Jon Ronson meets Paul Davies, the scientist with an awesome responsibility
http://www.guardian.co.uk/global/2010/m ... jon-ronson
If we are ever contacted by aliens, the man I'm having lunch with will be one of the first humans to know. His name is Paul Davies and he's chair of the Seti (Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Post-Detection Task Group. They're a group of the world's most eminent scientists and will be, come the big day, the planet's alien welcome committee. His is an awesome responsibility, and one he doesn't take lightly.
"Imagine a civilisation that's way in advance of us wants to communicate with us, and assist us in our development," Paul says. He pushes his mackerel across his plate. "The information we provide to them must reflect our highest aspirations and ideals, and not just be some crazy person's bizarre politics or religion."
This is why, Paul says, he very much hopes that our opening communication with the aliens will be drafted by him. "All the attempts to send messages up so far have been very crass," he says. "If you're going to leave it up to the mob to decide what's important, it'll be this really cool video game. Or some sporting event. Or some rock group."
"Do you have any idea of what you might say to the aliens?" I ask.
There is a short silence. "I do," he says.
"Will you reveal it to me?" I ask.
Paul thinks for a second. And then he clears his throat.
Who is Paul Davies? How have events transpired to put him on the front line of extraterrestrial relations? And what will his message to the aliens be?
The story begins 50 years ago, in April 1960, when a young astronomer named Frank Drake decided to cut a swathe through the forest of unscientific UFO believers, the abductees, the searchers for mutilated cattle, and so on, and treat the subject with some rigour. He formulated an equation, the Drake Equation, which attempted to determine mathematically how many intelligent civilisations exist in our galaxy. His conclusion: 10,000. Amazed at his findings, and at the thought that some of these extraterrestrials must surely be bombarding our hitherto deaf ears with incredible radio messages, he borrowed the 26m dish at the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory in West Virginia, pointed it at a distant star called Tau Ceti, turned it on and – nothing. Just a disappointing static hiss.
"No signals have been detected," he noted.
Despite this setback, Seti was born. Drake managed to score some US government funding and created an institute in California. Like-minded scientists joined him. For much of the 60s, as Paul Davies writes in his new book, The Eerie Silence, a "major preoccupation among Seti researchers was to decide which particular frequency ET might choose, given that there are billions of possibilities. The hope was that the aliens would customise their signals for Earth-like planets."
But the aliens didn't customise their signals for us. After a decade or so, a schism formed within Seti. Some contended that surely the aliens – being far advanced – would use lasers to communicate, not radio. And so Optical Seti was born.
Optical Seti didn't detect any signals either.
The day before my lunch with Paul, Frank Drake was in London to update the Royal Society on the latest. The good news is that with the help of wealthy private benefactors such as Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Seti is now better equipped than ever. Allen has provided them with an array of new dishes called, in fact, the Allen Telescope Array. They're situated in a field 290 miles north of San Francisco. The bad news is that no signals have been detected.
"Fifty years of nothing," I say to Paul now. "Do Seti people just go into work every morning, spend all day hearing nothing and then go home again?"
"Your question is very similar to, 'How does a computer scientist spend their days?' " Paul replies. "Sending emails and raising finance and teaching students and thinking about strategy."
"Doesn't it get depressing?"
"The Seti people are very calm, very determined. There is a hypothesis to test and Seti are testing it." He pauses. "If the eerie silence goes on for 500 years and not 50 years, it might become hard to recruit the young scientists."
Seti scientists also fill the void by putting protocols in place for what to do on the day a bleep is definitively heard. It is extremely likely they will be the ones to hear it: they're the ones with the dishes. Should the protocols be followed, they'll know not to call the media or some government figure. They'll call the chair of the Post-Detection Task Group. Which is Paul.
Paul is a British-born theoretical physicist, cosmologist and astrobiologist at Arizona State University. He lives his life at an incredibly high level of amazingness. He lectures at the Vatican, the Smithsonian, Davos and the UN. He has an asteroid named after him – the Pauldavies Asteroid. He's a passionate scientific communicator and a grumpy man of enormous intellect. A telephone near us keeps letting off a loud and unexpected ring, and whenever it does, Paul looks extremely cross and says, "This is terribly annoying." I can't help thinking that if the aliens do make contact, his automatic response will be to screw up his face in irritation and yell: "WHAT?"
I've been following Paul for a few days now. I watched him speak twice yesterday at the Royal Society (it has been hosting a Seti conference). The queue to get into his evening talk snaked around the block. He encouraged the audience, which filled the main hall and an overflow room, not to be depressed. It's quite possible the aliens do know we're here, but because they're 1,000 light years away and are consequently seeing us as we were 1,000 years ago – all pathetically rudimentary and agricultural – they're going to hold off beaming a signal to us until they know we've developed radio technology.
During the question and answer session, a man with dark glasses stood up and animatedly announced: "To see the future, one must look at the fringe, at the freaks, the visionaries, the artists. Why does Seti ignore what's right in front of us? The 6,000 abductions! The 10,000 cattle mutilations…!"
One or two people nodded in agreement. Paul tried to look kindly, but his annoyance was obvious. "To expect alien technology to be just a few decades ahead of ours," he replied, "is too incredible to be taken seriously."
