Are we alone in the universe?

By Christianne Guillotte, on 11 June 2010

My first lecture of the day, like Ann, was Robert Winston’s Bad Ideas, then, like Meghan, I saw Bill Bryson discussing 350 Years of the Royal Society. Finally, I saw Paul Davies speak on extraterrestrials. Who doesn’t want to learn a bit about aliens?!

We’ve all heard about those little green creatures that come visit us in a flying saucer and find a few victims to probe. But this was a different type of lecture, one that took alien life seriously and that actually discussed the serious merits (and doubts) of life outside planet Earth. Davies is an interesting fellow. He devotes his life to studying extraterrestrials, yet has reservations on the idea of aliens! As he puts it, he’s a “skeptic optimistic.” He was honest and well-rounded in his interpretation of the evidence for and against aliens.

I learned much more than I expected from his talk. For instance, Davies and colleagues are looking here on planet Earth for evidence that extraterrestrials may exist. If, perhaps, we found a crater or nuclear waste deep within the Earth, we might suspect that there were intelligent beings existing on or visiting the planet many years ago. Or, if we found organisms that follow a genomic organization separate from that seen in all living species so far, we could reason that the creation of life, the spark that leads from non-living to living, has happened more than once, and thus, the likelihood of life happening outside of our planet would be much higher.

On the other side of the argument, planet Earth is extremely special in that it has a moon that controls the ocean tide (which could aid in evolution), and that Jupiter serves as a protective barrier from space debris. If these conditions are absolutely necessary for the evolution of higher thinking, then perhaps we ARE the only intelligent beings in the galaxy.

As Davies concluded – who knows? The important thing is that we aren’t too quick to accept or refute evidence for aliens, but that we keep a (skeptically) open mind.