Monday, January 24, 2011

Alone again, naturally

The science fiction premise that the universe is broadly populated by a multitude of alien species who, rather conveniently for script writers and costume designers, speak English and have the full earthly complement of limbs, heads, eyes and mouths, has for years been dutifully accepted as harmless entertainment.

However, in the real world - this one - the question still remains: are we truly alone? Planet-sized intellects like Stephen Hawking less than helpfully conclude that, based on mathematic probability, it would be unlikely for life not to exist somewhere in the cosmos. Well, thanks, Professor H, I feel so much better informed now.

So at risk of leaving sensitive Trekkers (remember, they're never "Trekkies") sobbing into their pints of Romulan Ale, news reaches this galaxy that, most probably, we are the only living residents of, well, anywhere. According to a leading Harvard astrophysicist, the continuing mission to seek out strange new worlds - sorry, I'll stop doing that - the ongoing effort of the scientific community to identify new planets is drawing a big fat blank when it comes to identifying other places where life might be supported.

Picture: NASA
News, two weeks ago, of the discovery of an "Earth-like" planet only 560 light years away (pack up the car and program the TomTom, kids, we're off!) was hailed as a stroke of brilliance by the Nasa scientists who found it circling around the star Kepler-10. The excitement grew from the fact this planet is about 1.4 times the size of our own and was a "bona fide rocky world", which shouldn't be confused with Sylvester Stallone's next theme restaurant.
Unfortunately, despite also being something of a "missing link" between all the other gas-filled saunas in the universe and our own, gradually decaying orb, Nasa's finest were brought crashing down by the reality that, with a surface temperature of 1300-degrees (Centigrade, not that it makes much difference if you were planning a holiday), the chance of it supporting anything more than an oven glove was nigh on impossible. Sadly, says Harvard's Howard Smith, every planet so far discovered circling around stars has been profoundly uninhabitable for any form of complex or even simple life. 

That said, star gazers have only found 1000 or so planets so far: given that there are between 200 billion and 400 billion stars in our galaxy alone, and that the universe is, according to someone with an enormous tape measure, 14 billion light years across, you do wonder whether Hawking's mathematic probability has a point. Even if he's just guessing - and who's to say he's not - we're in similar territory to the comment oft-heard on the streets of Manhattan: "There's bound to be a Starbucks around here somewhere." And, nine times out of ten, there will be.

The American research institute SETI - the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence - was largely founded on the basis of an equation, by astronomer Frank Drake, that took into account all sorts of factors (such as how fast stars formed and how many were likely to have planets) to arrive at a likelihood that 'out there', something or someone might be living. Drake believed that there are as many as ten planets in our neck of the celestial woods which could be habitable by intelligent life. Well, at least someone's thinking about it.

Meanwhile, while sci-fi conventioneers continue to dress up as Klingons, and dispossessed individuals still camp out in the high desert of Nevada in the hope of seeing alien spacecraft doing doughnuts in the Area 51 car park, it would be nice to think that a little more time, effort and research could be put into addressing what the intelligent life on this planet has been up to since it pitched up just 200,000 years ago - a mere 4 billion years after Earth was formed.

Perhaps there are aliens out there, looking through telescopes right this minute, and saying to each other - in English, of course: "Nah, too hot. And getting warmer. It could never support intelligent life."


  1. Make that 4 BILLION years!

    I'm with Hawking .......


  2. Hi Simon,
    I agree with Hawking, too. But I think he also made a statement saying that we're better off not trying to find alien species since they'd most likely be more advanced than us and would probably try to attack us. Am not so sure I agree with that. As for the naysayers, doesn't it seem kind of narrow-minded to simply say there's little-to-no chance of life out there? Seems like that's assuming that all life would be like the life we know here on Earth ...