Are we Alone?

with Jez Nelson

("Close Encounters" Five Tones play)  

Woman : He was about six and a half feet tall.We could see his features.He had two eyes and a nose and a mouth.But he was covered in silver.He was silver from head to toe.

Jez Nelson : A surprising number of people say they've had a close encounter.That they've seen,met or even been abducted by aliens.Many more of us are sure that they are out there somewhere,we are not alone. For many, an interest in alien life starts young.Generations have grown up watching Star Trek, Doctor Who and now the
X-Files. The real search for extra terrestrial intelligence or SETI as it's called was begun in 1959 by Frank Drake.Now the president of the world famous SETI institute in California.

Frank Drake : The fascination with SETI started with me when I was very young,about 8 years old,when my parents first told me there were other planets,other stars in the universe,and that fascinated me.I wondered if there were other worlds with other creatures with their own histories and ways of life and I wanted to know about those, and I've wanted to ever since,and that's a very common feeling with human beings,as we know.

Jez Nelson : Known by many as "the father of SETI",Frank Drake came up with an equation to estimate how many intelligent civilisations there might be out there [Ref: Video A30: Riddle of the Skies Pt1{N = R * x  f p  x  n e  x  f l  x  f i  x  f t  x L };N20 Quantum Leaps1 {Making Contact}] . It's based on what we know about the rate of star and planet formation. The statistical chances of life evolving,the odds of that life being intelligent and being capable of developing technologies,and a rough guess at how long a civilisation might last,because we really don't know.

Barry Jones : In our galaxy you've got something like 100,000 million stars,and it could well be that 1% of those have actually got Earth-like planets around them.even if it was only 0.1%,that's still a huge number of planets out there that could have life on them.

Jez Nelson : Dr Barry Jones,heads the Dept of Physics at the Open University.One of his areas of research is the detection of other planets which might be able to support life.The last five years have been particularly exciting, because,for the first time,it's been possible to detect planets in orbit around other stars.

Barry Jones : So far,we've detected indirectly,because these planets affect the star,and that's how we know they're there.So far it's getting up to about 20 exo-planets as they're called,20 exo-planets have been discovered.Now the thing is because you discover them through the effect that they have on the star,so far we're only detecting the real big monsters,there's nothing the size of the Earth detected yet.That's not to say they're not there.It's just that a smallish planet like Earth is much more difficult to detect.

Jez Nelson : So far it hasn't been possible to actually see these planets outside our own solar system.Just to detect the pull they have on the stars they orbit light-years away.But there are plans afoot to launch a powerful telescope to take a good look at these so-called exo-planets.

Barry Jones : I'm actually involved in a project which is going to,well we hope,launch a huge infra-red telescope in space in about ten years time,and what that will be able to do,if it gets launched,is not just to detect these planets through the effect they have on the star,but actually get an image of the planets themselves.Now this image won't be, you know,like a satellite image from space of the Earth,you won't see continents and things,it'll just be a little dot of light.But as soon as you've got the dot of light,you'll be able to investigate that dot of light for the properties of the planet and be able to tell if it's got an atmosphere,how hot the surface is,if there is water there and so on.

Jez Nelson : The hope is that by analysing the light from these planets,it'll be possible to work out if they have atmospheres and could be suitable spots for the evolution of life.Closer to home,and therefore much easier to scrutinise for signs of life are the planets in our own solar system,so do they have the necessary raw ingredients? Dr Monica Grady of the Natural History Museum,studies rocks from all over the solar system for signs of life.

Monica Grady : The basic ingredients that we need to make life are very simple.Carbon,Hydrogen,to break it down to the elements,but usually we think of them in terms of compounds,Carbon Dioxide,Water,Nitrogen perhaps as Ammonia,with traces of Sulphur and Phosphorous.They're the building blocks.

