This week, the Royal Society held a two-day seminar to discuss topics of extraterrestrial import. How might aliens behave? Is digital cable screwing up our chances of contacting another world? Our finest minds tackled these and other issues.
As part of its 350th-anniversary series of conferences, the Royal Society, Britain's foremost academy of science, hosted an event this week called "The Detection of Extra-Terrestrial Life and the Consequences for Science and Society." Some of the world's preeminent scientific authorities got together to speculate about where the aliens might be, what forms they could take, and how people will react if we ever hear from them.
About that last point: Albert Harrison, a psychology professor at UC Davis, had some refreshingly optimistic predictions about the likely public reaction, should the discovery of alien life ever take place in full view of the world. As Harrison told Telegraph,
It is easy to imagine scenarios resulting in widespread psychological disintegration and social chaos... But historical prototypes, reactions to false alarms and survey results suggest that the predominant response to the discovery of a microwave transmission from light years away is likely to be equanimity, perhaps even delight.
Would such delight be warranted, though? (Shades of "V"!) Simon Conway Morris, a professor of paleobiology at the University of Cambridge, noted that there's no reason to think aliens wouldn't be as self-interested and prone to hostility as humans frequently are. However, Morris added, he's not personally worried, since he doesn't think we'll ever encounter life from another world. "It is about time they turned up," Morris told reporters, but "it is very, very quiet out there."
Morris was in the minority among conference participants, though; most agreed that the odds of Earth being the only populated planet in the universe are vanishingly small. So why haven't we heard from a neighbor yet? Frank Drake, the astrophysicist and founder of the sky-scanning initiative SETI, had a novel explanation: our TV and radio broadcasts are now beamed from satellites down to Earth, rather than from Earth out into space. Not only that, but new digital broadcasts produce an even quieter signal than the old analogue methods. According to Drake, we're becoming harder to detect.
Given the size of the universe and the length of time it takes radio waves to travel through space, it's not clear to what extent Drake's theory accounts for our cosmic isolation. But in the view of Paul Davies, physicist and professor at Arizona State University, we may not actually be so isolated. Davies proposed a scenario in which bacteria from other worlds arrive on Earth via meteorites, then integrate themselves into our planet's ecosystem. This may have already happened several times, says Davies; we can't rule out the possibility that extraterrestrials are "right under our noses — or even in our noses."
Of course, it wouldn't be a conference on alien life without a few skeptics. "I prefer to deal in scientific fact — this is wildly science fiction," said Colin Pillinger, a planetary scientist at the Open University, of Davies's alien-microbe theory. Pillinger then sneezed out a spaceship and refused further comment. (Note: portions of this paragraph may have been made up.)