Are We Alone? Edinburgh Decides


On Monday, I took part in a debate about the existence of extraterrestrial life.  The Motion was:  “Will we find life beyond ours in the next 100 years?”  Sounds like a tall order? Maybe not…Finding life from other planets has eluded us for centuries.  We were pretty convinced we were close to begin with.  In fact, the Mars “canals” were so convincing that the Guzman Prize (100,000 francs) for communicating with ET excluded our Martian cousins.  Apparently that was too easy!

While Lowell and his contemporaries might have been overzealous in their search for life on Mars, we’ve made a lot of progress elsewhere.  We now know about biomarkers – the tell-tale chemicals that planets have which say to us, “There’s something down there.”  The best biomarkers (for Earthlike life) are water (the most remarkable solvent in the known Universe, and a critical component of Earth’s biosphere), oxygen (made by bacteria early in Earth’s history, and continually replenished by its vegetation) and organic compounds like methane.  Yes folks, alien cow farts could be the key to solving such a noble question as “Are we Alone in the Universe?”

Intelligent life makes its own biomarkers too: if aliens were looking at the Earth in the 1990s, they would have noticed an unhealthy tinge of chlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere (or CFCs).  You might remember these were in our aerosol cans and fridges, and are a harmful pollutant.  If we could see aliens polluting their atmosphere, that would also be proof of intelligent life.  If you believe some of the more outlandish theories out there, we could also stumble upon alien structures around distant stars, glimpse catastrophic space battles with weapons that make hydrogen bombs look like elastic bands, or see the very stars themselves groan and oscillate under the manipulation of their alien hosts in the pursuit for bountiful energy supplies.  I know, it’s all too easy to turn a Star Trek episode into a hypothesis, but if intelligent civilisations cherish their imaginations as we cherish ours, why not?

OK, it is a little easy to run away with these ideas – but one hundred years is a long time.  We’ve developed beyond the dreams of our ancestors of 1910.  Maybe we’re not all living in glittering chrome metropoli, riding inexplicable monorails, fighting giant robots and ducking death ray blasts, but imagine explaining something like the internet to someone of that time (or reality TV for that matter).  Think about the next hundred – if we can get past the problems of today and tomorrow, what else can we discover? What new technologies can we bring to bear on this problem?

So we debated this fascinating topic at the Royal Observatory on Monday.  Want to know what the Edinburgh public thinks? Find out their thoughts at the ROE website.

Got an opinion yourself? What do you think?

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