x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Required reading: Alien life

Is other intelligent life out there? And how are we ever going to find out? Some intelligent reading can help.

British scientists are to step up their search for alien life. Academics from 11 institutions have formed the UK Seti (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) Research Network to coordinate the search, led by the Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees. Meanwhile, new data from Nasa’s Kepler spacecraft suggests that our galaxy contains 60 billion planets capable of supporting life. So is other intelligent life out there? How are we ever going to find out? Some intelligent reading can help.

Start with Paul Davies’ The Eerie Silence: The Search for Ourselves in the Universe. Davies is an English physicist and chairman of the Seti Post-Detection Task Group, a collection of eminent scientists charged with being the representatives of humankind should we make contact with alien life (who knew we already have an organisation for that?). So what should be our first communication to a newly discovered alien race? Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, says Davies. Classical music and literature are no good, he argues; the aliens probably won’t understand any of it.

Today, the hunt for aliens continues, via radio and optical telescopes, scanning the sky for signals that suggest an intelligent source. But 60 years into the Seti programme – none have been found. Confessions of an Alien Hunter is Seth Shostak’s first-hand account of a life spent in search of ET. Shostak is a senior astronomer at the SETI institute in California, and spends his days searching for Earthlike planets that might support life. Why no luck so far? There are several hundred billion stars in our galaxy, Shostak explains, and more than 100 billion galaxies in the universe: we haven’t even scratched the surface yet.

So the hunt continues. Best, then, to prepare yourself for life after “first contact” with an alien life form. With no factual guide, turn to fiction: the greatest novel ever written on the subject remains H?G Wells’s War of the Worlds. Let’s just hope that when first contact is made for real, the aliens don’t lay waste to London and much of Surrey – as they do in Wells’s classic story – before we have time to tell them about General Relativity.

* David Mattin

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