A huge investment into the search for intelligent alien life has renewed public interest in the question of whether we’re alone in the universe. Paul Davies tells Late Night Live why he’s sceptical of the current search, and why he thinks we should look for ‘life as we don’t know it’ on our own planet.
Professor Davies is a supporter of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI)—in fact, he’s chair of the SETI Post-Detection Science and Technology Task Group, the body charged with responding if Earth is contacted by aliens. However, he thinks we may need some radically new thinking to have a chance of finding anything other than ‘eerie silence’.
‘It’s always possible to believe that if you spend more and look harder you’re going to come across something,’ he says of the $135 million investment announced in July. More.
Yes, and—quite apart from the vested interests involved—it’s hard to know where or how to look if we don’t know what we are looking for.
The argument goes round and round as to whether aliens must be something we’d recognize or not. One way of looking at the question is, we can only find something we can in fact recognize, so that’s all we should bother looking for.
In any event, it was good to hear,
He argues that the focus should be on examining microbes, since most life on earth is microbial. The right kind of investigation could unearth what scientists describe as a ‘shadow biosphere’.
‘Those teeming microbes—of which probably only about less than 1 per cent have actually been characterised, let alone cultured and sequenced—we don’t know what they are. There’s plenty of room at the bottom for microbial life that would be radically alternative to known life.’
If these microbes were found, it would be obvious from their biochemistry that they could not possibly have had a common origin with the rest of life on Earth, Professor Davies says. More.
At least it is a search for evidence where there is a good chance it may be found, instead of the usual faint hope feeding frenzy and unmoored speculation.
See also: Don’t let Mars fool you. Those exoplanets teem with life!
How do we grapple with the idea that ET might not be out there?
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