Law of probabilities backs hopes for E.T., conference hears

Jan 25, 2010 by Richard Ingham

The law of probabilities backs theories that we are not alone in the Universe, although an encounter with an advanced civilisation may shock our species, scientists at a conference said here on Monday.

"There is no firm evidence that exists elsewhere, but there is a very firm probability (for it)," said Baruch Blumberg, an astrobiologist at the Fox Chance Cancer Center in Philadelphia.

"My clear prediction is that living generations have an excellent chance of seeing extra-terrestrial life being detected," said Martin Dominik, an astronomer at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.

Life on Earth may have been kickstarted thanks to and dust that drift through interstellar space, said Pascale Ehrenfreund, an astrochemist at George Washington University, Washington.

If so, "the basic building blocks of life -- at least as recognised on Earth -- must be widespread in planetary systems in our Milky Way and other galaxies," she suggested.

The two-day conference is being hosted by Britain's Royal Society, one of the cradles of modern science, as part of a series of discussions on major issues to mark the academy's 350th anniversary.

The meeting is not intended to give any conclusion on whether other life exists but give a snapshot of where we are in our quest to find it -- and speculate on the impacts of such a discovery on human society.

Lord Rees, president of the Royal Society, said it was essential to admit to our present ignorance.

"We don't even know how life began here on Earth and that being said, we don't even know how to place our bets on how widespread life is or where to look for it," he said in an interview.

Even so, new astronomical tools, including powerful orbital telescopes, are exposing "extra-solar" worlds, or planets orbiting other stars, and one of them could eventually be revealed as a potential haven for life, said Blumberg.

Since 1995, "more than 400 have been detected and the number is increasing rapidly," he said.

Intriguingly, though, none so far has been found to be in the lucky position of Earth.

We inhabit a rocky planet orbiting in the so-called Goldilocks zone, where it is not too hot, not too cold but just balmy enough for water, one of the key ingredients for life as we know it, to exist in liquid form.

Some of the speakers scorned Hollywood's notion of the extraterrestrial, whose anatomy was invariably inspired by a human design (four limbs and a head housing an external brain) and whose behaviour was driven by human emotions of anger and love.

If alien life exists, our first discovery is likely to be in microscopic form, which would not be too disconcerting for our civilisation, said Albert Harrison, a social psychologist at the University of California at Davis.

It could be as a bacterium found in promising sites in the Solar System such as the sub-soil of Mars, Jupiter's satellite Europa or on the Saturnian moon Enceladus, which are thought to harbour oceans beneath their icy crust, some hope.

Simon Conway Morris, a professor of evolutionary palaeobiology at the University of Cambridge, offered a contrasting view.

"My own opinion is that the origin of life is a complete fluke," he said. "I fear that we are completely alone... there's nothing (out) there at all, not a thing."

Should smart aliens want to contact us, he warned, we should not necessarily think they will be cuddly, kind and wise, in the Spielberg genre.

"They could be like the Aztecs, just as aggressive and extremely unpleasant," he said. "If I'm wrong, and the telephone rings, whatever you do, do not pick it up... we might not want to say hello."

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SteveL
2 / 5 (2) Jan 25, 2010
I used to have my home computer crunching away for Seti@home. In just a while I came to a similar conclusion as Prof Morris. If there is intelligent life out there, and if we detect it, some bozo is going to try to send a signal to them. Granted with the distances involved it would be thousands of years before they could "visit" us, but I've seen enough of nature to know that the strong and advanced always prey on the weaker and less advanced, especially when valued resources are involved. It's just natural. It may be that our best defense is to stay hidden.

Let's continue to advance in science and technology. Lets visit and learn about our solar system. However, lets do it at our own pace as if our survival is at stake (which it is), but without some outside motivation, either real or implied forcing nations into emotionally-based decisions based on fear. There are more than enough of those type of decisions being made already.
Rdavid
Jan 25, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
fourthrocker
2.5 / 5 (2) Jan 25, 2010
The idea that we are alone implies that the conditions for the evolvement of life either only exist here or that it exists(ed) elsewhere but never happened. Seems pretty long odds either way considering how many star systems there are in the universe.

