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Beyond The Sky
  • July 23, 2012 : 15:07
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We rolled up to the valet outside the exclusive, members-only Athenaeum club on the Caltech campus. All JPL scientists are allowed in. The Athenaeum was envisioned by the astronomer George Hale, whose first guest for dinner was Albert Einstein. A hostess led us through the restaurant and out into a courtyard, where we were seated at a table under a palm tree. Waiters in crisp white aprons circled with goblets of iced tea.

Kenyon surveyed the room with his blue-green eyes. “I am convinced that we survive physical death,” he said. “If you study the subject without bias, it’s hard to deny it. There are patterns inside the CMB. The basic model of our universe is still fundamentally incomplete.”

“Patterns?”

“The earliest gravitational waves, imprinted on primordial plasma.” Kenyon lowered his voice to a whisper. “Nature shows us the surface of last scattering. She lets us peek behind the veil.”

Our ahi salads arrived. Kenyon sliced off a sliver of tuna and examined it on his fork. “We may have to alter our consciousness to interact with other intelligent life-forms. Perhaps there’s an internal equivalent to the surface of last scattering, where we peek behind the veil to understand our origins. If quantum physics is right, then every particle in the universe was once connected—and when we reach an understanding of that state, we’ll have access to realms we wouldn’t otherwise.”

***

The scale of our galaxy is unimaginably vast—more than 200 billion stars. Even if we assume only five percent of these stars host a habitable planet, that makes 10 billion habitable worlds. Beyond the Milky Way are billions more galaxies. Here on Earth, we struggle to make sense of the paradox. Where is everyone? We turn our ears to space and receive only what astrophysicist and astrobiologist Paul Davies calls, in his most recent book, an “eerie silence.”

We could be alone. If so, and our species eventually dies off, we will end a 13.75-billion-year evolution of improbable miracles leading to life. Dwelling on this possibility can make the little things—getting out of bed, brushing your teeth—seem downright absurd.

Some scientists believe primitive life almost certainly exists elsewhere—shadow biospheres, interplanetary volcanic germs, dormant microbes buried in Martian fossils. Others believe intelligent life-forms existed long ago, only to destroy themselves, as we might do, before obtaining the technology necessary to travel to other stars. The U.S. government is aware of the need for a space base in the event of cosmic catastrophe. Jupiter’s moon Europa, with a stable atmosphere and possibly three times the water of Earth, is a promising candidate. NASA takes the habitation of Europa so seriously that it deliberately crashed the spacecraft Galileo into Jupiter’s atmosphere to avoid contaminating Europa with “hitchhiking microbes.”

Life in the universe may turn out to be common but hard to find. What if Kenyon is right? What if a more sophisticated life-form is out there right now and we’re just looking in the wrong place? Our planet has been around for only 4.5 billion years. The rest of the universe is nearly 14 billion years old—which suggests that intelligent life, if it exists elsewhere, would be highly evolved. “Detectable extraterrestrials,” writes Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, “will be an older intelligence than ours.” Advanced civilizations typically expand the frontiers of transportation and communication in ways unforeseen by previous generations. Extraterrestrials could be nearby, watching us. If they are, why would they allow us to know about them?

Scientist Rupert Sheldrake has proved, in a variety of experimental settings, that people tend to know when they are being looked at. This uncanny ability reliably manifests itself at long distances from the observer as well as in proximity to him. According to a Reuters Ipsos poll of 23,000 adults, 20 percent of people believe aliens walk among us disguised as humans. Is the belief in aliens a result of the sensation of being watched? To explain UFO sightings as mere hallucinations is to take the easy way out. Harvard psychiatrist John Mack, after interviewing people who claimed to have been abducted by aliens, concluded that abductees represent every social class, level of intelligence and degree of education. Alien abductees also proved to be no more neurotic than the rest of the population.

If we are being watched, where are these aliens based? Back in England, I met Paul Davies to ask him this question. Davies had just come from Stephen Hawking’s 70th birthday party in Cambridge. Discussions at the party involved the possibility of multiple universes and a gravitational singularity located in the distant past. Davies is the current chair of the International Academy of Astronautics’ SETI Post-Detection Taskgroup, a select team assigned to organize our planet’s response to alien contact.

