Photo via flickr by Vermin Inc
At the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences first ever conference on alien life in November 2009, Lord Martin Rees, a leading cosmologist, astrophysicist, president of Britain’s Royal Society and astronomer to the Queen of England, told the audience that he believes the existence of extra terrestrial life may be beyond human understanding.
“They could be staring us in the face and we just don’t recognize them. The problem is that we’re looking for something very much like us, assuming that they at least have something like the same mathematics and technology,” Rees suggested.
During the conference that Rees chaired entitled ‘The Detection of Extra-terrestrial Life and the Consequences for Science and Society,’ Rees claimed “I suspect there could be life and intelligence out there in forms we can’t conceive. Just as a chimpanzee can’t understand quantum theory, it could be there as aspects of reality that are beyond the capacity of our brains.”
Father Jose Funes, a Jesuit astronomer at the Vatican Observatory and one of the organisers of the conference, said: “As a multiplicity of creatures exists on Earth, so there could be other beings, also intelligent, created by God.”
However, Frank Drake, the founder of SETI and Drake’s Equation, told the conference that satellite TV and the “digital revolution” was making humanity invisible to aliens by cutting the transmission of TV and radio signals into space. The earth is currently surrounded by a 50 light year-wide “shell” of radiation from analogue TV, radio and radar transmissions. According to Drake, digital TV signals would look like white noise to a race of observing aliens.
Although the signals have spread far enough to reach many nearby star systems, they are rapidly vanishing in the wake of digital technology, said Drake. In the 1960s, Drake spearheaded the conversion of the Arecibo Observatory to a radio astronomy center. As a researcher, Drake was involved in the early work on pulsars. Drake also designed the Pioneer plaque with Carl Sagan in 1972, the first physical message sent into space. The plaque was designed to be understandable by extraterrestrials should they encounter it.
Milan Cirkovic of the Astronomical Observatory in Belgrade, points out that the median age of terrestrial planets in the Milky Way is about 1.8 gigayears (one billion years) greater than the age of the Earth and the Solar System, which means that the median age of technological civilizations should be greater than the age of human civilization by the same amount.
In 2002, Lord Martin Rees sat with Sputnik Observatory, exploring the possibility that there could be alien nanoscale life on Earth that we wouldn’t recognize:
It’s worth looking for primitive life on Mars, on the frozen oceans of Europa, maybe in other places. But I’m also very much in favor of attempts to look for evidence for any artificial signals or any artifacts from some intelligent life beyond the solar system. And efforts are being made by a number of groups, particularly SETI Institute in Mountainview, California, to search systematically for particular kinds of signal that might be manifestly artificial. Now, of course, these signals would be very hard to detect and the nearest sources of them would be many tens of light years away. So if you detected a signal and try to send one back, it would take many, many decades. And so there’s no scope for snappy repartee, as it were, if we detect a signal, we would have time to make a measured response. But even if we detect no signal, then we can’t conclude that there’s no life or even no intelligent life out there because only a particular subset of such life may be sufficiently like us to be sending out signals that we could recognize. There could be all kinds of intelligent life out there that we wouldn’t recognize. There could be tiny nanoscale life here on Earth that we wouldn’t recognize. And so there are all kinds of possibilities.
Lord Martin Rees reasoned further the possibility that there could be another universe less than a millimeter away from ours, that we don’t know about:
If you look at what happens in our own universe, what seems to have happened is that it started off very hot and dense, then it expanded, then it cooled down. And as it cooled, it developed structures in it. Instead of being almost uniform, globs of different scale condensed out and they turned into stars and galaxies and, around some of those stars, planets formed. On some of those planets, the mysterious steps that lead to simple life got started. And that led eventually to complex life. So all those processes seem to have happened in our universe and it’s taken about 14 billion years to get to its present state. Now, if we look beyond the universe we can see, we have to ask, could there be other cosmos beyond what astronomers observe? And there are lots of ideas. One is that the big bangs sort of sprout one after the other, in a sense, in what some people call an eternal inflation theory. There’s another fascinating idea that these other universes exist separated from us in some extra spatial dimension. There could even be another universe less than a millimeter away from ours which we don’t know about, because that small distance is measured in some fourth spatial dimension which we can’t move in because we’re trapped in our three. Rather as if you imagine a whole lot of bugs on a big sheet of paper, their two-dimensional universe, they might be unaware of another set of bugs on another sheet of paper. So there may be other universes separated from ours in an extra spatial dimension.