His inference was, you can tell the abductees are lying or delusional because their descriptions of the aliens and their craft are always so unimaginative. As he writes in The Eerie Silence, the giveaway is the banality of the aliens' putative agenda, which seems to consist of grubbing around in fields or meadows, chasing cows or cars like bored teenagers, and abducting humans for Nazi-style experiments.
"At least flaky UFO nuts believe they've met aliens," I say to Paul now. "They believe they've been abducted and probed. You lot have rationalised yourselves into a 50-year void of nothingness." I pause and add: "I realise what I just said is quite stupid, but will you respond to it anyway?"
"For me, science is already fantastical enough," he says. "Unlocking the secrets of nature with fundamental physics or cosmology or astrobiology leads you into a wonderland compared with which beliefs in things like alien abductions pale into insignificance."
Paul says he doesn't trust people. But he does have great faith in aliens. His face lights up when he imagines them. My guess is that, since he's spent so much of his life meeting people who aren't as clever as him, the aliens are – intellect-wise – his last-chance saloon.
The Post-Detection Task Group has been in existence since 1996. It is comprised of 30 Seti-friendly scientists, writers and engineers. Paul was invited to become chair in 2008 but has so far convened only one meeting. He hopes to hold a second later this year in Prague, so they can update their declaration of principles.
"So what's the first thing that'll happen when a bleep is detected?" I ask.
"We'll have it independently verified. That's really important."
"And once it's verified?"
"My strenuous advice," Paul says, "will be that the coordinates of the transmitting entity should be kept confidential until the world community has had a chance to evaluate what it's dealing with. We don't want anybody just turning a radio telescope on the sky and sending their own messages to the source."
"So you'll tell the world that extraterrestrials are beaming signals to us, but you'll refuse to say from where?"
"Exactly," Paul says.
"They'll kill you. They'll grab you and torture the information out of you."
"But what's the alternative? Imagine we go to the United Nations: 'There's an alien community over there and everyone has to think about what our response might be, so we're turning it over to you, the United Nations, who are so adept at finding harmonious solutions to the world's problems.' Well, of course it would be a complete shambles. And which are the agencies that can truly represent humanity? You wouldn't go to the Catholic church, would you? Or the US Army."
This is why, he says, the most prudent course of action will be to create some sort of science parliament – a bit like the one set up to oversee the scientific exploration of Antarctica – and present to them the draft of a message that will be written by him later this year in Prague.
I am, I'm proud to say, the person who gave him the idea to draft the message this far in advance.
"If you don't trust anyone else to come up with a decent message, you should do it yourself!" I say. "You don't want to be caught on the hop. Do it in Prague and just put it in a drawer somewhere until the time comes."
"That's a very good idea!" he replies. "I'm thinking on my feet here, but it's an excellent idea."
"I'm full of ideas like that. I'd be happy to join the Post-Detection Task Group."
Paul looks panicked. "There's no money."
"Oh, right," I say. "Right. Yes." It is an awkward moment.
"So what will the message say?" I ask, changing the subject.
"We're talking about two civilisations communicating their finest achievements and their deepest beliefs and attitudes. I feel we should send something about our level of scientific attainment and understanding of how the world works. Some fundamental physics. Maybe some biology. But primarily physics and astronomy."
"And some classical music?" I suggest.
"Well, we could, but it's not going to mean anything to them," Paul says.
"Yes, yes, of course." I pause. "Why won't it mean anything to them?"
"There's nothing certain in this game," Paul says, "but our appreciation of art and music is very much tied to our cognitive architecture. There's no particular reason why some other intelligent species will share these aesthetic values. The general theory of relativity is impressive and will surely be understood by them. But if we send a Picasso or a Mona Lisa? They wouldn't care." He pauses. "I mean the phonograph disc that went off on Voyager had speeches by Kurt Waldheim and Jimmy Carter. That's a world away from what we should be doing."
"Yeah, and Beagle 2 had Blur songs!"
"Quite," Paul says.
I actually like Blur and found the idea of their music being beamed to Mars quite exciting, but I'm belittling it because I feel a strong desire to make Paul think I'm wise.
"Of course, the world will eventually discover the coordinates and start sending up their own stuff," I say.
"Yes. So one of the first things we might want to say is that there's no unitary government on this planet, no unitary political philosophy or ideology. We're a great place for freedom, if not anarchy, and so we're putting together the best possible coherent package for your consideration, but expect it to be followed up with all sorts of bizarre and incoherent babble that you must treat with some discretion." He pauses. "Although how we'll express all this when we only have mathematics in common will be something of a challenge."
Science Weekly Extra interviews Paul Davies Link to this audio
We get the bill. Paul wants to end on an optimistic note and so he mentions the one time in Seti history when something broke the silence.
"We call it the Wow signal," he says. "It was a radio telescope in Ohio, back in the days when they didn't have the electronic gadgetry to go 'ping' if there was something weird. So they looked at a computer print-out some weeks afterwards, and it showed a signal that went on for 72 seconds. Nobody was listening at the time. The researcher wrote 'Wow' in the margin. And many times radio telescopes have been turned on that star, but nothing odd has ever happened again."
"Should we feel excited by the Wow signal?"
"I've often wondered," Paul says. He puts on his coat. "What we're doing is a fantastic and challenging task. It compels us to think about all the things we should be thinking about. What is life? What is intelligence?" He pauses. "And if nothing else, it is a great deal of fun."
He's not the guy. Hopefully, it is a graceful old fellow smoking a pipe in the middle of a city park, just walking his dog....
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