We met in London on the upstairs floor of a café overlooking Covent Garden. I ordered a granola-and-yogurt parfait that came in a dessert glass. When the waiter brought it out, Davies regarded my choice suspiciously. “That might be nice to look at,” he said, “but it will be difficult to eat.”

With his brittle moustache, graying hair and permanently puzzled expression, Davies struck me as a man who has searched in vain for answers to the deepest questions of existence. In his writings, he argues that the technique of pointing a bunch of antennae at the sky is like searching for a needle in a haystack. His attitude toward the uncommunicative extraterrestrials has become almost combative. Aliens, he says, could be using wormholes to evade our detection. Or they could be sending self-generating probes to spy on us. Even more frustrating, they could be “post-biological machines.”

“Tell me what a post-biological machine looks like,” I asked.

“The aliens could be exploiting quantum physics. They could have a biologically different makeup from our own, one that we can’t even imagine. It’s a depressing thought.”

I looked up from my parfait. “Why is this depressing?”

“Because I’d like them to resemble biological organisms.”

I asked Davies about panspermia, the notion that life began on another planet or in another solar system, only to be carried to Earth in microbe form, possibly via a comet. (Panspermia was most recently advanced by Fred Hoyle, the astronomer and sci-fi author who coined the term big bang. Hoyle gave Davies his first job, and if his extraterrestrial theory of life is correct, we are all technically aliens.)

“Panspermia,” Davies said, sitting up and tugging his moustache. “Yes, it is true that dormant microbes can survive inside a comet for millions of years. But there is plenty of two-way traffic between Mars and Earth too. I believe it is entirely feasible that we are descendants of Martians. The microbes could have come to Earth in Martian rock.”

“And in your most recent article,” I reminded him, “you suggest aliens might be spying on us, right now, using the moon as a base.”

Davies gave me a bitter smile. “We should be analyzing all the data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter,” he said, referring to JPL’s moon-mapping mission. “We could find robotic probes, alien technology, anything fishy. If you were sent to spy on another species, wouldn’t you want a remote observation post?”

“Absolutely!” Excited, I pounded the table. “But how would we know they were aliens if they can appear in any form?”

“In-your-face alien technology—a bridge or some other evidence of large-scale astro-engineering. Those aliens could have modified the lunar surface millions of years ago.”

Maybe Davies was truly speculative, like Carl Jung. The eminent psychologist was so taken by the credibility of eyewitness accounts of UFOs that he investigated them at considerable risk to his reputation. Why would independent UFO sightings occur, he wondered, especially among people who had no prior desire to believe in them? How do they show up on radars? Ultimately, Jung concluded that UFOs were semi-real projections of our unconscious minds. We “strive to fill the illimitable emptiness of space,” he wrote, and we create a form of “materialized psychism.”

Can we make something physically appear by longing for it? If everyone on Earth looked up at the sky and simultaneously wished for an alien, what would happen? It may be beneficial in the long run to push back against easy answers to this question. “The lesson of the UFO,” James Gallant wrote, “may be that those content with the little island of intelligibility on which the sciences have marooned us will be reminded forcibly of the sea of their unknowing.”

Outside our London café, the rain continued to fall. It was time for Davies and me to go home and face our remaining terrestrial lives. But Davies kept talking, and as he did he managed to raise all kinds of outlandish possibilities about alternate life-forms in the universe. I listened with what can only be described as hope. Holding on to the table and its predictably dead grains of wood, I felt myself floating above the café, then over the city of London itself, until I became a projection of my own mind looking down from the rain clouds.

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read more: entertainment, culture, issue july 2012

4 comments

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous
    So beautifully written. A poetic scientific, cosmic and philosophical journey.
  • Anonymous
    Anonymous
    I agree, the writing's very good. But what's next? Is there a follow up piece?
  • Anonymous
    Anonymous
    What, indeed, if you'd been an alien? Are they supposed to leave a message after the beep, or what? And how do we know you're not an alien spy, sent to confuse with your respectful, humorous, hopeful take on this question? A lovely read.
  • Anonymous
    Anonymous
    Great stuff Rob Smith.
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