Even if we found aliens, how would we communicate?

The great Italian physicist, Enrico Fermi, called it a paradox. If life is not unique to Earth, and with billions of stars in just our own galaxy, then there must be many millions of Earth-like planets out there populated by intelligent beings. So why haven’t we seen them?

Some of the finest minds in science – and science fiction – have since tried to solve the “Fermi paradox”, but as experts in extraterrestrial life gathered this week at the Royal Society, the greatest question of all remains unanswered: are we alone?

It is one thing of course to be able to detect alien lifeforms on another planet and another to find that there is intelligent life that can travel or communicate through the vast distances of interstellar space.

The two-day conference brings together experts in the various scientific disciplines involved in assessing whether alien lifeforms could exist, what they might look like and how we should attempt to communicate with them if they ever make contact with us.

Frank Drake, the veteran American astronomer who was one of the first to conceive of the idea of a coordinated search for extraterrestrial life (SETI), will today [tuesday] present an upbeat assessment of the chances of finding a signal from space that indicates the existence of intelligent aliens.

Professor Drake famously devised an equation nearly 50 years ago for calculating the potential number of planets in the Milky Way galaxy suitable for life, but he now believes we may have seriously underestimated the potential places in space where life may exist.

“The number of habitable planets in the Milky Way is very probably much larger than we have believed in the past. A realistic picture should include the contributions to habitability of deep atmospheres, thick ice layers, even the solid surface itself, all of which can lead to life-supporting near-surface temperatures,” said Professor Drake.

“Even the very numerous red dwarf star planets may be rendered habitable by a substantial atmosphere or by an eccentric orbit…almost all of the Milky Way becomes a suitable search target,” he said.

The fact that we have not detected any extraterrestrial signals of intelligent life after nearly half a century of listening with powerful radio telescopes should not dissuade us from further searches with more sophisticated instruments than we have used so far, perhaps basing these new tools from space itself, he said.

“This demands a very powerful search system which can search many stars at the same time, at many radio frequencies, and is continuously available, if possible,” Professor Drake said.

“Looking to the future, SETI projects would be far more sensitive and comprehensive if carried out from the far side of the Moon, and ultimately at a gravitational focal point [midway to] the Sun,” he said.

If we do detect signals of extraterrestrial intelligence, one question posed by scientist attending the conference is how to cope with the public response. Will it result in fear, mass panic and riots?

Professor Albert Harrison of the University of California, Davis, believes this is unlikely, based on what he calls “historical prototypes”. In any case, social policies could be used to ease humanity into the “postcontact” era, he said.

“Many people already believe that extraterrestrial intelligence exists and are confident of their own ability to withstand the discovery but doubt other peoples’ abilities to cope,” Professor Harrison said.

“It is easy to imagine scenarios resulting in widespread psychological disintegration and social chaos, but historical prototypes, reactions to false alarms and survey results suggest that the predominant response to the discovery of microwave transmission from light years away is likely to be equanimity, perhaps even delight,” he said.

ET might of course by simple microbes, in which case we will have to go out looking for them, using much the same tools that we have used to search for fossilied microbial lifeforms on Earth.

Professor Colin Pillinger of the Open University, who was the inspiration for the ill-fated Beagle 2 probe to Mars, said that it will not be enough to rely on what we know about life on Earth if we are serious about the search for extraterrestrial lifeforms on other planets.

“More than 70 years ago it was recognised that certain biologically derived molecules survive processing in the geosphere, after the demise of their host, so that features of their structure are little or unchanged after millions of years,” Professor Pillinger said.

“These compounds are thus indicators of the existence of living organisms in Earth’s early history. Such observations led to the idea that ‘carbon skeletons’ as ‘chemical fossils’ could answer questions regarding when life on our planet began,” he said.

“If we are to detect life beyond Earth by comparable methods it will be necessary to delve more deeply into the makeup of organic matter found in space. Chemical methods will need to be more subtle,” Professor Pillinger said.

And then there is the question of what ET will look like. Darwinists believe that alien life on another planet will be subject to the same evolutionary rules that have shaped life on here Earth. This means they might look surprisingly similar to us, according to Professor Simon Conway Morris of Cambridge University.

“It is difficult to imagine evolution in alien biospheres operating in any manner other than Darwinian. Yet, it is also widely assumed that alien life-forms will be just that, alien, strange, un-nerving and probably repulsive. I suggest two opposites, both of which make our blood run cold,” Professor Conway Morris said.

“The first, and actually extremely unlikely, is that alien biospheres will be strikingly similar to the terrestrial equivalent and that in such biospheres intelligence will inevitably emerge,” he said.

“The reasons for this revolve around the ubiquity of evolutionary convergence, the determinate structure of the Tree of Life, and molecular inherency. In reality Darwin only explained the mechanism but failed to grasp the predictability.

“But if something like a human is an inevitability why do I also claim that the first possibility is extremely unlikely? Simply, because the other possibility is actually the correct answer. We and our biosphere are completely alone. So which is worse? Meeting ourselves or meeting nobody?” he said.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot