Written by Books, Science

The Eerie Silence

Given where I work, there really is no excuse for me not to go to more of the Royal Society’s public lectures. So back in January I attended an interesting sounding lecture entitled “The eerie silence: are we alone in the universe?”
The room where they hold the lectures was absolutely packed, and I was glad that I’d turned up in plenty of time. Attendees that I noticed included Jon Ronson (for reasons which will become clear), and Dallas Campbell of the BBC’s Bang Goes The Theory. I expect there were a few scientists there.
This year the Royal Society is celebrating its 350th anniversary, and there’s a lot going on, so I will try to do more.
But back to the lecture. Professor Paul Davies works at the University of Arizona and is very involved in SETI which of course, is the organisation that searches for extraterrestrial life in the universe.
Is this a mug’s game? What’s the likelihood that there is someone else out there. Before this lecture, there’d actually been a formal discussion meeting examining what would happen as a consequence of finding extraterrestrial life.
Davies rattled through a lot of the things that we need to consider when searching for life. In some respects, the chances seem very good, but in others, the odds are disappointingly long.
Frank Drake, who founded SETI, came up with the Drake equation designed to determine the number of civilisations in our galaxy. The problem is that to fill it in, there are quite a few unknown variables. And since they represent a probability between 0 and 1, they fundamentally affect N, the number of life sustatining civilisations.
Davies entertainingly quotes Donald Rumsfield in this matter: “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we do not know we don’t know.”
The lecture is available to watch onlineat t he foot of this page.
Davies’ book itself digs in significantly greater detail into all aspects of possible extraterrestrials, from the sheer likelihood of them existing, to how we might determine their existance, through to what we should be looking for, where we should be looking, what they might be saying and in what medium. The main problem for all of this is that everywhere is so distant, that communication is rendered nigh on impossible.
Davies even gets into how the news might be broken – basically it’s not something that governments have thought about – and what the message might be. He even worries about the effect the existance of life might have on the world’s major religions. I’m not sure that the effect would quite be the blow he thinks it would be theologically.
He refers a lot to Carl Sagan’s novel Contact, which of course was later made into a pretty decent film. Sagan took plenty of liberties of course, but the basics are pretty decent.
I really enjoyed the book. It’s not too long, and its pretty encompassing. The one area Davies doesn’t spend a great deal of time, is the idea that the aliens are already here. This question came up to an extent at the lecture, and Davies doesn’t waste a great deal of time examining it, since the proof just isn’t there.
Overall, well worth reading.
The book is getting a lot of coverage all over the place. The Times’ relatively new monthly science magazine devoted the better part of a whole issue to Davies, SETI, and alien life in general. In particular, there’s a chunky extract online to be read (or at least until the paywall goes up). And Jon Ronson, who was at the lecture above, writes about meeting Davies in the pages of The Guardian’s Weekend magazine.