Friday, 20 September 2019

Hello? Is there anyone there?


I don’t know how I could possibly have missed it – after all, it’s not as if there’s anything else going on – but apparently the results of a global opinion poll were published a few days ago on whether we should respond to an approach, if and when it comes, from an alien civilisation.

In the UK, two-thirds of the men said Yes, but more than half of the women said No. Globally, the split was pretty much 50-50. Me? I’m with the fellas: if ET gets in touch, yes, definitely, let’s pick up the phone. And I know what my first words would be: ‘I think we could do with some help.’

So let’s think this through. Let’s suppose that one of the international consortia of space scientists – the NASA-backed SETI institute in California, for example (SETI = Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), or the $100 million Breakthrough Listen project – pick up signals that could only have come from some form of intelligent life far, far away. What’s more, by some miracle of computational gee-whizzery, they can decipher what the signals say.

‘Hello? Is there anyone out there?’ And guess what, although it’s not quite as easy as hitting the Reply button, the earthling scientists work out how to respond.

Why wouldn’t they? ‘Hello, we’re here. The little blue planet, third one out from the G2V star on the inner edge of the Orion arm of the Milky Way galaxy, about 26,500 light years from the Galactic Centre. If you can’t find us, presumably you have an equivalent of Google Maps.’

To me, it’s a no-brainer. But some scientists think we’d be crazy to tell anyone where we are. The science commentator Anjana Ahuja wrote in the Financial Times the other day that it would be ‘madness on a galactic scale’. ‘An alien lifeform extending the tentacle of friendship is likely to be reaching out from a position of technological, if not intellectual, superiority,’ she wrote. ‘The history of explorers pinpointing distant lands is one of plunder and conquest. Parading our presence could unleash interplanetary pandemonium.’

The astrophysicist Duncan Forgan is similarly fearful. ‘I don’t think it’s a good idea to speak to someone when you have no idea who they are. I’m not convinced we should be advertising the human race at this point in our existence.’

I understand their position. The way they see it, we earthling human life-forms are the galactic equivalent of First Nation Americans or the indigenous peoples of Australia when unfriendly foreign explorers landed on their shores. Shouldn’t we learn from their experience?

Having recently discovered that a planet called K2-18b orbiting in the ‘habitable zone’ of a distant star has evidence of the presence of water in its atmosphere – and therefore, in theory, might be capable of supporting life as we understand it – should we tread very carefully before making our existence known to whoever, or whatever, might be living there?

I am no scientist, but I think the sceptics are being too cautious. It’s not as if we are so confident of our long-term survival prospects that we might not benefit from a bit of help from our intellectual or technological superiors. And if they were to decide that we’re so useless at looking after ourselves and our planet that they’d be better off annihilating us and starting all over again, well, I’m not sure I’d blame them.

On the other hand, if they ask to be taken to our leader, I’d immediately put them in touch with David Attenborough – he has plenty of experience of dealing with non-human life forms, and he might even be able to persuade our alien visitors that we’re not as useless as we seem.

I know, I know. You’re wondering why I have chosen to write about extra-terrestrial intelligence this week of all weeks. I would have thought it was obvious. I’m desperately hoping that there’s someone – something – out there who can help us resolve … but no, I promised myself I wouldn’t even mention the B word this week. So you’ll have to work it out for yourself.

And, ET, if you’re reading this, you know where to find me.