Or maybe there is plenty of life but none intelligent enough to develop a technologic civilization. The question is if they are there, why haven't we heard one?

My personal favorite is that they all destroy themselves shortly after developing the ability to. It certainly seems we very likely will and it's pure luck we haven't already.
Doug_Huffman
3 / 5 (1) Jan 25, 2010
Absence of likely ETs seems a pretty good argument for lightspeed as a real limit. They haven't had time to hear us yet and, if they have, then it is a loooong trip.
yyz
4.3 / 5 (3) Jan 25, 2010
"...Baruch Blumberg, an astrobiologist at the Fox Chance[Chase] Cancer Center in Philadelphia."

Just what does an astrobiologist do at a cancer center? Seems like a non sequitur.

LariAnn
3 / 5 (3) Jan 25, 2010
Of course, are we assuming that ETs would be seriously interested in visiting us even if they knew we existed? Perhaps they have their own major planetary problems, keeping them busy enough to forestall any curiosity visits to a backwater primitive civilization such as ours.
Kedas
2.3 / 5 (6) Jan 25, 2010
@fourthrocker, another assumtion:
black holes normaly do not exist, each black hole is the location where an 'intelligent' experiment went wrong.
farahikia_1983
2.3 / 5 (3) Jan 25, 2010
There are still many questions to be discussed in regard to E.T. First, what is this insist that if there is life out there in the universe, then it must be based on Carbon as we are? Why should they drink water? Can't there be a completely different living creature relying on Methane, for example?
Second, a face to face encounter has a probability very close to zero. WHY? Take the size of Earth in comparison to the vastness of the universe and see how small we are. Yet, what is the chance that the closest nearby living creature with the sophisticated technology as ours or higher, would be listening to exactly our direction to find neighbors? Are they as interested in E.T as we are?
Say we find where they live. Even video conferencing is impossible, as it would take many years to send and receive data cause they will be light years away, hence taking years for the wave to go and come. Take into account the expansion of the universe. Then what? Yet nice trying to find E.T!
Sean_W
2.2 / 5 (5) Jan 25, 2010
"although an encounter with an advanced civilization may shock our species"

I think such an encounter would shock the advanced civilizations. Human societies exist which use rape against men, women and even youths for political purposes and we mutilate our children's genitals for "cultural" reasons while the societies which are supposed to be above that sort of thing encourage these regimes, protect them from criticism and cooperate with them for political expedience (they happen to oppose people we oppose) and in the name of "tolerance". And we continuously want to give totalitarianism/socialism one more try in the belief that this time things will be different and it will work. I pity any species that stumbles upon us.
Sean_W
3.5 / 5 (2) Jan 25, 2010
As for the discovering bacteria before we discover a civilization. If that means seeing a spectrographic signal of the molecular products of a biosphere that might be so but if it means finding a bug for study it is certainly false. Bacteria don't get around much or respond to attempts to communicate.
NeptuneAD
4 / 5 (2) Jan 25, 2010
The Fermi Paradox indeed, my personal belief is that the universe is just too big and interstellar travel isn't feasible.

In saying that, it is most likely that the universe is teeming with 'Aliens', but if faster than life travel isn't possible then even communication could take decades, now how long have we been seriously attempting to communicate.

More than likely we aren't advanced enough to even know how to communicate properly, let alone where to direct those communications.
Hungry4info2
1 / 5 (2) Jan 25, 2010
@fourthrocker, another assumtion:
black holes normaly do not exist, each black hole is the location where an 'intelligent' experiment went wrong.


