SCIENCE / It's too quiet out there

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The Independent Culture
MICHAEL Rowan-Robinson, Professor of Astrophysics at Imperial College, London, says he is unusual among astronomers because he believes we are alone in the universe. 'I just feel that if intelligent life were a common occurrence in our galaxy, we'd be aware of it. People have looked for signals and haven't found anything. Things just seem so empty and quiet.'

Professor Rowan-Robinson also finds it impossible to believe in God. He has spent most of his professional life trying to understand the ultimate act of creation, but finds no solace in a spiritual explanation. 'I don't see the need to believe in God. It diminishes humanity to believe in it.'

The mysteries of space inspired him from a very early age. 'I am old enough to remember when the conquest of space was still a fantasy,' he writes in his latest book Ripples in the Cosmos (W H Freeman, pounds 16.99). 'I remember being glued to the radio each week for Journey into Space.' He was a teenager when the Soviet Union launched its first Sputnik satellite, followed by the orbiting of the dog Laika and the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin.

'I was moved watching the BBC documentary Red Star in Orbit, which showed the Soviet astronauts' tradition of visiting Gagarin's office for a few moments of quiet reflection before leaving on a mission.'

He believes that the truly great voyages of the past 30 years, which compare in importance to the explorations on the great 15th and 16th-century navigators, are those that have explored the outer reaches of space with the new generation of telescopes. Modern astronomy no longer relies solely on what can be seen with the human eye, but on what can be detected with the plethora of modern astronomical instruments scanning the much richer, non-visible parts of the electromagnetic spectrum - such as the microwave and infrared frequencies.

Professor Rowan-Robinson, like many professional astronomers, does not watch the night sky directly but sits at a bank of computer screens during the few weeks a year when he uses a telescope. The data he gathers can take months to analyse.

He says he has to abandon his 'terrestial framework' completely in order to come to terms with the vast distances and time-frames of the universe.

'Analogies, such as likening the Sun to an orange and the Earth to a grain of sand so many metres away, are not helpful. The only way to cope is to disconnect yourself from the human scale of things.'

(Photograph omitted)