willing to discuss UFOs than in public. In relation to the possibility that some UFOs could be extraterrestrial spacecraft, cautious but quite open-minded phrases such as “I can’t rule it out” and “there’s certainly some interesting evidence” cropped up from time to time.
When ufologists found out that the Royal Society had held this event, they were shocked and intrigued. But some people’s mood soon turned to suspicion and anger. Conspiracy theories started almost immediately and the event was widely discussed on various websites, blogs and forums. Many thought this proved that the powers that be know that we’re being visited. As with the May 2008 announcement from the head of the Vatican’s observatory, some people thought this meeting was part of a plan to prepare the way for official confirmation of an alien presence.
Sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke once said “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying”. I agree. The question of whether there’s other life in the Universe is probably the biggest and most profound question we can ask.
This conference did two things. Firstly, it summarised the current state of research. In other words, how are we searching for extraterrestrial life and how is that search progressing? But secondly, posing the question, “what happens if we find it?”
I doubt whether, a few years ago, the Royal Society would have hosted a conference like this. SETI was regarded as fringe science (and still is by some) and the wider field of astrobiology was seen as speculative at best. But science is (or should be) about pushing the boundaries and asking the difficult or uncomfortable questions. This groundbreaking conference did just that and may have done much to make the issue of extraterrestrial life – and perhaps even intelligent life – more acceptable to academia and to the scientific establishment.