Haha nice...
Birger
4.5 / 5 (2) Jan 25, 2010
Fermi Paradox: We are alone because the other biospheres have nothing more advanced than bacteria and possibly some lichen analogues. This does not make them uninteresting: Each biosphere is a unique lab for testing different genetic systems and different solutions to problems faced by living organisms. "Bioprospecting" would make the cost of interstellar probes worthwhile, even if each mission would take far longer than a (current) human life span.
diego
2.3 / 5 (6) Jan 25, 2010
you people need to realize that one, aliens have already visited earth numerous times and second just because we don't have a good understanding of physics to to faster than light doesnt meen ET doesn't
ruebi
5 / 5 (2) Jan 25, 2010
If we find another habitable planet in our own galaxy I would be very surprised. The chance that there would be life on "earthlike" planets is absolute. But the truth is the conditions for the formation of an "earthlike" planet are extremely rare. All I am really interested in is colonizing any and all "earthlike" planets in this galaxy or teraforming on an extreme level every system we can before some "aliens" find us and wipe us out.
wawadave
5 / 5 (2) Jan 25, 2010
"Just what does an astrobiologist do at a cancer center"

Study extraterrestrial cancer cells
Mercury_01
5 / 5 (3) Jan 26, 2010
""My own opinion is that the origin of life is a complete fluke," he said. "I fear that we are completely alone... there's nothing (out) there at all, not a thing.""

Key word: "fear"

let it go, brothers. the laws of physics are the same everywhere, as war as we can tell.

Life exists, and has a tendency to do so.
Imagine if we had formed just a few minutes earlier on the "cosmic calendar", how much more we would know by now about the nature of the universe, and of time, space, and matter, given the depths of what is knowable. I one day, we could attain a mastery of reality itself.

This conversation has been had countless times across the universe.
wrap
5 / 5 (4) Jan 26, 2010
the speed of light is too low to provide successful terrestrial exploration or any sort of communication.
but who said that other civilization lives in the same time terms as humanity. our progress in bio technologies points to eventual prolongation of our lives up to thousands of years. so considering vast spaces of our galaxy let's not forget the time factor. a couple of hundred of years is not a problem when you live forever.
NeptuneAD
4.5 / 5 (2) Jan 26, 2010
The vast spaces would not only mean we would have to have spaceships that could travel at speeds that are unconceivable at present but also have a destination in mind that had been positively identified as worth the time and money it would take to achieve such a mission.
CreepyD
5 / 5 (1) Jan 26, 2010
We don't need to travel FTL. Crygenically freezing is a reality in numerous species on Earth, we just need to genetically engineer humans to survive it too.
I find the ship at the start of Avatar quite believable in it's design, even if the timescale of travel was not.
rgw
5 / 5 (1) Jan 26, 2010
"They could be like the Aztecs, just as aggressive and extremely unpleasant"
Why pick on the Aztecs? They were more vicious than the Spanish monsters who exterminated them?
antialias
5 / 5 (3) Jan 26, 2010
This article is a bit puzzling. We know of exactly ONE place where life got started, so the statistical sample size we have is: one.

Any statistician will tell you that you cannot draw _any_ conclusion from such a sample size (other than: "Life is not impossible").

With such a sample size there is no way to know how likley/unlikely that first kickstart was and how many factors needed to be just right to get it going (i.e. whether it's a fluke or not. And if it is a fluke: How much of one is it?).

Don't get me wrong. I _think_ that life elsewhere is likely, too. But to say that 'the laws of probability' back this up is simply false.
yyz
not rated yet Jan 26, 2010
""Just what does an astrobiologist do at a cancer center"

Study extraterrestrial cancer cells"

Ah, so he's an exobiological oncologist. So...maybe our government really is holding ETs and one of them has developed cancer. I wonder what that job pays? :)
fourthrocker
5 / 5 (2) Jan 26, 2010
If there is life it is going to be carbon based for several reasons. Mainly because only carbon has the ability to create an almost infinite number of compounds. There are estimated to be around 2 million proteins alone in the human body, all of which I assume are essential to life. The other reason is that if life could be based on other elements then it would be much more likely to be everywhere. You can believe what you want but all life in the universe will be carbon based. Life is complexity and only carbon can provide that.
fourthrocker
5 / 5 (1) Jan 26, 2010
CreepyD is right, we could colonize this whole galaxy eventually without FTL or even knowing if there is inhabitable planets. It doesn't even have to involve embryo's, all we need to do is send the simplest form of life that can survive indefinite trips and that has DNA and evolution would do its thing.
farahikia_1983
not rated yet Jan 26, 2010
One more thing; I was watching a cosmology movie from The Teaching Company where the lecturer said the galaxies are so young that the probability of evolution of light elements to heavier ones that make up us and the planets is very low. I don't know how and why.
quixote7
3 / 5 (1) Jan 26, 2010
Think about how complex, expensive, and vulnerable spacefaring technology is. It'll take the resources of the whole planet, working together, for us to send an interstellar mission to Alpha Centauri, for instance.

