Eleanor Bacchus, University of Cambridge, Lewis Dartnell, UCL and Nick Lane, UCL
If it's highly unlikely that we'll ever be able to detect intelligent life, should we continue on in our efforts to find ET? Would the money, time and effort not be better directed elsewhere? Chris Smith put these questions to Eleanor Bacchus, Lewis Dartnell and Nick Lane, and started by asking Eleanor if there are any spin-off technologies from astrobiology developments...
Eleanor - There's an awful lot of funding around for exoplanets at the moment because itís a really Ė well, itís a really trendy subject in astrophysics. Thereís a lot of grants for it and this is pushing our technology because itís such a difficult problem. Itís pushing technology to sort of limits that people couldnít really imagine before and this has just spun off into medical uses as well. So, there are some of our telescope technology is actually used in looking at peopleís eyes. Thereís one of these that I came across that I wasnít aware of before which was pretty astounding.
Chris - Itís ironic to think of turning the telescope around, isnít it?
Eleanor - Yeah.
Chris - Weíre taking something very powerful to look at something very miniscule. I think also, someone said to me that if it wasnít for astronomy and astrophysics, we wouldnít have Wi-Fi that we all use on the internet every day and of course the SKA, the Square Kilometer Array, worldís most powerful telescope theyíre building. Thatís gonna generate as much data in a day as the whole world generates in a year at the moment, so weíve got to marshal big data better. Nick Lane, what do you think about this whole business of looking for life out there? Do you think we should be looking for life in Cambridge, or we should be looking for life elsewhere in the universe?
Nick - Yeah. I think, I think itís overwhelmingly likely that life will arise on more or less any wet rocky planet, including Mars. I would agree with Lewis. I would be very disappointed if it hadnít, but complex life like ourselves, I think thatís far, far more rare. All complex life on Earth only arose once in 4 billion years and so thatís highly improbable for whatever reasons that weíre trying to understand. Should we therefore look for complex life out in the rest of the universe? I would say, yes, because we donít understand what the reasons are here. Weíre trying to get at it but again, observational data is the only thatís going to give us any kind of an answer.
Chris - And Lewis Dartnell, thirty seconds. So, SETI? Yes or no?
Lewis - My personal belief is that SETI will not detect anything. There is no other intelligent civilization in our galaxy. However, I think we should still be looking for it because itís an incredibly cheap thing to do but the repercussions would be so incredibly profound if we find an interstellar text message tomorrow.
Yes. Astrobiologists have found on earth organisms able to live in extreme environments not unlike that on other planets--hot underwater vents, buried Antarctic lakes, sunless caves, etc. That work should help researchers identify hardy microscopic life forms elsewhere as well--and to learn from it. binnie, Tue, 30th Sep 2014
I am inclined to say that we should still continue our search, no matter how likely the outcome may be, if for no other reason than it is in line with scientific inquiry. There are fundamental aspects of biology (and philosophy) that could be addressed if we had another data point. Honestly, I would be thrilled to find simple extraterrestrial life, especially if it can be shown to be independent of our own evolutionary tree. Similarly I think we should continue looking for ways to achieve controlled fusion, artificial intelligence, teleportation, room temperature superconductors and all manner of pursuits of unlikely targets, no matter how small the possibility of "success" might be, we will still learn interesting things on the way.
Pete and ChiralSPO, I would not argue with your logic, but I still think starving people might not feel the same about the logic.
As has been said in another context, it's the kind of thing that makes a nation worth defending.
It's a tiny amount of money which would be wasted by politicians in some other way if it wasn't spent on this, just like the much larger sums they flush down the toilet on a daily basis. The reason people are starving is actually down to stupidity and selfishness which prevents all the world's resources being shared fairly amongst all the world's people. If we shared it all fairly, and this applies especially to food, we could save enormous costs in dealing with environmental destruction by taking the pressure right off all the endangered habitat which we worry about losing, habitat which is only being destroyed because of unnecessary competition between nations which results in some people having to cut down forest in a desperate attempt to feed their children while other people are stuffing so much food into themselves that they end up with backsides big enough to make an elephant jealous. We need to get rid of nationalism - not cultural nationalism, but economic nationalism. David Cooper, Sun, 5th Oct 2014
The question is irrelevant because we will search regardless. Ever since H. G. Wells and Jules Verne people have imagined other life elsewhere. It seems to me that often science is driven more by this fiction than any utilitarian principle. We see teleportation on star trek and think hey that's cool let's see if we can invent it and make it real. On the downside Monsanto developed better seed that was disease resistant and hardy to harsh climates but the seeds they sold were patented to prevent reuse. This meant poor people being held hostage to a multi-national. That was not science that was politics jeffreyH, Sun, 5th Oct 2014
Since it involves international patent law, genetics, agriculture, economics and ethics, I guess "general science". alancalverd, Mon, 6th Oct 2014