Jez Nelson : These ingredients are found all over the solar system.Even in interplanetary space.But for life to get itself organised the chemistry needs two more ingredients,a nice surface to form on,and some sort of energy input.In other words,the right conditions.So what are other forms of life likely to be made of ?

Monica Grady : There are only certain elements which are going to be useful for making life [Thus reducing the chances of life starting,and the likelihood of its existence.How likely it is that other life exists,is computed from the Drake equation-LB].So although we can think of Silicon-based life forms or Phosphorous-based life forms,or whatever that's very unlikely to happen because of the atomic structure of those elements.Carbon is absolutely unique in the way it can build chains of molecules,form back on itself,form rings and cross-link molecules.So we think that because of that fundamental atomic property of Carbon,then life is going to be Carbon-based.

Jez Nelson : One place scientists think life might have evolved of course,is Mars.

Monica Grady : A planet very,very similar to the Earth,It's half the size of the Earth [Which is why there is a limited atmosphere -LB],but it's made of the same ingredients,it's a rocky planet,it's had heat on it in the past,we know that because of the volcanoes,and certainly there has been water present on the planet in the past.there are other places as well.Places like some of the satellites of Jupiter,like Europa and Ganymede where the surface of the planet is covered with a mixture of ice and rocky debris,and certainly on Europa we think that that crust of ice might be lying on top of perhaps even fluid water.

Jez Nelson : While exo-biologists and planetary scientists search the solar system for tell-tale traces of gases like Methane and Ozone or fossil clues in rocks,astronomers hope for more concrete evidence,not just of the signs of primitive life,but of intelligent beings,and the clues they're looking for at SETI are signals from a technologically advanced civilisation.

Seth Shostak : At the moment we are using principally radio searches,which is to say that we're just trying to eavesdrop on cosmic company usually in the microwave region of the dial because they're good technical reasons why we choose those particular frequencies.Radio is a great way to get in touch.There's no doubt about it,I mean ET might be using all sorts of technologies.Perhaps even rocketing from one star system to another,that's possible,but whatever else he or it may be doing,radio will certainly be part of the mix.

Frank Drake : We're looking for a life form that knows how to build radio transmitters and we look for a great variety of forms of radio transmission.Transmissions they may use for their own purposes such as television or telemetry,and of course theirs always the hope that their radiating a string beacon to us,which would of course make our life easy.But we do search for radio signals because as we understand the universe,this is the most promising thing to search for.

Jez Nelson : Seth Shostak and Frank Drake at SETI.Radio telescopes are expensive and in great demand,so SETI don't get as much listening time as they might like.But a major new project is about to start,involving the worlds largest telescope at Aracebo in Puerto Rico and Britain's biggest,the 250 foot telescope at Jodrell Bank near Manchester Eavesdropping on the cosmos is also going on using telescopes at Harvard in the USA,as well as one in Argentina and another in Australia.So what exactly are they listening for? Presumably it's not some ET equivalent of "Eastenders" or "Noel's House Party" [It couldn't be either of those because they're searching for INTELLIGENT life-LB],and how will we be able to tell if it's a message from the stars rather than just some cosmic noise?

Seth Shostak : There's no doubt that there are many natural noise-makers out in the cosmos that are producing radio waves.Quasars,pulsars,just hot gas in our own Milky Way galaxy,they're all cluttering up the radio dial with their broadcasts,but natural noise-makers,make signals that are all over the dial.It's kind of like driving your car late at night trying to tune in to your favourite country & western station [Is there one? -LB] you'll find static all over the dial,but when you turn the knob,at some point you get a squeal and you know that's what you're looking for,that's a transmitter.

Jez Nelson : And it's not just radio signals that we're listening out for .There are also plans to search for other types of signal from ET.

Seth Shostak : We're also starting to look for the aliens using optical techniques,in other words we're looking for very bright very short flashes of light,that they may be using to try and get our attention.

Jez Nelson : Of course,if the flashes of light are very bright and very short,we might well miss them.It's a real problem for the radio astronomer too.

