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Picture: NASA/Flickr

Picture: NASA/Flickr

The question of whether there is life in outer space is slowly making its way into mainstream public consciousness. This being in large part to exciting new discoveries and insights that are coming from work in astronomy and associated sciences.

Development of new technologies for peering into the cosmos have opened our eyes to new possibilities and thanks to missions like the Kepler space telescope, we now have confirmation of 1500+ exoplanets that orbit their parent stars and the sheer amount of data yet to be analysed by these missions promise even more exoplanet discoveries (on top of the 3000+ that are yet to be confirmed). Experts are now hypothesising the likelihood of the cosmos teeming with planets.

One of the holy grails of exoplanet research is the discovery of another planet like our own, in other words Earth v2.0.

So far the search for Earth’s twin has been elusive but with newer and more powerful telescopes being developed both here on Earth and in space in the not so distant future, the discovery of Earth v2.0 seems tantalisingly within our reach.

With the eventual discovery of Earth v2.0 and its similarities to our own planet, these being a rocky planet orbiting in the sweet spot of its parent star that allows liquid water to exist (not too hot, not too cold), there comes the hope that there might be some kind of life present on this planet, maybe even intelligent life.

S.E.T.I.(Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is an organisation that has existed for over 50 years and they consist of a dedicated group of experts that are devoting their time to answering one of the biggest (if not the biggest) questions we as the human race have yet asked, “Are we alone?”.  S.E.T.I. has so far focused their efforts on passive listening which entails pointing their equipment in any particular direction in the hope of intercepting a radio signal that is artificial in nature, thereby suggesting extraterrestrial origin.

Former head scientist at S.E.T.I, Jill Tarter (and the inspiration for Jodie Foster’s character in Contact), has likened S.E.T.I’s efforts thus far as being like taking a glass of water from the whole of Earth’s oceans and that full glass representing the extent of their search; Space is THAT vast.

S.E.T.I.’s operation as pointed out has so far been passive listening and they aren’t the only ones listening, though they have the highest profile. Other groups have taken a more aggressive approach by purposely beaming signals to predetermined locations that Kepler telescope for example has found to (maybe) host a suitable target planet.

Though certain groups argue that purposely sending signals and announcing our presence could be considered dangerous and foolish, we have inadvertently been beaming radio signals outwards since radio broadcasts began transmitting. (It should be mentioned that at the time of this piece being published, S.E.T.I. has been holding referendums on whether to begin beaming messages to specified targets. The general consensus is that they WILL begin beaming messages in the hope of receiving a response. The content of the message(s) will now be discussed further)

With the constant wave of discoveries being made not only of possible exoplanets that host life but also revelatory discoveries here on earth as to the extremity of conditions that life can thrive in, there is starting to be a strong movement into the issue of what happens if we do make contact of some sort with some kind of extraterrestrial intelligence. The issue of ethics comes up with how to handle this kind of information and how to release it to with the general public (as S.E.T.I. has pledged to do).

“Direct contact would be an absolute game changer.”

There has been a consistently growing movement of serious scientific discussion as to the probability of life elsewhere in the cosmos. This can range from the discovery of microbial activity (quite possibly in our own solar system) to the interception of a signal that just happens to cross our sensors, to direct contact.

Microbial activity elsewhere in the cosmos would have a profound effect in the scientific community and open wide up the question of the universe supporting life commonly. The public, with all the other issues occurring here on earth may be nonplussed. Interception of a signal would create a much bigger mainstream buzz, direct contact would be an absolute game changer.

Ok so we are not the only intelligent species in this universe, what now?

Direct contact doesn’t equate to direct communication and this would be an issue that extends beyond astronomy and astrobiology, and into fields like anthropology and archaeology and their studies of past civilisations here on Earth through artefacts, ancient scriptures and the like. This offers maybe the closest kind of example to go on in regards to the difficulty of communication with an alien species whilst we ponder and wait for the real thing.

“Perhaps no- one told the aliens this and they are none the wiser.”

Picture: NASA/Flickr

Picture: NASA/Flickr

Whilst it is important to consider all of the ramifications of contact beyond receiving a message or transmission, it’s entirely plausible and even quite probable that we couldn’t make any sense of its contents whatsoever.

So too anything we on planet Earth have sent or would send might be completely unintelligible to the receivers. Some experts argue that mathematics is the universal language and that any messages we send or receive could be somehow interpreted through these means. Perhaps no- one told the aliens this and they are none the wiser.

“This is a massive can of worms that has been slowly opened since man started looking up at the sky.”

There is a tendency to think in human-centric terms when hypothesising what the biological makeup of an extraterrestrial would be and even if by some miracle they were humanoid in appearance, what they would be like culturally and how they behave could be another matter altogether. This is a massive can of worms that has been slowly opened since man started looking up at the sky. If we remove the tendency to think of extraterrestrial life-forms in human-centric terms, no speculation is too wild to consider. Until we have an idea, we have NO idea.

“Perhaps they have been trying to contact us but the message lies hidden in data collected from S.E.T.I. and associated efforts , the answer to “Are we alone?” is already there and we just haven’t known what to look for.”

Maybe they don’t have a body and are just pure consciousness. Maybe they are now an artificial intelligence, a remnant of a civilisation long gone. Maybe they are so physiologically different from us  that any kind of meaningful exchange would be impossible.  Perhaps they have been chatting to the dolphins telepathically somehow all this time unbeknownst to us humans. They might , like here on earth be a multicultural species and somehow have the same genetic make-up amongst themselves but with differences both physically and otherwise, the point being that maybe not all intelligent life-forms (even within the same planet) are aggressively pursuing the same riddle that a fraction of humanity on Earth is seeking to know the answers to. Perhaps they are a vastly more advanced civilisation and they simply don’t want to contact us. Perhaps they have been trying to contact us but the message lies hidden in data collected from S.E.T.I. and associated efforts , the answer to “Are we alone?” is already there and we just haven’t known what to look for.

The reality is until we have some definitive answer either way (though the vastness of space should render any arguments against extraterrestrial life unprovable) then no-one has any better idea than anyone else. All of the experts who are nobly seeking to answer the question can only offer a guess, albeit a very well educated guess.