Science Interviews


Mon, 29th Sep 2014

Astrobiology: What's the point?

Eleanor Bacchus, University of Cambridge, Lewis Dartnell, UCL and Nick Lane, UCL

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If it's highly unlikely that we'll ever be able to detect intelligent life, should we Proplyds in the Orion Nebulacontinue 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.


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First off, the title of this thread speaks only about extraterrestrial life whereas the content of the post itself is about intelligent life. Those are two different subjects. May I assume that you're referring to  intelligent life?

If that's the case then no, not in my opinion. If I thought there was even a remote chance of being successful then I'd say yes. I don't see it happening. However that doesn't mean that it won't either. When someone speaks of "remote chance" they're referring to a small probability but it can still happen. PmbPhy, Tue, 30th Sep 2014

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.

That said, I do have some reservations about the current approach:

- Radio-based methodology has always struck me as odd. It seems highly improbable to me that other beings would choose the same technology we do to communicate--even if it is by electromagnetic radiation, why not a different frequency range, or a technique other than AM or FM. And even if identical technology were developed somewhere, how long would it actually be used, so what are the chances of us finding that window of opportunity? Not to mention the possibility that other life may not even communicate by sound...

- If we did somehow locate intelligent life somewhere in the universe, unless they have incredible technology that we lack, a two-sided conversation may have to be impractically protracted (anything more than 20 light years away would be extremely difficult)

- Also what are the chances that communication is possible for linguistic/philosophical/psychological/phisiological reasons, even if we are technologically compatible? The potential for misunderstanding would be huge (or maybe we could decode their message to "surrender immediately")

That said, I believe very strongly that following our curiosity is a good thing, and the investment is currently so small, it is not worth quibbling about. chiralSPO, Tue, 30th Sep 2014

That's a great point and it made me realize that I was responding to the question of extraterrestrial intelligence, not life. As far as  extraterrestrial life goes it's a good idea to look for it since we have some hope of finding signs of it. Mainly by analyzing the light spectrum from other star systems.

chiralSPO - Bravo! Some wonderful insights there my friend! :) PmbPhy, Tue, 30th Sep 2014

Agreed.  There is rarely a simple answer to that sort of question.

I suspect that people who are starving and/or watching their children starve, might not agree with that.
Bill S, Tue, 30th Sep 2014

I suspect that people who are starving and/or watching their children starve, might not agree with that.

If they do then it's due to a result of ignorance. Gaining knowledge is a very important endeavor for civilization. It helps us better ourselves and our lives and in so doing take better care of the sick and the poor. Although they can't see it now it does happen, even if it akes 100 years or more. For example; it was Einstein's studying of relativity applied to gravitation that allowed us to create the GPS system and that's a very important system which can and has helped save people's lives. This particular kind of research would probably cost one poor person 1 penny a week and to me that's not worth quibbling about. PmbPhy, Tue, 30th Sep 2014

Agreed.  There is rarely a simple answer to that sort of question.

I suspect that people who are starving and/or watching their children starve, might not agree with that.

Thanks guys! It's something I probably spend too much time thinking about anyway.

Regarding the starving children:

A) While I do think there is a need for some sort of safety net to provide for people who are in tough times, I don't think welfare should be any significant portion of government spending. Money invested wisely on research, development or construction isn't "lost," in fact the money is circulated in the economy, potentially being used to employ people whose children would otherwise be starving. Plus you get the benefit of whatever the money was spent on.

B) I am not certain what the starving of children has to do with research programs--it's not really the same pot of money that could be used for either of these two goals. And if the parents of starving children had the right to quibble about investment/expenditures, SETI would still be at the bottom of the list of programs that should be reduced, below subsidies, military spending (unless the whole nation is starving and needs too conquer their neighbors for food.... oh wait) etc. etc.

But! Let's not let this discussion hijack the debate on the search for extra terrestrial life! chiralSPO, Tue, 30th Sep 2014

Pete and ChiralSPO, I would not argue with your logic, but I still think starving people might not feel the same about the logic.

If this is your honest opinion, surely even you must wonder about how money could be prioritised in the direction of such a search.  That is all I was talking about, extrapolating that to research in general seems a bit over sensitive.
Bill S, Tue, 30th Sep 2014

Right. So let's just touch on cost for a moment. I looked up how many taxpayers there are in America right now. There are 122 million of them. Suppose we spend 100 million on search for life, intelligent or otherwise, then we'd end up spending 80 cents per year per person per year. I'm sure we find that kind of change laying on the ground as we walk around!! Lol! PmbPhy, Tue, 30th Sep 2014

As has been said in another context, it's the kind of thing that makes a nation worth defending. 

I think there are two distinct questions: extraterrestrial life and extrasolar intelligence. The search for selfreplicating mechanisms or the remains of such, is more likely to bear fruit within the solar system, but there's very little likelihood of finding anything we might communicate with. On the other hand it is quite likely that if extraterrestrial life has ever existed in the universe, something outside the solar system may have produced a broadcast signal to that effect.  alancalverd, Tue, 30th Sep 2014

I disagree. Most of my life I've spent being poor and having a lack of money. Many times going without food too. But never once did I think that we should stop the search for life outside our solar system. Finding such life would mean a great deal to my existence and that would mean a great deal to me. And I know as a fact that I'd be no better off or worse off depending if the did or didn't do that kind of searching. It would change absolutely nothing in my life. If other people who are starving don't think that way then that's there problem because they're living an illusion. Why? you may ask? Because, as I said, there would be absolutely no difference in their life. And just because they're starving it doesn't mean they had access to the same education up to high school that I had. At least for Americans. And just because the US does this research it doesn't mean that every country in the world needs to do it or even should do it.

I've heard this kind of argument all of my life. There's always someone arguing that certain research shouldn't be done because people are starving somewhere when in fact it's never that simple. A lot of the time nothing would be different for the starving people because less money is going into that kind of research. It's not like that direct it into food for starving people.

If you take a look at who it is that's really starving you'll see that its people in countries in Asia and the Pacific, Africa, Latin American and the Caribbean and Developed Countries. See

And it's not as if the world doesn't produce enough food for everyone either. There's plenty to go around.

So I think that it's very naÔve to think that we can stop looking for aliens and put that money into food and that would make a noticeable dent in the world hunger problem. And if someone disagrees with me then that's fine. If they want to prove that I'm wrong then it would do them a world of good because it would help them learn about some of the realities that we have to live with in modern society.

I don't mean to be unfeeling. And believe me, if I thought it'd help then my feelings would be radically different. PmbPhy, Tue, 30th Sep 2014

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

That opens up a much more interesting question. Would you care to move it to a new thread? alancalverd, Sun, 5th Oct 2014

That opens up a much more interesting question. Would you care to move it to a new thread?

Which forum section would it belong in? jeffreyH, Sun, 5th Oct 2014

Since it involves international patent law, genetics, agriculture, economics and ethics, I guess "general science". alancalverd, Tue, 7th Oct 2014

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