Frank Drake : That scares us to death,and in fact I'm sitting in a room here in California and I'm almost certain that passing through this room right now are radio signals from other civilisations which we could transmit.....or we could detect if we simply aimed our radio telescope in the right place and tuned to the right frequency.But there's a multitude of places to look and a multitude of frequencies and we've hardly touched this great cosmic haystack as we call it,and so it's almost certain we have been missing signals,and all we can do is search and search and search until one day we luck out,and look in the right place at the right frequency at the right time.

Jez Nelson : And then of course there's always the problem of false alarms,as the world becomes a noisier place,there are more and more chances of being fooled. Planes,satellites,mobile phones,even microwave ovens can all do passable ET impressions.The trick is to distinguish ET from BT,as it were.So how will the people at SETI be sure they've really found something to shout about.That's where the second telescope at Jodrell Bank comes in to confirm what you think you've heard,and if it is ET,well SETI open the champagne,the press go crazy,and then what? I mean we all got excited enough a couple of years ago when scientists found little squiggly things they thought were fossils in a lump of rock from Mars.

Seth Shostak : What happens if we finally do hear ET.Well in the first place of course this will simply be a very big news story.Now I don't think there's going to be rioting in the streets,because in many ways the signal.......sorry this news has already been discounted.The majority of Americans,at least,believe that the aliens are not only out there,but that they're here buzzing the countryside,or occasionally abducting women for unsavoury purposes.So if they were to read tomorrow in the newspapers that we had actually found a signal,I'm sure they would not be surprised.I doubt very much that they would,you know,tell their wives "Well I don't think I'll go to work today,I'll simply riot in the streets".I don't think that's going to happen.  

Jez Nelson : Knowing that we're not alone is also likely to have a profound effect on how we perceive ourselves as a species [Note that once we KNOW it is LIKELY to change our PERCEPTIONS-LB].

Frank Drake : It's going to change us enormously,and I think in ways that we can't predict.If we find one there are many.A large fraction of these will be far more advanced than we are [Posing the question should we be sub-ordinated as we sub-ordinate animals? See Singer -LB],and since our galaxy is many thousands of millions of years old,they could literally thousands or millions of years ahead of us in their evolution and their technological development,and so what we're going to learn in a way,the archaeology of our future.We're going to find what is possibly in store for us.Can we control our evolution? Do we colonise space? Do we achieve biological immortality? Just the idea that that's possible really changes our entire outlook about how we live and what our social institution should be and all of that.In fact it will influence what we consider ethical and moral [Ref: Singer {Ethics and Morality with regard to lower life};Quantum Self].

Seth Shostak : I think it very much will affect the way we view ourselves as a species.It's nice to think that your very special,and that you might be for example,"God's Special child",and so forth,but it's something else when you find out that there may be 100 million other children throughout the visible universe,and your not the oldest kid.

Jez Nelson : So will hearing from ET be humbling or scary? Frank Drake thinks it will be just like the contact made in Carl Sagan's novel.

Frank Drake : Some people find this very scary.They think that finding these creatures and our recognising they would be way ahead of us,that it will be a very depressing discovery,that it will create a planet-wide inferiority complex.I'm on the optimistic side,I think it will actually stimulate us and just fill our civilisation with excitement and electricity.

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Contact : (Theme music plays) "By now the news of the message from Vega had reached every nook and cranny of the planet Earth.People who knew nothing of radio telescopes and who had never heard of a prime number had heard a peculiar story about a voice from the stars,about strange beings.Not exactly men,but not exactly Gods either,who'd been discovered living in the night sky.Amidst the continuing frenzy of sectarian commentary,there was also,all over the world it was now apparent a sense of wonder,even of awe,something transforming,something almost miraculous was happening.The air was full of possibility,a sense of new beginning" .

The Fermi Paradox





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Source:BBC Radio4 File Info: Created 24/7/2000 Updated 15/11/2014 Page Address: