FameLab: Astrobiology

This month, Cambridge scientists are battling it out in an effort to become the city's FameLab champion! We hear from the semi-finalist.
23 February 2015

Interview with 

Patrick Short, University of Cambridge


FameLab International Semi-Final 2014Cambridge is currently in the run up the local FameLab final! FameLab is a competition where scientists battle it out to be the best at giving engaging short talks on their favourite areas of research. Six finalists have been chosen by a panel of judges and they're set to go head to head on 9th March. Before the final, we're hearing from a selection of them.  Patrick Short gave Kat Arney a whirlwind introduction to his research and chosen talk area: astrobiology...

Patrick - Right. So, I'm a first year PhD student here at Cambridge. My programme is mathematical genomics and medicine. But my topic actually is quite different from mathematical genetics but that's what I'm studying here so far.

Kat - So, what is your chosen topic?

Patrick - So, I'm talking about the existence or non-existence of extraterrestrial, intelligent life outside of Earth.

Kat - If you're working in genetics, what drew you to that? is there nothing interesting enough in your own field?

Patrick - Well, there's plenty interesting. The thing about this topic is...

Kat - Maybe next year then.

Patrick - Right. It doesn't affect your life even remotely, right? Your everyday life, but it fascinates us for some reason. Is there something else out there? People have been wondering it for a long time and really, we don't have many answers. so, I thought I'd kind of explore why that might be.

Kat - So, as with all our FameLab finalists, we're going to hear from you. So, you have - I believe your 3-minute talk prepared. Do you want a little counting to it?

Patrick - Yes, that would be great. 

Kat - 3, 2, 1, go!

Patrick - Alright, so many of the listeners out there have probably looked out into the night sky and tried to contemplate how vast the universe is. And probably, many of us too have wondered if there's some sort of intelligent life somewhere out there. 

Any physicists that are listening will tell you that the universe is billions of light-years across. If they know anything about Drake's equation, they'll tell you that for every grain of sand on Earth, there are a hundred habitable planets out there somewhere in the universe. So surely, with a hundred habitable planets for every grain of sand, the universe must be absolutely teaming with life. 

But if that's the case then where is everybody? 

This was noticed by Enrico Fermi and it's called Fermi's paradox. He wondered the same thing. There are really a few possibilities why this might be and scientists have debated and questioned them for centuries. They range from the practical, to the terrifying, to what is in my opinion, somewhat depressing. 

So possibly, there's plenty of intelligent life out there but much like us, they have trouble getting out of their own neighbourhood. We only got to the moon pretty recently, we're trying to find our way to Mars with people. Maybe everybody else has trouble just getting off their own planet as well. But then again, our civilisation is fairly young in the history of the universe. So, if another one had started just a million years before us, you can imagine how advanced they'd be by now. 

So sort of taking that to the other extreme, maybe there's plenty of intelligent life out there and they're actually watching us. We're in some sort of zoo or a national park. Maybe they're studying us, running experiments, trying to figure out what will happen first: Will they all kill each other or destroy the environment? 

And then if you take that to its more extreme end, then maybe they're so intelligent that compared to us, that we, compared to them are the same as a colony of ants are compared to us. So, you've probably not recently tried to explain to your local colony of ants what the importance of space shuttle design is, or why you need to keep an updated LinkedIn profile, chances are, you just don't really bother. They communicate in pheromones and have about 4 words and we have far more than that. 

So really, the truth I guess is we really have no idea. 

We've been searching the night sky for radio waves and haven't heard a peep for 40 years. So maybe we are all alone here, just a statistical improbability in a vast universe. But then again, maybe there is something else out there and if that's the case, then we can either stay here on Earth, continue building our anthills and digging our tunnels, or we can look towards the sky and try to see what's out there.

Chris - Patrick, that was actually 2.5 minutes.

Patrick - Great!

Chris - Brilliant timing. Well done.

Patrick - Blasted through it.

Chris - Had me spellbound. I mean, it's a very important topic whether or not there is life out there because of course, it tells us a lot about where we came from as well and the likelihood of us happening again.

Patrick - Right, no doubt.


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