Anything is possible, so a totalitarian, nasty, world-spanning dictatorship might get the necessary resources, but the vulnerability of the technology to sabotage would make successful space colonization very hard for them.

The assumption that space-going aliens could well be nasty is not logical. It's not impossible, but it's far from the likeliest scenario. That's judging too much by past human history. A straight line extrapolation to space travel doesn't work.
NeptuneAD
not rated yet Jan 26, 2010
I so much agree with that, not only would it take the entire world's cooperation, but there would have to be huge long term benefits in order for the desire to be great enough, its not something you would do on a whim.
PMende
3 / 5 (1) Jan 30, 2010
There are still many questions to be discussed in regard to E.T. First, what is this insist that if there is life out there in the universe, then it must be based on Carbon as we are? Why should they drink water? Can't there be a completely different living creature relying on Methane, for example?


Carbon is assumed to be the basis for all life because: it is plentiful enough; it can form resilient barriers, it can form strong bonds without the resulting material being extremely rigid; it is reactive without being explosively so.

Water is assumed to be a basis for life because: it serves as a near universal solvent; it is ubiquitous in ANY environment with both hydrogen and oxygen (read: nearly ANY planet that isn't extremely hot and energetic in other ways); it is extremely stable.

Use your noodle a bit more next time.
PMende
not rated yet Jan 30, 2010
The assumption that space-going aliens could well be nasty is not logical. It's not impossible, but it's far from the likeliest scenario. That's judging too much by past human history. A straight line extrapolation to space travel doesn't work.


Complex extraterrestrial life is not necessarily based on individuals working in cooperation or competition. One could imagine an extraterrestrial civilization that is a sort of hive mind. Indeed, sci-fi authors have imagined such life forms: Ender's Game is the example that spring to mind.
PMende
not rated yet Jan 30, 2010
Water is assumed to be a basis for life because: it serves as a near universal solvent; it is ubiquitous in ANY environment with both hydrogen and oxygen (read: nearly ANY planet*** that isn't extremely hot and energetic in other ways); it is extremely stable.


Any planet with an atmosphere that isn't a gas giant! Thought I put that in there.
YawningDog
5 / 5 (3) Jan 31, 2010
Archimedes was a very smart guy but he never conceived things we take for granted every day now.

What we don't know far exceeds what we do know. There could be a vast civilization "living" on the Sun that is based on plasma and magnetic fields. How would we ever know?

Yet someday, when we extend our sensors in many more directions perceiving things we now have no idea exist, we may get a surprise.

It wasn't very long ago that the microscope revealed a whole new world to us.
plasticpower
3 / 5 (2) Jan 31, 2010
I have to agree with whoever said intelligent life might collapse on itself by destroying itself. The Cold War was a good example, we all lived by pure luck. But who knows what the future holds. With the number of nuclear weapons we have, and the lax security in certain countries, the diminishing resources on this planet - unless some major breakthrough happens that makes everyone happy (fusion power, for example), I think we'll be fighting another war, this time for real resources, in the next few centuries. And if it happens, it won't be pretty. We really CAN destroy most life on this planet.
jm_ponder
not rated yet Feb 01, 2010
"Intriguingly, though, none so far has been found to be in the lucky position of Earth."

There is a very good reason why this is so. The instruments we currently use to detect extra-solar planets can only detect large planets orbiting closely to their parent star. The instruments we use to detect a star's wobble or slight dimming from a planet orbiting in front of the star whilst being observed are not sufficiently sensitive to detect smaller planets at greater distances from the parent star.
CreepyD
not rated yet Feb 01, 2010
Isn't there suppose to be a huuuuge oil field under the north pole somewhere with countries already clambering to gain control of it? The Russians have already send a submarine and planted a flag!
@jm_ponder, Kepler is suppose to be sensitive enough, it just needs a few years.